There is nothing so helpful to national defense as a borderland. In Europe, these were called marches. The fight over Ukraine is a fight for a march, and this explains why the West is reluctant to intervene militarily.
You can dig moats, build walls, and buy tanks, but none of these will raise your rivals’ costs of attacking you quite like a march.
A march puts space between you and your enemy, and so forces your enemy to cross that space to reach you, costing time and energy. The Germanic tribes maintained tracts of empty territory along the East bank of the Rhine for this purpose. Roman armies had to cover much territory before they could harm them.
But often a march gives you something even more valuable: people willing to fight and die to keep your enemy out of the march—people who aren’t yours, and whose deaths cost you nothing. People who are expendable.
But also loyal. You can send your own armies through a march unmolested. But the population will make your enemies pay for every square inch they wish to cross. A march facilitates your offense and substitutes for your defense. It is at once the least expensive and most effective form of protection available to a great power.
Post-Soviet Ukraine has long been in danger of becoming a march. After the collapse of the Soviet Union she did not join the mutual defense pact of the former Soviet states. Because that pact would have obligated Russia to come to her aid in the event of invasion by the West, it would have made her a part of Russia, in the sense that an attack on her would have been an attack on Russia. But Ukraine also did not become a part of NATO or the EU. She belonged to neither, which meant that she could become a march of either.
Russia seems to have thought that she could make a Russian march out of Ukraine. But, after 2004, or at any rate 2014, when Russia first attacked Ukraine, Ukraine became a Western march instead. She welcomed Western military aid and no doubt would have been delighted had the United States offered to station troops in her territory. But she would have, and indeed was, fighting any Russian encroachment upon her territory whether she received support from the West or not.
Thus between 2004 and 2014, the West received a windfall in the form of a march that it had obtained for free thanks to the aspirations of Ukrainians to ally themselves with the West as opposed to Russia.
The West will not intervene militarily to stop Russia’s current invasion of Ukraine because the West is better off letting Ukraine do the West’s fighting for it. That is the advantage of having a march. Why should the West give it up? If the West is not thinking this way, it is, at any rate, acting this way; its refusal to go to war to protect Ukraine is, clearly, selfish.
The alternative to having a march is exposing yourself to your enemy, which is why marches are always better if you can get them. If the West had undertaken to guarantee Ukraine’s security against Russia, then Ukraine would have become the West, and a strike by Russia at Ukraine would have been a strike directly at the Western belly, with all of the danger that entails.
The West is held together by mutual defense pacts—those between NATO members and those between European Union members. A failure to defend a member calls the entire union, and hence the existence of the West itself, into question. Unity may be difficult to muster with the threat of nuclear war hanging over the decision.
How much safer the West is in keeping its belly tucked safely behind Ukraine! The Russian invasion of Ukraine does not force the West to prove its unity or strength on the battlefield.
So when a Ukrainian says to the West: “what is the difference between sending us guns or volunteer soldiers and deploying your tanks directly against Russia?”, the West’s answer is: cost. It is far less expensive and less risky for us if you do the fighting for us.
Bleed Russia until her government collapses. Bleed her until her people lose the will to fight. Bleed her until she lacks the ability to fight. So we will never have to face her directly.
And Ukraine is compelled to respond: “nevermind; we will defend you gladly, and for free!” For Ukraine is in the terrible position occupied by nearly all marches: she fears one neighbor more than the other, and the other neighbor knows it.
What makes Ukraine a Western march and not a Russian march is that she fears Russia more than she fears war. So she has no leverage in negotiating the terms according to which she defends the West.
She cannot say to the West: “give us a share of the vast savings in blood and treasure that we confer upon you by doing your fighting for you; if you do not, we will not fight for you.” The West would know this to be a bluff. Ukraine will fight Russian aggression whether the West helps or not, and so she cannot hope to appropriate any of the benefits that her self-defense incidentally confers upon the West.
