The international response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been extraordinary. Rarely have so many nations united so quickly to impose such heavy economic and diplomatic sanctions on Russia. Even Switzerland, a byword for studied neutrality, saw fit to levy sanctions on Putin’s regime. Millions of Ukrainians who fled their homes have been welcomed as refugees in Europe. The sympathy for them, and for those who remain under Russian bombardment, has been widespread (with American schoolchildren mailing small toys, crayons, and stuffed animals to comfort Ukrainian kids displaced from their homes). From across the globe, military aid to Ukraine has poured in.
Underlying this reaction is an unspoken, in many cases impressionistic, recognition that Russia is the aggressor. But one prominent intellectual, Professor John Mearsheimer, argues that we’ve got it all wrong. Mearsheimer, who holds a prestigious chair at the University of Chicago, is well known in his field of international relations. In this conflict, he contends, it is not Putin but “the West, especially the U.S., that’s principally responsible for this disaster.”
This view has gained a sizeable audience. A lecture that Mearsheimer gave seven years ago, following Russia’s first invasion of Ukraine, has gone viral, racking up more than 27.7 million YouTube views. This is huge; if ranked among the most-viewed TED talks (which are typically under twenty minutes), Mearsheimer’s seventy-five-minute lecture would place among the top twenty-five of all time. Fans have reposted clips of Mearsheimer’s recent interviews to YouTube, drawing tens of thousands of views. Fittingly, he has admirers in Moscow. Days after the most recent invasion, Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs posted a tweet that approvingly quotes Mearsheimer’s 2014 article “Why the Ukraine Crisis Is the West’s Fault.”
Mearsheimer has also received a polite hearing among public intellectuals. Jordan Peterson, at his followers’ urging, listened to Mearsheimer’s analysis and found it “singularly lucid.” The conservative-leaning Andrew Sullivan interviewed Mearsheimer on his podcast, as did Peter Beinart, a progressive writer. Both engaged him as a serious thinker. The New Yorker interviewed him. A column in the Washington Post gave his perspective a courteous nod.
What is Mearsheimer’s argument? What does it counsel? What consequences does it lead to? To understand Mearsheimer’s analysis is to appreciate the destructiveness of shrugging at the need for moral thinking.
Evaluating the crisis
Mearsheimer’s contrarian argument flows from his commitment to “realism” in international relations. But before we step inside that intellectual framework, we need to bring into the foreground three significant features of the Russia/Ukraine crisis.
First: the character of NATO. It was created in the Cold War to defend against the threat of the Soviet Union. The USSR was on a global crusade to overthrow free societies in the name of Communism. A distinctive feature of NATO is the agreement that if one member is attacked, all the others will come to its defense. Though NATO has added new member states since the end of the Cold War, none exhibits ambitions for territorial expansion toward Russia.
Second: the character of Putin’s regime. To be blunt, it is an authoritarian regime that has become progressively more dictatorial and aggressive. This is not the first time Putin’s regime has invaded Ukraine; that was in 2014, when Russia annexed parts of it. Russia, a patron of Syria’s brutal dictatorship and an ally of Iran’s theocracy, demands that Ukraine sacrifice its ambition to move toward a freer, less corrupt form of government. It must also forego closer economic and political ties with Europe. And it must be barred from membership in NATO.
To make sense of Putin’s aims, look at the nearly seven-thousand-word essay he wrote arguing that Ukraine is a made-up country, that it lacks sovereignty, and that it should therefore be reunited with the Russian nation. Given Putin’s imperialistic ambitions, it’s impossible to believe his claim that Russia is responding to an “existential threat,” a convenient pretext that reeks of a dictator’s lust for conquest.
