Rajan Menon attempts to find a path to peace for Ukraine and Russia. But because he misrepresents what caused Russia’s war on Ukraine, his ideas on how to end it and what a postwar Russia-U.S. relationship might look like are misguided.
In Menon’s self-described stylized presentation of the polarized argument over who caused the war, the “realists and progressives” are in one corner and “neoconservatives and many liberal internationalists” in the other. The former blame the West for pursuing NATO expansion after the collapse of communism and the latter supposedly blame Putin’s neo-imperialism and his hatred of the thought of a democratic Ukraine. Menon thinks he has found a third position—basically, that Russia’s February 2022 attack on Ukraine is everyone’s fault. NATO expansion was threatening to Russia and, for reasons he doesn’t explain, this somehow led Putin to illegally invade sovereign Ukraine, eighteen years after NATO had last stretched closer to Russia’s border. Menon notes, however, that as far back as 2008, Putin actually confessed to George W. Bush that he doesn’t think of Ukraine as a sovereign country. Given that, and Putin’s 2021 wandering and selective account of the “historical unity of Ukrainians and Russians,” however, it doesn’t seem as though it was the “context” of NATO expansion, as Menon claims, that forced the invasion to “unite” Ukraine with Russia at all.
Thus, Menon’s purported “third way” is not really that different from the realist perspective. He too simply blames NATO. This is despite the fact, as he notes, that neither in 2014 or in 2022 was Ukraine poised to actually join NATO; nor had NATO membership been offered beyond Bush’s insistence in the 2008 Bucharest summit that Ukraine and neighboring Georgia would begin the accession process one day in the unknown future.
Menon does not mention why the leadership of Ukraine and Georgia were seeking NATO membership back then, but it is important in understanding where we are now: they faced a real security threat from Putin’s Russia. Indeed, Russian forces invaded two regions of Georgia in 2008 in what turned out to be a sort of blueprint for the 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine and the 2022 attempted annexation of another four Ukrainian provinces. Menon is patently wrong to argue that the United States was “pushing” NATO expansion as opposed to some of Russia’s neighbors requesting membership (and not getting it) to deter further incursions into their sovereign territory by Putin’s Russia. Ukraine had good reason to be worried. Paraphrasing a recent statement by the U.S. Secretary of Defense, Lloyd Austin, NATO enlargement is the result, not the cause, of Russia’s aggression.
Menon also overlooks what came before and after the 2008 Bucharest statement, especially the extent of cooperation between NATO, the European Union, the United States, and Russia. Indeed, the same Bucharest statement says, “We note Russia’s ratification of the Partnership for Peace Status of Forces Agreement, and hope that it will facilitate further practical cooperation. We appreciate Russia’s readiness to support NATO’s ISAF mission in Afghanistan by facilitating transit through Russian territory.” Yes, Russia allowed NATO to transport equipment through Russia to support the ongoing war in Afghanistan. The Bucharest Summit Declaration continues, “We also welcome our cooperation on military interoperability, theatre missile defence, search and rescue at sea and civil emergency planning.” NATO and Russia trained military forces together and had some systemic interoperability in defense systems. None of this was new in 2008—it started under the Partnership for Peace program in 1994 and continued through the NATO-Russia Council, which still existed until the invasion in 2022.
So, when exactly did NATO expansion become such a threat to Russia? There was no MAP agreement for Ukraine in 2014, when Putin annexed Crimea, or in February 2022 when he attempted a full-scale invasion, ironically (from the perspective of 2023), because NATO didn’t want to provoke Putin. It is hard to argue with a straight face that Putin’s war on Ukraine is somehow “defensive” in any sense of the word. There was nothing that Ukraine was attempting to do to Russia in 2014 or in 2022. It wasn’t, as Menon notes, on the verge of joining NATO. So, what Ukrainian “offense,” if not NATO membership, provoked Putin in February of 2022?
