Erik Jones / Aug 2022
The war in Ukraine is now in its sixth month, and the toll in terms of human lives and physical destruction only continues to increase. Worse, the consequences in terms of human suffering extend far beyond the European continent and continue to multiply. For Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky there is no choice. This war is not only a fight for the survival of his country, but also for Western democracy. Zelensky makes that case passionately and with great effect among like-minded governments. But not all observers agree.
Zelensky’s critics note that Ukraine is an imperfect democracy caught up in a world of great power politics. The ‘fight for democracy’ framing of the conflict generates passion, but the causes of the conflict are altogether different. In doing so, however, such critics may underestimate the causal importance of Zelensky’s argument. ‘Great power politics’ is a well-worn explanation, but six months into the war it is far from the most convincing. Indeed, Ukraine’s fight-for-democracy framing tells us more about what is happening in the conflict than the rhetorical sound of the claim might suggest.
To explain why the ‘fight for democracy’ is more powerful as an explanation for the war than ‘great power politics’, it is best to start with the most persuasive academic proponent of the great-power-politics thesis. University of Chicago Professor John J. Mearsheimer accuses the United States of starting the war in Ukraine by presenting NATO enlargement as an existential threat to Vladimir Putin’s Russia. According to Mearsheimer’s signature version of offensive realism, such a threat cannot be ignored. Hence, Russia’s brutal war on Ukraine is the result of Western provocation. If the United States had not pursued NATO enlargement, Ukraine would not be suffering today; indeed, Mearsheimer insists, Crimea would still be part of Ukraine.
Mearsheimer uses this claim to push back against those who argue that Russia has imperial ambitions. Mearsheimer’s goal is to criticize American policy and explain Russian reactions, not to argue with Zelensky or Ukraine. If Putin really wanted to occupy the whole of Ukraine, Mearsheimer contends, he would have brought many more troops. Moreover, Mearsheimer insists, there is no evidence that Putin sees Ukraine as part of some greater Russian empire. By contrast, there are plenty of instances where Putin and his allies have complained about NATO enlargement — including those where they have agreed that expanding NATO to Ukraine would constitute what they regard as a matter of life or death.
Mearsheimer’s framing of the argument has widespread appeal. Mearsheimer’s lectures on this subject garner huge numbers of clicks, likes, and views. It also has a certain air of plausibility. NATO is, after all, a military alliance designed to counter the Soviet Union. It is not unreasonable to imagine that people who grew up in that era would regard NATO as a source of concern. Certainly, that is easier to understand that a 21st Century rewriting of Russian history that culminates in some sort of murderous self-delusion. So why not take Putin and his allies at their word when they say that they are only reacting to policies initiated in the United States? Those policies do not have to be limited to NATO enlargement. Mearsheimer describes them as a triptych, where NATO enlargement runs alongside externally sponsored democratisation and European Union membership.
The answer to the question lies in the framing. Perhaps it is true that people in Russia regard NATO enlargement as some kind of existential threat, but is it safe to assume therefore that NATO enlargement is the only or even the most important existential threat that the Russian people — or Putin’s government — has to face? Perhaps there are other, more important threats like home-grown political opposition, a more general trend toward democratisation and against authoritarianism, secularly stagnating economic performance, the inevitable transition away from hydrocarbon-based energy resources, or climate change.
In a world with multiple existential threats, it is harder to translate a leader’s identification of a single problem with an obvious course of action. Throwing too many resources at one problem often leaves too few to dedicate to the rest. It also assumes prioritisation. In a world of multiple threats, the most imminent and important will more likely garner the most attention. Moreover, this kind of logic operates for every political context. That is not to say Russian history and nationalism are unimportant. They are, and for reasons that Mearsheimer would also admit. It is only to say that the first challenge is to identify the foundations for political action and then to build something more detailed and specific on top of that.
Consider an alternative theory where the most important threat to Vladimir Putin’s Russia is home-grown opposition bolstered or somehow complemented by successful efforts at democratisation on its borders. This is not a hypothetical example, at least following Mearsheimer’s own standards for evidence. Putin has clearly identified democracy as an existential threat. Moreover, he has clearly invested efforts to respond to that threat, often with brutal efficiency and at great risk. He has taken on wealthy oligarchs, regional politicians, prominent journalists, and a wide variety of other dissidents. Not all of these were liberals or democrats in the Western sense. Only some benefitted from U.S. or Western support, but that was not necessary for them to attract Putin’s attention. All that mattered was the threat perception. As soon as Putin recognised a challenge to his authority, he responded.
What is true within Russia is also true on Russia’s borders. Putin has moved aggressively to undermine pro-democracy or anti-authoritarian movements in other countries. He has done so by supporting secessionist movements and sustaining frozen conflicts. But he has also used other powerful instruments like controlling access to energy resources, financial support, trade agreements, or support against more powerful enemies. Again, Putin has played this role with and without U.S. or Western involvement. So did Boris Yeltsin. Yeltsin presented himself to the world as a liberal, but he was quick to respond to a threat. Putin is even quicker.
Putin has been particularly aggressive in Ukraine, fuelling discontent among native Russian speakers and propping up pro-Russian politicians after the Orange Revolution in 2003, threatening Ukrainian gas supplies and then building around (and so bypassing) Ukrainian pipeline networks, strong-arming the Ukrainian government to renounce a deep and comprehensive trade agreement it had negotiated with the European Union, annexing Crimea and then pouring military support into separatist groups in the Donbas region. This is not to say that Ukraine was the only object of Putin’s attentions. Friendlier countries faced similar, if less brutal, treatment. And when Putin helped shut down the pro-democracy movement in Belarus, he could not have been motivated by the prospect of that country’s NATO membership.