Third: the character of U.S. (and European) policy, including NATO expansion. This has been confused and appeasing. The through line, across twenty-plus years, has been a failure to properly evaluate the aims and nature of Putin’s regime. After spending time with Vladimir Putin, President George W. Bush said that he had “looked the man in the eye” and “was able to get a sense of his soul.” Putin, Bush said, was “very straightforward and trustworthy.” This fantasy was punctured by Russia’s war against one of its neighbors, Georgia. The Obama administration sought a policy “reset” to foster warm relations with Russia, which entailed overlooking Putin’s aggression and despotism. Predictably, Putin continued silencing dissenting voices, attacked Ukraine, and bolstered the Syrian dictatorship. Under Trump the U.S. approach remained a study in contradictions. Trump praised Putin as a “strong leader” and a “bright and very talented man,” deflecting criticism of his brutality; the U.S. also imposed several layers of sanctions on Russia, notably in response to election interreference.
This disintegrated, evasive approach toward Putin colored the expansion of NATO. In 2008 NATO announced that it “welcomes” the aspirations of Ukraine and Georgia to join the organization. Becoming a member typically involves a multiyear process. But if these countries belong in the organization and deserve its protection, and if one takes seriously Putin’s imperialist drive, why not fast-track the process? That’s not what happened. Onkar Ghate has argued that NATO’s announcement that those countries might become members years in the future encouraged Putin to act on his ambitions sooner — by invading before either nation could come under NATO’s protective shield.
The approach of the U.S. and its allies has been evasive, incoherent, myopic. None of these failings, however, morally justifies Putin’s war. For him to complain about NATO expansion is like a gangster complaining that beefed-up police patrols are preventing him from expanding his turf. Contemptuous of his own people’s lives and freedom, Putin is exporting despotism into Ukraine by force. Putin, whose imperial ambitions are manifest, is the father of this crisis. The responsibility for every single death in this war lies at Putin’s feet.
Why then does Mearsheimer conclude that ultimate culpability for the present crisis lies not with Putin but with the West, especially the U.S.?
The “balance of power”
Mearsheimer is a vocal proponent of “realism” in international relations. This approach makes a point of sidelining the ideas, institutions and system of government of a particular state — in other words, its chosen moral character. Realists, Mearsheimer writes, “tend not to draw sharp distinctions between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ states, because all great powers act according to the same logic, regardless of their culture, political system or who runs the government.”[i] Those “great powers,” according to Mearsheimer and kindred “realists,” are the states with the most significant military-economic capabilities, the most important actors on the world stage.
What chiefly shapes world politics, Mearsheimer holds, is the “structure of the international system,” understood in terms of the “balance of power” among different countries, “which all states must deal with.” Calculations about “power” — who has relatively more or less — dominate the thinking of states, and “states compete for power among themselves.” For the sake of “survival,” states seek to maximize their relative superiority over other states. This, Mearsheimer writes, sometimes “necessitates going to war,” which for “realists” is “considered an acceptable instrument of statecraft.”[ii]
“Great powers,” Mearsheimer writes, “are like billiard balls that vary only in size.”[iii] One implication: given the same conditions and distribution of power, we should expect “great powers” — like billiard balls — to behave in the same way. So whether the leader is a Hitler or a Churchill, whether the government protects or crushes freedom, is beside the point. Essentially, in its conception of states and their conduct, this is a thoroughly amoralist framework.
A “realist” analysis of Russia/Ukraine
Mearsheimer contends that Europe and the United States, following the Cold War’s end, were wrong to encourage Ukraine (and other former Soviet states) to seek closer ties with the European Union and NATO. That NATO expansion, he claims, was provocative, and so were efforts to expand the European Union. If you look at the situation from Putin’s vantage point, Mearsheimer says, Europe and the U.S. have been trying to turn Ukraine into a “pro-American liberal democracy,” diminishing Putin’s political and economic influence over it. Moreover, American and European backing of pro-Western political leaders and protesters within Ukraine was ominous. Might they do the same within Russia to undermine Putin’s hold on power? Such a fear, thinks Mearsheimer, was not groundless.
Putin was not about to accept a major shift in the apparent “balance of power,” hence Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea in 2014. “What motivates this is that Russia is a great power and it has absolutely no interest in allowing the United States and its allies to take a big piece of real estate of great strategic importance on its western border and incorporate it in to the West,” says Mearsheimer.
The present crisis, in Mearsheimer’s analysis, is simply a continuation of Putin’s understandable reaction.
