The Moral Muddle of Blaming the West for Russia’s Aggression
The moral status of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is unusually clear cut. From the point of view of just war theory, Russia’s resort to military force is unjust and has triggered Ukraine’s moral right of self-defence. Traditionalists think of the war as Ukraine exercising a collective right to defend the nation; revisionists as Ukrainians defending their rights to life and self-determination. Either way, Ukraine has the textbook case of a just cause for war, which Russia lacks. Given the stark moral asymmetry between the parties, allocating blame for the war should be easy. If an innocent person walks down the street minding their own business and another person starts viciously attacking them, laying claim to their property and political allegiance, we blame the attacker. No one else. It is baffling then how many public commentators blame the invasion (at least in part) on NATO, or less precisely, “the West”. The heads of state of South Africa and China, scholars of International Relations (also here) and Sociology, editorials in the New York Times (also here), Newsweek, and the Guardian have all pointed the finger at NATO. In the United Kingdom, right-wing agitators and left-wing peace activists agree that the crisis is primarily the West’s fault. Why?
1. Three claims that NATO caused the invasion
The moral judgement that the West deserves blame rests on the factual claim that NATO’s eastward expansion precipitated Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. The cited commentators make three types of claim about how the admission of former Warsaw Pact countries and Soviet republics into NATO and Russia’s recent aggression are causally connected. First, realist scholars of IR observe that great powers like Russia have historically never tolerated opposing military alliances on their borders. They do not allow states in what they consider their sphere of influence to cooperate with a competing great power. In this view, Russian aggression is a quasi-automatic consequence of NATO’s expansion and Western cooperation with Ukraine. Second, other commentators maintain that Putin perceived the encroachment on Russia’s sphere of influence as a threat to Russia. He countered that perceived threat by invading Ukraine. Third, others concede that Putin may not have felt genuinely threatened, but that NATO’s expansion provided a convenient excuse for Putin to follow his agenda of territorial conquest. NATO’s actions therefore made an invasion of Ukraine more likely.
Each of these factual claims is contestable (see also here and here). Even just the respective timelines of NATO’s expansion between 1999 and 2004 and Russia’s various land grabs in Ukraine cast doubt over the causal connection between them. Putin’s own words reveal that he sees Ukraine as part of Russia and that he considers Russia entitled to great power status of which it was robbed. It is plausible that bringing Ukraine back into the Russian fold either through outright annexation or through the Belarus model was always Putin’s plan. Yet, the “NATO is to blame” argument lingers. It is worth asking then whether and what kind of moral significance a causal connection between NATO expansion and Russia’s aggression would have, if it existed. I submit that even if any of the three types of claim about a causal link were correct, it would not follow that NATO deserved moral blame for the invasion.
Since they pursue arguably morally valuable aims, NATO or Western cooperation with Ukraine and extending NATO membership to Russia’s neighbours are not actions that are ordinarily wrongful or impermissible.
2. Their (lack of) moral significance
Moral blame is appropriate only when an agent acts in a way that is morally wrong or impermissible and they are responsible for that action. We blame someone for morally bad consequences only if those consequences are causally connected to such actions. Since they pursue arguably morally valuable aims, NATO or Western cooperation with Ukraine and extending NATO membership to Russia’s neighbours are not actions that are ordinarily wrongful or impermissible. That is true unless they unjustly threaten Russia. If NATO unjustly threatened Russia, it would very likely be responsible for such a threat – after all, it is a powerful military alliance acting of its own accord – and, if that threat were causally connected to the invasion of Ukraine, NATO would deserve blame. Yet, none of the three claims about a connection between NATO expansion and the invasion of Ukraine tend to include an explicit attempt to show that NATO’s actions objectively, let alone unjustly, threatened Russia. To my knowledge, none of the cited commentators argues that NATO was planning to or would have likely attacked Russia before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Even now, NATO is trying to stay out of the conflict. Few commentators believe that NATO would have eventually extended membership to Ukraine, let alone station troops there. But let’s take each type of claim in turn.