To answer this, we must look inside Russia for context, rather than at NATO. Putin was concerned more with his own regime’s durability and stability and in particular, in the wake of the huge protests that met his return to the Kremlin in 2012, the 2014 Ukrainian Revolution of Dignity presented a clear threat for what it represented to Russians. Tellingly, Menon’s account ignores that Ukrainians had aspired to accession to the European Union, not NATO, in November 2013, and Ukraine’s former President Viktor Yanukovych failed to sign an initial accession agreement despite his campaign platform. Instead, he accepted a bailout from Putin’s Russia. Ukrainians took to the streets beginning in November 2013 and Yanukovych fled Kyiv in late February 2014, turning up in southern Russia a few days later. A new Ukrainian president was elected a few months later.
Why would this ouster of a neighboring state’s president so rattle Vladimir Putin? For the simple reason that Yanukovych’s cronyism in Ukraine resembled Putin’s burgeoning kleptocracy in Russia. If Ukrainians could oust their president over broken promises and poor governance, then maybe Russians would follow their example and do the same to Putin. That is the threat Ukraine represents—not to Russia, but to Putin’s regime, and it is important to recall that the two are not the same.
Getting the cause of the conflict right matters in prescribing possible resolutions. It was not, as Menon and realists insist, NATO expansion. “Liberal internationalists” (I think Menon would count me among them) are right to insist that blaming NATO expansion for Russian actions in Ukraine (in 2014 and again in 2022) is a red herring. That wasn’t what provoked Putin. He was going to invade Ukraine anyway. All he needed was opportunity, and he thought he saw it in a domestically polarized and weakened United States (witness the poorly executed pullout of U.S. forces from Afghanistan that August); a rudderless European Union with the exit of Angela Merkel from German politics; and a young, seemingly inexperienced leader in Ukraine whose own approval ratings were dropping like a rock a month before Putin’s invasion.
Menon argues that compromise is required to end Putin’s war on Ukraine. But his solutions only ask one side—the Ukrainians—to give anything up. This is an especially misguided suggestion given that thousands of Ukrainian soldiers and civilians have died, and millions have been rendered homeless as a result of an unprovoked attack by Russia. Ukrainian infrastructure has been repeatedly bombed, and the economy has declined by about 30 percent in comparison to 2021. Russia currently occupies almost 20 percent of its territory. In contrast, Russia has lost nothing in this war other than the pride of its military, its reputation as a reliable and credible actor in the international system, most of its foreign investment, future sales of oil and gas to Europe, and of course the lives of thousands of soldiers needlessly sent into battle in Ukraine. Indeed, despite the heaviest sanctions regime imposed in history, Russian economic growth declined by only 2.5 percent in the first 10 months of the war.
So, given this rather dramatic imbalance in relative losses, why would Menon argue that Ukraine should be forced to give up some of its territory forever? Why reward Russia for breaking international law and committing human rights abuses? How does this not encourage Putin from retreating, regrouping, and eventually returning to finish the job? Menon’s proposed territorial concessions would be political suicide for Zelensky (who must stand for election again in 2024), nor would these concessions be a sustainable solution. Ukraine is not dealing with a credible interlocutor in Putin’s Russia; Putin and his agents have lied repeatedly about Russian intentions, actions, and tactics over the years. Putin even lied about his intention to invade Ukraine as more than 100,000 Russian troops amassed on the border in January 2022.
Menon also forgets that Putin could end this war tomorrow by simply withdrawing his forces from Ukrainian territory. Why not pressure him to do so through continued and firmer sanctions than by pretending that Ukrainian territorial concessions represent justice or sustainable peace?
For a truly lasting solution, in addition to billions of dollars in aid, Ukraine will need to be able to deter future Russian aggression. Right now, Ukraine needs weaponry from the West for its own protection. In the longer term, it needs assistance to develop its own defense industry and bolster its own capabilities to deter a future Russian attack. This is a “porcupine” strategy: the quills must be plentiful, and sharp enough to deter predators. A Ukrainian porcupine might be the only way to deter a Russian bear, and creating one, with or without future NATO membership, is a more viable path toward a sustainable peace in the future.