A Disturbing Defense of Putin's "Realism"

John J. Mearsheimer blames the Ukraine crisis on the West.

[](/sites/default/files/uploads/2014/09/Mearsheimer.jpg)It is tempting to dismiss the protests that took place at the NATO summit in Wales as the inconsequential braying of leftists who welcome a new Cold War as an opportunity to renew their vows with Moscow. However, even fringe ideas can migrate into mainstream discourse. Case in point, John J. Mearsheimer’s article in the current (Sept.-Oct.) issue of Foreign Affairs, the flagship journal of the very establishmentarian Council on Foreign Relations. The author is the R. Wendell Harrison Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago with a long list of scholarly work. But, like the “No to NATO” demonstrators, Mearsheimer argues that the Ukraine crisis is the fault of the West. Russian President Vladimir Putin was “provoked” into resorting to force to “take Crimea” and “working to destabilize Ukraine until it abandoned its efforts to join the West.” He argues that Putin is “motivated by legitimate security concerns” which justify his actions.

Mearsheimer’s tone is not the crude revolutionary rant of the Wales rabble. Indeed, he pretends to criticize NATO from the right by attacking “liberals” from what he calls the “realist” perspective. He alleges that the West committed two sins. First, its aim was “to make the entire continent look like Western Europe,”

The United States and its allies sought to promote democracy in the countries of Eastern Europe, increase economic interdependence among them, and embedded them in international institutions.

What a nefarious scheme! Imagine wanting to bring Eastern Europe up to the living standards of the most advanced societies on the planet! The Russians opposed this effort because they do not want stronger nations on their borders. The Kremlin particularly opposed Western support for democracy in Ukraine, starting with the Orange Revolution. Mearsheimer doesn’t mention that the spark for the Orange movement was the attempt to steal the 2004 election for the pro-Moscow candidate Viktor Yanukovich. The Ukrainian Supreme Court overturned that fraud. He was elected in 2010, but was overthrown in 2014 Because of well-grounded fears that he was dragging the country back under the Russian yoke. He did not just reject a pending trade agreement with the European Union. Earlier he had extended the lease on Russia’s naval base in Crimea, which was due to expire in 2017, until 2042. After the coup, Yanukovych fled to Russia. It should also be mentioned that Yanukovych had served as governor of Donetsk Oblast, now the center of the Russian-backed separatist insurgency.

Mearsheimer claims that Russia did not seize Crimea until after the coup posed a threat to its security. But Moscow had been working hard to control all of Ukraine through a puppet government in Kiev; one that had welcomed a Russian military presence in the country. When that effort finally failed in the face of an aroused Ukrainian populace, it has resorted to force to grab what it can.

Like those on the Left, Mearsheimer spends most of his article attributing Ukrainian fears of Russia to Western “social engineering.” Yet, anyone familiar with the history of the region knows that Ukrainian nationalism is homegrown, a reaction to a long record of Russian oppression. Has Mearsheimer forgotten the great famine of 1932-1933? This was the result of Joseph Stalin’s policy of forced collectivization and was meant to crush Ukrainian society. Six to seven million Ukrainians died, something the survivors and their descendants have not forgotten.

Towards the end of his piece, Mearsheimer does finally concede that the Ukrainians desire an alignment with the West. But then argues,

This is a dangerous way for the Ukrainians to think about its foreign policy choices. The sad truth is that might often makes right when great power politics are in play. Abstract rights like self-determination are largely meaningless when powerful states get into brawls with weaker states.

He also thinks it is dangerous for the West to think in such terms, advising that even if the Ukraine wants to join the EU or NATO, “the United States and its European allies have the right to reject these requests.” After all, it would upset the Russians if Ukraine moved west, and Mearsheimer is fully in the Russian camp. He even defends Russia’s attack on Georgia in 2008. “Putin sought to keep Georgia weak and divided” writes Mearsheimer, calling this a “clear warning” to NATO.

Mearsheimer claims the second sin of the West was not to understand that “might makes right” realism is still alive in Russia. Now that this has been revealed to all, the West should back off and appease the Kremlin. Or more precisely, appease Putin whom Mearsheimer sees as “a first-class strategist who should be feared and respected.”

In a key passage, he notes “When Russian leaders look at Western social engineering in Ukraine, they worry that their country might be next.” But wouldn’t such regime change be in the interests of the West, and of the Russian people?

Mearsheimer apparently thinks only Russia has the right to act on the tenets of realism and protect its security (and regime) interests. NATO enlargement was not just an exercise in liberalism, it greatly strengthened the alliance and pushed back the Russian “sphere of influence” which Mearsheimer thinks is sacred. But why should the West preserve Russian influences that are hostile to its own economic and security interests? When a rival retreats, you advance; that’s realpolitik. Western values and interests were not in conflict, they were in sync. Today, Putin, looking at a “war weary” America and a disarmed Europe, thinks it is the West that is in retreat. So it is time for Russia to advance— and Putin has intellectuals like Mearsheimer to champion the Kremlin’s cause.

The problem is not that NATO has done too much, but it has done too little. Ukraine is the great prize “when great power politics are in play.” Ukraine has a population and territory on a par with Spain, and larger than Poland. Its vast potential can only be developed if aligned with the West. Putin’s revanchist dreams of a rebuilt neo-Soviet empire should not be accommodated.

Mearsheimer is correct about one thing. The West has not backed up its strategy with sufficient force. It did not foresee the intensity of Putin’s ambitions and did not prepare to meet his challenge. Sanctions will not deter him, and NATO has allowed its military forces to so atrophy that even putting together a 4,000-man “rapid reaction force” (as proposed in Wales) may prove difficult. The hot topic at the Wales summit was getting the Europeans to pledge to raise defense spending to a paltry 2% of GDP.

Russia is much weaker in population, wealth and technology than NATO; but it has boots on the ground and that will likely prove decisive in eastern Ukraine unless the Western will to mobilize real power revives. Thus, Mearsheimer’s article can have a positive effect, albeit not the one he wants. It can remind readers that “realpolitik remains relevant” and induce American and European leaders to rearm as well as rethink the nature of the 21st century. The practice of realism is not unique to Eastern Europe; it can be seen across the Middle East and Asia as well. The new century is not that different from previous centuries and will require all the traditional tools of statecraft and strategy. Those still loyal to the West should consider Mearsheimer’s disturbing defense of Putin to be a wake-up call.

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