​​New Myths About America’s Role in the Ukraine War

February 2, 2024 Topic: Security Region: Europe Tags: Russo-Ukraine WarSoviet UnionVladimir Putin

​​New Myths About America’s Role in the Ukraine War

Arguments for American responsibility for the war in Ukraine tend to give undue credit to Russian narratives. An essay in The American Conservative is a case in point. 


A new wave of revisionism is emerging about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, arguing that America, not Russia, is responsible for the conflict, that the Biden administration is personalizing the conflict by demonizing Russian President Vladimir Putin, and that the American foreign policy establishment is once more leading America into a strategic catastrophe by promoting Ukraine’s cause.

A case in point is an October essay in The American Conservative called “The American Origins of the Russo–Ukrainian War.” Written by Christopher Layne, a Professor of International Affairs and holder of the Robert M. Gates Chair in National Security at Texas A&M University, along with Benjamin Schwarz, the former executive editor of World Policy Journal, it blames America first for the Ukraine war.


Layne and Schwarz advance three basic arguments:

First, the emergence of an independent Ukraine can be attributed to the United States’ failure to support Soviet Union Secretary General Mikhail Gorbachev financially, which could have aided in preserving the Soviet Union as a single geographic entity. Second, the United States is to blame for the eagerness of Central and Eastern European nations, which have endured the harsh realities of Soviet occupation, to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) as a safeguard against repeating such experiences. Instead of considering Russia’s insecurities and dissolving NATO, the United States has allowed these nations to join. Third, the United States is responsible for the Ukrainian crisis by giving Ukraine an indication of potential future NATO membership, ultimately leading to the invasion of Ukraine.

These arguments are as unpersuasive as they are sweeping. Layne and Schwarz distort the historical record by creating mountains out of molehills and eliding the malign acts of Putin and his camarilla over the past several decades. In trying to depict America as the true villain in the conflict, they trivialize the stakes of the conflict.

For a start, the demise of the Soviet Union was inevitable because of the time bomb embedded in its Constitution, which granted each of the fifteen Soviet republics the right to secede (an utterly insignificant clause during the Stalin-Khrushchev-Brezhnev era, which unexpectedly gained significance in the final years of Gorbachev’s tenure). Had Gorbachev initiated market reforms like Yeltsin’s, the hardships would have quickly led to a chain of secessions. The remaining republics would accuse Moscow of causing their suffering. Russia would be eager to shed the economic burden, especially given the lucrative revenues from oil and natural gas exports it was supposed to share with the rest of the republics. 

Not one of the Communist federative states has withstood the test of post-communist transformation, including Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, and the USSR. The diverse mix of distinct cultures, ethnicities, and religions in these nations could only be maintained by the iron grip of an authoritarian regime.

The administration of George H.W. Bush was wise not to provide more economic assistance to support Gorbachev’s ineffective economic reforms. Billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars would have been expended wastefully as the Soviet Union’s chances of surviving these reforms were extremely slim. Therefore, no efforts led by the United States or the West to “preserve” the USSR could have realistically extended its lifespan.

Indeed, why should the United States and Western Europe have endeavored to preserve the Soviet Union, one of the most monstrous political entities of the twentieth century, comparable only to Nazi Germany? The Soviet Union not only posed a nuclear threat to the United States and its allies but also occupied countries like Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and the Baltic states and would likely have expanded if given the chance. Soviet weaponry was responsible for American deaths in conflicts such as Korea and Vietnam while also fueling anti-Western insurgencies and uprisings in the Third World that actively promoted anti-American sentiment globally. 

After the collapse of the USSR, Russia had the opportunity, like defeated Nazi Germany and Japan, to transform itself. It didn’t. Nations like Great Britain and France came to terms with losing their superpower status, colonies, and spheres of influence. One might question why Russia couldn’t similarly accept its losses. 

Moreover, it raises the question of whether the United States should be concerned with the sensitivities and vulnerabilities of a former adversary that lost its colonies and sphere of influence. After World War II, the United States did not concern itself with the sensitivities of its allies, the UK and France, as they relinquished their colonies in Africa and Asia, going as far as to humiliating its allies, forcing them to remove their troops from Egypt during the Suez Crisis. However, neither the UK nor France descended into chaos, despite the authors’ warnings that Russia faces such a risk.

