When I arrived as an incoming graduate student at Ohio State University, I was labeled a realist since I studied extensively under John J. Mearsheimer at the University of Chicago. And despite the fact that I find such labeling exercises rather silly (plus, my advisor at both Chicago and OSU was actually Alex Wendt), there was, and still is, some truth to it. Power does matter in international politics and contrary to many others in our field I think that Mearsheimer’s theory of great power politics does make a lot of sense, and it explains large swaths of international politics throughout history.
However, despite the fact that his recent analysis in Foreign Affairs of the causes of the Ukrainian crisis makes a number of good points, most importantly, that Putin’s actions do not necessarily signal an attempt to build a greater Russian empire and that realpolitik matters, it is at the same time wrong.
Mearsheimer argues that there are three major reasons for why the West has caused the Ukrainian crisis and forced Putin to intervene in Ukraine: Eastern enlargement of NATO, enlargement of the EU, and efforts to spread democracy in Eastern Europe and eventually in Russia. According to Mearsheimer, the ouster of the Ukrainian pro-Russian president Yanukovych and the installment of a new anti-Russian government then only constituted “the final straw” for Putin and provided the trigger for Putin to intervene.
Regarding the first two, Mearsheimer argues that Western leaders were unaware that Russia would feel threatened by NATO/EU enlargement. Obviously that has been true in the past, but the evidence cited is almost a decade old. Back then mistakes were made by Western leaders, but that doesn’t show that they are incorrigible, die-hard liberals who walk around with pink glasses trying to make the world fit into their liberal utopian fantasies. As Mearsheimer notes himself, the missile defense shield on the Eastern border of NATO was essentially abandoned and Western leaders tried to assuage Russian fears by creating the NATO-Russia council. Well, that’s because Western leaders did understand that some of their actions could be perceived as a threat to Russian security. And even though public statements were made that might have given Ukraine and Georgia the impression that they would eventually become NATO/EU members, Mearsheimer of all people should know that oftentimes “talk is cheap,” and that such statements are a far cry from actually admitting those countries.
In addition, the reluctance of German chancellor Merkel to impose harsher economic sanctions on Russia first and foremost constitutes an effort to not further antagonize Putin; it is not primarily based on fears of economic repercussions. Granted, Western Europe might get hurt economically by Russian retaliation to such sanctions, but Russia would get hurt more, a lot more. The country is economically weak and the threat of shutting down gas supplies to the West rings hollow when you consider the extent to which the Russian economy is depending on its sale of gas and oil.
Most importantly, however, Mearsheimer conveniently overlooks the presence and relevance of Russia’s nuclear arsenal, which is rather strange given his claim that realpolitik still matters and that Putin is an adept strategist (which I completely agree with). As Mearsheimer has argued himself, nuclear weapons are the best defense you can have in order to deter foreign aggression. Even if NATO would expand to the Ukraine, which seems unlikely given recent events and developments in the country, why would that matter? Even a missile shield stationed on the Russian border would not be able to prevent a full-scale attack by Russian nuclear forces. The United States knows that, European leaders know that, and Putin certainly knows that, too. So, the fact that Mearsheimer does not even mention the role of nuclear weapons should give you pause.
Now, Western efforts to spread liberal democracy in Eastern Europe and Russia certainly have not only been welcomed by leaders in the region. And the fact that many Western politicians unconditionally, and often naively, supported the revolution in Ukraine certainly did not help to make things better. However, the evidence Mearsheimer cites is clearly biased towards his own argument. John McCain has done many stupid things in the last couple years, no surprise. And Mr. Gershman, leader of the National Endowment for Democracy, might say whatever he likes to say about the prospects of fostering democracy in Russia, but we have clearly seen that the Russian state is more than capable of preventing such efforts, if it deems it necessary. Also, since when do structural realists care about NGOs?
In short, to argue that NATO/EU expansion and efforts to spread liberal democracy created such intense security fears in Russia that Putin was forced to incorporate parts of Ukraine in order to create a buffer zone is simply not credible. What is true is that the events in Ukraine; the ouster of Yanukovych, hostilities against Russians living in Crimea and Easter Ukraine, and the often very hostile rhetoric and actions towards Russia by the new Ukrainian leaders provided ample reason for Russia to become nervous about its neighbor. If events like this would happen in Mexico and a substantial number of American citizen were in the country and under threat, the United States would probably also send in the Marines. Add to that the fact that Russia does have a strong historical claim on Crimea, and that Sevastopol is maybe the most important naval base for Russia, and you have plenty of reasons for Russia to get nervous.
In conclusion, no, Russia is not trying to establish some kind of new great empire, even though I am not sure that actually ever was the ‘conventional wisdom’ to begin with. And yes, Western leaders were unprepared, were not able to put themselves in Putin’s shoes, and consequently exacerbated the crisis. Yet, to argue that this crisis is the result of NATO/EU expansion pushed forward by Western leaders who are almost pathologically believing in the virtues of liberalism without taking power realities into account is simply not convincing either.