‘Realists’ Warn Against Ukraine Escalation

Exclusive: The neocons’ war-and-more-war bandwagon is loaded up again and rolling downhill as “everyone who matters” in Washington is talking up sending sophisticated weapons to Kiev to escalate Ukraine’s civil war, but some “realists,” an endangered species in U.S. foreign policy, dissent, notes Robert Parry.

By Robert Parry

In recent years, Official Washington  the politicians, the think tanks and the major news media has been dominated by neoconservatives and their sidekicks, the “liberal interventionists,” with the old-school “realists” who favor a more measured use of American power largely marginalized. But finally, on the dangerous issue of Ukraine, some are speaking up.

Two of the few remaining “realists” with some access to elite opinion circles, Stephen M. Walt and John J. Mearsheimer, have written articles opposing the new hot idea in Washington to arm the Kiev regime so it can more efficiently kill ethnic Russians battling to expand their territory in eastern Ukraine.

Russian President Vladimir Putin during a state visit to Austria on June 24, 2014. (Official Russian government photo)

Russian President Vladimir Putin during a state visit to Austria on June 24, 2014. (Official Russian government photo)

As classic “realists,” these two academics do not argue so much the moral issue of whether the eastern Ukrainians should be slaughtered in the Kiev regime’s determination to crush all resistance to its authority or whether the U.S. support for last year’s overthrow of elected President Viktor Yanukovych was justified. Instead, they focus on whether arming the Kiev regime makes sense for U.S. interests.

But what is most remarkable about the two articles one in Foreign Policy and the other in the New York Times opinion section is that they deviate from the relentless pro-escalation “group think” that has dominated the U.S. policy debate, across the board, on Ukraine. It’s almost shocking to encounter two foreign policy experts who aren’t on the latest rush-to-war bandwagon.

Granted, their arguments are relatively narrow, focusing on the likely consequences of shipping weapons to the unstable Kiev regime, but still such skepticism about the conventional wisdom is almost heretical these days.

In Foreign Policy, Walt notes that despite the emerging consensus to ship arms to Ukraine, “few experts think this bankrupt and divided country is a vital strategic interest and no one is talking about sending U.S. troops to fight on Kiev’s behalf. So the question is: does sending Ukraine a bunch of advanced weaponry make sense? The answer is no.”

Walt contends that many of the prominent Washington figures advocating weapons shipments have been wrong before about the results of expanding NATO eastwards in the 1990s, predicting that the move would not threaten Russia and contribute to enduring peace in Europe.

“That prediction is now in tatters, alas, but these experts are now doubling down to defend a policy that was questionable from the beginning and clearly taken much too far,” Walt wrote. “As the critics warned it would, open-ended NATO expansion has done more to poison relations with Russia than any other single Western policy.”

Misreading Moscow

Walt also notes that the arm-Kiev advocates were misinterpreting Russia’s posture regarding Ukraine and thus were applying a “deterrence model” to a “spiral model” situation, i.e., that Russia was not the expansive and aggressive power that Germany was in the 1930s but rather a cornered and weakened ex-superpower fearful of what it views as encroachment against its dwindling sphere of influence.

In the case of an emerging power like Nazi Germany, deterrence would be the strategy to block its expansion, but a declining power like Russia believes that it is the one on the defensive and thus its reaction to an aggressive military response would be to increase its paranoia and thus create a spiral toward a worsening conflict and greater hostility, not toward a peaceful solution.

“When insecurity is the taproot of a state’s revisionist actions, making threats just makes the situation worse,” Walt wrote.  “When the ‘spiral model’ applies, the proper response is a diplomatic process of accommodation and appeasement (yes, appeasement) to allay the insecure state’s concerns.

“Such efforts do not require giving an opponent everything it might want or removing every one of its worries, but it does require a serious effort to address the insecurities that are motivating the other side’s objectionable behavior.”

