What’s Missing from Mearsheimer’s Analysis of the Ukraine War
International relations scholar John Mearsheimer is brilliant, provocative and deeply insightful. I have had the pleasure to know him and to have lectured to his class at the University of Chicago. On Ukraine, however, he is dangerously wrong.
In numerous essays and articles, Mearsheimer focuses his fire on U.S. and NATO policies for causing the Ukraine war and for its continuation. His speech, “Why Is Ukraine the West’s Fault?” has been viewed more than 27 million times. These views are echoed by many on the far left and the libertarian right, as well as the center. This makes it all the more vital to understand the gaps in his analysis that produce such a flawed result. His security equation is missing key variables.
The three most important are the security imperatives of Russia’s neighbors, the increasing authoritarianism of the Russian state and the true horror of Russia’s brutal war and occupation. By not adequately weighing these factors, Mearsheimer can explain Putin’s invasion of a peaceful, independent nation as a predictable reaction to Western provocations. He blasts the U.S. and NATO response as an overreaction to a limited conflict. Analyzing only parts of the equation, he arrives at a deeply flawed solution: In my understanding, he essentially calls on the West to militarily abandon Ukraine and to cede it to Russia’s sphere of influence.
Mearsheimer’s specific arguments are well known. (As one colleague told me, Mearsheimer's writings are like Vivaldi’s concertos: beautiful, but they all sound alike.) He holds that “the United States is principally responsible for causing the Ukraine crisis.” That “Putin is not bent on conquering and absorbing Ukraine.” That the West has little to fear from Russia and only “began describing Putin as a dangerous leader with imperial ambitions” after the invasion and is doing so now only “to make sure he alone is blamed” for the war. He concludes that “the United States is not seriously interested in finding a diplomatic solution to the war,” bears primary responsibility for prolonging and escalating the war and is the principal obstacle to peace.
NATO Policies Didn’t Trigger the Ukraine War
One can accept key points in Mearsheimer's argument, as I do, without accepting his conclusions. NATO enlargement was problematic; I warned against it at the time and have criticized it more recently, preferring that the newly liberated states of Eastern Europe be brought into the European Union, not a military alliance created to counter the Soviet Union. Some U.S. policies have not taken into account legitimate Russian security concerns, particularly the deployment of missile interceptors in Poland and Romania that serve no useful purpose but, in Moscow’s view, do present a credible military threat, as I have long argued.
But NATO’s policies were not driven by “America’s obsession with bringing Ukraine into NATO and making it a Western bulwark on Russia’s border.” Rather—while some policymakers and experts have, indeed, proposed grander, hegemonic schemes, particularly during the run-up to and early years of the Iraq war—NATO policies since the end of the Cold War can largely be explained by the usual, mundane drivers: bureaucratic inertia and self-perpetuation; the politics of state-to-state relations; pursuit of new, profitable defense contracts; domestic politics; and the desire of U.S. and European politicians to demonstrate resolve, particularly against Iran.
The key driver of NATO expansion was one that I underestimated and that Mearsheimer specifically ignores: Eastern Europeans wanted protection from a historic foe. They pushed to join NATO; America did not pull them into an anti-Russian pact. Centuries of invasions instilled a genuine fear of Russia into their collective memories. Putin’s numerous nuclear threats since the beginning of the war remind all that however weakened Russia’s army may be by its battles in Ukraine, its nuclear weapons can destroy any nation it targets.
This is true of Sweden and Finland today. The U.S. is not manipulating them into joining a crusade to conquer Russia. These nations fear that Putin’s goals go far beyond those Mearsheimer describes. That is why they are abandoning decades (in Sweden’s case, three centuries) of neutrality. If they followed Mearsheimer’s logic, surely these countries would see that their national interests would be best served by assuaging Russia’s security concerns and continuing to remain free of military alliances.
Similarly, if other former Soviet republics recognized the realist logic of great power spheres of influence, they would join Russia in resisting this plot to expand Western rule into all of Europe and beyond. But they don’t. Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan have all refused to support Putin’s invasion and to recognize the breakaway Donbas republics Russia wants to annex. Despite their deep ties with Russia—or, perhaps, because of them—their fear of Russian ambitions is growing. As one Central Asian official said to the Wall Street Journal, “Will we be next?”
