John Mearsheimer has recently made headlines for an article in the New Yorker in which he claims that the United States, not Russia, is to blame for the crisis in Ukraine. Once one can get past the natural emotionally charged reaction that might come from reading such a headline, the realist professor from the University of Chicago makes an argument that seems to make sense on the surface, but fails to uphold further scrutiny.
Mearsheimer states that this crisis started at a 2008 NATO conference, when they announced a plan for Georgia and Ukraine — two neighbors of Russia — to join the defense organization that would formally align these countries with the Western world — at least militarily speaking.
Under Mearsheimer’s logic, Russia viewed this attempted union as an “existential” threat, and therefore invaded Georgia, and later Crimea and now Ukraine, to stop their neighbors from aligning themselves with the U.S. and its allies.
Of course, the natural counterpoint to this is that Ukraine should be able to decide its sovereignty and who they want to align with. Mearsheimer counters that from a realist point of view, the leaders of Ukraine and the Western world should recognize that a “great power” such as Russia is going to have its say and that Ukraine would be unwise to “poke the bear” by aligning with the U.S.
This argument makes sense on the surface, at least when taking away the moral issues at play. Realism is much more concerned with how the world is rather than how the world should be, so this is absolutely on-brand for someone who adheres to that International Relations doctrine. However, there are very significant flaws to Mearsheimer’s argument, even when looking at the situation from a “realist” point of view.
First, Mearsheimer seems to imply that Russia’s response is what any “great power” would do — no matter the circumstance — if another power brought in military forces to a country bordering it. He gives a hypothetical example of what the U.S. would do if another country, say China, had any sort of military presence in say Canada or South America. This seems to make sense on the surface until one considers that Russia already has troops from a “distant great power” as close to its borders as Ukraine.
Mearsheimer seems to conveniently forget that Poland joined NATO on March 12, 1999, without any sort of military provocation from Russia. From a land perspective, Poland is nearly as close to Russia as Ukraine. Furthermore, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are all also member states of NATO, and they directly border Russia.
Mearsheimer’s claim about why Russia invaded Ukraine in the first place is blatantly wrong. This was not some natural, inevitable reaction by one great power to respond to a potential looming threat to their sovereignty. This invasion was about one man — Vladimir Putin — embracing the ridiculous and ahistorical claim that Russia has every right to invade Ukraine because he sincerely believes that Ukraine is actually just a part of Russia. This justifies an invasion in Putin’s mind because he never believes Ukraine should have been given sovereignty in the first place.
Putin echoed sentiments in a speech that indicates he feels that Ukraine is not a country, and instead was accidentally “created” and mistakenly given autonomy in the 1920s by Bolshevik Russia. However, this is wrong. While Russia and Ukraine have cultural ties, Ukraine is not merely a place that was made up by Vladimir Lenin’s government. Ukraine has its own complex history that does not always include Russia. For example, much of Ukraine’s territory was in the jurisdiction of the Austro-Hungarian empire.
Despite Mearsheimer’s misrepresentation of Russia’s motives, one could still make the argument that Russia is a great power that will naturally have its own territorial interest. From that point of view, one could argue that the smart realist move for the United States and its allies should have been to “back off” the moment Russia indicated that an alliance with Ukraine would be an issue.
However, Mearsheimer does not address what the “realist” goals of the U.S. and its allies are. The only attempt appeared when Mearsheimer stated the U.S. policy should focus on pivoting out of Eastern Europe entirely to make an alliance with Russia so that they can be jointly united against the other “great power” — China.
To be frank, this foreign policy analysis is incorrect and suggests that at least a part of Mearsheimer’s brain is stuck in the 1980s..
From a solely militaristic perspective, Mearsheimer is not wrong that the three great powers are the United States, Russia and China. These countries possess the most nuclear weapons and have historically held differing political interests. However, since any serious military confrontation between these would likely result in a nuclear holocaust, I fail to see how it matters if the scenario involves the U.S. and China taking on Russia, or Russia and China taking on the U.S.
The point is, if the end result is everyone dying no matter what, the “teams” involved in the conflict don’t really matter.
The other dimension one could look at when defining a “great power” would be in terms of economic power. In this regard, Mearsheimer would be very wrong about Russia’s status as a “great power.” In terms of economic power, the two clear “great powers” are the U.S. and China, holding GDPs of 19 trillion and 12 trillion, respectively. No other country even gets to 5 trillion, so it's safe to say that this is a competition between the U.S. and China.
Russia’s GDP isn’t even in the top ten on this front, and given the fact that their main export is oil and gas, they are becoming more economically irrelevant as the world continues to gravitate towards clean energy.
It seems that Mearsheimer has a fundamental double-standard in that he believes the U.S. should be considerate not to hurt Russia’s feelings whenever making a decision about Eastern Europe — but at the same time — Russia’s “Great Power” status enables them to do whatever they please within their sphere of influence.
If we’re really approaching this issue from the realist point-of-view, the most sympathetic claim is that Russia and the United States share equal blame for the war in Ukraine. Both sides are merely pursuing “realist” goals. While this is not a point of view I share — if we insist on looking at the world through a lens that does not concern morality — I think this perspective makes more sense than Mearsheimer’s.
Provoking Russia makes sense from the realist perspective of the United States — despite Mearsheimer’s claims — is because Russia’s unprovoked aggression has made countries once willing to remain neutral desperately desire the United States’s sphere of influence. I personally believe that this is honestly just good luck for the U.S. in an otherwise terrible situation. Russia’s stupidity in invading Ukraine — which is something I don’t think the U.S. expected to happen — caused bordering countries to come into the Western sphere of influence.
But, if we insist on abiding to the realist point of view that every foreign policy decision is part of some grander scheme to gain power — one could claim the U.S. wanted to provoke Russia into invading Ukraine to reap the rewards.
What are the “rewards,” one might ask?
Well, Germany just announced an extra $100 billion for their defense budget in the wake of the invasion. This lifted the German defense spending to 2% of their GDP — a policy decision that the United States has wanted Germany to make for years. Germany also canceled the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, yet another victory for the U.S. in terms of what they have been pushing Germany to do.
Also, this invasion has prompted Sweden and Finland — two countries that have remained neutral on this geopolitical front for now — to consider NATO membership much more strongly than they ever had before.
From a realist perspective, the United States will have benefitted geopolitically from this conflict regardless of the outcome for Ukraine. As emotionless and cruel as it sounds, this is the way that I believe a realist would think about the situation.
Therefore, the most sympathetic argument one could make is that the U.S. and Russia were equally responsible because they were both just pursuing realist aims that went beyond Ukraine. As such, Mearsheimer’s argument that the U.S. is mostly responsible for the invasion of Ukraine — even from the perspective of his own international relations theory — is ostensibly wrong.
Benjamin Baharlias is a junior studying political science. Do you agree that John Mearsheimer is wrong, or do you think he has a point? Send all comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.