Comparison with Poland in 1939
What Ukraine would have needed in order to avoid becoming a march is what Poland thought she had in 1939: a third party to guarantee her safety.
Poland was sandwiched between Germany and Russia. Rather than become a march to either, she entered into an alliance with the West—that is, Britain and France—which undertook to guarantee her security.
If this guarantee had been credible, then if Germany had wanted Poland as a march against Russia, Germany would have had to pay Poland a pretty penny for her aid. Indeed, Germany would have had to guarantee Poland’s security, since that is what the West was already doing, meaning that Germany would not really have been able to make a march of Poland at all, at any price. And if Russia had wanted Poland as a march, Russia would have had to do the same and more, in order to outbid Germany.
In the event, however, neither Germany nor Russia considered the Western guarantee to be credible. And although the guarantee turned out to be real enough in the end, in the sense that Britain and France did declare war on Germany when Germany invaded Poland, it turned out still to be false as a practical matter, because World War Two never did save Poland. She regained her freedom from Russia only with the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Despite the incredibility of the Western guarantee, Germany and Russia ought, nevertheless, to have been content to let Poland alone, acting as march to neither. For, unlike Ukraine, which fears Russia more than the West (if she fears the West at all), Poland feared both Russia and Germany and would have, and did, fight the encroachments of both. That fact of mutual animosity provided some safety to both Germany and Russia vis a vis each other—a protective buffer between two powers—even if less than the safety that would come to one from having Poland as a march against the other.
But instead Germany and Russia decided to divide Poland up between themselves, thereby exposing themselves to each other. Russia learned shortly just how unwise it is for a weaker power to expose herself directly across a border to a stronger power. And of course the dividing up triggered the Western declaration of war, which, though it could not save Poland, ultimately was Germany’s undoing.
Marchdom for Ukraine Is a Departure for the West . . .
The West’s decision to treat Ukraine as a march flies in the face of decades of Western post-Soviet policy toward the West’s borderlands with Russia. For whenever the West has had the opportunity to swallow its marches—by promising to defend them, and hence incorporating them into itself—it has.
If one starts from the north and works down the European border with Russia, one encounters, first, Finland, which was non-aligned during the Cold War, relying on the lesson in military resilience that it taught both the Soviets and the Germans during World War Two to operate as a neutral—a country that buffers both sides by being willing to fight encroachment by either, but which allies with neither and so cannot be considered a march.
When the EU adopted its mutual defense clause in 2009, Finland, which had joined the EU in 1995, stayed on in the union. She became dear to the West. Not a march—for the West now was obligated to treat her as a limb and come to her aid in the event of attack, lest the West itself shatter through a show of disunity. The West, then, had exposed itself to Russia directly across a land border, and indeed caused Russia to be exposed to the West directly across a land border.
It did not stop there. Moving south, we next encounter the Baltic states, all three of which joined both the EU and NATO in 2004, obligating the United States, and not just Europe, to come to their aid in the event of a Russian attack. Here again the West had exposed itself to Russia directly across a land border and caused Russia to be exposed to the West directly across a land border as well.
Belarus is next. She belongs to Russia’s mutual defense organization, the CSTO, which makes her dear to Russia—not a Russian march but a Russian limb. To her south, we find Ukraine, to which the West seemed willing to give NATO membership as late as 2008, but no longer, making her a Western march.
. . . Because Russia Used to Be a Middle Power
Why was the West so willing for so long to expose itself directly to Russia across its long borders with her; and why has the West now changed its mind and chosen to make Ukraine a march rather than to incorporate her via NATO membership?
The answer is that from 1991 until perhaps 2014, the West thought Russia was a middle power. She still had a vast nuclear arsenal, to be sure, and plenty of means of using it. But she seemed to have lost the mindset of a great power, just as France, Germany, Japan, and Britain had done before her.