The perspective of Layne and Schwarz appears notably sympathetic to Russia. They aver that the Soviet Union had legitimate security interests in Eastern Europe, but they conspicuously overlook the equally legitimate security concerns of the Eastern European nations. These countries are described in opprobrious terms as “dubious partners.” Moreover, nations like Ukraine and the Baltic states are dinged for their “questionable” records during World War II. Layne and Schwarz suggest that these countries’ national identities are partly shaped by a deep-rooted animosity towards Russia by alluding to “anti-Soviet forces in Poland, Belarus, the Baltic States, and Ukraine” and mentioning the questionable records of Ukraine and the Baltic states during World War II, which included nationalist groups connected to the far-right Ukrainian figure Stepan Bandera, who aligned himself with Nazi Germany.

There is, however, an understandable reason behind the enduring animosity that many Eastern Europeans harbor toward Russia. The immense suffering inflicted upon their nations during the Soviet occupation can only be likened to the memories of the Mongol invasion in the thirteenth century. Indeed, Poland’s historical conflict with Russians spans the period between Ivan the Terrible and Stalin’s reign, and they continued their struggle through nonviolent means until the weakening of the Soviet stranglehold on Poland during Gorbachev’s Perestroika.

The lack of robust democracies in some of these nations can be attributed in no small part to their delayed socio-political development resulting from the prolonged Soviet occupation. Furthermore, when examining the questionable records of Ukraine and the Baltic states during World War II, Layne and Schwarz overlook that neither the Baltic states nor an independent Ukrainian nation existed during World War II. These lands were all occupied—first by the Soviets, then by the Nazis, and then by the Soviets once more. One must also take into account the sheer terror unleashed by the Soviet military and secret police during their occupation of these regions. 

After Nazi Germany expelled the Soviets from these territories, many local inhabitants, driven by the fear of a return of the dreaded Soviet military and secret police, regrettably aligned themselves with the Germans in order to prevent Soviet occupation from recurring. Of course, that decision did not save them from another ghastly form of totalitarianism and terror. A similar perspective could be applied to Finland’s actions during World War II, as it faced two Soviet attacks: one in November 1939 and another on June 25, 1941, when the Soviet Air Force bombed Finnish cities and military airfields without a declaration of war. This left the Finns with no alternative but to join Nazi Germany in its conflict against the USSR. 

In light of these historical circumstances, eastern European countries were understandably eager to join NATO after the end of the Cold War. Layne and Schwarz reiterate that the Soviet Union was deceived by verbal assurances from the George H. W. Bush administration that NATO would not expand east. However, these assurances were not formally documented. These assurances were never extended to Poland, the Baltic republics, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, or Bulgaria either because, at the time they were revealed, neither Gorbachev nor G.H.W. Bush could conceive of the possibility that these countries would exit the Warsaw Pact. The assurances pertained solely to East Germany, where a significant Soviet military presence was stationed. The agreement stipulated that no NATO forces would be deployed in the former East Germany as long as Soviet troops remained on its territory. However, these assurances were null and void after their withdrawal and the subsequent collapse of the USSR.

Layne and Schwarz further assert that “there was no reason to believe that NATO would survive the Warsaw Pact’s dissolution.” However, it’s worth considering why NATO was not pressured to disband after the implosion of the Warsaw Pact. The Warsaw Pact member countries were compelled to join that alliance against their will, and when they had the opportunity to break free, they did so willingly and immediately. Great Britain, West Germany, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Norway, and other nations voluntarily joined NATO. Even when Charles de Gaulle’s France decided to exit NATO’s military structures, there was no use of force to keep it within the alliance. In fact, most member nations showed no inclination to leave the organization. On the contrary, after the demise of the USSR and the Warsaw Pact, many new nations clamored to join NATO. Recently, Finland, in response to Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, also became a member, effectively doubling the length of the Russia-NATO border.