‘There’s a risk the crisis will spiral out of control’

‘There’s a risk the crisis will spiral out of control’

Richard Ned Lebow does not harbor many doubts. The main cause of the war in Ukraine that has affected all Western countries, and indeed the whole world, in economic and security terms, is President Vladimir Putin’s world view. Professor of international political theory in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London and Bye-Fellow of Pembroke College, University of Cambridge, Ned Lebow talks to Kathimerini about the structure of the clash and what comes next.

First of all, there’s a lot of debate over NATO’s strategy after the end of the Cold War. NATO’s eastward expansion has been pointed out by many, and most prominently by the American political scientist and Chicago University professor John Mearsheimer, as the main reason for triggering Russian aggression toward Ukraine. Ned Lebow, just a few years older than Mearsheimer, was one of the supervisors of Mearsheimer’s dissertation and simply disagrees with the view of his former student.

‘Putin’s lackeys may occupy the top levels of the KGB and the military. But whether those lower down would behave as instructed is a very different matter’

First of all, he explains there was no way NATO would ever accept Ukraine. “There has been intense fighting going on in Eastern Ukraine for many years now. Expansion was out of the question.” Moreover, NATO was aware that the possibility of Ukraine being a member of the Alliance would lead to unexpected events in the future. “Volodymyr Zelenskyy is a responsible fellow. But just imagine a right-wing nationalist leader of Ukraine in the near future who would feel comfortable in provoking Russia because Ukraine would have been under the umbrella of NATO.” That’s why NATO membership was not in the cards for Ukraine and Moscow knew that full well. “Also, any new member requires unanimous voting and there was no consensus in NATO for Ukraine. The NATO consensus on Ukraine has been built only recently and it’s one outcome of the invasion.”

Ned Lebow did not support NATO’s expansion of the 1990s. “The West gave a promise to Boris Yeltsin not to expand and it was a mistake to go back on these promises. But still, there were no NATO troops in the East, there were no forces of any kind capable of carrying out any offensive operations against Russia. The West exercised a degree of caution.” Therefore, the root cause for all developments can be found in Putin’s politics.

“Deterrence theories assumed incorrectly that leaders conduct a rational cause calculus before they challenged commitments about the states and even more so before they used force. But history suggests otherwise. In 1914 or in 1940 leaders did not carry out any kind of reasonable analysis of the risks and the possible gains. They deluded themselves that they would succeed. They created feedback networks to provide them only with information they wanted to hear. And they basically punished anybody who suggested that their cause of action might not succeed. By the way, the US invasion of Iraq is another classic case of this kind of thinking.”

Ned Lebow bestows on Putin almost all responsibility for the war. “For more than two decades he surrounded himself with lackeys who don’t dare object to anything. If we want to understand why this happened we have to see Putin as somebody who is on public record on a number of occasions saying that the worst thing that ever happened in the 20th century was the collapse of the Soviet Union. He has construed his mission as being the lineal descendant of Stalin, Lenin and the czars. He believes that his mission is to restore Russia’s empire.”

Professor Ned Lebow thinks there’s a risk that the crisis may spiral out of control. He says that Khrushchev and Brezhnev were terrified by the prospect of war, even a conventional war. Putin is not the same. “Putin strikes me as more like Hitler. There’s at least one screw loose. Putin is unfazed by the bombing of cities and mass death the same way Hitler was. Of course, I don’t think he is motivated by the idea of global domination, as Hitler was. But I don’t think that he has the same kind of constraints that prior Western and Russian or Soviet leaders clearly had.”

Could he push the button? “This question brings us to the issue of command and control of nuclear weapons. Do you remember that during Trump’s second impeachment proceedings the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs made it very clear that any order for a nuclear attack issued by the White House should be ignored? The US military thought that it has a responsibility to the country and indeed to the human race and it was prepared to ignore orders from Trump that they thought were provocative or more motivated by his craziness or his political needs.”

“I’m assuming Russia has the same command and control system of the former Soviet Union. In the Soviet Union, the military controlled the delivery systems and the KGB, the weapons. For a rocket to launch, separate orders had to go down the military and KGB chains of command and reach the lower levels. So, Putin’s lackeys may occupy the top levels of the KGB and the military. But whether those lower down would behave as instructed is a very different matter,” he adds.

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