Who is to blame for the crisis in Ukraine: Russia or the United States and Europe? A lively debate on the question resurfaced lately, but it has a vital flaw in that it fails to consider the roles of the countries caught in between.

It’s as though Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin were back at the negotiating table in Yalta, carving up Europe. Only this time the issue isn’t whether Stalin got to impose regimes from Warsaw to Sofia, but whether President Vladimir Putin has a right to impose them from Ukraine to Kyrgyzstan.

John Mearsheimer, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago, has argued the “we’re-to-blame” position most cogently. He makes what he calls a realist case for the inevitability of Putin’s response to decisions of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and European Union to absorb the ex-Warsaw Pact countries, followed by the three ex-Soviet republics in the Baltics, and then to flirt with Georgia and Ukraine. The attempt to turn Ukraine into a “Western bastion,” he says, was a final needless provocation.

The best response I’ve read to Mearsheimer’s view (which is quite widely held) has come from Alexander Motyl, a professor of political science at Rutgers University. The problem with this supposedly realist approach, Motyl says, is that it doesn’t fit the historical facts. To make it work requires accepting the world view of “Russians suffering from an ideologically and culturally twisted version of reality,” which is, well, unreal.

To make his case, Mearsheimer assumes among other things that NATO and the EU were trying to expand further into the former Soviet Union by absorbing Ukraine at the start of this crisis, which is false. NATO expansion had been off anybody’s agenda since 2008. The EU’s effort to write association agreements with Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine was begun, in 2009, as a consolation prize, after the EU refused to give these countries even the possibility of membership.

I side with Motyl for the most part in this argument, but remain disturbed by the way the whole discussion dismisses the desires and free will of the smaller countries involved.

The crowds that began flooding Kiev’s central square at the end of last year weren’t demonstrating because they were anti-Russian or pro-Western, still less because they were paid or incited by the EU or NATO. They turned out — for a second time in a decade — to protest a political system that wasn’t just riddled with corruption, but was manufactured to enable it. As a result, Ukraine as a nation and an economy had been in a sort of purgatory since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Younger Ukrainians, in particular, tended to support the trade and association pact that had been negotiated with the EU. They saw the discipline involved in accepting EU norms and standards as a last hope for changing the system, which had reached a pinnacle of corruption under President Viktor Yanukovych. When he backed off from the deal at the last minute, under intense pressure from Russia, many Ukrainians saw their hopes for a “normal” future collapse around them.

It’s worth recalling, too, that neither NATO nor the EU wanted the Baltic states as members in the 1990s — it was Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania that wanted in. Their leaders had to spend years lobbying and meeting requirements before attitudes in Washington and other NATO capitals changed. It’s hard to argue today that the insecurity these countries showed in breaking down NATO’s doors was unfounded.

NATO and the EU again became less enamored of enlargement in recent years. The important changes came in the countries involved and Russia. In 2009, Russia had no problem with the EU’s Eastern Partnership program. It was only after Putin returned to the presidency in 2012 and began pushing his project for a Russian alternative to the EU — a Eurasian Union built around a separate Russian civilization and political system — that the EU’s consolation agreements became a significant problem for the Kremlin. Ukraine was essential to Putin’s project, but even under Yanukovych it didn’t want to join.

The EU and its bureaucrats have a lot to answer for in their failure to recognize and respond to this change in the Kremlin. Russia is not the first empire to have collapsed, or to have difficulties coming to terms with the process — so managing the transition should have been a much higher priority in the U.S. and Europe alike. The George W. Bush administration’s attempt to draft Ukraine into NATO (blocked by other members in 2008) was also a huge error, primarily because the vast majority of Ukrainians, for good reason, didn’t want it.

The question at the heart of this crisis remains whether Russia should have special right to determine the policies and governments of its neighboring countries (and no, when Ukrainians change their regime themselves, that is not the same thing; nor was the uprising a fascist coup or a CIA plot). If this really was about NATO threatening Russia’s security interests, the only solution required would have been for Ukraine’s new government to commit to keep a law that forbids the country from joining any military alliance. Ukrainians would have taken that bargain in a heartbeat.

Putin, however, is demanding a great deal more to fulfill his grand Eurasian project. To accept that he has a right to do so, you have to agree that the logic of the Yalta agreement still applies, even if its geography has shifted east.

Mearsheimer’s suggested compromise is that, like Austria during the Cold War, Ukraine should be declared a neutral zone, attached neither to NATO nor the EU. I doubt very much that this would be enough for Putin — Austria, after all, was a member of the European Free Trade Area, a similar arrangement to the trade deal that sparked this conflict.

Based in London, Marc Champion writes editorials on international affairs for Bloomberg View. He was previously Istanbul bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal.

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