2.1. NATO as an objective threat?
Realists suggest that great powers always react to interference in their spheres of influence with war. To derive from this observation the moral claim that they are justified in resorting to war is nothing more than a naturalist fallacy, i.e. deriving an “ought” from an “is”. Some historical examples that this scholarship relies on show that alliance shifts caused objective threats to a great power that turned to war. No moral insight follows for a case where no such objective threat exists. To my knowledge, even John Mearsheimer, the prominent face of offensive realism, does not argue that NATO intended to militarily threaten Russia. He might counter, of course, that in an anarchical world it is rational for a great power that faces an expanding adversarial alliance to resort to war pre-emptively regardless of the actual intention of the expanding alliance. The implicit claim is that a shift in alliances is itself an objective threat. Yet, the facts of the particular case do not bear out the general claim. Moreover, the argument that pre-emptive aggression pays off as a security maximizing strategy has been shown to be formally incorrect and empirically mistaken by scholars who can hardly be accused of soft-brained idealism.  In sum, “this is the way great powers behave” is not a moral argument. As a result, it cannot vindicate the moral claim that the West is to blame for the crisis in Ukraine.
2.2. NATO as a perceived threat?
The second type of claim does not even imply that NATO in fact posed a threat to Russia, however underdeveloped that claim may be. It instead purports that Putin perceived such a threat. There is indeed evidence in the historical record that various Russian leaders, including Putin, denounced NATO expansion as threatening. To leap from this to NATO’s deserving moral blame for the invasion, we would need to establish that this threat perception was reasonable due to the responsible actions of NATO. In other words, we would need to show that even though Putin was not justified in treating NATO expansion as a threat in the fact-relative sense, he was justified in an evidence-relative sense. In addition, we would need to show that it was possible for NATO to anticipate that their wrongful actions would reasonably be perceived as a threat. Interestingly, proponents of the “Putin felt threatened argument” tend to hold that NATO should have anticipated Putin’s treating NATO expansion as a threat to Russia. Yet, they tend not to show how NATO’s actions can reasonably be perceived to pose such a threat, in the first place. It turns out then that the second claim is quite close to the third claim, which is neither that NATO objectively threatened Russia nor that NATO’s actions made Putin feel reasonably threatened. Rather, the third type of claim is that Putin opportunistically used NATO expansion and Western cooperation with Ukraine as an excuse to do what he wanted to do anyway.
2.3. NATO as a convenient excuse?
Let’s turn to this third claim, then. Was Putin able to rally the troops or gain the support of the oligarchs by raising the spectre of a NATO threat that he did not believe in and that a reasonable observer would not have perceived? We can’t be sure. The question we need to answer here, though, is the following: What is the moral significance of giving someone an excuse for morally impermissible actions? If the excuse is not valid (because NATO did not objectively threaten Russia) and if the action that is used as an excuse is not itself morally impermissible (again, because NATO expansion did not objectively threaten Russia nor did it give rise to a reasonable threat perception), the moral significance is none. It would have rather problematic implications if initially morally permissible actions became blameworthy once they are opportunistically and implausibly used as an excuse for subsequent wrongdoing.
Let me use an analogy to clarify these points. Imagine you and your neighbour, A, have a cooperative scheme whereby you shop for each other. A third neighbour, B, one house over, has always complained about this scheme. One day B comes over and threatens to kill A if they continue to shop with you, seriously beats them up and declares their house to be his own. Are you to blame for the injury, expropriation and lethal threat that A is facing? Most of us would answer with a resounding “no”. Of course, there are limits to how committed we are to this “no”. What if shopping together is permissible, but ultimately trivial? What if you knew with certainty that your shopping scheme would result in your neighbour A facing a lethal threat? Is the knowledge of these dire consequences of your prima facie permissible actions really not enough to make them impermissible? What if you knew B would attack, but A did not understand the consequences of cooperating with you?
It would have rather problematic implications if initially morally permissible actions became blameworthy once they are opportunistically and implausibly used as an excuse for subsequent wrongdoing.
It is a genuinely difficult question how unjustified but predictable reactions to our own initially permissible actions should weigh in our balance of reasons when we decide what to do. Can the bully constrain our pursuits in this way? Thankfully, we do not have to answer the abstract question here because the analogy has limits that are instructive. NATO expansion and Western cooperation with Ukraine are not trivial. Rather they are intended to promote arguable morally valuable aims. Moreover, Putin’s reaction to these “encroachments” was not predictable with certainty. As mentioned above, it is contestable whether there is any causal connection between NATO expansion and Putin’s aggression at all. Finally, even if Putin’s wrongful reaction to a permissible cooperation between Ukraine and the West was predictable, then it was as predictable for Ukraine, our neighbour A, as it was for us. As the agent bearing the consequences, it was then up to Ukraine to determine whether to proceed with the cooperation in the first place, even at potentially significant cost.