You let your belly hang out when you think you are safe, and the West thought it was now safe. Not so safe, perhaps, as to do away with mutual defense pacts, but safe enough not to bother to create marches against Russia.
And the West could have created marches. Finland could have been made to continue to play the buffer role that she had played throughout the Cold War, by ejecting her from the European Union when the mutual defense clause was adopted, or by not adopting that clause and continuing to reserve to NATO responsibility for mutual defense. Finland’s closeness with the West might have made her accept march status; but even if she had insisted upon returning to her Cold War neutrality the West would have been much less exposed to Russia along the Russo-Finnish border than the West is now.
Each of the Baltic states would, certainly, have been willing to be a Western march. Each would have been willing to fight Russia regardless whether the West made a commitment to protect her. The Baltic states loathe Russia and fear her far more than they fear war. They will take all the Western help they can get. The West could have denied them NATO membership without losing their loyalty.
But it was only in 2014, after the West had gone belly to belly with Russia in Finland and the Baltic states, that it became clear to the West that Russia had reacquired a great power mindset, and so the West did not think to make marches of Finland or the Baltic states.
Perhaps Russia’s 2008 war with Georgia signaled the change in her mindset well enough to careful observers. Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, followed by Russia’s wars in the Donbas and Syria, made it clear to the world.
The West Could Have Responded to a Resurgent Russia By Defending the West’s Status as Sole Great Power
The West could have responded in one of two ways.
First, it could have insisted upon the sole great power status that it had enjoyed since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. To maintain that status, the West would have had to continue to treat Russia as a middle power, for the world’s sole great power can deal only with middle powers.
In this case, the West would have continued to pursue NATO membership for Ukraine—to demonstrate the hollowness of Russia’s attempt to reassert great power status by exposing the West’s belly to Russia. The message would have been: “go ahead, make my day.” It would have been a challenge to Russia to prove to the world that she was in fact able to go toe to toe with the world’s sole great power.
The West would have rushed troops to Ukraine in the wake of the Crimea annexation, rushed them again to the Donbas, and rushed them again to Syria, seeking to eject Russian forces in all three cases. Middle powers are not permitted international adventures without the consent of the sole great power.
This would, to be sure, have created a risk of nuclear war. But the world’s sole great power does not fear war with a middle power more than the world’s sole great power fears loss of status. To the contrary, the ultimate test of a great power—or, in this case, of a sole great power—is a willingness to go to war—to risk everything—to maintain status.
The West did not do these things, and in not doing them, the West conceded to the world that it was not the world’s sole great power anymore, but merely one among two—indeed, given China’s strength relative to Russia, necessarily three—great powers.
One should not forget the importance of that moment in 2014 when the West failed to respond to Crimea. For a quarter century before that time, the West had been the only global actor. Its status as sole great power was taken for granted. With the non-response to Crimea, that image disappeared and talk of great power competition reappeared after a decades-long hiatus.
The West in Fact Responded by Conceding Renewed Great Power Status to Russia
But even if the West had conceded its status as sole great power, it remained a great power. Its second Crimean response option was consistent with that great, but not sole-great, power status.
The West could take steps to defend itself, one great power from another, in ways familiar to students of great power competition throughout history: to put marches between itself and the enemy. The West took that option by demurring on NATO membership for Ukraine after 2014, and is continuing that policy by refusing to go to war with Russia on Ukraine’s behalf today.
The West has abandoned its policy of going belly-to-belly with Russia and is now making marches because the West has conceded Russia’s claim to renewed great power status. The West no longer sees itself as staring down a middle power but rather as erecting defenses against a great power.
Thus, it is entirely fair to say that the failure of the West to go to war to defend Ukraine is a sign of weakness. It reflects loss of sole great power status. If the West wished to maintain that status, it would have had to go to war with Russia after Crimea, and certainly, now, in response to the invasion of Ukraine.
It is entirely fair as well to question whether the West’s failure to defend Ukraine is a mistake. For there were plenty of advantages associated with being the world’s sole great power.
