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.
I suffered a moment of recent confusion, and I don’ t know if my comment was retained for your consideration. It expressed my appreciation for you sharing your thinking, to which I am previously inclined lacking your articulation. People choose. You said it. It boils down to how we think, how we trust, how we believe, and what we do with it. I watched/listened to a utube lecture by a man of Indian association I suspect; birthright I suspect, saying how Russia is understandable from historical articulation. Everything is understandable if you listen and believe this guy. Russia is people, Ukraine is people; okay, what’s the rub? Who knows, and that’s the question, and what does everyone want? Well, Putin wants Ukraine to be Russia. So is the power of a government all that informs the people? What about the dead soldiers? What about the dead babies. What is happening is chosen by each tank driver.
I knew we were in for trouble in his 2015 lecture from the start. He first “defines” Europe in a very white-centric way; he makes a list of European states that includes Germany, Poland, and Russia but excludes Turkey and Greece – for…reasons. This is very much in line with his self-described ’19th Century Thinking’, in which he sees some merit, supposedly.
He imposes a 20th Century version of Realpolitik onto the discussion, ignoring the history of the Cold War. He goes out of his way to ridicule anyone who would dare to make comparisons of Putin to Hitler. Let me step out here and begin by saying he pointedly is silent on comparisons of Putin to Stalin, who famously said (regarding the so-called Iron Curtain) there could be no free elections allowed in states adjoining or strategically important to Russia. That sounds pretty close to his (and the Kremlin’s) talking points about the status of Uraine from the Russian point of view.
He proceeds then to gloss over Crimea, saying that it was pretty-much Russian anyway (right?) Strange, hat *does* sound markedly familiar to apologia about the Anschluss. Same language, same ethnicity, common cause, one people – these are the excuses used to “rescue” fellow speakers of the same language from their evil oppressors in adjoining states. Funny, I don’t see the French wringing their hands about French-speaking minorities in Switzerland, or Americans “concerned” about our English-speaking brethren in Quebec. There are reasons, and then there are excuses and justifications: ‘causus belli’. This is the latter. It was when Hitler did it to Austria, and it is now when Putin says he is rescuing native Russian speakers from fascists in Kyiv.
Speaking of fascists, anyone who writes on history with any attempt at being responsible, does not toss around the words “fascist” or “coup” without explaining or proving their use. He says there were “fascists” present at the protests, but doesn’t mention that there were also pro-Russian elements there – or that there were possibly Russian-trained specialized units instigating violence (possibly – there are conflicting reports as to who was doing the shootings at Euromaidan), or that the right-wing nationalists were a tiny minority of the protest size. He calls Euromaidan a “coup”, which is a loaded word that summons up visions of secret juntas coordinating to seize power for their own sake. I’d like to point out that two symbols of the opposition, Klitschko and Tymoshenko, ran for office after Yanyukovich was forced from office and both of them lost. Not a very efficient coup, if that is what it is. It sounds more like an impeachment followed by emergency elections. And if we are going to call that a “coup”, then the word basically has no meaning anymore.
Thank you for your article, it is pretty much the same thing I ws thinking while recently listening to Dr. Mearshiemer’s presentation.
Thanks Patrick for articulating for many of us who do not have the resources to question some of John’s views which we instinctively disagrees with.
Alas, ideas have consequences. We ate seeing them.being played out. Ideas shape minds before these minds in turn find the justification to order the tanks to roll and missiles to fly.
Ordinary Ukrainians (and Russians) will have to suffer for them. Hell no, the rest of us ordinary world citizens too.
Can you please find a source where Mearsheimer predicted that Putin would never invade Ukraine?
He didn’t say never ever ever would Putin invade the rest of Ukraine, but this is pretty darn close:
“ Other analysts allege, more plausibly, that Putin regrets the demise of the Soviet Union and is determined to reverse it by expanding Russia’s borders. According to this interpretation, Putin, having taken Crimea, is now testing the waters to see if the time is right to conquer Ukraine, or at least its eastern part, and he will eventually behave aggressively toward other countries in Russia’s neighborhood. For some in this camp, Putin represents a modern-day Adolf Hitler, and striking any kind of deal with him would repeat the mistake of Munich. Thus, NATO must admit Georgia and Ukraine to contain Russia before it dominates its neighbors and threatens western Europe.
This argument falls apart on close inspection. If Putin were committed to creating a greater Russia, signs of his intentions would almost certainly have arisen before February 22. But there is virtually no evidence that he was bent on taking Crimea, much less any other territory in Ukraine, before that date. Even Western leaders who supported NATO expansion were not doing so out of a fear that Russia was about to use military force. Putin’s actions in Crimea took them by complete surprise and appear to have been a spontaneous reaction to Yanukovych’s ouster. Right afterward, even Putin said he opposed Crimean secession, before quickly changing his mind.
Besides, even if it wanted to, Russia lacks the capability to easily conquer and annex eastern Ukraine, much less the entire country. Roughly 15 million people—one-third of Ukraine’s population—live between the Dnieper River, which bisects the country, and the Russian border. An overwhelming majority of those people want to remain part of Ukraine and would surely resist a Russian occupation. Furthermore, Russia’s mediocre army, which shows few signs of turning into a modern Wehrmacht, would have little chance of pacifying all of Ukraine. Moscow is also poorly positioned to pay for a costly occupation; its weak economy would suffer even more in the face of the resulting sanctions.
But even if Russia did boast a powerful military machine and an impressive economy, it would still probably prove unable to successfully occupy Ukraine. One need only consider the Soviet and U.S. experiences in Afghanistan, the U.S. experiences in Vietnam and Iraq, and the Russian experience in Chechnya to be reminded that military occupations usually end badly. Putin surely understands that trying to subdue Ukraine would be like swallowing a porcupine. His response to events there has been defensive, not offensive.”
He says very similar stuff in the 2015 talk, IIRC.