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Liberal Illusions Caused the Ukraine Crisis

Author: Stephen M. Walt

Affiliation: Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government 

Organization/Publisher: Foreign Policy 

Date/Place: January 19, 2022/ USA

Type of Literature: Article 

Word Count: 2680



Keywords: Liberal Illusions, Need for Realism, Ukrainian Crisis, Russian Geopolitical Interests, and US Foreign Policy 


With the unprecedentedly dangerous escalation in the Ukrainian crisis and the growing possibility of Russian invasion of the Ukraine, Stephen Walt argues that the main reason behind this troubled situation is that the US has successively ignored the Realist perspective of international politics since the end of the Cold War. Instead, it has adopted the liberalist vision he describes as a “flawed theory” based on idealistic hubris and wishful thinking. Everything that is happening now could have been avoided, the Ukraine would have been safer, and Russia would never have taken Crimea if the United States had viewed world politics through a realist lens. 

Walt first explains the core theoretical principles of realism, such as the anarchy of the international system that makes war a permanent possibility and pushes states to become self-reliant and self-improvement to be safer or gain other advantages, as well as the inability to know the intentions of others. Consequently, states resort to hedging due to the lack of confidence in what other powerful states want at some point down the road. This perspective helps to explain Russian behavior and its impulses in a clearer way, and thus to know the most appropriate way to deal with it. Liberalism sees world politics differently. It mostly attributes states’ motives to their internal characteristics and the nature of the links between them. It divides the world into “good states” (that is, those that embody liberal values) and “bad states” (pretty much everyone else), and maintains that conflicts arise primarily from the aggressive drives of autocratic rulers and other illiberal leaders. Therefore, the solution is to overthrow tyrants, promote democracy, free markets, and institutions based on the rules of liberal democracy because “democracies do not fight each other”, especially when they are linked through trade, investment, and an agreed-on set of rules.

After the Cold War, successive US administrations adopted this “rosy vision” and believed that expanding US security guarantees into Russia’s traditional sphere of influence would pose fewer risks. Realists warned at the time that NATO expansion would be seen as a threat to Russia and would spoil relations with it, yet Washington and the liberal elites argued that it would help consolidate new democracies in Eastern and Central Europe and create a “vast zone of peace” across all of Europe. They were also certain that they could convince Russia of NATO’s good intentions as it expanded close to its borders. This was a naive vision, according to Walt and other realists. Russian fears grew with the continued enlargement of NATO in Central Europe, and Moscow’s suspicions increased when Washington invaded Iraq in 2003 ignoring international law, then even using NATO to help overthrow Gaddafi in 2011. All of these incidents explain the current Russian firmness and Moscow’s insistence on taking written assurances. The idealistic liberal hubris has caused a lack of understanding of Moscow’s motives and predicting its behavior. If US policymakers reflect on their country’s history and geographical sensitivities, they would understand how NATO’s enlargement appeared to their Russian counterparts. Historically, the United States has repeatedly declared the Western Hemisphere to be off-limits to other great powers and has threatened or used force on numerous occasions to make that declaration stick. For example, the Reagan administration overthrew revolutionary socialist rule in Nicaragua (the small country) that saw it as a threat, so why is it so difficult today for the US to understand the reason for some of Russia’s serious misgivings about the continued enlargement of the world’s most powerful alliance toward its borders? Realism explains such Russian security sensitivity, but liberalism fails. It fails also to recognize the profound strategic consequences of NATO’s enlargement.

The Bush administration’s decision to nominate Georgia and Ukraine for NATO membership in 2008 was a disastrous mistake. The decision reinforced Moscow’s view of NATO’s intention to include them. Thus, Moscow’s decisive moves on the ground began. Russia then supported Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, especially with the deterioration of the Ukrainian economy in 2013-2014. Yanukovych sided with Russia’s tempting offers and turned against the European Union and the agreements it negotiated with, which led to his overthrow in a Western-sponsored color revolution, which gave greater credibility to Russian fears. The West was not interested in Russia’s position and was unable to understand its vision of the issue, so it was shocked when Russia seized Crimea and supported the Russian-speaking separatist movements in the eastern provinces of the Ukraine. The result is Ukraine’s plunging into a frozen conflict that persists to this day.

It is common in the West to defend NATO expansion and blame Putin alone for the Ukraine crisis, as well as to focus on his internal repressive politics, the corruption of his regime and his campaigns against opponents etc., but Putin cannot be held solely responsible for the Ukraine crisis. Liberal elites focusing on moral issues with the aim of undermining Putin would not be a sound strategy for overcoming the crisis, as harsh Western sanctions are unlikely to lead to him capitulating to Western demands. Therefore, Walt believes that the United States and its allies should recognize that the geopolitical alignment of the Ukraine is a vital interest of Russia that it will defend by force if necessary, regardless of who is in charge in the Kremlin. It is not about “Putin’s tyranny and his illiberal regime,” as liberalism claims, but rather about Russian security and Russia’s geopolitical interests in an Anarchy international environment as realism argues. The crisis cannot be avoided unless the US-Russian negotiations avoid blackmail. Trying to extract major concessions at gunpoint makes the problem more difficult. As long as the Biden administration insists on excluding the issue of NATO expansion from the negotiations and focuses on secondary issues, ignoring Russia’s vital interest in the Ukraine’s geopolitical alignment, the negotiations will not succeed. Russia wants something tangible. Walt does not like this result, but he sees the need for Washington to make concessions in this regard. This is the price to be paid for unwisely expanding NATO beyond reasonable limits, ignoring the realist insights of international politics above all.

Finally, the author believes that the best solution to this chaos is for Ukraine to take the initiative and officially declare that it intends to act as a neutral country that will not join any Western or Russian military alliance, as well as it will remain free to trade with any country, welcome investment from anywhere, and should be free to choose its leaders without any foreign interference. This is the realist solution to this tragic story that could have been entirely avoided if Washington’s policy makers toned down their liberal hubris and regained their full appreciation for realist lessons. If they do not, they will likely stumble in similar crises in the future. 

By: Djallel Khechib, CIGA Senior Research Associate



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