Shrugging at the need for moral thinking
Mearsheimer’s conclusion fundamentally blaming the West is a consequence of his amoralist framework. Notice the lack of concern about Vladimir Putin’s dictatorial regime and his militant ambitions. Played down are Putin’s explicit statements about his motives for the war. For instance, Mearsheimer puts little weight on Putin’s substantive essay negating Ukraine’s sovereignty and pushing Russian nationalism. Nor does Mearsheimer take seriously Putin’s statement lamenting the fall of the Soviet Union as a tragedy, nor Putin’s imperialistic vision.
Notice, too, the warped perspective on Putin’s fear of being undermined. It’s one thing for the duly elected leader of a free society, holding power under a rule of law, to fear that outside forces may subvert his administration. A dictator’s grip on power, however, is morally illegitimate, and Putin’s desire to retain a chokehold over Russia is indefensible. But such moral considerations are incongruous with Mearsheimer’s analysis.
The upshot is to treat Putin as if he were something other than a freedom-destroying thug. We are supposed to swallow as legitimate the gangster Putin’s complaints about the inroads of an expanded neighborhood watch (NATO) on his turf.
Conversely, little consideration is given to the nature of NATO, its defensive agenda, and the demonstrably non-imperialistic character of its members. That’s because in Mearsheimer’s framework what matters is the “balance of power” within the system, gauged in material terms. Essentially, we’re instructed to view Russia as a billiard ball moved by amoral calculations of power, and to view with neutral indifference a dictator’s lust for domination over victims (both in Ukraine and in Russia) who desire to be left alone.
Even though as a “realist” Mearsheimer claims to see the world as it really is, not as one might wish it to be, his account wishes away certain facts (such as Putin’s nationalist agenda and NATO’s true nature) while elevating other concerns (calculations of brute, material power) as somehow more real.
Empowering a monster
Part of the destructiveness of this amoralist framework is evident in Mearsheimer’s proposed remedy for the crisis. Even though many Ukrainians are risking their lives fighting off Russia’s invasion; even though they dread a future under Putin’s authoritarian boot; even though many Ukrainians want to reshape their country so it better protects their freedom; none of that counts for much in Mearsheimer’s analysis.
Rather, he floated the idea that Ukraine should consider becoming a neutral state, foregoing membership in NATO, and trying to “accommodate” Russia (translation: an appeasing surrender). Mearsheimer believes the U.S. should work to “create friendly relations” with Putin. By the same logic, one can infer, the countries across the globe now bolstering Ukraine’s war of self-defense — with intelligence, weapons, fighter jets, military aid — should pay more attention to Putin’s wishes.
Stepping outside the distortion caused by Mearsheimer’s framework, what all this actually means is rewarding a belligerent dictator for initiating yet another war on Ukraine. It means conferring on Putin a veto power over NATO membership and Ukraine’s sovereignty. It means encouraging Putin to commit further aggression.
And, crucially, it means punishing the victim, Ukraine. It means punishing millions of Ukrainians — many of whom have already lost homes, friends, brothers, sisters, children, parents — by condemning them to a future under the shadow of Russian despotism. Inherent in this “realist” approach is a Putin-like contempt for human life and freedom. In his 2014 essay “Why the Ukraine Crisis Is the West’s Fault,” Mearsheimer makes a revealing assertion. When “great powers get into brawls with weaker states,” talk of “abstract rights” such as “self-determination” — presumably including a sovereign nation’s goal of avoiding foreign despotism — is “largely meaningless.”[iv] This endorsement of injustice is a necessary consequence of Mearsheimer’s amoralist framework. Because it shrugs at distinctions between “good” and “bad” regimes, it leads to whitewashing the aggressor and compounding the suffering of its victims. To dispense with moral judgment in international relations — as in any area of life — is to normalize and enable monsters.
[i] John Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (New York: W.W. Norton, 2003), 17–18
[ii] Mearsheimer, Tragedy, 17, 18.
[iii] Mearsheimer, Tragedy, 18
[iv] John Mearsheimer, “Why the Ukraine Crisis Is the West’s Fault: The Liberal Delusions That Provoked Putin,” Foreign Affairs 93 (September–October 2014): 88.