Mearsheimer’s assurances today that Putin has only “limited aims” and that his February blitzkrieg failed not because of fierce Ukrainian resistance but because the “Russian military did not attempt to conquer all of Ukraine” are as wrong now as they were in 2014. Then, too, he predicted that after seizing Crimea, Putin had no further territorial ambitions and even if he did he would be “unable to successfully occupy Ukraine.” He counseled that “Putin surely understands that trying to subdue Ukraine would be like swallowing a porcupine” and argued that Putin’s “response to events there has been defensive, not offensive.”
But Russia itself provides the rebuttal. In late July, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said outright that Moscow’s goal was to free Ukraine’s people from the “unacceptable regime” in Kyiv. He was following Putin’s lead. On June 9, Putin gave a speech on the war where he did not say one word about NATO or NATO enlargement but did wax eloquent about his similarity to Tsar Peter the Great, whose war with Sweden, he said, was justly “returning” land to Russia. “Clearly, it fell to our lot to return and reinforce as well,” he said. Hardly a defensive goal. Already, in occupied parts of Ukraine, Russian-backed administrators are introducing rubles as a new currency, handing out Russian passports, hoisting the Russian flag, taking over cell phone service and media and trying to re-educate teachers and children with new, pro-Russian versions of reality.
This focus on controlling the people and narratives in Ukraine hints at the second variable Mearsheimer ignores in his construct: Putin has long feared that popular resistance to his increasingly authoritarian rule at home would spread if Ukraine and other ex-Soviet republics grew too close to the West. Former Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul pointed this out (correctly, in my view) when he faulted Mearsheimer in 2014 for not looking at the whole picture. “Russian foreign policy did not grow more aggressive in response to U.S. policies,” McFaul wrote. “It changed as a result of Russian internal political dynamics.”
Former Ambassador to Ukraine Steven Pifer also agrees, and lists domestic politics as the second most important motivation for Putin after Russian geopolitics. “For the Kremlin, a democratic, Western-oriented, economically successful Ukraine poses a nightmare,” he wrote this July, “because that Ukraine would cause Russians to question why they cannot have the same political voice and democratic rights that Ukrainians do.” Thus, Putin labeled the 2014 popular uprising that chased pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych from power a “coup” and framed the events as a struggle between the United States and Russia.
Mearsheimer mirrors this frame in his analysis, then and now. It is a frame that robs the Ukrainians of their agency, reducing them to pawns in a great power struggle. It ignores what has happened internally in Russia since the invasion, where Putin has all but liquidated civil society with the declaration of draconian new policies. By understating Putin’s growing authoritarianism—I would call it fascist—Mearsheimer severely understates the threat Putin and Putinism pose to Russia, its neighbors and the West.
While Putin has been in power for over 20 years, the war marks a new stage in his authoritarianism. “Gone is the soft authoritarian regime of his early years, administered in part by a team of liberal economists and technocrats who favored Russian integration with the West,” writes University of California professor Daniel Treisman. “Now, Russia is a brutally repressive police state run by a small group of hard-liners who have imposed ever-harsher policies both at home and abroad.” There is hardly a word of this in Mearsheimer’s analysis.
Minimizing Russian Atrocities
While critiquing U.S. policies of the past is important (particularly the 20 years of unnecessary and counterproductive wars in the Middle East), it is at least equally important to honestly address the present reality of Putin’s war. This is the greatest flaw in Mearsheimer’s argument: In order to make his case, he must minimize Russian atrocities.
Putin is engaged in a sustained war of destruction. His army has scorched the Ukrainian earth. They are kidnapping and shooting local elites. They are raping women and girls. They are killing any men they believe capable of engaging in military activity. Without abandoning its claim of fighting Nazis in Ukraine, the Kremlin now frames the invasion as a war with the West (or a proxy war as Lavrov says), with Russia as the victim. The possibility of a wider, more intractable conflict is real, as is the risk of nuclear war. Russia is doing this, not NATO.