Most notably: security.
In a world in which any middle power seeking to adopt a great power mindset and so to raise herself to great power status were threatened with overwhelming, nuclear force by the West, one might expect such challenges from middle powers to dwindle and disappear over time. And uncontested power brings peace—to everyone except the victims of the sole great power itself (let us not forget Iraq).
Of course, threatening nuclear-armed states risks nuclear war.
But, again, great power status can be maintained only if one is willing to die for it. Russia has been able to claw back her lost great power status only by taking such risks. If they perhaps seemed small in the context of Crimea, the Donbas, and Syria, the danger Russia currently runs of defeat in Ukraine and collapse at home shows how much she has been willing to risk to reacquire her status.
To maintain its sole great power status, the West would have had to do the same. And, if the poor performance of Russian forces in Ukraine is any measure, it appears that Russia would have stood no chance against the West in a conventional fight over Crimea, the Donbas, or Syria. Unless she were willing to risk nuclear annihilation, Russia might well have withdrawn in the face of a determined foe.
Loss of Sole Great Power Status Aside, the West Is Strongly Playing a Strong Hand
It is also fair to say that, if the West is content to relinquish its status as sole great power, then the West’s failure to come to Ukraine’s aid is in the West’s interests and not a sign of weakness at all. What’s more, if Russia wrecks herself on the Ukrainian rock, she will lose her great power status and the West will gain status by default, though not a return to sole great power status given the West’s passive response to Russian intervention in Ukraine and the continued viability of China.
It is in a great power’s interest to allow her enemies to bleed themselves dry fighting in her marches. It is in the West’s interests to let others—here, the Ukrainians—do their fighting for them. Assuming, again, that the West is content to let the world see Russia as a great, rather than a middle, power.
Mearsheimer Is Wrong
This also provides a complete response to John Mearsheimer’s contention that Crimea, the Donbas, and the invasion of Ukraine are all the West’s fault. It is Mearsheimer’s contention that if the West had not come to view Russia as a middle power after the collapse of the Soviet Union and had instead treated her like a great power, then the West would not have sought to make Ukraine a NATO member and so Russia would not have felt compelled to attack Ukraine.
What Mearsheimer misses is that, given Russia’s bid to return to great power status, the only way war could have been avoided is if Ukraine had submitted to incorporation into Russia via participation in the CSTO’s mutual defense pact, a la Ukraine’s neighbor Belarus. All other outcomes are either impossible or lead to war.
But Ukraine would never have submitted to such a thing. Indeed, it is a remarkable fact that Ukraine never even joined the Commonwealth of Independent States when it formed in 1993 because she objected to the position of the CIS charter that Russia was the only legal successor state to the Soviet Union. Ukraine also never joined the CSTO’s predecessor.
Russia would also have been satisfied if Ukraine had become a Russian march. But for that to happen Ukrainians would have needed to fear the West more than they fear Russia, which Ukrainians manifestly do not. Only a war aimed at breaking the will of the Ukrainian people, such as Russia has launched now, would change this.
Russia might also have been satisfied if Ukraine had become a neutral country—non-aligned in the style of Finland during the Cold War. But neutrality is possible only if a country fears all the powers on its doorstep more or less equally. Ukraine, however, fears Russia more than the West. Given this asymmetry of fear, the natural position for Ukraine to occupy even were the West never to have offered NATO membership to her would be that of a Western march—precisely the position that Russia has proven herself willing to go to war to stop.
What Mearsheimer misses, as well, is that, from his own realist perspective, the present war in Ukraine is a victory for the West.
That is, Mearsheimer does not seem to think that the West could maintain its sole great power status. Instead, Mearsheimer sees the conflict between Russia and the West as a matter of competition between great powers. In that case, the best possible outcome for the West is to have Ukraine become a march—which she has—and then to have Russia throw herself upon that march and bleed dry, which she is doing. Even if Russia wins the war, she emerges weaker. And it is far from certain that she can win the war.
