Who’s responsible for this war? The first and most obvious answer would seem to be “President Vladimir Putin,” the man who ordered his armed forces to invade, demilitarize, and “denazify” Ukraine. Putin could have refrained from launching such an attack; many observers, even experts, believed that if there was any military action at all it would be localized in the Donbas. Putin had a sufficient array of options that it was apparently hard to guess which one he would take, which would suggest a strong degree of agency on his part.
But some have argued that NATO and the United States bear substantial responsibility for the war, because of the expansion of NATO to Russia’s borders, the violation of Libyan, Serbian, and Iraqi sovereignty, and the unwillingness to promise that Ukraine would forever be excluded from the major international institutions of the West. These actions set the context in which Putin made his decision and thus should be held to account. At the extreme, some have argued that the West bears nearly the entirety of responsibility for the war, a perspective that casts Putin in an almost purely reactive role.
Some of these arguments are associated with far-right or far-left groups that on the one hand admire Russia for its domestic politics and on the other admire Russia for its anti-Americanism. Others associate themselves with the international relations school of Realism, one of the oldest bodies of theory in the contemporary study of international politics. As most know, Realists focus on hard “realities” of power and interest, ignoring or discounting such factors as international law and international institutions. Realism represents an impressive structure for the analysis of foreign policy and international politics, even as the now many different schools of realism offer different predictions about both foreign policy and the structure of the international system. I count myself as a Constructivist Realist, someone who believes that considerations of power and interest pervade the legal and normative structures that govern much of international politics.
However, most IR theorists would grant that “Realism” is sometimes as much a body of theory as a way of life. Declaring oneself a “Realist” connotes a certain toughness, an aversion to the silliness that others suffer from. Indeed, there remains a certain core of realist theory that imagines hard men making hard decisions in a hard world. This is evident in the political theories that Realists take as their lineage, including Thucydides, Niccolo Machiavelli, Thomas Hobbes, and Klemens von Metternich. The outlines of this become clear when we think about the early history of modern Realist theory, distancing itself from the Idealists of the interwar period who were silly enough to think that norms, laws, and treaties were sufficient to bind the great powers.
And we can surely find echoes of this in some of the Realist accounts of the Russia-Ukraine War, as Vladimir Putin dispels the illusions of the silly idealists who thought that they could expand NATO to Russia’s very borders and escape a response. For these Realists, NATO is responsible for the invasion of Ukraine, in the same sense that the police are responsible when the bank robber murders his hostages. Realists are willing to accept this analogy because moral judgments traditional in the domestic sphere do not apply to the international system; Russia is entitled to crush small countries based on its interpretation of geopolitical vulnerability. Vladimir Putin is a hard man, making hard decisions in a hard world.
But now that has all fallen apart. If NATO forced Putin to act, then apparently it also forced him to pay no attention to his dreadfully underprepared army, leading to a series of humiliating defeats that have undercut Russian military prestige. It forced him to ignore the potential for fierce Ukrainian resistance and the prospect of Western unity that will quite likely expand NATO along an even larger section of NATO’s border. It forced Putin to incur sanctions that will contract Russia’s economy by as much as 15% in a year, and that is spurring the emigration of the youngest and best-educated of Russia’s workforce.
There’s a way out of this for Realists; the decision to go to war is never certain, but rather dependent upon a calculation of the likely costs of war, the costs of peace, and an assessment of the potential for victory or defeat. Putin’s astonishing misunderstanding of the capabilities of his own military, of Ukrainian resistance, and of the crushing Western response simply become variables in an expected utility calculation that Putin computed incorrectly. This is awfully unsatisfying, as it seems that there might be something systematic about Putin’s inability to understand Ukraine, his armed forces, and the West, but it is an explanation nevertheless.
If indeed NATO is responsible for this war, then NATO is also substantially responsible for the destruction of Russia as a great power. The natural turn for Realists could be “NATO tricked Putin into a disastrous war,” but Joe Biden, Boris Johnson, Olaf Scholz, and even Volodymyr Zelenskyy don’t play the role of hard men making hard decisions in a hard world all that well. Putin, with his explicit embrace of the most toxic of masculinities, fit the role of a statesman in a far more satisfying way than any of these other men. And yet.
For my part, I think that Putin is responsible for the war. Russia may still win Putin’s war, but the costs have vastly exceeded the benefits, to the extent that Russia must beg China for assistance. The expansion of NATO may have made Russia uncomfortable, but in his decades of power Putin had many opportunities to pursue a different national strategy, and perhaps to engage in policy that did not make Russia’s neighbors react with fear and hatred. Putin is the author of Ukraine’s misfortune, and also of Russia’s.
Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. Robert Farley is a Senior Lecturer at the Patterson School at the University of Kentucky. Dr. Farley is the author of Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force (University Press of Kentucky, 2014), the Battleship Book (Wildside, 2016), and Patents for Power: Intellectual Property Law and the Diffusion of Military Technology (University of Chicago, 2020).