“Why the West is to blame for Ukraine” is the title of a talk given in 2015 by John Mearsheimer. Despite what it may seem, Mearsheimer is not nostalgic for the Soviet dictatorship. Nor is he a traditional nationalist, of the type of the Bolsonaros, Le Pen, Salvini or Abascal, whose ideology is structurally similar to that of Putin, whom they not by chance admire. Quite the contrary, he is one of the world’s most renowned specialists in International Relations, the most outstanding academic of the “realist” school, along the lines of Kissinger, who also, by the way, shares his vision of the Ukraine conflict. . In the chat – which today is close to 25 million views on Youtube, something completely unusual in an academic conference – Mearsheimer stated that the incorporation of Ukraine into NATO represented a red line that would force Russia to intervene in the country. The conference is in English, and when I saw it, the verb the author used to refer to that possibility caught my attention: before allowing that to happen, he affirmed, Putin “wretch” Ukraine. I had to look up what “wretch” meant, I couldn’t remember. It means “destroy”.
Mearsheimer says verbatim that what Putin was doing in 2014 with his intervention stuffy in Donbas it was to say to the West: “You cannot have the Ukraine, and before I let you have it, I will destroy it.” “Is he crazy, is he irrational? I don’t think so, he is simply strategic ”said the academic. He has a goal and uses the means at his disposal to achieve it. As the destruction of Donbas that Putin began in 2014 – 14,000 dead, according to the UN – was not enough to prevent Ukraine from joining NATO, in 2022 it has ended up invading the country and causing a nauseating bloodletting.
This Tuesday, April 5, Admiral General López Calderón – the chief of the Defense Staff (JEMAD), the highest Spanish military position – stated in Madrid that “Putin has already lost the war, at least from the political point of view. and strategic”. But the fact is that the notion of “losing” – like that of its counterpart, “winning” – only makes sense tied to an objective that gives them meaning and configures them. What is Putin’s goal? What was he pursuing politically and strategically? It seems ruled out that he wanted to “conquer Ukraine”, as is repeated endlessly. The siege of kyiv does not appear to have been so much an attempted invasion of the capital as a brutal threat to the Zelensky government to go into exile or accede to Putin’s demands. Zelensky, however, has decided to resist and confront the Russians militarily. Once this extreme is assumed, Putin withdraws from kyiv.
That, in effect, has not turned out as he expected, and he has suffered a defeat. But the very takeover of the Ukrainian government could not, in itself, be the goal of the war, but rather a means to achieve its true goals. If Zelensky had surrendered, Putin would have achieved them without war, only through the threat of it (understand that “only” with all the consequences – violation of international law and not a few deaths – that entailed the first days of the invasion). Zelensky, however, decided to resist, and the situation is what it is. Beyond that, what can we assume to be Putin’s goals?
If the first was that Ukraine would not be part of NATO, it has already achieved it. The second appears to be annexing a corridor linking Crimea with Donbas. Unfortunately, everything points to the suspicion that the atrocities we have seen in Bucha, in Borodianka and in other cities as the Russian army withdrew from kyiv may only be a tenuous advance of what we will see in Donbas, where the strategy is no longer to threaten, but to conquer with blood and fire. Mariupol is now the next target. Brutal news and images of barbarities apparently committed by the Ukrainians themselves against the pro-Russian population had arrived from that city. In case the Russians enter – a contingency that the JEMAD himself assumed on Tuesday – the scenario could not be more terrifying.
The third objective is probably internal. In 2014, with the bloodless annexation of Crimea, Putin’s popularity rose from 63 to 70%. Now, after the invasion, he has shot up to 81% (it’s funny, by the way, that this news has taken more than a week to reach Spaincompared to what happened in other countries). If the main objective of economic sanctions is to sink the acceptance of Putin among the Russians, the failure is resounding. When corpses arrive in a country, it is very difficult for the population to take a position against the cause for which its soldiers have died and in favor of those who have killed them. Against the blood of one’s own never or very rarely have reasons served, but only the pure and naked belonging. “Between justice and my mother, I choose my mother,” Camús famously stated. He was French, his mother Algerian, but the quote is universal: in Brussels they don’t seem to understand that, when it comes to choosing between justice and children, in Russia they are no different from anyone else. If we add to this evidence the fact that the Russian population believes to be honest that his government is doing the right thing – if in the United States, with freedom of the press, there was a majority in favor of the invasion of Iraq, what can we think of the Russian population, subjected to a strict news blackout by their government? – the effectiveness of sanctions is a perfect toast to the sun.
It is on this internal level that, moreover, Putin’s appeal to the “denazification” of Ukraine must be situated, an ideological trick that legitimizes the war no less than through its link to the Second World War and the liberation of Europe of fascism, a sacred deed among the Russians. It is an element that plays a role similar to that of Saddam Hussein’s alleged massive weapons. It does not matter if it is essentially false: to be effective it is enough that there is some small indication about it, and, to exist, exist. The Russians kill citizens of Bucha believing they are Nazis, as Aznar continues to justify the atrocity in Iraq because he believed that there were weapons.
And there is, lastly, a fourth factor, one that, due to its psychological complexity, I do not know if it belongs to the category of objective – something that is at the end of the action and that pulls it from a hypothetical future – or to that of cause – something that is situated at the beginning and that pushes the action, that impels it, that provokes it from now on, and that, in contrast to the means-end rationality typical of the notion of “objective”, has a rather passionate nature and therefore elusive to reason. Mearsheimer cites many times, referring to Russia, two emotions that are in a certain sense opposite but, at the same time, make up the same drive: humiliation and pride. Russia is an old empire that is looking for its place in the world, that feels neglected and despised and that has found its redeemer in Putin. And humiliation and pride are perhaps the most dangerous and uncontrollable passions that can harbor human hearts.
Of the four goals, he is on track to achieve all four. In 2014 he did not mind causing 14,000 deaths in Donbas. He was ignored and now he has slashed bloodyly at the table and caused an even worse massacre and war. Guns and sanctions is all we hear in response. It is not only that neither one nor the other seems to work, it is that it is evident that they aggravate the drama. Only some, among so much darkness, point out fleeting possibilities of generating some light. I do not even remotely believe that the West is to blame for the Ukrainian tragedy, which is entirely attributable to Putin. But I do believe that we have not lived up to the circumstances, which could have been very different if politics had been done differently. A realistic way, not just moralizing.