Feb 17 • 1HR 24M

Anne Applebaum On The Ukraine Crisis

The historian, journalist, and long-time resident of Poland debates me over the causes of Russia's looming invasion.

Andrew Sullivan
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Unafraid conversations about anything

(Apologies if you receive this email twice — last night we accidentally published this pod page for paid subscribers only.)

We’ve released this page early this week … because we don’t know what’s going to happen next and don’t want to be caught short by events. And who better to comment on the Ukraine standoff as the days unfold than Anne Applebaum? She’s a staff writer at The Atlantic and the author of many formidable books, including Red Famine, Gulag: A History (winner of the Pulitzer Prize), and her latest, Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism.

You can listen to the episode right away in the audio player embedded above, or right below it you can click “Listen in podcast app,” which will connect you to the Dishcast feed. For two clips of my conversation with Anne — on whether the West provoked Russia into its possible invasion of Ukraine, and on what the US should do now — head over to our YouTube page.

Also up-coming on Ukraine: I’ve recorded a great and ranging conversation with Edward Luttwak — the legendary grand strategist — about the broader tensions with Russia, China, and Brexit, and we’ll be airing that episode soon.

But first, below is an assortment of reader dissents and assents over our recent episode with foreign-policy realist John Mearsheimer, whose position on this question is not Anne’s. Here’s a quick reminder of John’s approach to Ukraine:

Our first reader writes:

I often listen to lectures while exercising. Today was John Mearsheimer on the roots of liberal hegemony — a subject that interests (and troubles) me greatly. When I took a break to read email, I was amazed to see him on the newest Dishcast. He reminds me a great deal of an amazing international relations teacher from community college — and I can’t imagine a more sane commentator for the currently troubled international scene. So thanks for hosting.

Another also enjoyed it: “One of my favorite episodes so far — extraordinarily clarifying and stimulating!” But this reader is less of a fan:

Let’s get one thing out of the way: Mearsheimer is a renowned scholar and I am not. I’m just a regular listener who is passionate about history and happens to have some direct knowledge of Ukraine, its history, and its people. I very much respect Professor Mearsheimer.

However, I think he conveniently omitted some crucial elements. For example, I think it would have been worth pointing out that it was the former Warsaw Pact countries and the Baltics who asked for EU and NATO integration. They did so because they were concerned by an increasingly authoritarian and aggressive Russia, and it took a lot of work and effort on their side to convince NATO and especially the EU to even have that conversation.

I also think it was slightly unfair to recall that in 2008 at the Bucharest Summit, NATO did indeed reiterate openness to Ukraine and Georgia’s membership (which is NATO’s standard open-door policy) without mentioning that the statement was made after both countries had just been denied a NATO action plan. And finally, I think Mearsheimer is being naive if he really believes that Putin would be content with a neutral Ukraine.

These are all points I am sure you are familiar with. My real issue with the Dishcast conversation in itself was that, once again, the people with the most skin in the game — the Ukrainians — were almost erased from the picture. Too often we keep framing this as an imperialist US/Russia power game in which the people of central and eastern Europe are denied any agenda or agency, and to some extent even their own national identity. The very few words Mearsheimer actually spent on Ukraine and Ukrainians suggested a lack of knowledge of the country's history. 

In the same way you felt it was appropriate to invite Yossi Klein Halevi to discuss Zionism, it would be very interesting to hear your conversation with someone who knows and understands Ukraine and has produced some really influential work on the subject — such as Serhii Plokhy, Timothy Snyder, and Anne Applebaum. I think it could be very interesting for the audience to hear that side of the story as well.

You ask, we deliver. Another reader asks a simple question:

My main concern is, why do we still have NATO? After the Soviet Union fell, didn’t that end the need for NATO? If the Europeans want to still band together, wouldn’t a European Treaty Organization — one set up to make sure European nations don’t start fighting each other — have been the correct course?

I can’t believe I agree with anything that Putin says, but looking at it from the Russian viewpoint, NATO is an enemy, lined up against Russia. I can see their point.

Any conflict in Ukraine will not end well for the world. The Ukrainians will suffer greatly and Russia, which always seems to be teetering, will suffer even more as body bags of soldiers start arriving and piling up in Moscow. I have a hard time believing that the everyday Russian citizen really believes there is a threat (but I don’t know any of them, so I speak from ignorance).

I do think that NATO mission creep has been a problem since the end of the Cold War. If it’s a defense pact, against whom, exactly? And would the US really risk nuclear war over the Baltics? It’s a question I discuss with Anne.

Another reader stays optimistic about the state of the world:

I think the pessimistic view of the post-Cold War era really just depends on where you look. OK, great, we have a mess to deal with regarding China. But there is less poverty in China and worldwide than ever before. Less starvation and disease. There are fewer coups in Latin America in the neoliberal era than before it — and more democracy, even if it hasn’t always been smooth.

But most importantly, we don’t live within 30 minutes of the end of civilization all the time. Even if there was a nuclear war now, the stockpiles are so reduced that it would be of a different kind than degree of destruction.

