Liberal internationalists, neoconservatives and NeverTrumpers are having the time of their lives these days, ridiculing anyone on the political right who has ever said a good thing about Vladimir Putin.

Those “Putin groupies” as a Wall Street Journal columnist described them, include former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, far-right French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen, Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán and, of course, Trump himself.

Trump described Putin as a “genius” and said he was a better president than Barack Obama — and he isn’t the only American president to compliment the Russian leader. President George W....

Liberal internationalists, neoconservatives and NeverTrumpers are having the time of their lives these days, ridiculing anyone on the political right who has ever said a good thing about Vladimir Putin.

Those “Putin groupies” as a Wall Street Journal columnist described them, include former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, far-right French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen, Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán and, of course, Trump himself.

Trump described Putin as a “genius” and said he was a better president than Barack Obama — and he isn’t the only American president to compliment the Russian leader. President George W. Bush said about Putin, “I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy.”

As someone who has criticized some American conservatives’ infatuation with the Russian president, describing it as the “right’s Putin problem,” I assume no one would accuse me of being a Putin groupie. But I do plead guilty that, like several leading realist scholars — John Mearsheimer, Stephen Walt and Ted Carpenter — I was skeptical of the notion that Putin would launch a full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

In fact, I recently criticized the way the “Munich” analogy has been employed in analyzing foreign policy and suggested that while Putin was a bad guy, he was playing realpolitik, as opposed to Hitler, who was a lunatic.

Realists are also being attacked now by their intellectual adversaries for blaming Washington policymakers for creating the conditions for the current war by expanding NATO to Russia’s border and proposing that Ukraine join the Western defense organization.

Such a move, argued realists, would be perceived by Putin — and rightly so — as posing a threat to core Russian national interests, not unlike the way Russian or Chinese deployment of military forces equipped with nuclear weapons in Mexico would be viewed in Washington.

In a thoughtful New York Times piece, columnist Ross Douthat reflects on these issues, quoting Mearsheimer’s 2016 warning that the “West is leading Ukraine down the primrose path, and the end result is that Ukraine is going to get wrecked.”

So against the backdrop of death and destruction taking place in Ukraine, were realists wrong in their assessment of Putin as someone who is playing realpolitik?

Or is Putin more like Hitler and less like, say, the Soviet leaders with whom America did business during the Cold War, avoiding a war between the Western and Communist blocs? Is Putin’s long-term goal to recreate the Soviet empire, as opposed to sensibly protecting Russian interests?

If the realists were wrong in their assessments, then you could argue that if Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and the Baltic states were not members of NATO in 2022, Russia under Putin would be using military power to ensure that they did not embrace a pro-Western orientation. At best, he would have demanded that they be “Finlandized.”

Realists perceived Putin to be protecting Russia’s legitimate national security interests in Ukraine and Georgia by using limited military power in the way the US itself has acted in the past.

Remember the 1989 US invasion of Panama and the deposing of its leader, with the US establishing the nation-state of Panama to protect the Panama Canal? And let us not forget the earlier 1983 invasion of Grenada, where America was allegedly facing an existential threat from a Marxist regime that was holding a group of American students hostage. There have also been numerous efforts to overthrow anti-American regimes in our own backyard.

In the aftermath of the Cold War, the entire planet was coming under the American sphere of influence, including the former Yugoslavia and the Middle East. US air power and military support established the new state of Kosovo that has yet to be recognized by the United Nations. President George H.W. Bush attacked Iraq and forced Iraqi powers out of Kuwait.

Most American realists recognized that Putin, a former KGB operator, was an authoritarian leader with limited respect for democratic and liberal values ruling a nation that has never been an integral part of the West. It’s for this reason no one seriously believed that Russia would ever join the EU, or for that matter, NATO.

But then the same realists shared the concern the late George Kennan expressed criticizing the expansion of NATO, calling it a “tragic mistake” and predicting doing so would be the beginning of a new Cold War, as the Russians would “gradually react quite adversely” to American policy.

And realists did not support Putin’s military interventions or incursions in Georgia and Ukraine, or his effort to create pro-Russian statelets there and elsewhere, any more than they had backed US military interventions elsewhere.

Yet these limited Russian and US military interventions aimed at achieving narrow strategic goals seemed to be in line with the evolving norms of the post-Cold War era and unlikely to lead to global conflagrations that could pit the two nuclear powers against each other.

But where realists like me may have gotten it wrong is by assuming that Putin was similar to, say, German chancellor Otto von Bismarck, another master of realpolitik who was successful in achieving national goals while at the same time recognizing the limits of his nation’s power.

In retrospect, Putin should probably be seen as in the same league as regional warlords like Serbia’s Slobodan Milošević, consumed with grandiose nationalist and ethnic aspirations without serious consideration of the regional balance of power in which they are operating.

Or if we want to be more generous to Putin in terms of trying to understand his decision to invade Ukraine, we probably should compare him to President George W. Bush and the catastrophe he unleashed when he ordered US troops to invade Iraq.

In a way, W. and Putin were in similar positions before they made their moves. Bush was told by his intelligence services as well as by experienced national security advisors that Iraq’s Saddam Hussein had supposedly acquired weapons of mass destruction that could pose a major threat to American security.

Likewise, Putin was purportedly worried that Ukraine was moving in the direction of joining NATO, a step that would involve access to nuclear missiles and a threat to core Russian national security interests.

Yet in both cases, the threats were not immediate and did not amount to clear and present danger. Indeed, realists like former national security advisor Brent Scowcroft and then-secretary of state Colin Powell, advised Bush not to invade Iraq and rather to employ other military and diplomatic means in response to the potential threat of Iraqi WMDs.

From his perspective (and that of any lucid realist), after moving Russian troops to the Ukrainian border, Putin was in a strong position to pressure Ukraine and Western supporters not to invite Russia’s neighbor to join NATO. There was no immediate need to invade Ukraine to achieve that goal.

In both cases, ideological fantasies, whether it was remaking Iraq along liberal-democratic lines or getting Ukrainians to join with their Russian brothers, won the day. So it’s ironic that American public figures who supported the invasion of Iraq, including President Biden, are now blasting Putin for invading Ukraine and leading us to the same kind of disaster that we witnessed in the Middle East.