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Rules of Engagement

Benjamin Schwarz and Christopher Layne claim that Russia had warned the United States since the end of the Cold War that it would violate fundamental principles of international law if we did not let it dominate Ukraine, and that we should have respected Russia’s threats to invade and destroy its neighbors [“Why Are We in Ukraine?,” Essay, June]. This line of argument inaccurately reflects history. Russia recognized the independence of the former Soviet republics by ratifying binding international agreements, including the Charter, the NATO-Russia Founding Act, and the Budapest Memorandum; by invading Ukraine, Russia went back on its promise to respect Ukrainian sovereignty.

To blame the United States and our allies for the current conflict because we crossed Russia’s “redlines” is to endorse those boundaries and to justify Russia’s barbarous and illegal actions. I expected better from Harper’s Magazine.

Ambassador Eric S. Rubin
Washington, D.C.


Schwarz and Layne’s argument for a negotiated peace depends on the assumption that Vladimir Putin is a normal, rational statesman whose actions will be driven by the cool calculations of realist theory. The authors make much of the Cuban Missile Crisis, but a better historical analogy is unmissable: the British policy of appeasement in the Thirties. Historical scholarship has demonstrated that this policy was, strictly speaking, rational—flawed only in its judgment that Adolf Hitler’s goals were reasonable in light of the many perceived injustices dictated by the Treaty of Versailles. Schwarz and Layne’s analysis of the Ukrainian situation closely parallels this judgment: just as any rational German statesman would have sought to undo much of the Treaty of Versailles, any rational Russian statesman would perceive foreign powers gaining influence along its border as a threat.

The problem with appeasement, of course, was that Hitler’s goals were not limited to an orderly revision of the Treaty of Versailles. As Schwarz himself noted in a 2015 article for The American Conservative, Nazi Germany’s “foreign policy was animated, not by a calculated assessment of German national interests, but by a universal, apocalyptic, and . . . utopian worldview.” He describes this worldview as incapable of adjusting to “global power realities,” as “the antithesis of realism,” and as driven by a “messianic vision” operating “at the expense of the national interest.”

I find it ironic that the author of these words seems to ignore the considerable evidence that Vladimir Putin is not a normal Russian statesman and is, in fact, animated by a messianic vision. U.S. policy has not been blameless, but Putin’s actions represent something far more threatening than the justifiable reaction of an otherwise peaceful state.

Michael Friend


Schwarz and Layne argue that the expansion of NATO offers sufficient explanation for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as an act not of “expansionist megalomania” but of “defensive alarm.” This selective reading of history leads the authors to ignore Putin’s own statements on Ukraine—such as when he said that it was neither a state nor a nation—and Russia’s war crimes, which include the mass kidnapping of Ukrainian children and the massacring of civilians.

The authors neglect to consider that the United States’ provision of weapons has the legitimate objective of supporting Ukraine’s self-defense, and their contortions culminate in the complaint that “for its part, Kyiv has indicated that it will settle for nothing less than the return of all Ukrainian territory occupied by Russia, including Crimea”—as if this were an unreasonable demand rather than a requirement of international law.

Criticizing the expansion of NATO and the United States’ wars of aggression is warranted, as is analyzing the broader geopolitical dimensions of the conflict in Ukraine, but to suggest that the crimes and arrogance of the West somehow provide justification for Russia’s war of aggression is to engage in a flawed and shameful line of reasoning.

Adam Bresnahan


Benjamin Schwarz and Christopher Layne respond:

Ambassador Eric S. Rubin’s letter typifies what the late senator William Fulbright called the “arrogance of power,” which has characterized U.S. foreign policy since 1945. The historical record is clear: beginning with Mikhail Gorbachev, Kremlin leaders have opposed NATO’s eastward expansion. And, as a few American policymakers have recognized, potential Ukrainian membership in NATO was seen as an existential threat. Rubin mentions instances in which Moscow has violated international law. We agree with him on some counts and disagree on others. But by indulging in that customary arrogance of power he disregards the many instances in which the United States and NATO have done the same. Such hypocrisy leads one to embrace the historian E. H. Carr’s view that there is no “absolute and disinterested standard for the conduct of international affairs” and that

these supposedly absolute and universal principles [are] not principles at all, but the unconscious reflexions of national policy based on a particular interpretation of national interest at a particular time.

Michael Friend asserts without evidence that Putin is not a normal Russian statesman. In doing so, he ignores our argument that Putin’s security concerns mirror those held by Gorbachev, Boris Yeltsin, and the entire Russian political class, including liberal Westernizers. However ruthless Moscow’s realpolitik might be, is Friend really comparing it to the Nazis’ worldview of an international Jewish conspiracy that drove them to wage an apocalyptic racial war of annihilation? His Manichaean analogizing isn’t just misinformed; it’s dangerous. It compels the United States to pay any price, bear any burden in pursuit of its crusading foreign policy.

Putin’s rhetorical statement regarding Ukrainian nationhood mirrors Golda Meir’s assertion that “there never was a Palestinian nation.” Does Adam Bresnahan think that this sentiment—rather than Meir’s conception of Israel’s national security interests—drove the country’s policies toward Palestinians? We’re certain that Russia has committed war crimes, just as we’re certain that all combatants in all wars commit war crimes. We’re also certain that the particulars of Russia’s violations (and of Ukraine’s, for that matter) will have to await cool and objective assessment. As we detailed in our article, NATO, Washington officialdom, and the news media have a tendency to distort atrocity stories (see Kuwait, Iraq, Libya). While the Soviet Union’s breakup was unfolding, policymakers in Moscow, Kyiv, and Washington grasped the potential for eventual armed conflict between Russia and Ukraine. Now that Russia and Ukraine are at war, U.S. policymakers are seemingly complacent about the risks of escalation. They should not be. Russia will not accept defeat and humiliation, nor the loss of Crimea. Bresnahan is wrong: as Ukraine’s bankroller and chief arms supplier—and to avert the risk of a direct clash—Washington has every right to tell Kyiv how the conflict should end.

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August 2023

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