In the midst of discussion of the influential new report circulating arguing for the provision of U.S. lethal aid to Ukraine in its conflict against Russia and Russian-backed separatists in the east, John Mearsheimer on Sunday argued that U.S. aid was insufficient to deter or defeat Russian aims, a dangerous provocation on the part of the U.S., and antithetical to what he saw as the true solution to the conflict:
To save Ukraine and eventually restore a working relationship with Moscow, the West should seek to make Ukraine a neutral buffer state between Russia and NATO. It should look like Austria during the Cold War. Toward that end, the West should explicitly take European Union and NATO expansion off the table, and emphasize that its goal is a nonaligned Ukraine that does not threaten Russia. The United States and its allies should also work with Mr. Putin to rescue Ukraine’s economy, a goal that is clearly in everyone’s interest.
Leaving aside (for now) some of the other questions mentioned above, it was quite curious to see the scholar behind offensive realism argue that turning Ukraine into a buffer state will “save” Ukraine or defuse great power tensions. It both seems to dangerously equate correlation with causation and seems to misconstrue the role buffer states end up playing in Mearsheimer’s own theories of international relations.
Firstly, it is deeply misleading to make a case for buffer states as a mechanism for survival or great power conflict resolution on the basis of the Cold War buffer states. The continued existence of buffer states is, generally, an artifact of stability rather than a cause of stability. Assuming that buffer states “work” based on surviving buffer states is selecting on the dependent variable. There are plenty of buffer states that do not exist anymore, or states that have only relatively recently reappeared on the geopolitical map after falling into the unlucky buffer category. In the former category we can count extinct European states, whose continued existence was threatened not simply (or firstly) by nationalist centralization, but by continuous interference and conquest by expansionist great powers with little desire for potential foes on their frontier. Many attempted buffers are but flashes in the pan – virtually nobody remembers, say, the Far Eastern Republic. In the latter category there are states such as Poland and Afghanistan, frequently subject to invasion, conquest, regime change and occupation in the 18th-20th centuries because of various instances of rival great power neighbors. Although Tanisha Fazal examines the gruesome fate of buffer states in terms of “state death,” i.e., conquest or division, beyond the question of Ukrainian national survival, many other states occupying a similar position eventually are coerced directly or indirectly into alignment with a neighboring power or bloc anyway.
Secondly, there are many reasons to think “buffer states” are a product of great power conflict deescalation rather than their cause. As Fazal points out, the security dilemma encourages a variety of behavior, and dominating or absorbing neighboring states that might present possible allies for a competitor is among them. Guarantees of neutrality only go so far. Take the British approach to Scandinavian neutrals or Iran during WWII, for example. As I’ve argued before in a different context, concerns about German violations of neutrality leading to these states ending up under Axis domination elicited, in some cases, preemptive and preventive aggression to ensure the end of their neutrality came on London’s terms. Saying that the European neutrals during the Cold War helped prevent the conflict is deeply misleading. Although there was doubtless tension and concern about the alignments of say, Austria or Finland, these were not the key terrain in the conflict between the West and the USSR. More notably, a vast area of Eastern Europe lost its political independence and Germany divided along lines of military occupation precisely because great power tensions tainted the prospect of German neutrality with a ploy to subvert Germany’s government and pull it into the USSR’s orbit.
Oddly enough, Mearsheimer’s own approach to IR elaborates the numerous incentives that encourage great powers to invade weak minor states that buffer them against major rivals. Great powers may need to invade minor buffer states to position themselves vis-a-vis aggressors and preserve the balance of power. Great powers can invade neutral states on their periphery to create a more reliable buffer against aggressors. As far as neutral states such as Finland and Yugoslavia demonstrate, by Mearsheimer’s own argument their neutrality was a secondary factor to each state’s own demonstration of their difficulty to conquer and the exhausted military capabilities of the Soviet Union. If, as Mearsheimer argues, Ukraine and its allies cannot exhaust the military capacity of Russia and it already sees a vital interest in exercising predominant influence in Ukraine, why would it settle for neutrality?
Of course you do not need to be an offensive realist to see how flimsy of a solution neutrality and buffer status is for Ukraine. Even if Ukraine’s government was nominally unaligned by great power agreement, how can recent events instill any confidence in great powers that Ukraine’s people would treat foreign dictates as binding? Political mobilization can topple government in Kiev, and the Russian-backed separatists have demonstrated how spoilers can wield a powerful veto. As Russia’s government surely remembers from the Soviet era, local politics can quickly unravel comfortable geopolitical alignments, a problem Moscow frequently decides merits the escalation of force. The undelivered decision of battle within Ukraine still leaves more than enough room for uncertainty about Ukraine’s future alignment, and that uncertainty makes a Ukrainian buffer state a frozen conflict rather than a pillar of stability. The very same lopsided interests and military odds in Russia’s favor that cast doubt upon the efficacy of military aid suggest even more strongly that Russia imposing its will by force in Ukraine would not simply be plausible, but desirable to attempt. Take into account Mearsheimer’s view of the international system and it’s practically an inevitability. Indeed, the only way Mearsheimer thought a Ukrainian buffer could actually preserve its independence and dampen security competition between Russia and Western rivals was to preserve its nuclear arsenal, an ingredient to European stability Mearsheimer curiously leaves out of his new proposal.