The war is a calamity for Ukraine and for humanity; but not for a West that sees itself as one of several great powers.
What is more, Mearsheimer’s view suffers from hindsight bias. It was not at all clear in 2000 or 2004 that Russia would ever regain her erstwhile great power mindset. She could very well have chosen to join the ranks of former great powers content to grow rich on international trade and follow the direction of the West.
If she did not go to war to stop the Baltic states’ incorporation into NATO in 2004 or to prevent Finland from joining the EU’s mutual defense pact in 2009, why should the West have supposed that she would go to war in 2014 to stop the incorporation of Ukraine into the West? (Well, Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008 was some warning, but Georgia is a small country. )
Great power status is not something that can be measured in terms of nuclear weapons, GDP, or numbers of tanks alone. It is not the case that Russia always was a great power and should have been treated accordingly throughout the 1990s and 2000s. Great power status is a mindset; a way of acting. Russia did lose it in 1991.
Russian Policy Toward Ukraine Has Been Folly
It is also fair to say that, while Russia’s policy toward Ukraine since 2014 has been wildly successful at demoting the West from the status of sole great power, it has been utter folly from the perspective of competition between great powers.
For Russia is better off going belly-to-belly with the West across the land border between Russia and Ukraine than it is facing a Western march in Ukraine. But Russia’s annexation of Crimea and intervention in the Donbas prevented NATO from swallowing Ukraine and made a march out of her instead.
A march is altogether a more dangerous thing for Russia than is having her enemy at her gates, because the enemy can attack you through a march but you cannot attack your enemy through the march. When you have your enemy at your gates, by contrast, you can attack your enemy directly.
If Ukraine had joined NATO, and Russia had only then annexed Crimea, or started trouble in the Donbas, or, indeed, launched the present total invasion of Ukraine, and the West had failed to declare war upon Russia in response, then the West would be utterly shattered. NATO’s mutual defense pact would be a dead letter and Eastern Europe would be forced to accept Russian power in the region. NATO expansion brings menace to Russia’s borders, but it also brings Western vulnerability to her borders.
Instead, Russia annexed Crimea and started trouble in the Donbas before Ukraine could become part of NATO, and so before Ukraine could expose the Western belly. And Russia’s annexation of Crimea and starting of trouble in the Donbas worked to convince the West not to expose herself to Russia, to delay NATO membership indefinitely, and to turn Ukraine into a Western march.
Now Russia’s total invasion of Ukraine strikes no blow at the West at all, but instead becomes an unparalleled opportunity for the West to bleed Russia dry. Russia’s armies are tied up in brutal fighting. Russia’s economy is wrecked. But the failure of the West to go to war with Russia does not shatter the West, because there are no Western promises to Ukraine to break. And no matter how many Ukrainian soldiers Russia kills, not a single Western soldier is harmed. This is why a march is a great power’s best defense.
And why a great power that has any wisdom at all does not undertake to invade a march.
This is also why Anders Fogh Rasmussen is quite wrong to say that if Ukraine were to forswear NATO membership in order to obtain peace from Russia then that “would de facto make Ukraine a part of Russia, like Belarus.”
On the contrary, if that were all that Ukraine were to agree to do, then that would make Ukraine a permanent Western march—the absolute worse possible outcome for Russia, although it is not clear that Russia herself is aware of this.
Of course, it would not be in the interest of Ukraine to make such a concession, because that means agreeing to suffer for the safety of the West in perpetuity. Ukraine would be much better off insisting upon and obtaining NATO membership, so that the West will guarantee her safety.
Indeed, so long as Russia is considered a great power, the only beneficiary of a Western refusal to grant Ukraine NATO membership is the West.
