Russia vs the West: who is really on the offensive?
Marçal Jané-Heidsiek evaluates the involvement of the West in the Russia-Ukraine conflict.
The last couple of weeks have been characterised by uncertainty and fears of a conflict between Russia and Ukraine. The former has gathered hundreds of thousands of troops at its border and NATO members have sent hundreds of millions of dollars in “lethal aid” to assist Ukraine should Russia invade. As the military build-up accelerates, each side demands that the other stand down; an impasse with potentially violent consequences.
So, who is responsible for this escalation? The overwhelming consensus in the West is that Russia is to blame. This is not without reason. It is Russia that has menacingly placed troops at the border, and Russia that has violated Ukrainian sovereignty by interfering in its politics and annexing Crimea (as well as supporting rebels in the East). These actions may appear offensive but, before villainising Russia, the West might benefit from a more sensitive approach to Russian security concerns in order to avoid unnecessary conflict.
According to John Mearsheimer, the Ukraine crisis is the West’s fault. Mearsheimer argues that Putin’s actions are motivated by legitimate security concerns triggered by the West rather than any aspirations to annex the entirety of Ukraine. These include the expansion of the European Union and NATO to include former members of the Soviet Union, which Russia views as an encroachment into its sphere of influence and a step too far considering nuclear weapons may be stationed at Russia’s doorstep.
Russia’s actions may appear offensive. But they might equally be a defensive response to a perceived threat to its security
In fact, this perceived threat should resonate with America, as the US held similar fears following the Cuban-Soviet alliance, culminating in the Cuban Missile Crisis. Likewise, the West itself has interfered in Ukrainian politics by supporting the pro-democracy Orange Revolution in 2004. Mearsheimer therefore interprets Russian actions as pre-emptive and defensive, arguing that the annexation of Crimea came because of a coup against a democratically elected and pro-Russian President and out of fears it would host a NATO naval base on the border with Russia.
If the West seeks to continue its expansion by incorporating Ukraine into NATO, this will remove a natural buffer zone between the West and Russia. Such a buffer is perhaps necessary when Russia views the incorporation as an existential threat. Indeed, Russia is not the only player amassing troops; the Ukrainian army has more than doubled since 2014. Therefore, we must ask ourselves why Russia’s demands – namely not allowing Ukraine to join NATO – should not be met, especially considering how this buffer zone might be beneficial for both Russia and the West (in preventing war).
Russia’s actions may appear offensive. But they might equally be a defensive response to a perceived threat to its security. This is a legitimate fear given the expansion of an organisation established to counter Russia, as well as numerous historical precedents of invasions by European powers into Russia over the last few hundred years. What remains to be seen is whether America and the West will continue to arm Ukraine and push their sphere of influence into Russia’s backyard, or whether NATO will halt its expansion before it triggers a violent Russian reaction.
Above all, the West must remember that Ukraine is not yet a NATO member. Any response to a Russian invasion should bear this in mind to avoid an impulsive reaction that treats an attack against Ukraine as an attack against the rest of NATO, which could further escalate the conflict.