For the past few months, much of the handwringing about Russia massing troops on Ukraine’s border has been centered on the extent to which the West is responsible for the latest crisis. Much of that supposed responsibility focuses on NATO expansion, the question of Ukraine’s membership in the military alliance, and the persistent claim from critics that, without Ukraine gravitating toward NATO’s embrace, Russia would have little reason to launch the greatest war Europe has seen in nearly a century.
Little matter that NATO expansion has been an unmitigated good, not only stabilizing the European continent but keeping Russia’s broader western flank more secure than at any point in living memory. Moreover, the question of Ukraine’s NATO membership has always been a canard, with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s designs on the country going far beyond a simple question of military alliances. As King’s College professor Sam Greene noted over the weekend, the entire question of Ukraine’s relationship with NATO is a “red herring.” In reality, Putin wants to steer the entirety of Ukraine’s fate, from its military to its economy to everything in between. Which is why, if and when Russian troops begin blasting further through Ukraine, the sole responsibility for the resultant bloodshed will lie with the revanchist dictatorship in the Kremlin, seeking to claw back its former colonial holdings, and not with the West.
There’s a caveat, however. While the idea that NATO expansion has driven the latest crisis is a falsehood, the West isn’t fully without blame. But the responsibility doesn’t lie in specific Ukrainian security arrangements, or in questions of weapons shipments or arms negotiations with Kyiv. Rather, the responsibility lies in the West itself—and specifically how the broader West, from the United States to the U.K. to the European Union, has spent decades tossing open its doors to the geysers of illicit, oligarchic wealth that has spewed from the post-Soviet space, bleeding the region and leading directly to the conflict we’re now facing.
By welcoming these towering tsunamis of ill-gotten gains, these Western countries not only allowed the corrupt claques ruling the region to offshore much of their wealth, whisking it out of their country into safe Western harbors, but they accelerated the kind of wealth inequality, destabilization, and nationalism now rocking the region from Azerbaijan to Kazakhstan to Belarus. In Russia, the results have been clear, and they have been malodorous: Instead of the democratic nation that post-Soviet reformers dreamed of in the early 1990s, a kleptocratic oligarchy has burrowed into the Kremlin and returned to dreams of empire as a way to remain in power, the better to continue pillaging the Russian populace and stashing its illicit wealth across the West.
At this point, it’s relatively well known that the greatest centers of offshoring are no longer places like Panama or the Cook Islands but are instead the major centers of global finance, from Washington to London to Berlin. Even nominally clean countries like Canada and Australia have kept pace, offering everything from anonymous shells to anonymous real estate purchases to anonymous luxury and private investments to whoever came calling, laundering the proceeds in the process. Along the way, Western lawyers, accountants, real estate agents, and consultants grew fat on the inflow of oligarchic wealth. And especially in the post-Soviet space, dreams of democratization crashed on the bloody shoals of entrenched regimes that have used that stolen wealth—and the myriad Western financial secrecy tools freely on offer—to bankroll whatever they needed to remain in power.