Readers may know that the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has quoted John J. Mearsheimer, one of the most prominent living international-relations scholars, to justify its most recent invasion of Ukraine. I recently assigned the MFA’s two sources – a talk posted online and Foreign Affairs article, both from 2015 – to my upper-level international relations theory class. As usual, my cadets had some terrific insights. The more I mulled over their comments, the more I felt compelled to weigh in on what’s become a developing controversy.
I want to stress that my comments, though critical, are not intended as a personal indictment of Mearsheimer. In our limited interactions, I’ve always found him to be friendly and generous with his time; he goes out of his way to engage both colleagues and undergraduates. When I was still in college, he was kind enough to sit and chat with me. His work helped inspire my interest in international politics.
As other commentators have noted, Mearsheimer made a number of predictions, including that Putin would not invade Ukraine, which haven’t held up very well. So I’m going to focus on his arguments and the evidence he uses to support them.
Mearsheimer presents his argument as a straightforward extension of his brand of realism. My sense is that his arguments about Ukraine are more muddled. He mixes claims about general dynamics of great-power politics with ones concerning territorial contiguity, domestic politics, and nationalism.
He begins with the uncontroversial argument that Ukraine suffers from significant, politically salient regional divisions (but the same is true of many democracies, including consolidated ones). Mearsheimer thinks that, by dangling the prospect of membership, NATO and the European Union exacerbated these cleavages and therefore bear responsibility for the protests and violence that drove the crisis.
This conclusion isn’t warranted by Mearsheimer’s evidence: the same data he uses to illustrate Ukraine’s regional divisions shows that even in the most pro-Russian areas in 2014, EU membership was more popular than joining Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union .
Mearsheimer’s arguments deprive Ukrainians of any agency
Even setting this aside, these divisions don’t automatically mean that Russian-speaking or ethnically Russian Ukrainians would accept Russian rule or welcome Russian control. There’s nothing like a foreign invasion to overcome those divisions. As of this writing, the more Russian-speaking cities of Kharkiv and Mariupol bravely resist Russian military advances; the citizens of occupied Kherson take to the streets in protest. These are not the actions of a pro-Kremlin population.
Mearsheimer’s arguments deprive Ukrainians of any agency. He consistently ignores, both in the Ukraine talk and his recent interview with the New Yorker, the possibility that Ukrainians might choose democracy and seek membership in the EU on their own volition (in this, he echoes Kremlin talking points). He draws a false equivalence between a liberal, wealthy economic bloc on the one hand and an authoritarian petrol state on the other. For Mearsheimer, both sides are motivated exclusively – or at least ultimately – by power politics. “Freedom” and “prosperity” are rhetorical weapons in a contest between great powers. The aspirations of the majority of Ukrainians don’t factor into this analysis.
Instead of focusing on “the West,” Mearsheimer should consider the distinct possibility that Russia’s long history of attempted dominance over Ukraine helped drive many Ukrainians toward the EU. The Euromaidan protests that toppled Viktor Yanukovych, after all, were sparked by his decision – under pressure from Putin – to walk away from negotiations. Putin’s explicit use of irredentist language, seizure of Crimea, and role in the Ukrainian civil war have clearly shifted public opinion on the question of NATO membership; a majority now favor joining the alliance.
The combined military power of NATO members dwarfs Russian kinetic power
Mearsheimer weaves together various anecdotes and theoretical claims to downplay Putin’s interest in restoring something like the pre-Soviet Russian Empire. For him, the Kremlin must be motivated by balance-of-power considerations and the need to maintain a ‘buffer state’ against NATO and the EU. But, Russia is not balancing against a relatively equal opponent, whereby a shift in Ukrainian allegiance would significantly alter the distribution of power.
Germany alone far surpasses Russia in economic size. Russia’s GDP, however, is 22% smaller than Italy. American GDP exceeds that of Russia by almost 15 times; the U.S. enjoys a dramatic advantage in military spending and, as is becoming increasingly clear, military capabilities. The combined military power of NATO members dwarfs Russian kinetic power. The addition of Ukraine’s capabilities – about 1/8 that of Russia – makes no real difference in the distribution of capabilities. Further, if Putin seeks to diminish or arrest NATO’s strength, he sorely miscalculated, as his actions continue to further alliance unity, dramatically increase German military spending, and cause both Sweden and Finland to reconsider their neutrality.
NATO and the EU can’t bargain away the autonomy of an aspiring member
Indeed, Mearsheimer gives Russia too much credit, simultaneously arguing that it’s a declining power but explaining its behavior with reference to great-power politics. Major powers are states that are uniquely powerful, globally engaged, and receive status from the international community. According to the metrics developed by Thomas Volgy and his co-authors, Russia ceased to be a major power well before the 2022 invasion. Russia plays the role of irredentist, second-tier power merely lashing out at its neighbor independent any concern over “security.”
As much as he portrays Ukraine as central to Russian security, Mearsheimer dismisses the importance of Ukraine to the West. However, he misses the strategic importance of Ukraine’s sovereignty to the liberal order. International politics aren’t merely a realm where the powerful do what they will and the weak suffer what they must. Yes, military capabilities affect state behavior, but authority and status do as well. Minor powers matter to both. Weaker states play an active role in shaping international order and, in doing so, the ability of more powerful states to realize their preferred outcomes. Ukraine chose to align with the West, recognizing the authority of the United States, United Kingdom, and the European Union.
This is why Mearsheimer’s prediction that NATO and the EU will shy away from confronting Russia so severely missed the mark. His version of realism discounts the importance of international order, especially as a source of power and influence. NATO and the EU can’t bargain away the autonomy of an aspiring member, especially not in a deal struck with a revisionist, second-tier state. This would undermine the very order they want to defend. Indeed, it’s not surprising that most states would join in condemning Russia — principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity benefit the vast majority of governments.
Despite his many failed predictions, the New Yorker interview makes it clear that Mearsheimer has doubled down on his argument. He confidently persists in blaming the West and its “liberal delusions” for both invasions of Ukraine. The argument didn’t hold up then, and it certainly doesn’t hold up now. The most plausible explanation rests with Putin’s nationalist delusions.