The war in Ukraine continues to intensifyJohn Mearsheimer’s op-ed in the New York Times today focuses on the tactical question of whether the United States should arm Ukraine. Mearsheimer — who, back in the day, supported really arming Ukraine — argues that it won’t work. According to Mearsheimer, Ukraine is a core strategic interest of Russia, and great powers do not abandon core strategic interests no matter what the costs are. Arming the Ukrainians would therefore lead Russia to double down in Ukraine and potentially escalate the crisis further.

Mearsheimer is correct about the signal importance of Ukraine to Russia… which is why I was so surprised to read his proposed solution:

The only way to solve the Ukraine crisis is diplomatically, not militarily. Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, seems to recognize that fact, as she has said Germany will not ship arms to Kiev. Her problem, however, is that she does not know how to bring the crisis to an end.
She and other European leaders still labor under the delusion that Ukraine can be pulled out of Russia’s orbit and incorporated into the West, and that Russian leaders must accept that outcome. They will not.
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.

I’m dubious about the utility of arming the Ukrainian government, so Mearsheimer’s proposal has some appeal as an alternative. The only thing getting in its way are Ukrainian and Russian policy preferences. In other words, I’m even more dubious about the likelihood of Mearsheimer’s solution actually working.

It’s worth remembering that the trigger for the last 18 months of drama came from Ukrainian prevaricating about signing an Eastern Partnership agreement with the European Union. Ukrainians were so keen for an economic agreement with the EU that when the Yanukovych government decided in the end not to sign, it triggered close to six solid months of Maidan protests. Meanwhile, Russia was so perturbed about the agreement that Moscow coerced the living hell out of an allied government.

Indeed, in his widely discussed Valdai speech from last fall, Russian President Vladimir Putin was quite explicit about his economic objections to the Eastern Partnership:

We have told our American and European partners that hasty backstage decisions, for example, on Ukraine’s association with the EU, are fraught with serious risks to the economy. We didn’t even say anything about politics; we spoke only about the economy, saying that such steps, made without any prior arrangements, touch on the interests of many other nations, including Russia as Ukraine’s main trade partner, and that a wide discussion of the issues is necessary (emphasis added).

Nothing in the past year’s worth of conflict has shifted these policy preferences towards a possible compromise. With Crimea now pried away from Ukraine, the policy preferences of the rest of the country are even more pro-European economic integration. And while the sunk cost fallacy might be an economic truism, in politics it means that the costs of conceding now are greater than they were last year.

The Ukrainians will not accept anything that looks like “economic neutrality,” and the Russians will not accept a Ukraine with closer economic ties to Europe.Other than that, Mearsheimer’s proposed compromise looks peachy.

Indeed, for Putin and Russia, the phrase “nonaligned Ukraine that does not threaten Russia” is an oxymoron. A coherent, independent Ukraine, regardless of alliance ties, would threaten Russia, as Anne Applebaum has pointed out:

Before last year, eastern Ukraine had no history of ethnic conflict. Well-armed “separatists” emerged on the scene only when Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered them there. The “civil war” that ensued is an artificial conflict, run by Russian security and enhanced by a sophisticated pan-European disinformation campaign….
The point of the war is not to achieve a victory. The point is to prevent the emergence of anything resembling a prosperous, European Ukraine, because such a state would pose an ideological threat to Putinism. Following this logic, even a German-brokered cease-fire will not bring “peace,” but rather a so-called frozen conflict.

Russian policy on its periphery favors Applebaum’s interpretation over Mearsheimer’s proposed compromise. And if his compromise won’t work, then the logic of his op-ed needs to be rethought. The question isn’t whether arming Ukraine is worse than a Ukrainian buffer state, it’s whether arming Ukraine is worse than a festering, frozen conflict. It’s possible that the answer to that question is still “no,” but that’s the honest choice that Mearsheimer and his acolytes must confront.

Given Russia’s obvious military superiority, the arming-Ukraine strategy could best be called “bait-and-bleed.” And ironically, the person who coined the name for that stratrgy is… John Mearsheimer.