In the time since the United States was founded in the 18th century, Russia has been invaded by Europeans six times. In 1812, Napoleon Bonaparte occupied Moscow but badly misjudged the will of the Russian people to resist. The cause of the Crimean War in 1856 still baffles us today, but Britain and France won after laying siege to the Russian port at Sevastopol. Germany invaded during the First World War, followed by Britain and France again in 1918, thinking they could strangle Russia’s Communist Revolution before it could walk. That episode was not really a war, but with some 70 thousand foreign troops on Russian soil (of which 11 thousand were American), it can be counted as an invasion. Germany invaded again in 1941, and cut a swath of destruction as long as the distance between New York and Kansas.
On two occasions during this time, Russia joined the West to defeat an aspiring hegemon. The France of Napoleon Bonaparte and Hitler’s Germany both made bids to dominate Europe, and both were stopped by opposing coalitions, in which Russia played a decisive role. If Russia played the role of “liberator” in those conflicts, that is not the Russia Western elites see today. They see a Russia starting a war in Ukraine as the first step in reconstructing the old Soviet bloc, a Russia that has reverted to form and is out to subjugate its smaller neighbors and to bully them into a security zone of vassal states. Such fears are widespread in the West and are the source of its support for Ukraine. However, seen another way, they are a text book example of something called “the security dilemma,” a situation in which one party’s defensive moves are seen by another as aggressive and threatening. Western elites fear Russia’s intentions in Ukraine, while Russia says its “special military operation” there is defensive; at the same time, Westerners insist that the NATO alliance is defensive in nature and that Russia had no real cause for fear if Ukraine joined it. The trouble is, Russia fears it. The sword of suspicion cuts both ways.
In 2022 Russia went to war in Ukraine for reasons its leaders have said it did: to block the expansion of NATO into Ukraine and to remove a potential military threat there that Moscow found unacceptable. The various events leading up to that war are complex and there is not space here to summarize them, but in general Russia-friendly pundits hold that there is sufficient material in the gathering storm to justify a preventive war of self-defense. The critics will have none of this. They say Russia launched an “unprovoked” war of aggression, it has violated Ukraine’s sovereignty, and it must be held to account.
The two camps differ not only on the cause of war, they have completely different world views as to how a system of sovereign states works. Russian war policy is the epitome of a broader realist approach to international affairs: states have interests, not friends, and they must rely on self-help to do what is necessary to protect themselves. Accordingly, Russia went to war not to conquer, but from a no-nonsense threat assessment. By contrast, the United States entered the fray with an ideologically charged missionary spirit. The U.S. has long seen itself as the savior of the world, the “indispensable nation,” Its diplomatic discourse often lapses into moralizing rhetoric. It believes that a world filled with more democracies would be a safer and better place than it is today. It is disdainful of traditional balance of power politics and favors a “rules based” world order. The Russian view of power politics is “bottom up” and conservative. It insists that a state’s historical and geographic circumstances must be taken into account. It grapples with the question, “What is there?” The American view of the world is “top-down” and revolutionary. It is less concerned with historical contexts than with hypothetical theorizing about how people and states ought to behave. It grapples with the question, “What should be there?”
It has often been said that the United States could have defused the Ukraine crisis before it spilled into war by coming to terms with Russia on the status of Ukraine’s NATO membership. However, a psychological barrier blocked the way. The West fears that meeting the Russian “ask” on Ukraine would have been the first step on a slippery slope. Russia would have then made other security demands elsewhere in Eastern Europe, and pretty soon the U.S. would have, willingly or not, become a party to a “sphere of influence” arrangement. Such an outcome is abhorrent to the United States.