Which leads to my main point: the neoliberal order constructed at Bretton-Woods and elsewhere after WWII has been the golden age of humanity. We have had no cataclysmic wars since. We have worldwide trade and communications. Fewer people are living in totalitarian regimes. It’s mostly good stuff if you look at the big picture.

So maybe there’s a reason we want more of this and want to spread it, rather than us just being naive. Maybe our national interest is in a relatively peaceful, relatively stable world-trade system where we contribute the plurality of security but reap the plurality of the benefits. Does “liberal internationalism” live up to its own hype? No, but it’s results aren’t bad. Better, I would say, that the results of pure realpolitik. 

Some kind of perspective like this matters. An expert weighs in:

I work in the national security field, so I always appreciate when you bring on guests to discuss international relations. The discussion with Mearsheimer was no exception, particularly since “realists” in the field can often provide a good baseline check on how structural power is affecting foreign affairs. However, there were a few points where I would like to push back on his criticism of American foreign policy post-Cold War.

First, Mearsheimer was too dismissive of the benefits that institutional structures like NATO bring to Europe. He was highly critical of NATO expansion, saying it antagonized Russia and fostered a security dilemma. However, he does not fully include on the ledger the benefits institutions like the EU and NATO bring in fostering democracy and internal stability within Europe.

It should be noted that Mearsheimer has always been skeptical of these institutions, wrongly predicting back in the 1990s that the end of the Cold War would witness German aggression. He underestimated the moderating influence that binding Germany and other countries to liberal institutions would have and how it would encourage cooperation. The benefits from these liberal institutions — free trade, democratic accountability, respect for territorial sovereignty — act as a pull to Eastern Europeans whose historical experience has been the Warsaw Pact, the only security pact which invaded their members rather than fighting an external enemy.

The US should lean into these liberal values of freedom and commerce to enhance their attraction and strengthen their alliances and partnerships, as opposed to adopting a strict realpolitik stance that would grant Russia a “sphere of influence” to undermine the rights of its neighbors.

Second, I think Mearsheimer is placing too much blame on Western policy for the Ukraine crisis by discounting the role of national identity. I appreciated that he acknowledged how nationalism factors into Russia’s expansionary policies. However, he does not seem to extend that line of reasoning to see how Russian nationalism has played a role in stoking tensions by justifying expanding into the Donbas region into eastern Ukraine to “protect” Russian speakers from supposed persecution and to check Russian imperial decline.

Additionally, this recognition of national motivation does not seem to register on how the desire to preserve national identity are motives for why Ukraine does not want to be under Russian control. Ukraine itself opposed the Russian-backed Viktor Yanukovych because he rejected a EU free-trade agreement and fostered corruption with Russia, something that was not in line with the majority of the Ukrainian population’s more western-inclined sentiments. Until Ukraine’s own agency is acknowledged, observers will miss an important factor on why Ukraine has drifted from Russia and how to manage regional tensions.

Another reader looks to the diversity of Ukraine:

I was surprised to hear that neither you nor Mearsheimer discussed western Ukraine, home to nearly 20 percent of the country’s population. It was never part of Russia, like the rest of the country. Until Poland was partitioned in the 18th century, it was part of that kingdom. And then until 1918, it was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Four languages were widely spoken: German, Ukrainian, Polish, and Yiddish. After WWI, it was returned to Poland and through population swaps the German/Austrian presence pretty much vanished.

The Soviet Union took control of western Ukraine in 1939 when it partitioned Poland with Nazi Germany. Two years later, when Germany invaded the USSR, the Germans took control. After the war, it went back to the USSR, and much of the Polish population was transferred out and, for the first time, Russians became residents in significant numbers. However, the percentage of Russian speakers peaked in the 1960s, and in another decade or two, the overwhelming majority of residents were native Ukrainian speakers, many or most of whom speak no Russian.

So, understandably, it has been western Ukraine that is most opposed to Russian interference in the country.

Yet another critic of the convo with Mearsheimer:

I’ve loved listening to several episodes of your podcast, but I was disappointed by your ill-informed conversation about NATO and Russia. Far from being eternal “mortal foes,” it’s worth remembering that Putin offered support to NATO after the 9/11 attacks in 2001 and attended a NATO summit in 2008. When NATO expanded in 2004 and eight Eastern European countries joined the EU, not only did Putin not amass a hundred thousand troops on his border, he actually expressed approval of the idea that Ukraine might join the Union in the future. In 2010, Putin’s ambassador to NATO published an op-ed in the New York Times encouraging NATO to keep up the fight in Afghanistan, where US troops were technically on what Putin now calls his “porch.”

These actions are hard to reconcile with your guest’s declaration that “basic realist logic” explains everything we need to know about Putin’s behavior. The fact that France and Germany, or California and Texas, are not launching nuclear missiles at each other is not a “liberal dream” or a “great delusion,” and realists need to account for these exceptions. Thousands of Ukrainians have died — as, it seems, will thousands more — for the modest dream of becoming a Latvia or a Kansas. Anybody who believes in the rule of law over imperial “realist logic” should be rallying behind Ukraine, not deriding their ambitions.

