For the media and for members of the public more generally, the eruption of war creates an urgent need to affix blame and identify villains. Rendering such judgments helps make sense of an otherwise inexplicable event. It offers assurance that the moral universe remains intact, with a bright line separating good and evil.
That rule certainly applies to the case of the invasion of Ukraine. Russia is the aggressor and President Vladimir Putin a bad guy straight out of central casting: On that point, opinion in the United States and Europe is nearly unanimous. Even in a secular age, we know whose side God is on.
Yet such snap judgments rarely stand the test of history. With the passage of time, moral clarity gives way to ambiguity. Clear-cut narratives take on hitherto unrecognized complexity. Bright lines blur.
World War I illustrates the point. The conflict began with the German Army invading France. When the war finally ended, the victorious Allies charged Germany with “war guilt,” a judgment that accomplished little apart from setting the stage for an even more disastrous conflict two decades later. It turned out that in 1914 there had been plenty of guilt to go around. Among the several nations that participated in that war, none could claim innocence.
A similar rush to judgment regarding Ukraine will inevitably inhibit our understanding of the war’s origins and implications, with potentially dangerous consequences. Yes, Russian aggression deserves widespread condemnation. Yet the United States cannot absolve itself of responsibility for this catastrophe. Indeed, the conflict renders a judgment on post-Cold War US policy. That policy has now culminated in a massive diplomatic failure.
The failure stemmed from two defects that permeate contemporary American statecraft. The first involves hypocrisy and the second a penchant for overreaching.
Condemnations of Putin emphasize his disregard for what US officials like to call a “rules-based international order.” Russia’s invasion of Ukraine violates ostensibly sacrosanct “norms” that prohibit military aggression and demand respect for national sovereignty.
This is rather rich coming from the United States, to put it mildly. During the post-9/11 war on terror, successive administrations made their own rules and established their own norms — for example, embarking on preventive war in defiance of international opinion. If Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a crime — as I believe it to be ― then how should we classify the US invasion of Iraq in 2003?
Putin appears intent on using violence to impose “regime change” in Kyiv, installing his own preferred leadership there. Biden administration officials express outrage at that prospect, and rightly so. Yet coercive regime change undertaken in total disregard of international law has been central to the American playbook in recent decades. Whatever Washington’s professed intentions, democracy, liberal values, and human rights have not prospered, whether in the Balkans, Afghanistan, Iraq, or Libya.
Perhaps we should not be surprised at such inconsistencies. After all, hypocrisy is endemic to politics, both domestic and international. More troubling is the difficulty US policy makers apparently have in accurately gauging US interests and comparing them with the interests of others. This is where the overreaching occurs.
Consider this simple definition of the phrase “vital interest”: a place or issue worth fighting for. Putin has repeatedly identified Ukraine as a vital Russian interest, and not without reason.
President Biden has been equally clear in indicating that he does not consider Ukraine worth fighting for. That is, it does not qualify as a vital US interest. At the same time, he has refused to concede the legitimacy of Russia’s claim. In concrete terms, he has rejected Putin’s demand that NATO’s eastward march, adding to its ranks various former Soviet republics and allies, should cease without incorporating Ukraine, which Russia deems an essential buffer.
The argument made by several recent US administrations that NATO expansion does not pose a threat to Russian security doesn’t pass the sniff test. It assumes that US attitudes toward Russia are benign. They are not and haven’t been for decades. It assumes further that Moscow has no interests except as permitted by the United States. No responsible government will allow an adversary to determine its hierarchy of interests.
By casually meddling in Ukrainian politics in recent years, the United States has effectively incited Russia to undertake its reckless invasion. Putin richly deserves the opprobrium currently being heaped on him. But US policy has been both careless and irresponsible.
As is so often the case, this is an unnecessary war. But the United States is no more an innocent party than the European countries that in 1914 stumbled into war.
Andrew Bacevich is president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.