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​​New Myths About America’s Role in the Ukraine War


Arguments for American responsibility for the war in Ukraine tend to give undue credit to Russian narratives. An essay in The American Conservative is a case in point. 

by Alexei Sobchenkо

A new wave of revisionism is emerging about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, arguing that America, not Russia, is responsible for the conflict, that the Biden administration is personalizing the conflict by demonizing Russian President Vladimir Putin, and that the American foreign policy establishment is once more leading America into a strategic catastrophe by promoting Ukraine’s cause.

A case in point is an October essay in The American Conservative called “The American Origins of the Russo–Ukrainian War.” Written by Christopher Layne, a Professor of International Affairs and holder of the Robert M. Gates Chair in National Security at Texas A&M University, along with Benjamin Schwarz, the former executive editor of World Policy Journal, it blames America first for the Ukraine war.

Layne and Schwarz advance three basic arguments:

First, the emergence of an independent Ukraine can be attributed to the United States’ failure to support Soviet Union Secretary General Mikhail Gorbachev financially, which could have aided in preserving the Soviet Union as a single geographic entity. Second, the United States is to blame for the eagerness of Central and Eastern European nations, which have endured the harsh realities of Soviet occupation, to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) as a safeguard against repeating such experiences. Instead of considering Russia’s insecurities and dissolving NATO, the United States has allowed these nations to join. Third, the United States is responsible for the Ukrainian crisis by giving Ukraine an indication of potential future NATO membership, ultimately leading to the invasion of Ukraine.

These arguments are as unpersuasive as they are sweeping. Layne and Schwarz distort the historical record by creating mountains out of molehills and eliding the malign acts of Putin and his camarilla over the past several decades. In trying to depict America as the true villain in the conflict, they trivialize the stakes of the conflict.

For a start, the demise of the Soviet Union was inevitable because of the time bomb embedded in its Constitution, which granted each of the fifteen Soviet republics the right to secede (an utterly insignificant clause during the Stalin-Khrushchev-Brezhnev era, which unexpectedly gained significance in the final years of Gorbachev’s tenure). Had Gorbachev initiated market reforms like Yeltsin’s, the hardships would have quickly led to a chain of secessions. The remaining republics would accuse Moscow of causing their suffering. Russia would be eager to shed the economic burden, especially given the lucrative revenues from oil and natural gas exports it was supposed to share with the rest of the republics. 

Not one of the Communist federative states has withstood the test of post-communist transformation, including Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, and the USSR. The diverse mix of distinct cultures, ethnicities, and religions in these nations could only be maintained by the iron grip of an authoritarian regime.

The administration of George H.W. Bush was wise not to provide more economic assistance to support Gorbachev’s ineffective economic reforms. Billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars would have been expended wastefully as the Soviet Union’s chances of surviving these reforms were extremely slim. Therefore, no efforts led by the United States or the West to “preserve” the USSR could have realistically extended its lifespan.

Indeed, why should the United States and Western Europe have endeavored to preserve the Soviet Union, one of the most monstrous political entities of the twentieth century, comparable only to Nazi Germany? The Soviet Union not only posed a nuclear threat to the United States and its allies but also occupied countries like Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and the Baltic states and would likely have expanded if given the chance. Soviet weaponry was responsible for American deaths in conflicts such as Korea and Vietnam while also fueling anti-Western insurgencies and uprisings in the Third World that actively promoted anti-American sentiment globally. 

After the collapse of the USSR, Russia had the opportunity, like defeated Nazi Germany and Japan, to transform itself. It didn’t. Nations like Great Britain and France came to terms with losing their superpower status, colonies, and spheres of influence. One might question why Russia couldn’t similarly accept its losses. 

Moreover, it raises the question of whether the United States should be concerned with the sensitivities and vulnerabilities of a former adversary that lost its colonies and sphere of influence. After World War II, the United States did not concern itself with the sensitivities of its allies, the UK and France, as they relinquished their colonies in Africa and Asia, going as far as to humiliating its allies, forcing them to remove their troops from Egypt during the Suez Crisis. However, neither the UK nor France descended into chaos, despite the authors’ warnings that Russia faces such a risk.

The perspective of Layne and Schwarz appears notably sympathetic to Russia. They aver that the Soviet Union had legitimate security interests in Eastern Europe, but they conspicuously overlook the equally legitimate security concerns of the Eastern European nations. These countries are described in opprobrious terms as “dubious partners.” Moreover, nations like Ukraine and the Baltic states are dinged for their “questionable” records during World War II. Layne and Schwarz suggest that these countries’ national identities are partly shaped by a deep-rooted animosity towards Russia by alluding to “anti-Soviet forces in Poland, Belarus, the Baltic States, and Ukraine” and mentioning the questionable records of Ukraine and the Baltic states during World War II, which included nationalist groups connected to the far-right Ukrainian figure Stepan Bandera, who aligned himself with Nazi Germany.

