How To Think About the War in Ukraine: a Response to Eric Levitz

In March of 2022, New York Magazine published the essay Is America to Blame for Russia’s War in Ukraine? by Eric Levitz. It’s illuminating to respond to it now, after over two years have passed and more information has come to light about what happened in the run-up to the war.

Levitz started out by seeming to acknowledge some U.S. culpability for the war. He writes:

As the “realist” international-relations scholar John Mearsheimer put the point in 2015, “What’s going on here is that the West is leading Ukraine down the primrose path, and the end result is that Ukraine is going to get wrecked.”

Today, this analysis is largely confined to anti-Establishment foreign policy scholars and left-wing dissidents. But as Peter Beinart notes, its basic premises were once common sense among America’s national security elite.

Levitz went on to quote George Kennan, Thomas Friedman, Henry Kissinger, and Zbigniew Brzezinski. They all thought that Ukraine should remain neutral. Indeed, you can find here quotations by U.S. diplomats, politicians, academics, journalists and others who say similar things.

But Levitz said that while NATO expansion helps explain Russia’s invasion, it doesn’t justify it. But justification isn’t all or nothing, and Russia’s invasion doesn’t retroactively justify NATO expansion either. Both sides can be guilty in a war. Let me elaborate.

Levitz wrote:

A small minority of the left in the U.S. is so fixated on its contempt for American imperialism that it suggests that Russia is justified in seeing a western-aligned Ukraine as an affront to their security. From this point of view, American support for Ukraine’s integration with Europe was not merely reckless but immoral: Supporting Ukraine’s assertion of independence from Moscow was an imperial act of aggression against Russia, as though Putin were entitled to veto power over Ukrainian foreign policy as a matter of right.

What that fails to acknowledge is that Ukraine was quite divided: western provinces wanted to integrate with Europe, while eastern provinces and Crimea wanted close ties with Russia. Levitz’s analysis also fails to acknowledge the extent of U.S. provocations: overthrowing the government in 2014 – Chas W. Freeman, former U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia and lifetime director of the Atlantic Council, says that the U.S. “engineered” the 2014 coup – building up the Ukrainian military, arming far-right, anti-Russian militias that were attacking Russian-speakers in the east, and appointing the new Prime Minister, with the CIA playing a large role.

Levitz pointed to U.S. hypocrisy about Russia’s invasion, given that the U.S. has enforced its own sphere of influence in Latin America – in fact, all over the world – often by military means.

Levitz concluded by writing: “Putin’s invasion of Ukraine was a free choice. And whatever role U.S. policy played in determining Putin’s decision, it did not force his hand.”

Yes, the U.S. didn’t force Russia to invade Ukraine. But diplomats and RAND Corporation said that expanding NATO into Ukraine would cause a war. So U.S. policy makers had to have known the likely result of their actions, unless they were incompetent or uninformed. Furthermore, RAND recommended expanding NATO into Ukraine as an excellent way to weaken and over-extend Russia. So U.S. actions were reckless at least, and malevolent in their execution. Had Russia overthrown the government of Canada, banned the official use of English, and armed anti-U.S. militias, the U.S. would have invaded Canada, as Ted Galen said. You might reply that the U.S. wouldn’t have been justified if it had done so. But is it fair to hold Russia to standards that the U.S. hasn’t and wouldn’t itself respect? This is especially true since the U.S. is the country that provoked the conflict.

Levitz started his essay by telling a fictional story about Uncle Walter who is prone to drinking too much. Aunt Rachel brings beer to a Thanksgiving dinner, and Walter gets drunk and ruins the dinner. Who’s to blame? Walter or Aunt Rachel? Clearly, says Levitz, Walter bears the blame. Aunt Rachel was, at most, negligent.

However, the analogy breaks down for Ukraine, because the U.S. knew very well that trying to expand NATO into Ukraine would result in a war, and the way the U.S. did so involved overthrowing the government, etc., as described above. As Thomas Friedman and Harvard University’s Stephen M. Walt said, the U.S. is far from being an innocent bystander in Ukraine.

It’s as if Aunt Rachel encouraged Walter to indulge, spiked his drink, ridiculed him, and wanted him to ruin the dinner.

But does that imply that America is to blame for the war in Ukraine, as Levitz asks?

According to some peace activists, war is never justified – including fighting back when attacked – and nonviolent alternatives are always better. Perhaps that is true. But if war is sometimes justified, it’s clearly not an all-or-nothing matter, and some wars are more justified than others. Likewise, blame is not an all-or-nothing matter. Both parties can share blame in a war and, in fact, usually do.

If forced to apportion blame, one might ask: does Russia bear 95% of the blame for the war? 90%?, 75%?, 50%?, 25%? It’s not a question that has a clear answer. But I think it’s a useful one to ponder. Thinking about wars in this way liberates us from the simplistic, black-and-white notion that responsibility for a war lies entirely with one side or the other.

In short, the correct answer to Eric Levitz’s question “Is America to blame for Russia’s war in Ukraine?” is “Partially.”

And this is all the more reason to negotiate with Vladimir Putin. Another excellent reason to negotiate is: there is a real risk of nuclear war, because Russia is now winning, and NATO is escalating the conflict to try to prevent that outcome. If Russia faces imminent defeat, or significant attacks on its territory, it may respond with tactical nuclear weapons, as it has threatened. Thinking we can call Russia’s bluff is like playing Russian roulette. A negotiated end to the war in Ukraine is urgently needed.

Donald A. Smith is a writer, a peace activist working with CodePink, a Democratic Precinct Committee Officer, the editor of http://waliberals.org, and the creator of https://progressivememes.org. He lives in Bellevue, Washington and has a PhD in Computer Science.