But the problem with Walt’s prescription is that it goes against the “group think” of Official Washington, which “knows” that Russian President Vladimir Putin is the new Hitler instigating the Ukraine crisis as part of some master plan to conquer much of eastern Europe and build a new Russian empire.

Though that scenario lacks any evidentiary support and goes against the facts of the Ukraine crisis which was actually instigated by the European Union and neocons in the Obama administration it is a storyline that nearly every important person in Washington believes. Which is what makes Walt’s accurate assessment so startling.

Walt describes the dominant view as: “Vladimir Putin is a relentless aggressor who is trying to recreate something akin to the old Soviet empire, and thus not confronting him over Ukraine will lead him to take aggressive actions elsewhere. The only thing to do, therefore, is increase the costs until Russia backs down and leaves Ukraine free to pursue its own foreign policy.

“In addition to bolstering deterrence, in short, giving arms to Kiev is intended to coerce Moscow into doing what we want. Yet the evidence in this case suggests the spiral model is far more applicable. Russia is not an ambitious rising power like Nazi Germany or contemporary China; it is an aging, depopulating, and declining great power trying to cling to whatever international influence it still possesses and preserve a modest sphere of influence near its borders, so that stronger states, and especially the United States, cannot take advantage of its growing vulnerabilities.

“Putin & Co. are also genuinely worried about America’s efforts to promote ‘regime change’ around the world, including Ukraine, a policy that could eventually threaten their own positions. It is lingering fear, rather than relentless ambition, that underpins Russia’s response in Ukraine.

“Moreover, the Ukraine crisis did not begin with a bold Russian move or even a series of illegitimate Russian demands; it began when the United States and European Union tried to move Ukraine out of Russia’s orbit and into the West’s sphere of influence. That objective may be desirable in the abstract, but Moscow made it abundantly clear it would fight this process tooth and nail.

“U.S. leaders blithely ignored these warnings, which clearly stemmed from Russian insecurity rather than territorial greed, and not surprisingly they have been blindsided by Moscow’s reaction. The failure of U.S. diplomats to anticipate Putin’s heavy-handed response was an act of remarkable diplomatic incompetence, and one can only wonder why the individuals who helped produce this train wreck still have their jobs.”

Safety in Numbers

But the reason that people like Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and U.S. Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt, who helped plot the overthrow of the Yanukovych government a year ago, is that they represent the neocon/liberal-interventionist dominance of Official Washington. That’s also why key media advocates for the Iraq War, like the Washington Post’s Fred Hiatt and the New York Times’ Thomas L. Friedman, still have their jobs; they ran with the powerful herd and are proof that there really is safety in numbers.

Citing the “spiral model,” Walt warns that the current popular idea of arming the Kiev forces “will only make things worse. It certainly will not enable Ukraine to defeat the far stronger Russian army; it will simply intensify the conflict and add to the suffering of the Ukrainian people.

“Nor is arming Ukraine likely to convince Putin to cave in and give Washington what it wants. Ukraine is historically linked to Russia, they are right next door to each other, Russian intelligence has long-standing links inside Ukraine’s own security institutions, and Russia is far stronger militarily. Even massive arms shipments from the United States won’t tip the balance in Kiev’s favor, and Moscow can always escalate if the fighting turns against the rebels, as it did last summer.”

Walt also saw danger signs around Washington’s take-it-or-leave-it style of negotiating, rather than trying to reach a solution that would work for both sides. He wrote:

“Instead of engaging in genuine bargaining, American officials tend to tell others what to do and then ramp up the pressure if they do not comply. Today, those who want to arm Ukraine are demanding that Russia cease all of its activities in Ukraine, withdraw from Crimea, and let Ukraine join the EU and/or NATO if it wants and if it meets the membership requirements. In other words, they expect Moscow to abandon its own interests in Ukraine, full stop.”

Though the facts and logic rest with Walt’s argument, he is confronting one of the most single-minded “group thinks” in modern U.S. history, even more unquestioning than the certainty of 2002-2003 that Iraq possessed WMDs and was about to share them with al-Qaeda.