Next, a reader broadens the debate to include China, but first a quick reminder of John discussing how the US is largely responsible for China’s rise:

Here’s the reader:

Mearsheimer stated he wanted some form of a US-Russia détente so the US could focus more on China. I understand the need to prioritize threats, and I would agree that greater emphasis needs to be placed on confronting China and to let Europe take on a larger role in their own security. However, he never really grappled with what might the West have to concede to get Russia’s consent and if this arrangement is even feasible. Given Putin’s pugnaciousness, it is likely that NATO would have to tolerate Russia’s breach of sovereignty norms in Eastern Europe, including Ukraine and Georgia, and crushing political dissent, including the poisoning of dissidents abroad. It is important that Russia not be seen as getting a free pass on breaking these norms, since other authoritarians might believe they have the right to impose compromised sovereignty on their weaker neighbors as well. 

Regarding whether this arrangement is feasible, I would suggest the track record of Bush II, and Obama’s reset policy, is evidence that Russia is not a good faith actor. They will likely pocket the gains while still pursuing their globally disruptive policies. Russia would also need a strong push factor to align them towards the US and away from China, much like the Soviet-China border war pushed Mao towards Nixon. At the moment, Sino-Russian relations, although not warm, are based on a shared antagonism against the liberal international order that will continue to foster a measure of cooperation against the West.

Another reader folds in the domestic politics of the US:

“Do you think the American people are going to vote on whether we are going to defend Taiwan or not? (chuckle) That’s not how it works in the United States.” Thus spoke (and chuckled) foreign policy “realist” John Mearsheimer. Of course, that is the view of the bipartisan foreign policy establishment (the Blob) that Mearsheimer criticizes for its manifest failures over the past 30 years, but apparently it is also his view. That’s too bad. Because, as Mearsheimer himself stated, all those foreign policy failures contributed to the nomination and election of Donald Trump.

So the American people DID “vote on whether we are going to” continue our failed hegemonic foreign policy in 2016 — they voted no, and Trump changed the policy. In 2020, Trump nearly won again, and his narrow loss cannot be attributed to his abandonment of hegemony. If anything, that helped him.

If Biden takes us to war over the “defense” of Taiwan, can anyone doubt that he and the Democratic Party will be overwhelmingly repudiated by “the American people going to vote” in 2022 and 2024? Perhaps Mr. Mearsheimer is not as realistic as he imagines. 

Perhaps we could hear from you on this?

I think history shows the danger of extending commitments abroad in a way that will not ultimately be supported by the bulk of the population. And by that, I mean in the medium- and long-term.

Another reader says that the “excellent interview with Mearsheimer provoked an interesting conversation with my spouse about US-China competition in our field”:

For context, we’re both academics working in the humanities. I grew up in the US; my spouse is from the Greater Bay area of Guangzhou/Hong Kong. We pay close attention to the academic job market in Hong Kong. As that city has become thoroughly dominated by the CCP over the last few years, positions there have increasingly selected for Marxist / anti-liberal candidates in our field. You won’t be surprised to learn that US universities are producing plenty of appealing, successful candidates for these jobs.

American academia is correct to call attention to the injustices in our nation. Indeed, as my spouse reminded me, that is what separates our system from China’s. And yet it strikes me as unmistakably troubling that so many of the graduates of our top humanities programs are ripe candidates for employment in Hong Kong, a city whose universities have begun intentionally selecting for pro-Marxist, anti-liberal, and — whether functionally or explicitly — anti-American points of view.

As a scholar who cares about free speech, open intellectual inquiry, and patriotism, a salient question for me is: how can our humanities programs better serve the individual states and nation that support them? What would a trenchant, intellectually serious embrace of patriotism look like in disciplines like English, History, Ethnic Studies, Gender Studies, and Disability Studies?

I’d love to see President Biden convene a national conference addressing this question. And yes, I realize that so many letters to the Dish are all about what Biden should or could do, but “convening” is something the US presidency is well equipped to accomplish. If the call came from any other quarter, most scholars would no doubt refuse to attend. But if it were a presidential call, addressing an issue of vital national importance, perhaps eminent academics will accept. I’d love to see state-funded scholars like Colleen Lye, Jasbir Puar, Katherine Bond Stockton, and Sami Schalk thoughtfully and publicly engage with these questions.

One more reader:

Your discussion with Mearsheimer was the first episode of the Dishcast I’ve listened to end to end. It was frustrating, because there were so many interesting questions left unasked. The most glaring example is when he indicates, in effect, that regardless of the likelihood of failure of Chinese engagement policies, engagement should never have been pursued, because being more populous, even a liberal democratic China would be a rival and threat to the US. As a realist, is he espousing not only that great states do pursue power maximization but they should do so to the exclusion of everything else? That values should play absolutely no part in evaluating strategies or outcomes? 

I guess I’ll have to buy Mearsheimer’s book.