There is, however, an understandable reason behind the enduring animosity that many Eastern Europeans harbor toward Russia. The immense suffering inflicted upon their nations during the Soviet occupation can only be likened to the memories of the Mongol invasion in the thirteenth century. Indeed, Poland’s historical conflict with Russians spans the period between Ivan the Terrible and Stalin’s reign, and they continued their struggle through nonviolent means until the weakening of the Soviet stranglehold on Poland during Gorbachev’s Perestroika.

The lack of robust democracies in some of these nations can be attributed in no small part to their delayed socio-political development resulting from the prolonged Soviet occupation. Furthermore, when examining the questionable records of Ukraine and the Baltic states during World War II, Layne and Schwarz overlook that neither the Baltic states nor an independent Ukrainian nation existed during World War II. These lands were all occupied—first by the Soviets, then by the Nazis, and then by the Soviets once more. One must also take into account the sheer terror unleashed by the Soviet military and secret police during their occupation of these regions. 

After Nazi Germany expelled the Soviets from these territories, many local inhabitants, driven by the fear of a return of the dreaded Soviet military and secret police, regrettably aligned themselves with the Germans in order to prevent Soviet occupation from recurring. Of course, that decision did not save them from another ghastly form of totalitarianism and terror. A similar perspective could be applied to Finland’s actions during World War II, as it faced two Soviet attacks: one in November 1939 and another on June 25, 1941, when the Soviet Air Force bombed Finnish cities and military airfields without a declaration of war. This left the Finns with no alternative but to join Nazi Germany in its conflict against the USSR. 

In light of these historical circumstances, eastern European countries were understandably eager to join NATO after the end of the Cold War. Layne and Schwarz reiterate that the Soviet Union was deceived by verbal assurances from the George H. W. Bush administration that NATO would not expand east. However, these assurances were not formally documented. These assurances were never extended to Poland, the Baltic republics, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, or Bulgaria either because, at the time they were revealed, neither Gorbachev nor G.H.W. Bush could conceive of the possibility that these countries would exit the Warsaw Pact. The assurances pertained solely to East Germany, where a significant Soviet military presence was stationed. The agreement stipulated that no NATO forces would be deployed in the former East Germany as long as Soviet troops remained on its territory. However, these assurances were null and void after their withdrawal and the subsequent collapse of the USSR.

Layne and Schwarz further assert that “there was no reason to believe that NATO would survive the Warsaw Pact’s dissolution.” However, it’s worth considering why NATO was not pressured to disband after the implosion of the Warsaw Pact. The Warsaw Pact member countries were compelled to join that alliance against their will, and when they had the opportunity to break free, they did so willingly and immediately. Great Britain, West Germany, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Norway, and other nations voluntarily joined NATO. Even when Charles de Gaulle’s France decided to exit NATO’s military structures, there was no use of force to keep it within the alliance. In fact, most member nations showed no inclination to leave the organization. On the contrary, after the demise of the USSR and the Warsaw Pact, many new nations clamored to join NATO. Recently, Finland, in response to Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, also became a member, effectively doubling the length of the Russia-NATO border.     

“Regardless of what is being said about NATO now, for us it is a symbol of the past,” said Gorbachev in a 1990 interview. This, however, should be viewed in context. Had he suggested, earlier, say, in 1986, disbanding both the Warsaw Pact and NATO, he might have been taken more seriously. However, in 1990, his words could be likened to someone who, having lost a card game, suggests treating the entire game as a mere jest.

Let’s now turn our attention to NATO in its current state. In contrast to the Cold War decades, NATO is a less-than-formidable alliance marked by a reduction in military training and the development of new weapon systems. When Undersecretary of Defense Walter Slocombe stated, “NATO is not an alliance against Russia,” he was essentially correct, as NATO has evolved into an alliance that poses little threat to anyone. Its performance in Afghanistan (so far the only military operation of the alliance) was far from impressive, and the conflict in Ukraine only serves as further evidence of its limitations. In 2022, only six European NATO members met the alliance’s meager target of dedicating 2 percent of their GDP to defense spending.

Interestingly, four of these countries are Eastern European nations bordering Russia. In 2019, three years prior to the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, French President Macron famously referred to NATO as “brain dead.” To illustrate, German combat battalions declined from 215 to thirty-three between 1990 and 2020. Over the same period of time, the number of operational tanks diminished from over 2,000 to less than 100.

In the meantime, Russia has been upgrading and expanding its ground forces. Layne and Schwarz claim that the United States expanded its geopolitical and ideological ambitions with an eye to reinforcing its dominance in Europe, primarily through NATO expansion. But Turkey, which blocked Sweden’s accession to the alliance for months, or recalcitrant Hungary, can be used as evidence of the opposite.