A Second Voice

Similarly, Mearsheimer warns that the idea of shipping advanced weaponry to Ukraine “would be a huge mistake for the United States, NATO and Ukraine itself. Sending weapons to Ukraine will not rescue its army and will instead lead to an escalation in the fighting. Such a step is especially dangerous because Russia has thousands of nuclear weapons and is seeking to defend a vital strategic interest.

“Because the balance of power decisively favors Moscow, Washington would have to send large amounts of equipment for Ukraine’s army to have a fighting chance. But the conflict will not end there. Russia would counter-escalate, taking away any temporary benefit Kiev might get from American arms.

“Proponents of arming Ukraine have a second line of argument. The key to success, they maintain, is not to defeat Russia militarily, but to raise the costs of fighting to the point where Mr. Putin will cave. The pain will supposedly compel Moscow to withdraw its troops from Ukraine and allow it to join the European Union and NATO and become an ally of the West.

“This coercive strategy is also unlikely to work, no matter how much punishment the West inflicts. What advocates of arming Ukraine fail to understand is that Russian leaders believe their country’s core strategic interests are at stake in Ukraine; they are unlikely to give ground, even if it means absorbing huge costs.

“Great powers react harshly when distant rivals project military power into their neighborhood, much less attempt to make a country on their border an ally. This is why the United States has the Monroe Doctrine, and today no American leader would ever tolerate Canada or Mexico joining a military alliance headed by another great power.

“Russia is no exception in this regard. Thus Mr. Putin has not budged in the face of sanctions and is unlikely to make meaningful concessions if the costs of the fighting in Ukraine increase. The possibility that Mr. Putin might end up making nuclear threats may seem remote, but if the goal of arming Ukraine is to drive up the costs of Russian interference and eventually put Moscow in an acute situation, it cannot be ruled out. If Western pressure succeeded and Mr. Putin felt desperate, he would have a powerful incentive to try to rescue the situation by rattling the nuclear saber.”

In other words, the dominant neocon-to-liberal-hawk axis of Washington is pushing the United States into a dangerous confrontation that could easily be avoided if traditional diplomacy were allowed to work and the reasonable interests of the various parties were taken into account.

While the outer-limit endgame of the Ukraine crisis could be the ultimate endgame of nuclear war, the core issue in dispute is remarkably pedestrian the pace of Ukraine increasing its economic ties to the EU while maintaining many of its traditional business ties to Russia.

This disagreement should have been resolved fairly easily within the political structure of Ukraine’s constitutional process. In November 2013, President Yanukovych after learning that the cost of abruptly cutting ties to Russia would be a staggering $160 billion asked for more time to work on the problem.

But, amid mass protests by western Ukrainians against Yanukovych’s decision, Nuland and other U.S. neocons saw an opportunity for another “regime change” and some neocons, like National Endowment for Democracy President Carl Gershman, hoped that Ukraine could be the route toward ousting Russia’s Putin, who had offended the neocons by opposing their “regime change” strategies for Syria and Iran. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Neocons’ Ukraine-Syria-Iran Gambit.”]

After the coup ousting Yanukovych last Feb. 22, ethnic Russians in southern and eastern Ukraine resisted the new right-wing regime in Kiev, which was backed by neo-Nazi militias. Crimea’s leaders and voters opted for secession from the Ukrainian madhouse and Putin agreed to take the strategic peninsula back into Russia.

Ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine also rose up and were targeted by the Kiev regime for an “anti-terrorist operation,” which involved shelling their cities and unleashing brutal neo-Nazi brigades to go door-to-door killing suspected separatists. Conservative estimates of the death toll primarily among ethnic Russians now exceed 5,000 and some estimates are many times that number.

But Official Washington views the conflict almost entirely through the neocon prism of “Russian aggression” and “everyone who matters” is now intent on escalating the bloodshed by upgrading the lethality of Kiev’s arsenal. That’s why it’s startling to hear a couple of rare and “realist” voices of dissent.

Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his latest book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and barnesandnoble.com). You also can order Robert Parry’s trilogy on the Bush Family and its connections to various right-wing operatives for only $34. The trilogy includes America’s Stolen Narrative. For details on this offer, click here.

17 comments for “‘Realists’ Warn Against Ukraine Escalation

  1. Marshalldoc
    February 15, 2015 at 21:36

    Robert, First my sincere thanks for the outstanding journalism you, and ConsortiumNews represents. You, in particular, but your whole ‘stable’ as well, offer clear-eyed, believable coverage of whatever subject you engage. I’m particularly thankful for your rabid attention to the fascists in Ukraine, and our ‘paper of record’s’ profound myopia on that issue… among so many others.

    Having said all that, I wish to propose that you consider another explanation for our government’s approach to Ukraine & Russia. Your supposition, as I understand it, is that the USG is poorly advised by NeoCons & ‘Interventionist ‘liberals’ and is therefore operating in ignorance of how things actually are; as represented by the ‘Realists’. Considering the intellectual power available to the USG and brought to bear on this issue, that doesn’t seem reasonable. I propose, instead, that the U.S. is pursuing a concerted and planned effort to completely destabilize Russia by creating an economic collapse (as was done in ’91) in order to gain complete hegemony over Europe and most of Russia and that the Ukraine crisis is only one ‘prong’ of a mufti-pronged attack. The other main ‘prong’ of this attack is the U.S.-E.U.-Saudi orchestrated drop in oil prices in addition to the sanctions being brought to bear on Russia. This is the only rational explanation for intelligent people to be pursuing an evidently idiotic policy… it’s not their real policy, it’s window-dressing for mass consumption. In addition to the ‘benefit’ of removing Russia as an economic competitor, guaranteeing the dollar’s place as the world’s reserve currency, and putting the U.S. & western interests firmly in charge of the world’s energy supplies, it also has the added ‘benefit’ of destroying any other potential rivals in this sphere; Iran, Venezuela, Libya, Nigeria, to mention a few.

    Again, thanks for your yeoman’s efforts to keep us informed.

  2. Claus Eric Hamle
    February 12, 2015 at 17:12

    The US is deploying missiles in Romania and Poland and on 32 ships in the Mediterranean. This leads to Launch On Warning followed by Suicide. Bloody fools in the Pentagon !

  3. Lynne Gillooly
    February 11, 2015 at 17:54

    There should be no doubt in anyone’s mind that our media is completely controlled. The Corporate/state chooses the story, omits vital facts and controls the debate. The Russian/Ukraine events, the TPP trade agreement, net neutrality and continuing corruption and criminal behavior by our financial institutions are massive and important stories that ALL of us need to know about. Instead, we get deflategate, Brian Williams, weather events and fluff stories MOST of the time.
    Sites like Consortium, Truthout and other INDEPENDENT media are our only hope to be informed. Controlling what we read and are exposed to is the recipe outlined in the Powell memo of the 70’s. The big industries followed Powell’s outline, consolidated media ownership, shut down opposing opinions (repealing the Fairness Doctrine), spent fortunes on “think tanks” to control the media and in turn, control us.

    • Greg Woods
      February 12, 2015 at 07:36

      You mention some Progressive websites, but the website most actively fighting for common sense is Anti-war.com. Yes, I realize that it is libertarian in nature, which why you probably avoid mentioning it.

  4. Zachary Smith
    February 11, 2015 at 14:52

    Yes, I do seem to have been mistaken about where Russia would draw its line in the sand.

    While the US has not yet committed to sending weapons to the Ukrainian side of the conflict, the Russian Defense Ministry official warned that if it decided to do so, Moscow would likely “respond asymmetrically against Washington and its allies on other fronts.” As a specific example, he suggested that Russia might urge or support Iran in launching an attack against Saudi Arabia, with the goal of dramatically increasing world oil prices.


    When the recent oil-price war began, it didn’t take any rocket science to see that attacking Saudi oil facilities was an obvious way to put a kink in their “flood-the-market” scheme.

