I Teach International Relations. I Think We’re Making a Mistake in Ukraine.

The U.S. risks provoking Russian aggression.

Illustration showing closed history textbook with red nuclear missiles on its cover bleeding into the pages
Matt Chase / The Atlantic

By day, I teach Introduction to International Relations to undergraduate students at Northeastern University. By night, I consume the latest punditry about Ukraine. What strikes me is the frequent disconnect between international-relations scholarship and commonly espoused views in Western media about the war. Although other scholars would surely highlight different findings, I believe the most relevant ones urge greater caution in America’s approach to countering Russia.

Why did Russia invade Ukraine?

Perhaps because they view NATO as a benign—even benevolent—force in the world, many Western commentators argue that Russia was primarily motivated to conquer Ukraine for offensive purposes as part of its “colonial venture” to reconstitute the Soviet Union. The controversial international-relations luminary John Mearsheimer overstates the case that there is “no evidence” of Russian imperial ambitions to gobble up Ukraine. But his work on “offensive realism” suggests that NATO enlargement eastward since the Iron Curtain fell has indeed been viewed by Russian leaders as inherently threatening, and played a significant role in the invasion.

Building off G. Lowes Dickinson’s analysis of World War I, after the Cold War Mearsheimer developed an influential variant of structural realism. This offers a pessimistic view of world politics based on several assumptions: (1) The world is “anarchical” in the sense that it is made up of independent countries with no central authority above them to prevent war; (2) all countries (and alliances) possess at least some offensive military capability and are therefore potentially dangerous to one another; (3) countries can thus never be certain that other ones will refrain from using their military capabilities to harm them; (4) countries attach foremost value to national survival, (5) and will try to promote this goal.

Together, these core assumptions about the “structure of the international system” lead countries not only to fear other countries, but to compete against them—sometimes in violent, immoral ways. Add to these standard assumptions about world politics America’s particular history of foreign intervention, backing of democratic movements including in Ukraine, unrivaled conventional military power, and growing alliance with other anti-Russia countries east of the Iron Curtain, and it becomes harder to dismiss Russian claims of geopolitical apprehension. This sense of insecurity is compounded by the distinct military history of Ukraine, which, unlike current NATO countries, was traversed by Napoleonic France, imperial Germany, and then Nazi Germany to attack Russia.

Whether Russian leaders wish to reclaim some former Soviet territory for national power is orthogonal to Vladimir Putin and his predecessors repeatedly characterizing NATO expansion as a threatening provocation. Even prominent American military strategists—such as the Cold War architect George Kennan—have been deeply critical of NATO expansion since the 1990s because of how it’s seen in Moscow.

What’s the lesson of World War II?

Commentators on the Ukraine war have been quick to invoke “the lesson of Munich,” referring to when the United Kingdom, at the September 1938 Munich Conference, permitted Nazi Germany to annex the Sudetenland, whetting Adolf Hitler’s territorial ambition.

Based on this ubiquitous historical analogy, some Westerners asserted after the invasion that concessions to Russia would encourage future land grabs. Writing in The Economist, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki warned, “Several Western European politicians have forgotten the lesson offered by the Munich agreement of 1938.” British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace likewise intoned, “It may be that [Putin] just switches off his tanks and we all go home but there is a whiff of Munich in the air from some in the West.”

Nor is the so-called lesson of Munich a staple in just the Ukraine discourse. As Jack S. Levy has noted, it was “invoked by Harry Truman in Korea, Anthony Eden in the Suez, John Kennedy in the Cuban Missile Crisis, Lyndon Johnson in Vietnam, and George Bush in the Persian Gulf War.”

Yet historical analogies provide a bad foundation for decision making. As I argued in a 2012 paper, analogies are generally chosen based on their salience rather than their contemporary relevance. The political scientist Robert Jervis highlights how historical analogies tend to “obscure aspects of the present case that are different from the past one.” And Kenneth Thompson, an international-relations scholar, observes, “History is the best teacher, but its lessons are not on the surface.” Is Russia realistically poised to steamroll through Europe into Paris when it struggles to take Kharkiv, just 20 miles from the Russian border?