Seen from this perspective, Ukraine’s approach to NATO and the European Union over the past two-to-three decades is more about finding allies against Russia than about a three-pronged American grand strategy. The U.S. government may have lent support to some elements of Ukraine’s pro-democracy movement, but there were many other elements that encouraged American ambivalence — because of their abuse of public office, ties to right-wing nationalists, or illicit business practices. The same is true for much of the European Union. While Ukrainians may have asked to be brought into the Western club, the response they received was often tepid or disingenuous. Far from provoking Russia in Ukraine, the West was more likely to discount the Russian threat. Indeed, that was evident up until around 21 February 2022, when it became clear that Russia was prepared to invade.
This alternative framing of the existential threat to Russia has strengths that Mearsheimer’s focus on NATO enlargement lacks. To begin with, it builds on consistent features that stretch across Russian behaviour both at home and abroad. The brutal military tactics deployed in Ukraine were first tested in Chechnya and then perfected in Syria — neither of which was ever in danger of being included in the Atlantic Alliance. The suppression of journalists and the forced movement of populations have been done at home and abroad as well. So has the co-option of oligarchs where that is possible and the expropriation of their assets where it is not.
A second strength is that it makes it easier to understand Russia’s on-again, off-again partnership with NATO. Russian governments under Yeltsin and Putin engaged in a ‘partnership for peace’ with NATO during much of that organization’s eastward enlargement. Russia worked alongside NATO in a peace-keeping effort in Kosovo after NATO’s bombing of Serbia, and it supported NATO activities in Afghanistan. There were moments of high tension, like when the Russian military occupied Pristina airport in June 1999, but that did not stop the cooperation altogether. This pattern is hard to reconcile with NATO as an existential threat, but easier when NATO is simply an instrument to achieve various objectives.
A third strength is that the threats posed by political opposition and democratisation are even more credible than any legacy concerns that Russia might have about the NATO alliance. Here it is useful to start with qualifications. Yes, it is true that NATO is exceptionally well-armed; it is also true that the United States has been willing to involve NATO power in regime change — both in Serbia and in Libya. The United States also engaged in regime change in Iraq, with a coalition of the willing, and in Afghanistan, bringing NATO allies in for support after the fact. So, it is not unreasonable to imagine that many in Russia might view the United States and NATO as threats.
But this is where the qualifications end. Neither the United States nor NATO has never moved openly against a nuclear power. The deterrent force of mutually assured destruction remains too potent. Meanwhile, political oppositions and pro-democracy movements have overthrown large numbers of authoritarian regimes, including in the Soviet Union, which was one of only two nuclear superpowers. If anything, new technologies have strengthened the ability of such groups to challenge political authority. The results have not always been positive for those who initiate the revolution, but they have almost always been ‘existential’ for the regime that is overthrown.
A fourth strength of this alternative framing is that it explains why we should all learn more about what Putin and his allies are saying about Russian history, its society, its people, and their future. Because if democracy and political opposition are the government’s most important existential threats, then that country’s political leadership needs some alternative formula to legitimate their authority. Nationalism is an obvious candidate, because it is a political project to empower the people to act through the state. But that abstract formulation tells us very little about how nationalism works in the Russian context to strengthen and build support around Vladimir Putin’s regime in its battle against representative democracy, free and fair elections, free speech and assembly, and those other values promoted by the West.
Rather than rejecting outright any claim that Russia has imperial ambitions, this alternative framing of the existential threat as coming from democracy and not NATO forces us to ask what ambitions Putin has to offer to the people who support him and his allies. That question is important because protecting his own legitimacy is as necessary for Putin’s political survival as pushing back against alternative claims like giving power to the people, becoming part of the wider European project, or protecting fundamental human rights.
These other claims to legitimacy are clearly programmatic. Political leaders who assert these claims have to be performatively consistent to earn credibility. Putin is likely to face the same obligation to behave in a manner that is consistent with the vision he offers to the Russian people. By studying that vision, we stand to learn something important about how Putin will act in specific circumstances. That way we can build on the foundations of more general principles. Mearsheimer’s framing of the Russian War in Ukraine has a certain plausibility, but that does not make it a strong argument. By changing the frame, we can not only explain more about Russia’s contemporary behaviour but also see better how we can learn more about contemporary Russia.
What goes for Russia should be asserted even more strongly for Ukraine. Mearsheimer’s explanation does not leave any space for Ukrainian agency. Again, President Zelensky’s rhetoric about the ‘fight for democracy’ is not Mearsheimer’s target. Yet the great surprise of this war is just how effective the Ukrainians have proven to be in asserting and protecting their own interests. Any explanation for the war that leaves that Ukrainian resistance out of the argument is surely to be found wanting. Unless the explanation is that Putin and his allies fear democracy on their borders – no matter how flawed that democracy might be.
President Zelensky is right to say that the war in Ukraine is a fight for Western democracy. Russia invaded because Putin and his allies see Western democracy, and the kind of political opposition it empowers, as an existential threat. Ukraine does not have to be a perfect democracy to demonstrate the power of that explanation. Although nothing could possibly justify their actions, Putin and his allies have good reason to be afraid.