3. Taking Ukraine’s agency seriously
Many commentators who blame NATO or the West curiously overlook that Ukraine had agency in bringing about the political configurations that are argued to have precipitated its invasion. Ukraine pursued NATO and EU membership of its own accord. Should we blame Ukraine for its own fate then? Certainly not if, as I argue, Russia’s invasion was not a predictable consequence of Ukraine’s turning to the West. Even if there was a predictable risk of adverse consequences, blaming A when B reacts to A’s permissible pursuits with grave wrongdoing that injures A follows the pernicious logic of victim blaming.
If we take Ukrainian agency seriously, we get a better sense of what it might have taken for the West to prevent the invasion. Mearsheimer’s most concrete examples of how the West threatened Russia interestingly turn on its welcoming and promoting democracy in Eastern Europe. The threat to Russia that lingers in his op-eds is not a NATO invasion of Russia, but Ukraine becoming a “Western stronghold”. The “threat” is the possibility that Ukraine could become a role model for Russians that seek change in their own country. Taking NATO membership categorically off the table, not expanding eastward at all, would hardly have been sufficient to neutralize that “threat” to Russia. It would have taken policies that are likely themselves morally wrong, such as undermining Ukraine’s democratic turn or its orientation towards the West. Limitations to Ukraine’s political self-determination and democratization may be the lesser moral evil compared to a threat to its survival as a state. Surely, though, NATO or the West should not make that decision for Ukraine.
Many commentators who blame NATO or the West curiously overlook that Ukraine had agency in bringing about the political configurations that are argued to have precipitated its invasion.
4. What is at stake in the blame game?
Why take the trouble to defend NATO? It is, many readers will have thought by now, not a cooperative shopping scheme, but a military alliance, albeit a defensive one. The more amorphous category of “the West”, if understood as a political agent, certainly deserves blame for many political outcomes in 21st century international relations. Moreover, in principle, moral blame is not a finite resource. Partially blaming ourselves does not necessarily lessen the blame we place on Russia. Two people can each be 100% morally responsible and fully blameworthy for the murder of a third – for instance, if they conspire together. Two political agents can be to blame for a war without the blame assigned to each being reduced. Other than its being an end in itself that we make correct moral judgements, what is the moral problem with wrongly blaming either NATO or the West for the invasion of Ukraine?
The problem is that two of the three types of factual claims cited above do not only imply that NATO or the West deserve some blame. If we took these claims to be valid moral claims at all, then they must also imply a partial exculpation of Putin. If NATO posed an unjust threat to Russia or NATO’s actions could reasonably be interpreted that way, then the invasion would be less morally wrongful. It would still be impermissible because invading Ukraine, not to mention committing war crimes, would be an unnecessary and disproportionate response to NATO’s (hypothetical) threat. Yet, such a reading of events would give Russia access to what it does not have: a just cause. It would temper the stark moral asymmetry that characterizes this conflict. It would detract from the moral gravity of the injustice that Ukrainians face. For that we would indeed deserve blame.
 Fearon, James. 1995. ‘Rationalist Explanations for War’. International Organization49 (3): 379-414.  Richard Ned Lebow shows that between 1945 and 2010 the initiators of war won only 26% of the time. Lebow, Richard Ned. 2012. Why Nations Fight: Past Future Motives for War. Cambridge University Press.  Mearsheimer quoted in Isaac, Chotiner. 2022. ‘Why John Mearsheimer Blames the U.S. for the Crisis in Ukraine’. The New Yorker of 1 March 2022. https://www.newyorker.com/news/q-and-a/why-john-mearsheimer-blames-the-us-for-the-crisis-in-ukraine.  Mearsheimer, John. 2014. ‘Why the Ukraine Crisis in the West’s Fault’. Foreign Affairs (September/October). https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/russia-fsu/2014-08-18/why-ukraine-crisis-west-s-fault.
Janina Dill is the John G. Winant Associate Professor of U.S. Foreign Policy at the University of Oxford, a Professorial Fellow of Nuffield College, and co-Director of the Oxford Institute for Ethics, Law and Armed Conflict (ELAC).
Disclaimer: Any views or opinions expressed on The Public Ethics Blog are solely those of the post author(s) and not The Stockholm Centre for the Ethics of War and Peace, Stockholm University, the Wallenberg Foundation, or the staff of those organisations.