    The things Russia might do to permanently harm the West are numerous. Since that nation appears to have pegged Holy Israel as one of the key players in the current agitation, giving those S-300 anti-air missiles to Lebanon would crimp Israel’s ability to do its periodic ‘mowing the grass’ in the north. Arranging (via Iran) for Hezbollah to get some really accurate missiles is another option. Hezbollah wouldn’t be aiming for Tel Aviv, but specific buildings there.

    Russia might give China some of its cutting-edge ship-killer weaponry. The western Pacific would become a no-go zone for the US.

    Lord only knows what else they could do which would hurt the US a lot, but themselves hardly at all.

    This is so freaking unbelievable I can hardly believe I’m having to write about it at all.

  5. Zachary Smith
    February 11, 2015 at 14:21

    In a previous post I opined that Russia might not react strongly to new NATO provocations. The linked article says I guessed wrong.

    U.S. provision of military aid to Ukraine would be seen by Moscow as a declaration of war and spark a global escalation of Ukraine’s separatist conflict, Russian defense analysts said.


    Back in 2003 I was in a state of disbelief that Bush the dumber was going to actually attack Iraq on account of the imaginary WMDs. When it became clear his BS war was going to happen anyway, I distinctly recall posting a line from Blazing Saddles:

    “The fool is going to . . . I mean, the sheriff is going to do it!”

    That’s where I am now – not quite believing BHO is stupid/dishonest enough to go through with this. But gritting my teeth and mentally trying to prepare for an even worse disaster.

  6. Hillary
    February 11, 2015 at 11:22

    wo years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, seven in 10 Americans believed that Iraq’s Saddam Hussein had a role in the attacks, even though the G.W. Bush administration and congressional investigators said they had no evidence of it.

  7. onno
    February 11, 2015 at 10:49

    There is NO discipline or organization in the Ukrainian army the officers are mostly in Kiev and drunk so there is No leadership or strategy in the field. Soldiers are left without instructions and without food and are looting the neighbourhood. The excuse by the political leaders in Kiev is that the Russian army crossed the border with modern equipment. The truth is that these separatists are better fighters and they know what they’re fighting for. The UA army has NO notion what they’re doing there and what they’re fighting for and surrender easily their tanks, their weapons and artillery just to save their lives so the weapon arsenal is an easy WIN and the separatists don’t need any weapons from Russia.

    So in case USA will supply new weapons to the Ukrainian army they soon will be in the hands of the separatists and as result will even more Ukrainian soldiers. It’s a stupid idea but what can you expect from some Neocons in Washington where Vice President Biden’s son and John Kerry’s stepson Devon Archer are directly interested in the outcome of this war in East Ukraine where all their gas/oil reserves are which their employer (Burisma Holdings LTD) oligarch, criminal and Governor of Dnepropetrovsk Kolomoisky with his own battalion of the Right Sector under terrorist Yarosh have a license to kill issued by the NeoNazi government in Kiev. And of course I have not included the 400 CIA and Blackwater killers that are now fighting in East Ukraine and who are known to kill ‘with pleasure’ as we have seen on Wikileaks in Iraq.
    From the statement by Biden on the recent Peace Conference in Munich its clear that USA/NATO wants WAR to retain its ‘LOSING BATTLE’ as the world’s dominant nation and not realizing that they are now isolated together with EU while China, Russia and India have taken over. US Sabre Rattling are signs of the last convulsions before ending like the Hapsburg dynasty and the British Empire before.

