Mearsheimer on Where the Ukraine War Is Headed

March 14, 2024
RM Staff

Can Ukraine hold the line in 2024? That would be the best-case scenario—according to John Mearsheimer, a University of Chicago professor and one of the leading proponents of “restraint” in American foreign policy. Interviewed on a recent episode of the “Daniel Davis Deep Dive” podcast, Mearsheimer has claimed that he considers  “ridiculous” the idea that Ukraine will be able to take the offensive in 2024 or 2025. He also says he is skeptical that the West can deliver sufficient assistance in the form of weaponry and training to the Ukrainians to decisively turn the tide in the war.  

Below is an abridged version of remarks made by Professor Mearsheimer, edited for clarity.

On Ukraine’s Prospects in 2024-25

It’s ridiculous to think that Ukraine can hold the line in 2024 and then eventually take the offensive. That’s just not going to happen. They took the offensive this past summer and it was a colossal failure. And there’s no way that we’re going to arm up and train the Ukrainians by 2025, so that they’ll be in a position to overwhelm the Russians, who are arming up their forces and training their forces more effectively than we are. I think that the best we can hope for is that the Ukrainians maintain the status quo in 2024—I’m talking here about the status quo on the battlefield—and that they can do that into 2025. The real danger is that the Ukrainians are going to be defeated by the Russians over the course of this year and next year. That, I think, is the more likely outcome—that the Russians will just roll back the Ukrainians. The idea that Ukraine is going to launch some offensive in 2025 and turn the tide is delusional.

[Apart from manpower problems,] … there are three other problems that the Ukrainians face. First of all, the weaponry issue. We’re going to give lots of money, I believe, to the Ukrainians and the EU will do the same thing, but they don’t need money as much as they need weapons. And we don’t have the weaponry to give them. 

Point two, if you look at what’s happened in the air war, the Russians have basically eviscerated the air defenses in Ukraine, so they’re now free to attack all sorts of targets in Ukraine, near the front lines and deep in Ukraine, and to do all sorts of damage. This is a huge force multiplier for the Russians. 

And then, finally, if you look at the political situation inside Ukraine, what you see is all sorts of trouble. ... You have this fractious political situation that could even lead to a coup or possible assassination—who knows—inside of Kyiv.

On the other hand, if you look at the political situation in Russia, you remember the days when we used to talk about the fact that the Wagner Group was going to topple [President Vladimir] Putin, and Putin was in a precarious position. Everybody was wondering who was going to replace him and if we were going to live happily ever after as a result. Those days are gone—Putin is in the catbird seat. It’s the Ukrainians who are in deep trouble. So, everywhere you look here, Ukraine is in deep trouble and the Russians are doing quite well.

On Fears of Russia Invading a NATO Member State

I think this is ludicrous. First of all, the Russians are, in effect, stuck in eastern Ukraine. It’s not like they’re on the Polish border now. The big question on the table in my mind is how much territory, if any, they will capture over the next few months. I think they will end up capturing some territory, but the idea that they’re on the verge of decisively defeating Ukraine is not a serious argument. 

Furthermore, Putin has made it clear that he has no interest in conquering western Ukraine. He’s now talking about countries like Poland and Romania grabbing territory in western Ukraine that used to belong to them. He doesn’t say, “I want that territory for Russia.” He’s saying, “Romanians are going to want that territory.” I don’t believe that will happen. But nevertheless, it’s just evidence that Putin is not talking about conquering all of Ukraine. He has made it clear that he has no interest in conquering countries in Eastern European, including the Baltic states. And he would be foolish to try to do so. So the idea that he’s going to conquer all of Ukraine, then go on a rampage against NATO and we’re going to have World War III is, I think, a ridiculous argument.

On How NATO Could Respond If the Ukrainian Military Starts to Collapse

The question I think that is very interesting, based on these stories that you see popping up now … is what the West is going to do and, more particularly, what NATO is going to do if the situation in Ukraine deteriorates over the next few months, as I described it. And again, when we talk about deterioration, we’re not talking about all of Ukraine falling under the control of the Russians. We’re just talking about the Russian steamroller, in a sense, moving westward—the Russians capturing territory in Odesa and Kharkiv, and so forth and so on. If that begins to happen and it looks like Ukraine is really going to turn into a dysfunctional rump state, and we’re going to have mud all over our face—we meaning NATO—what will the United States and its allies do then? I think there is reason to worry that we may try to intervene to rescue the situation, especially if it looks like the Ukrainian military is beginning to collapse. 

What if the Ukrainian military shatters in June of this coming year? I’m not saying that will happen, but it is a possibility, right? It just shatters. What do we do then? And the Russians start moving westward and they’re on the doorstep of Kyiv. What will the Americans do … [if] the Ukrainian army shatters and we’re deeply fearful that the Russians will move to the Polish and Romanian border? And what we do is we put some troops in western Ukraine and we send a very clear signal to the Russians that we’re not interested in fighting them. Those troops are there purely for deterrence purposes, to keep the Russians out of western Ukraine. And the story we tell ourselves is that deep down we believe the Russians are not interested in western Ukraine. They’ve made that clear. Furthermore, they would end up trying to absorb all of these ethnic Ukrainians who want nothing to do with the Russians and actually hate them. So we could tell ourselves a story that went along the lines that even if we put these forces in, we wouldn’t have to worry about it escalating as long as we communicated clearly with the Russians that we were not interested in reconquering territory or fighting with them. So, it could happen. Again, I think it’s highly unlikely we would do that.

I think we will have to live with the fact that the Russians will end up conquering more territory. I’ve long argued that they would take the four oblasts west of the four oblasts they control now or have annexed so far. And they may even take a bit more. And I think there would be nothing we could do to prevent that. But we would do everything we could to sort of reconstitute the Ukrainian forces, shore them up, and do what we could to negotiate with the Russians to make sure that they didn’t take all of Ukraine and that this rump Ukrainian state remained intact.

John J. Mearsheimer is the R. Wendell Harrison Distinguished Service Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago.

Opinions expressed herein are solely those of the author, unless otherwise stated. Photo by the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine, 56th Motorized Brigade, shared under a Creative Commons 4.0 license.