War in Ukraine and Mearsheimers “realism”


Putin has  helpfully explained everything in his speech today. The Russian invasion of Ukraine is entirely the fault of NATO and the USA. Russia had no choice and is entirely innocent.

The USA and its European cronies are to blame for the all the  rape, killing and destruction. Well, I suppose this absurd claim of his is to be expected – but you might be surprised to hear that some people in the West agree with him.

It seems that even the Pope believes this, saying that NATO has been “barking at Russia’s door” – rather surprising for an organization that President Macron of France accused of being “brain dead” only three years ago.

It is a view promulgated by the eminent American academic John Mearsheimer. He is a so-called “realist” political scientist at the University of Chicago who writes about international affairs. According to his analysis, “Great Powers” always act selfishly, to protect their own interests.

The Great Powers manouevre against each other with diplomacy and sometimes war to protect themselves.  Any talk of freedom, morality or democracy is a smokescreen and pretence. There is obviously considerable truth in this analysis.

Most of us, for example, reckon that the invasion of Iraq was “really” about oil, and not about importing liberal democracy into that unfortunate country. It would, however, be wrong to accuse “realists”of being simply  amoral and arguing that “Might is Right”.

Mearsheimer, for instance, regards inequality in the US as a disaster, and is highly critical of what has happened to the Palestinian Arabs, although mainly on the grounds that supporting the state of Israel is not in the USA’s true interests.

Problems arise, however, with Mearsheimer’s realism if his description of Great Power behaviour in history becomes a prescription of how they should behave in the present. But this is exactly what Mearsheimer has done by stating unequivocally that the war in Ukraine is entirely the fault of the USA and NATO. This is as much a moral judgement as a description.

The expansion of NATO eastwards after the collapse of the USSR was seen by Russia – or rather by Putin and his colleagues – as an existential threat to their “legitimate sphere of interest” in eastern Europe. In short, the USA and NATO “provoked” the invasion of Crimea, Donbas and now Ukraine as a whole.  Not surprisingly, Mearsheimer’s opinion has caused outrage, although not with the Pope.

I don’t know anybody outside Russia who thinks that NATO is anything other than a defensive organization and it is most unlikely that it would ever invade Russian territory, but Mearsheimer says that all that matters is that Russia perceives NATO as a threat – whether it is right or wrong in that perception is irrelevant. Because of this perception, the USA was wrong to encourage NATO expansion, and is to blame for the war and all its terrible consequences. The USA, argues Mearsheimer, should realistically be concerned with standing up to China, and not wasting its resources on an unimportant little country like Ukraine.

The weakness of this way of looking at the world is that it completely disregards countries that are not Great Powers, and any moral element to international relations. It is the world view of academic theoreticians who see history as a game played by rational, self-interested actors.

Should NATO, and in particular the US, have refused entry into NATO by the Baltic States, and the other Eastern European States? I don’t doubt that this provoked Putin, but if  NATO had not expanded East, wouldn’t this have encouraged him?  And what would the consequences of that have been? The discussion of this is reminiscent of academics’ arguments about Hitler. Did he plan the Second World and extermination of the Jews from the time of Mein Kampf onwards, or was he an opportunist?

My own opinion is that history is so complicated, with so many factors influencing  outcomes, that it is impossible to answer such questions. A “single cause” explanation of international relations like Mearsheimer’s is too simple. The “real” world is indeed largely about ruthless self-interest but it is also shaped by moral concerns and the personalities of leaders. If Al Gore had won the Florida election in 2000, and Iraq had not been invaded – the invasion being largely the work of George W. Bush – the world might now be in a very different place.

Mearsheimer’s realism also fails to take into account the possibility that Putin was woefully misinformed about the situation in Ukraine when he decided to invade. He may well have believed that taking over Ukraine as a whole – at least installing a puppet regime of the kind the Russians had in Eastern Europe in the years of the Cold War – would be easy. And if that had happened, I suspect that the USA and NATO would have reluctantly accepted that as a fait accomplit.

Mearsheimer’s realism has no place for the wishes of so many Ukrainians not to be dominated by Russia. The fact that many politicians in the US and Europe want to support democratic change in Ukraine as a matter of principle, and not just to strengthen the US against Russia, is also important.

Ukraine and NATO are indeed an existential threat to Russia, but not to Russia as a whole. The threat is to Putin and his  kleptocratic regime – a regime based on dishonesty, corruption and denial of the rule of law, just like the old Soviet Union.

The virus of democracy that has started to spread in Ukraine will prove fatal to Putin. Ultimately, the war is as much about this, as it is about Great Power board games. “Realism” provides a limited explanation of how events unfold.

It does not explain why the morale of Russian soldiers is so low, and that of Ukrainian soldiers is so high, or why the Ukrainian government is willing to see so much of the country laid waste, and for so many Ukrainians die, rather than to give in to Putin.

By “blaming” the US and NATO, Mearsheimer is starting an absurd circular argument – NATO expanded because the eastern European countries feared Russia. Russia feared NATO and so invaded Ukraine, justifying NATO’s fears. And so the merry go round goes round and round.

Who is to blame? It is a pointless question – what matters is that most people in Eastern Europe do not want to be in Russia’s “sphere of interest” and Russia has no right to impose itself on Eastern Europe against the local  people’s democratically expressed wishes.

Ukraine is fighting for its freedom, and by so doing is fighting for all of the free world – for a world which is about more than just the selfish interests of Great Powers.

Henry Marsh


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