In 2008, George W. Bush proposed Ukraine’s admission into NATO during a summit in Bucharest. However, this faced immediate opposition from key NATO allies, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy. Consequently, Kyiv was never granted a membership action plan or a concrete date for joining the alliance. Fourteen years later, Putin launched an invasion of Ukraine to prevent the country from joining NATO. Remarkably, Layne and Schwarz suggest that the United States bears the blame for this situation. It is evident that prior to February 24, 2022, Ukraine’s chances of joining NATO were rather remote. Russia’s invasion, in fact, provided fresh momentum to this process. It is difficult to fathom how one could hold the United States responsible for Putin’s unprovoked aggression. However, had Ukraine and Georgia been admitted to NATO, Putin would never have dared to attack these countries.

A recurring argument echoed by the authors, and one often heard among Russia experts in Washington, is that removing Putin from power may not bring about substantial change due to Russia’s deep-rooted state traditions, particularly those related to its security concerns in Eastern Europe. The current Russian political elite resembles a pyramid structure, where one’s proximity to the apex is determined by their personal loyalty to Putin. This pyramid will likely collapse once he departs from the scene, and new people will replace Putin’s loyalists.

A significant part of the Russian economic elite is increasingly dissatisfied with Putin’s foreign policy, particularly his deteriorating relationship with the West. Apart from the geopolitical implications, such as Russia’s increasing dependence on China and the loss of traditional European markets for its oil and gas exports, numerous elites with vested interests have suffered due to Putin’s foreign policy decisions. Russian elites are unhappy because of their inability to access their luxurious villas in Côte d’Azur and Tuscany. They can’t enjoy winter vacations in Courchevel, and their wives and girlfriends cannot indulge in shopping sprees at the boutiques of Paris and Milan. Moreover, their children and grandchildren cannot attend prestigious British universities and boarding schools. In private conversations, they openly admit that destinations like Dubai, Bali, or Thailand cannot replace the allure of Nice, Palma de Mallorca, or Miami. Publicly disclosed telephone conversations, in which wealthy Russians express anger towards Putin for initiating the war in Ukraine, further support this viewpoint. It is widely believed that once Putin exits the scene, Russian elites will be motivated to end the war and seek reconciliation with the West.

What troubles me the most in this article is the implied notion that Russians are somehow fundamentally different from the rest of the world. According to the authors, traditional insecurities regarding Eastern Europe take precedence for Russians over their own quality of life. Allow me to provide some context: Russia is a country where the average male life expectancy is just 64 years, shorter than in countries like Bangladesh or Honduras. In vast regions of Russia, including Yakutia, Tuva, Buryatia, Bashkiria, Kalmykia, Mari-El, Altai, Kurgan Oblast, Irkutsk Oblast, and Chita Oblast, less than twenty percent of the rural population has access to indoor plumbing. Most areas suffer a subzero January temperature. Russia is also grappling with high male suicide and homicide rates, ranking third globally. In addition, its population is declining, with its birth rate being lower than its death rate. 

One should also take into consideration a massive influx of Muslim migrants from central Asia who are gradually replacing the ethnic Russian population in core Russian territories. The process of depopulation accelerated significantly following the conflict in Ukraine. Hundreds of thousands of Russian men of draft age, most of them well-educated specialists, have attempted to evade the war by seeking refuge in various parts of the world, ranging from Mongolia to Argentina. The current state of affairs in Russia clearly is an aberration and cannot endure indefinitely because Russians are fundamentally not different from other peoples, and rationality will eventually prevail. 

The most effective way for Russia to reverse these unfavorable trends is by ousting Putin and his inner circle from power and establishing conditions conducive to genuine democracy. To assist the Russian people in this endeavor, the United States could provide Ukraine with a substantially larger supply of weapons and ammunition, enabling them to vanquish the Russian military on the battlefield. It’s worth noting that military defeats, such as the Crimean War, the Russo-Japanese War, the First World War, and, to some extent, the war in Afghanistan, have often catalyzed significant changes in Russia’s history. A decisive defeat of the Russian military in Ukraine could potentially bring about the desired transformation. 

The issue lies in the fact that, in contrast to Layne and Schwarz’s assertions, the Biden administration does not appear to favor regime change in Moscow, which could be accelerated by providing Ukraine with significantly larger and urgent military assistance in defeating the Russian military on the battlefield. Instead, according to the German newspaper Bild, America and Germany have devised a plan to compel Ukraine to negotiate with Russia by limiting its arms supplies. If Ukraine is coerced into a ceasefire, it could resemble the creation of a new Alsace-Lorraine—a persistent geopolitical issue on the continent that has the potential to flare up again at any moment.

By assisting Ukraine in defeating the Russian military on the battlefield, Washington could potentially address, once and for all, the Russian threat to its neighbors and global security, which would come at a fraction of its military budget. This, not specious claims about American culpability for the war, remains the genuine challenge for the West in the Russo-Ukrainian conflict.

Alexei Sobchenko is a former State Department translator and Radio Free Europe-Radio Liberty journalist. He graduated with a degree in History from Moscow State University. Currently, he is a FARA-registered GR representative of the Congress of People’s Deputies (Russia’s parliament-in-exile) in Washington, D.C.       

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