The Conditions Required for a Pyrrhic Victory
It is impossible for the present Russian invasion of Ukraine to become a success for Russia. The poor performance of her military is a humiliation, one that has greatly set back her ambitions to reassert her great power status, and if she loses the war—a real possibility—she will return to the ranks of the middle powers. If she wins the war she may remain a great power, but only barely; it will be a pyrrhic victory.
It would be a mistake, however, to suppose that if she prevails militarily she will be unable to hold onto Ukraine due to the depth of anti-Russian sentiment among Ukrainians. If Russia is not constrained by public opinion—and it seems that she is not—then she will be at liberty to kill any Ukrainian who resists, and so to alter Ukrainian society. History is littered with tales of conquered peoples who go on to collaborate with the invader—so long as the invader is cruel enough.
It was the conquered Mexica themselves who rebuilt Tenochtitlan for Cortes.
Once he had conquered Gaulish armies, Caesar seems to have had little difficulty controlling the Gauls. Everywhere he went, he spared those who submitted fully to Roman rule and sold the rest into slavery or put them to the sword. Having beheld the complete destruction of their world, those who remained—and they remained because they had shown a willingness to submit—became Romans.
Moreover, Russia was able to control deeply unhappy populations all across Eastern Europe during the Cold War. And Russia has succeeded at doing so more recently in quelling resistance in Chechnya, which Russia now so dominates that Chechen troops are fighting on the Russian side against Ukraine.
Russia’s indiscriminate shelling of Ukrainian cities is not only meant to help her troops advance into them. It is also meant to prepare the Ukrainian people for submission.
If Russia is entirely successful, then she will make a Russian march of Ukraine. If she is only moderately successful—if Ukraine retains some independent spirit—then Russia will be forced to incorporate Ukraine, either because she must occupy Ukraine permanently or because she cannot expect Ukraine to fight her enemies on her behalf without tying Ukraine more closely to herself.
Russia would be better off making a march of Ukraine. But incorporating Ukraine would leave Russia better off than before the war, for now a Russian vulnerability to a Western march on the Russian-Ukrainian border would have been converted into a mutual Russian vulnerability and a European vulnerability on the Ukrainian border with NATO-member Poland.
But Russia will be no better off than if she had desisted from annexing Crimea and attacking the Donbas in 2014 and thereby allowed Ukrainian membership in NATO to become a reality. That would have created the same mutual vulnerability across a land border. True, in the event that the invasion is a success, the mutual vulnerability will exist across a land border nearly 800 miles further West. But the cost to Russia of winning is likely to be so large as to cancel out that improvement.
Russia Has So Few Marches of Her Own Because She Is Feared
A country aspiring to a return to great power status ought not expose her belly to her enemy in the way that a power that pretends to sole great power status might expose her belly to a middle power.
Russia has not, however, been able to avoid doing that in the post-Soviet years, because her weakness makes it difficult for her to maintain marches, and if you are not blessed with neutral powers to act as buffers, the next best thing to a march is to incorporate the territory. You expose yourself, but you deny the territory to your adversary.
The West has been able to maintain Ukraine as a march because Ukraine fears Russia more than she fears the West (if she fears the West at all). Russia has not been able to do the same with her satellites because they do not fear the West more than they fear Russia. If Russia tries to maintain them as marches without giving them security guarantees, then they may well defect to the West (or Russia will be forced to invade and break them, as she is trying to do with Ukraine).
As a result, Russia has been forced to go belly-to-belly with the West not only along her borders with Finland and the Baltic states, a situation foisted on her by Western decisionmaking. She has also gone belly-to-belly with the West across Belarus’s borders with the Baltic states and Poland, because she has been forced to give Belarus security guarantees in order to keep her in the fold, and so has incorporated Belarus.
Going belly-to-belly with the West along the border between Ukraine and Poland would not, therefore, be much of a departure for Russia, and, again, it is better for her than facing a Western march along her border with Ukraine.
But all this assumes that Russia can win the war. She may not.
And one hopes that she does not.