  8. alexander horatio
    February 11, 2015 at 07:32

    Dear Mr Parry,
    From a “realist” perspective lets look at the conflagration through the eyes of the CEO of Elbit systems or any large weapons manufacturer and try to determine what is in your best interest….
    If a new conflagration in the Ukraine may generate an additional one billion dollars in new orders and contracts over the next three years…..
    Is Putin… Hitler ?
    You bet he is !
    It really doesn’t matter if Putin is the farthest thing from Hitler or If a diplomatic solution is one phone call away…….
    That is not the point and it never was…
    From a bottom line perspective….Peace is the enemy
    And War is the goal………
    War generates billions of dollars of revenue , the more Wars and the longer they go on,….the wealthier you become !
    Peace is a disaster !
    Peace is a……. holocaust !
    And ,perhaps ironically ,the more “Vladimir Putin” might demonstrate his ability as a world leader to effect “good will” and “world peace” the more “Hitleresque” he becomes ?
    Mr Perry,
    As the” CEO of Elbit systems” ,
    Do you “realistically” want peace in the Ukraine or the middle east?
    Or anywhere for that matter?
    Do you ?

  9. paul wichmann
    February 11, 2015 at 06:44

    “What I suspect the neocons are trying to do is provoke Russia into doing something rash.”
    I rather believe the neocons aren’t really trying to do anything, except:
    They’re horny as hell, and they’ll bang anything from a corpse to a hare to a bear… STDs be damned. Or they’re strung out and they need a fix – even though they’re mainlining, presently, on the Islamic State. But that’s not enough. They’re not even getting high any more; they need it – at this point, in quantities bordering on overdose and death – to no more than achieve the state of being and feeling themselves.

    • paul wichmann
      February 11, 2015 at 06:55

      And Wall Street, in its realm, is having at US is in precisely the same way.

  10. February 11, 2015 at 06:42

    A visit from Victoria Nuland is like having some junkie break in to your house to mess the whole place up before leaving.

  11. Zachary Smith
    February 11, 2015 at 00:31

    I’ve been looking at lists of what ‘lethal weapons’ the BHO Administration proposes to send to the Ukraine, and IMO it all amounts to a joke so far as the Ukrainians are concerned. From the accounts I’ve been reading, the Ukrainian army is badly beaten, and cannot replace the large losses it has already taken. The next link has a lot Rah-Rah hyperpatriotic cheerleading, but there’s still quite a lot of truth. The US has recently taken to building weapons which do little more than make piles of money for Big Weapons Companies. Junk like the F-35….


    What I suspect the neocons are trying to do is provoke Russia into doing something rash. From the way Russia has reacted in the past year, that doesn’t look to be a good prospect. Something which might work would be for NATO to send a good-sized bunch of troops into the country. Mind you, I wouldn’t want to be included in that group, for one way or another, an awful lot of them would probably end up dead. Even if Russia made it a point to draw a 20-mile no-fire-circle around them. Only if those newcomers started installing large missile systems and/or that Aegis Ashore missile defense already going into other European locations would they become Russian targets. (IMO). Think of it as a knockoff of the Cuban Missile Crisis replayed in 2015.

    If Russia actually does hunker down and ignores the new NATO weapons, it might come to those Western boots on the ground. Or worse – could the NATO goal be a coup by the Ukraine Nazis? THAT would be plenty provocative to the Russians, especially if that new government started getting boatloads of really modern weapons.

    Since Ukraine seems to be in awful shape, any big move by NATO/neocons probably can’t be delayed for long.

  12. Ben Schiff
    February 10, 2015 at 22:22

    Steve Walt and John Mearsheimer also vociferously opposed the US invasion of Iraq — before the event — in 2002-2003. As they argued then and argue now, the wanton use of US power for ideologically driven motives far from core US interests is dangerous to those interests and will diminish, not enhance, US power and influence.

    Neo-cons masquerading as either principled actors or hyper-realists must be resisted, for the good of the US as well as (paradoxically, perhaps) the rest of the world.

  13. Chase
    February 10, 2015 at 21:39


    Great article, as always. One correction though. The author you refer to as Wald is actually Stephen M Walt. See your link.


  14. Natylie
    February 10, 2015 at 21:24

    Thank you to Robert Parry for continually reporting soberly on this critical topic.

    It’s not actually startling that there are still “realist” voices out there, it is that they have finally been given a platform from which to speak where they may be heard in outlets like Foreign Policy and the New York Times.


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