The stronger analogy with World War II may be in Asia, not Europe. Many historians believe that the U.S. dropped an atomic bomb on Nagasaki not only to coerce Japan to surrender but also to keep the Soviets out of Japan after the war by showcasing American military power. Similarly, an important goal for making Russia suffer in Ukraine may be to strike fear in China over the future costs of taking Taiwan. As the NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg put it at the Munich Security Conference, “Beijing is watching closely to see the price Russia pays or the reward it receives for its aggression.” This seems like the more relevant World War II analogue, given the strength of NATO relative to Russia in conventional military power as well as China’s more realistic designs on taking Taiwan.

Of course, possibly relevant historical analogies are not limited to the Second World War. After the 1991 Gulf War, the U.S. stationed American troops in Saudi Arabia. Later, Osama bin Laden cited this decision as a central justification for the September 11 terrorist attacks, just as Putin would come to cite NATO expansion as a justification for his military actions. My point here is certainly not to blame 9/11 or the Russian invasion of Ukraine on the United States—but to underline how history is polysemous.

The Munich analogy has been weaponized to make the case against any concessions, but we should be mindful of John Fairbank’s admonition that history is a “grab-bag from which each advocate pulls out a ‘lesson’” to advance an agenda.

Will increasing Western military supplies to Ukraine deter Russian aggression against the West, or provoke it?

A more hawkish stance against Russia is widely expected to deter Putin from attacking outside Ukraine rather than provoke him. Alexander Vershbow of the Atlantic Council says that America and Europe must accelerate “the supply of heavy weapons, long-range strike systems, and air and missile defense [systems]” to Ukraine to “deter Russia militarily.” Brian Riedl of the Manhattan Institute also says that America and Europe must ramp up weapons to Ukraine, because otherwise the Russian army will be “running roughshod across Europe.” Gordon Chang of the Gatestone Institute goes even further, tweeting a warning to Americans that “you will see #Russian ships and planes just off our coasts” unless Putin is deterred with larger weapons packages to Ukraine.

This logic relies on a basic tenet of classical deterrence theory, which is that credible threats can contain conflict by signaling the costs of intensification. But it is at odds with the spiral model, which predicts that punishment may actually elicit worse behavior from an adversary and lead to mutual escalation. The political scientist Stephen Van Evera explains, “Angered or frightened by the punishment, the other [side] becomes more aggressive—adopting wider aims, and/or becoming more willing to use force to defend them.” The policy implications are the opposite of deterrence theory, in favor of appeasement over punishment, and carrots rather than sticks.

What’s the best way to protect Ukrainian civilians?

One common justification for supplying more weapons to Ukraine is to spare its citizens more pain. The American-born British financier and political activist Bill Browder reflects this viewpoint: “The main reason the West has only given Ukraine enough weapons not to lose the war, but not enough to win is an obsessive fear of escalation. But Putin is the one doing the escalating and he just sees our fear as an opportunity to kill more Ukrainians.” Mike McFaul, the former U.S. ambassador to Russia, also asserts: “If Putin fears he is losing Crimea, he will negotiate. Therefore, we in the West should give Kyiv the weapons they need to threaten Crimea, including first and foremost, ATACMs. The sooner we do, the faster this awful war will end.”

But the empirical literature on “civilian victimization” predicts the opposite relationship between Russian desperation in the war and the safety of Ukrainian civilians. Alex Downes has conducted methodologically rigorous research on the causes of civilian victimization, a wartime strategy that targets and kills noncombatants. To this end, he compiled a data set of every country in the world that participated in “interstate wars between 1816 and 2003, which produced a list of 100 wars, 323 belligerent countries, and 52 cases of civilian victimization.” He found that states are significantly more likely to escalate against the population as they become more desperate from higher battlefield fatalities, longer war duration, or the transition of the conflict to a war of attrition.

Whether civilian victimization pays remains contested, but the strategic logic is not—to sap the morale of an adversary’s population or undermine the enemy’s ability to resist. Empirical research by other scholars with different samples likewise finds that “as a conflict actor weakens relative to its adversary, it employs increasingly violent tactics toward the civilian population as a means of reshaping the strategic landscape to its benefit.” Contrary to the conventional wisdom, scholarship suggests that Ukrainian citizens may paradoxically benefit from us supporting them less.

It’s not on the original syllabus. But my students will have the option of answering a new question for their final paper: How can international-relations scholarship inform U.S. policy over Ukraine?