‘Every way of a man is right in his own eyes’, the Book of Proverbs says: it makes us feel good to know we’re on the side of the angels. The corollary is that other men must be in the wrong, and therefore blameworthy, and this shores up our self-regard still further. Of course, taken to extremes, the outcome is full-blown narcissism.
But in certain schools of international relations, there’s a kind of especially vigorous anti-narcissism in fashion: the idea that when it comes to the sins of the world, ‘we’ in the west are almost always the guilty party (excepting those enlightened enough to perceive this truth).
Ukraine is the latest conflict where self-flagellants flex a version of the argument. In short, were it not for the incautious expansion of Nato, and the half-promises made to Kyiv, none of this horror would have happened.
Professor John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago is a vocal proponent of the view, and his commentaries have notched up hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube during the war. That’s a lot of likes for an academic. So he is clearly tapping into something some people feel.
‘We have led the Ukrainians down the primrose path and encouraged them to join Nato’ he declares. At the same time, ‘we took a stick and we poked the bear in the eye’ when it comes to Russia. It is again, you see, all about ‘us’.
Mearsheimer is an articulate and well-regarded thinker, and has published much learned material to great acclaim. By contrast, I’m merely a former Moscow correspondent. But having spent a decade in Russia between 1988 and 2005, and witnessed the emergence and flourishing of Putin’s way of running the country, I can’t help finding Mearsheimer’s theory of ‘offensive realism’ a poor guide to what is taking place. And in some ways, it just strikes me as plain offensive.
There are lots of reasons why. Starting with the glaring iniquity that such a worldview denies Ukrainians the opportunity to choose their future. They are either obliged to accept Moscow’s ‘right’ to call the shots; or they’re painted as dumb puppets of western manipulation.
The toppling of the pro-Russian government in Kyiv in 2014, which so upset the Kremlin, is described by thinkers like Mearsheimer as a ‘coup’. The choice of word is telling, because it smuggles in a value judgment.
Many of my Ukrainian friends, however, would term the events a popular uprising. Not one in which they were gulled by the CIA and dark forces, but one in which they eagerly seized the hope to make a country better than the one Putin was willing to begrudge them. That may be described as ‘unrealistic’, but it at least permits Ukrainians a role in their affairs.
Second, even if Nato were relevant to the choice of war by Putin, there are plenty of other causes, apart from the man’s taste for risk and violence, that could also account for the invasion. Access to natural resources and Ukraine’s littoral hydrocarbon deposits would be a strong one. Another might be the Tsar’s go-to solution for troubles at home: more than a century ago, Russian interior minister Vyacheslav von Plehve’s explanation for going to war with Japan was ‘You don’t know Russia’s internal situation. To avert a revolution, we need a small victorious war.’
Putin has greater reason to fear being overthrown at home for rampant corruption and immiseration than some far-off and thoroughly implausible Ukrainian membership of Nato. But of course, it suits him fine if analysts are keen to make it the ‘line in the sand’ which ‘we’ crossed to trigger the nightmare.
Another shortcoming of the theory is that it supposes people like Putin and his entourage are motivated by statesmanlike reason. But while the Russian defence staff may have planned the war through a prism of rationality – in the event, that prism turned out to be a drastically flawed one – their commander-in-chief has demonstrated spitting anger and a bloody messianism as high among his motivations for conflict.
The televised address to the Russian nation on the eve of war seemed that of a man possessed: ‘One can say with good reason and confidence that the whole so-called western bloc formed by the United States in its own image and likeness is, in its entirety, an “empire of lies,”’ Putin fumed.
His public performances suggest a man seated far from sober realism as he sits with increasingly rare guests at that long, long Kremlin table. Keep in mind, when he talks about bringing ethnic Russians, or merely Russian speakers, back into the fold of his country, he means every neo-fascist word of what he says.
More than that, the President of Russia habitually dives deep into the profane language of a lowlife gangster. He’s comfortable referring to the rape of women and evoking sadistic violence to illustrate what he has in mind if he takes a shine to the metaphor.
‘Sorry, my beautiful – like it or not, you’re just gonna have to take it,’ is a recent coinage. In the Russian idiom it also rhymes, for greater effect.
Some might say he’s just being clever, playing to the home audience. But it’s also possible that Putin delights in using such phrases because of what they make him feel.
A former British ambassador to Moscow put it to me like this: ‘The old Putin had a kind of dark wit when he spoke. He now comes across as unhinged.’ Whether or not, it’s a far cry from the lexicon of a cool-headed statesman.
But there are other reasons why the ‘offensive realism’ model is morally slimy. For one thing, it doesn’t account for Putin’s choice of mediaeval tactics. You can take the idea of the west’s original guilt, if you really have to believe in it, only so far. Because it was the Russian president’s choice, not ‘ours’, to enthusiastically reduce Mariupol to rubble and give carte blanche to his troops to maraud across Ukraine, how and where they pleased.
The counter-argument might perhaps be that thanks to western arms supplies and the boost to Ukraine’s defence capability, Russian generals were left no choice but to render cities to dust and send in the armed rapists. But that stretches belief.
And after Bucha, it is morally grotesque to expect ‘us’ to shoulder the blame for wanton murder. (Russian troops in this regard have plenty of form – ask anyone brave enough to speak up in Grozny today about what they went through at the hands of ‘kontraktniki’, contract soldiers, and the secret policemen when Putin was just coming of age politically.)
Last, the ‘realists’ have very little to say about evil. In stressing the role of purported geopolitical force majeure, and western guilt in the matter, they struggle to find a place for old-fashioned ideas like greed, vainglory and the capacity of some to take pleasure in what is now called ‘transgressive behaviour’ and what used to be known as sin.
Those motivations, and no doubt many more, are characteristic of despots. They seem a particularly close fit with all we know of Putin: his thirst for wealth, his need to be feared if not loved, and his ruthless willingness to achieve such things by killing. In theorising largely in matters of abstract strategy, the realists have no explanation for the grisly calculus of evil men.
In turn, it tends to absolve these appalling characters of responsibility, even of moral capacity. That is more wrong today than ever, given that we cannot claim not to know, or close our eyes to what we have seen, and that it would sign off on a dreadful blank cheque to the future.
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