John Mearsheimer’s lecture on Ukraine: Why he is wrong and what are the consequences
On 16 June 2022, John Mearsheimer, Professor at the University of Chicago, delivered a lecture on the war in Ukraine at the Robert Schuman Centre of the European University Institute. During the lecture, Mearsheimer defended his controversial view that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is the fault of the United States and NATO. For scholars studying Central and Eastern Europe and the region’s citizens, the lecture is deeply problematic on factual, scientific, and moral grounds. This article addresses the validity of Mearsheimer’s central thesis, the quality of the presented evidence, and the lecture’s broader implications and the concept of academics’ social responsibility. It argues that Mearsheimer’s explanation of the war in Ukraine is intellectually unsatisfactory and that it rests on shaky empirical foundations. By publicly defending his scientifically unsound thesis, Mearsheimer legitimises Russia’s propaganda and violates the fundamental values of social responsibility that all academics should respect.
A controversial thesis
Mearsheimer’s main point is that the United States and its allies are to blame for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine since they allegedly pushed for Ukraine’s NATO membership, the prospect of which Russia has seen as an existential threat. There are at least four reasons why this account is wanting.
First, it ignores the fact that Ukrainians – like other Eastern Europeans – have been actively seeking NATO membership to protect themselves from the Russian threat. They did not need to be pushed, they have desperately wanted to join. They first officially applied for membership in 2008 and repeatedly declared it a policy priority after 2014. However, in Mearsheimer’s account, Ukrainians appear only as victims of Russia’s invasion, deprived of any agency. Ascribing to them a uniquely passive role is an analytical shortcoming that turns the blame game on its head, and an illustration of how condescendingly some Western academics and pundits regard Central and Eastern Europeans: as clueless pawns in a geopolitical game played by the “great” powers.
Second, Mearsheimer’s account is at least partially incomplete since, in isolation, it cannot satisfactorily explain the timing of the invasion or why other pro-Western countries in Russia’s immediate neighbourhood have avoided a similar fate. When Russia’s invasion started, it still appeared extremely unlikely that Ukraine would join NATO in the foreseeable future. What is more, the prospect that NATO, in the implausible scenario of Ukrainian membership, would launch an attack against a nuclear power is foolish. Indeed, Ukraine joining NATO would hardly be a credible military threat to Russia and, if Crimea remained in Russian hands, Russia’s key strategic interests would be largely preserved. All this suggests that any serious explanation of the invasion needs to consider additional factors such as Russia’s domestic political situation; the ideological and symbolic threat a democratic and prosperous Ukraine would represent to Russia’s incumbent political regime; and the potential desire of an ageing dictator to conquer immortality through territorial expansion. Without considering these factors and assessing them against solid empirical evidence, we will never understand what triggered the invasion.
Third, Mearsheimer’s explanation draws on his own version of the realist theory of international relations, offensive realism, which is not an overly reliable guide to the behaviour of contemporary states. Offensive realism holds that great powers such as Russia cannot tolerate perceived security threats in their neighbourhoods. However, here as elsewhere, offensive realism often fails on empirical grounds. The breakup of the Soviet Bloc, the post-Cold War military weakness of Germany, and peace among major European powers are just a few examples of such failures. Even if Russia really considered the prospect of Ukraine’s accession to NATO as an existential threat, which is far from certain despite Russia’s official rhetoric, there was absolutely no certainty that it would react in the way it did to Ukraine’s sovereign decision to seek joining the alliance. It is not by accident that the invasion took many members of Russia’s political establishment by surprise. Given the variety of alternative scenarios that could unfold, blaming the United States, NATO, or even Ukraine – if we acknowledge its active pursuit of NATO membership – for the war is not only morally wrong (i.e., wars are always started by those who pull the trigger, not those who join a defensive military alliance), but it is also intellectually unsatisfactory.
Fourth, one would hope that such a controversial thesis would be borne out by strong empirical evidence. Yet, the evidence presented during the lecture largely boils down to an uncritical reading of selective official statements made by the Russian leadership. Furthermore, the justification of the use of this “evidence”, referring to the alleged sincerity of Russia’s president, reveals further cracks in the credibility and scientific value of the central argument.
Weakness of the empirical evidence
Why should one believe what Russia’s leaders say? “Because Putin rarely lies to foreign audiences”, claimed Mearsheimer. He went on to pre-empt disagreements by reminding the lecture hall that he had authored a book on lying in international politics, which finds that political leaders lie to other countries much less often than we think. This attempt to mute criticism regrettably failed to mention that the book is not based on systematic research (page 12 of the book); that lying is rare particularly for democracies like the United States (p. 13), which Russia is not; and that the frequency of lying largely depends on the definition of what lying is (p. 26), which is somewhat restrictive in the book at hand. During his talk, Mearsheimer thus remained oblivious to Russia’s numerous lies on public record, including Putin’s original denial of any involvement in Crimea in 2014, which was followed by open boasting about the annexation a few months later. The US Department of State even went so far as to officially publish two 10-item lists of documented Russia’s falsehoods on Ukraine in 2014.