This is the great tragedy in Mearsheimer’s analysis: To make current facts fit his past analysis, he must rationalize if not excuse Russian behavior as an understandable reaction to the threats it perceives.
It is telling that when he describes the horrors of the war he often uses the passive voice or otherwise excludes Russian agency from the equation: “Ukrainians have fled… have been displaced… are dead… Damage has been inflicted…” These are terrible things that “have happened” to Ukraine, not terrible things that Russia has done to Ukraine.
When he notes, for example, that “6.5 million have fled the country” he fails to mention that, of these, Russia has forcibly deported as many as 900,000-1.6 million Ukrainians to Russia, according to the U.S. State Department. Many of these Ukrainians didn’t “flee”; they were rounded up, fingerprinted, had their cell phones confiscated and all their contacts downloaded. Russian troops have separated families, reportedly shipping children to orphanages to be placed in Russian homes. These people may never see Ukraine or their children again.
This minimization of Putin’s brutality is now common among those critical of U.S. and European aid to Ukraine. As David French wrote recently in his newsletter for The Atlantic: “There’s a pattern emerging in parts of the right. It goes something like this. ‘Yes, Russia is wrong to invade Ukraine, but …’ And what follows the ‘but’ is invariably an avalanche of excuse-making and false moral equivalence. NATO provoked Russia, Ukraine provoked Russia, or—and this is my favorite—Western wokeism provoked Russia.”
Thus, like a cancer warning slapped on cigarette ads, Mearsheimer posts a short disclaimer on his analysis that he is against Putin’s invasion, then focuses all his criticism on the U.S. and Ukraine. This failure, as noted above, is one he shares with many on the ultra-left and libertarian right. They do not discuss the true horror of Russia’s war because, if they did, it would be obvious that those responsible for these crimes must be confronted, not excused.
Responsibility for Ending the War
This flawed analysis, this failure to consider all the variables, leads Mearsheimer to a flawed solution: The U.S. must end the war. His position has not changed since his proposal in 2014 after Putin’s invasion of Crimea: “The United States and its allies should abandon their plan to westernize Ukraine and instead aim to make it a neutral buffer between NATO and Russia… Western leaders should acknowledge that Ukraine matters so much to Putin that they cannot support an anti-Russian regime there.”
This proposed settlement—Western pressure to force a Ukrainian surrender—would turn over perhaps one quarter of Ukraine’s territory to Russia and, more important, turn over millions of its citizens to Russian control. In this regard, we should stop talking about occupied territories and instead think about the reality of occupied people.
Millions of people would be forced to live under an authoritarian regime—a regime that has repeatedly carried out unspeakable massacres and is set on the depopulating and Russification of vast areas of Ukraine. This is not a theoretical goal. It is what is actually happening in the Donbas and other regions today.
Diplomacy Needed, But to What End?
Finally, this is not a disagreement over diplomacy versus war. Most agree that the war must end with a diplomatic agreement. The key is how do we get that agreement.
It is very likely that should the West adopt Mearsheimer’s recommendations, end military aid to Ukraine and force it to surrender millions of its citizens to Russian rule, the war would not end; it would expand—either immediately, as Russia continued its offensive to capture all of Ukraine’s Black Sea coast, or after a pause to annex the lands it occupies and to resupply its army.
There is only one way to end to this war: Defeat Russia’s invasion. Only when Putin is convinced that he cannot win will he be willing to negotiate a peace. Early in the war, Ukraine presented a realistic framework for a ceasefire, the withdrawal of Russian troops and a process for determining the status of the territories Russia has occupied.
When the war has come to an end, when the killing, rapes, deportations and food blockades have stopped, we can continue a discussion of the root causes of the conflict. For now, however, we should focus on aiding Ukraine, stopping the slaughter and saving Ukrainians.
Joe Cirincione is a national security expert who formerly served as president of the Ploughshares Fund and directed the nonproliferation program of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
All opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the author.
Photo, courtesy of Ukraine's emergency situations ministry: Rescuers going through the rubble after a missile strike in Chasiv Yar, July 12, 2022.