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What John Mearsheimer gets wrong about Ukraine

The great-power realist lets theory get in the way of fact.

By Katie Stallard

When the facts change, the Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Samuelson once said, I change my mind. Not so the realist scholar John Mearsheimer who, despite repeated evidence to the contrary, remains wedded to his conviction that the West is to blame for Russia’s war on Ukraine, that Vladimir Putin is not an imperialist, and that the Russian president is a “first-class strategist”. To Mearsheimer and his defenders, he is a courageous teller of truths. But there is a basic flaw at the heart of his argument: he does not understand Russian or Ukrainian domestic politics.

According to Mearsheimer’s model of great power behaviour, as he explains in a recent interview with the New Statesman’s Gavin Jacobson, Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022 “should have come as no surprise” – although he concedes that he was personally surprised when it happened – because it was an all but inevitable response to the US-led march into “Russia’s backyard”. He characterises the conflict as a “preventive war” that “Russian leaders certainly saw… as ‘just’, because they were convinced that Ukraine joining Nato was an existential threat that had to be eliminated”.

It is certainly true, as Mearsheimer notes, that the Nato summit declaration in Bucharest in 2008 stated that Ukraine and Georgia “will become members of Nato”, but without any timeline for their accession. This was deliberate. The declaration was a compromise between those leaders who supported Kyiv’s eventual admission, most notably the then US president George W Bush, and those who were opposed, such as the French president Nicolas Sarkozy and German chancellor Angela Merkel. Was the resulting equivocation a particularly smart idea? No. Does it constitute justification for Russia’s invasion? Also, no.

Fifteen years later, Ukraine is not meaningfully closer to joining Nato. For evidence, one only has to look to Volodymyr Zelensky’s scathing response to the latest formulation from Nato leaders in Vilnius this July, which promised to “extend an invitation to Ukraine to join the alliance when allies agree and conditions are met”. (They did not specify what those conditions were.) As the Ukrainian president interpreted the message: “It seems there is no readiness neither to invite Ukraine to NATO nor to make it a member of the Alliance.”

Even if Ukraine had been close to Nato membership, this would still not explain Putin’s compulsion to invade it. Finland, which has a 1,340-kilometre land border with Russia, joined the alliance in April this year. Sweden, which sits across the Baltic Sea from St Petersburg, is poised to do the same if Turkey and Hungary approve its accession. Both countries have fought wars with Russia in past centuries. Yet Russian troops are not massing on their borders. The difference, of course, is how Putin views Ukraine.

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Bizarrely – despite the fact that Putin has claimed that Ukraine is not a “real” country, invaded it, and compared himself to the 18th century Russian imperialist Peter the Great – Mearsheimer refuses to believe that his actions could be motivated by imperialism. “There’s no evidence that he had imperial ambitions before the war,” Mearsheimer assured the New Yorker’s Isaac Chotiner in November 2022, two months after Putin had announced the annexation of four Ukrainian regions. “There would have to be evidence that he had said that it was desirable to conquer Ukraine and incorporate it into Russia.” Plus, he added, Putin had said that he respected Ukraine’s sovereignty. But, Chotiner countered, Putin had also said that Russians and Ukrainians were “one people” and violated Ukraine’s sovereignty, so should we necessarily take him at his word? Mearsheimer changed the subject.

Equally perplexing is Mearsheimer’s tendency to conflate Putin’s obsessions with Russian interests as a whole. Mearsheimer’s assertion that “Russian leaders” viewed the invasion as “just” ignores the fact that much of the Russian foreign policy establishment was blindsided by the start of the war. Within the Kremlin elite, it was not a settled matter that conflict with Ukraine was inevitable or desirable. In fact, according to the Financial Times, Putin did not even consult his own foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, ahead of the attack. “He has three advisers,” Lavrov reportedly complained to an oligarch later: “Ivan the Terrible. Peter the Great. And Catherine the Great.”

But perhaps the most glaring omission in Mearsheimer’s theory of the war is the role of Ukrainians themselves in determining the country’s future. As he presents it, Ukraine’s post-Soviet trajectory has been shaped by the West, above all the US, and Washington’s supposed obsession with bringing Ukraine into Nato. According to this world-view, Ukraine should be understood primarily as a strategic battleground to be dominated by Russia or the West, rather than an independent nation exercising its own democratic will. Mearsheimer does not see the 2014 Revolution of Dignity as a popular uprising against a corrupt, autocratic president who had reneged on the promise of closer integration with the EU, but as a “coup”. Putin’s invasion is not a desperate attempt to halt Ukraine’s progress towards a European future, but a predictable reaction to the US-led scheme to transform Ukraine into a “pro-American liberal democracy”.

Besides revealing an almost touching faith in American democracy’s promotion efforts, Mearsheimer misses the fact that Ukraine’s shift away from Moscow has been driven by direct experience of Russian foreign policy under Putin. There was no groundswell of popular support in Ukraine for joining Nato before Russia annexed Crimea in 2014. Ukraine’s military modernisation and its determination to join the Western alliance – like the rejuvenation of Nato itself – has been galvanised by Russia’s actions, not those of the US. His theory of great power politics might have made sense in the abstract, but it breaks down when confronted with the facts in Ukraine, and he comes uncomfortably close to defending an indefensible act of aggression. In this respect, we should be clear that Mearsheimer is not delivering harsh truths the world is not ready to hear, he is simply wrong.

[See also: Guns, grain, and history]

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