Mearsheimer’s lack of critical scrutiny of Russia’s statements contrasts with his refusal to consider that Russia could have imperial ambitions and that the invasion’s objective could (also) be territorial. While he was willing to take selected statements on the existential threat by Putin at face value, he would accept the imperial motivation only if somebody proved that Putin “thought it was a desirable goal, […] a feasible goal, […] [and] that he intended to pursue that goal”. It is hard to imagine what kind of evidence Mearsheimer would like to see as Putin has been quite clear in his repeated pre-invasion statements, denying the legitimacy and even the very existence of the independent Ukrainian state. On the eve of the invasion, Putin explicitly argued that Ukraine never had “real statehood,” and said it was an integral part of Russia’s “own history, culture, spiritual space.” After the invasion, he went on to compare himself to the 18th century Tsar, Peter the Great, and to declare that Russia was simply reclaiming its territory.
Engaging in curious intellectual gymnastics, Mearsheimer defended his central thesis by claiming that while Putin’s objectives escalated during the invasion into imperial ambitions, Russia originally did not want to annex territory before the invasion. Why? “Because there were only 190,000 soldiers in Russia’s invading army, which is far too small a force to vanquish and occupy Ukraine”. Yet again, this argument does not hold much water when we remember that Russia clearly targeted Kiev from the first day of the invasion and that it suffered terrible military losses arguably due to poor intelligence. All available evidence points to a disastrous miscalculation by the Kremlin leadership consisting, among others, in a serious over-estimation of the effectiveness of its own army, and of the popular support for Russia within Ukraine. Russian may have assembled fewer troops than would be normally necessary for controlling a country the size of Ukraine because it expected little resistance. Its military operations were supposed to be backed by a network of Ukrainian collaborators, most of whom, however, may have existed only in reports prepared by Russia’s security officials. According to Ukrainian official sources, which certainly need to be interpreted carefully in wartime, Putin discovered that his secret services may have embezzled $5 billion allocated from the Russian budget for subversive operations in Ukraine between 2014 and 2022.
More generally, denying the plausibility of Russia’s imperial objectives oddly clashes with the core tenets of Mearsheimer’s own theory and a large amount of circumstantial evidence from Central and Eastern Europe. Offensive realism argues that great powers aim to maximise their material capabilities. If Russian intelligence reports suggested Ukrainians would not resists their invaders, why wouldn’t Putin want to annex Ukraine’s territory? And why would his plans escalate from intervention to annexation when the invasion did not go as planned, as Mearsheimer claims? On the contrary, such escalation would have made much more sense if the invasion had proceeded smoothly. By questioning Russia’s imperial ambitions, Mearsheimer turns a blind eye to the nostalgia for the Soviet empire in Russian public opinion, the persistence of a hierarchical and imperial worldview among Russian elites and in the Russian media, and Russia’s meddling in the politics of Central European countries. Moreover, in the months leading up to the invasion, Russia required a Ukrainian pledge to not join NATO, but also a NATO pledge to withdraw all troops from the territories of its post-1990 members in Central and Eastern Europe. Clearly, Russia’s ambitions do not stop with Ukraine. That is fully in line with offensive realism, but it runs counter to Mearsheimer’s current thesis, which implies that if the US did not push for Ukraine’s NATO membership, there would be no “crisis.”
Consequences and academics’ social responsibility
Mearsheimer’s determined promotion of his controversial view is hard to understand. Whether it is motivated by his attachment to the realist theory, a taste for provocation, or even some proximity to Russia’s interests is hard to tell. Nevertheless, his account has limited explanatory power and little scientific value. It inter alia leads to theoretical inconsistencies, relies on cherry-picking of official statements made by a serial liar in international relations, sets double standards when assessing available evidence, and uses rhetorical gymnastics to address unfavourable new realities. What is enrobed in a scientific cloak is punditry with far too serious real-life consequences. It plays into the hands of Russian propaganda, which the Kremlin does not hesitate to instrumentalise. Mearsheimer clearly does not realise or care how socially detrimental his questionable claims are.
While the right to express unpopular academic ideas needs to be defended, their authors are responsible for the consequences. They should always weigh the strength of the supporting evidence, the ideas’ potential benefits to society, and the likely repercussions of expressing them outside purely academic circles. When the evidence is weak, societal benefits are low, and the repercussions are disastrous (such as legitimising a criminal invasion), academics should choose a different topic for touring the world’s lecture halls.
Filip Kostelka is Professor and Chair in Political and Social Change at the Department of Political and Social Sciences of the European University Institute.