John Mearsheimer, a renowned political scientist who belongs to the realist school of thought, has been a prominent voice criticising American foreign policy “Since the beginning of the 21st century”.This school of thought in international relations assumes that states will act in their self-interest to preserve national security by pre-emptively taking action against perceived adversaries.
After the Soviet Union’s collapse, Ukraine gained independence and had a significant nuclear arsenal on its territory. However, Ukraine chose to give up its nuclear weapons and signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in 1994, removing all atomic weapons within two years. While many supported this decision, Mearsheimer was among the few who disagreed. He argued as early as 1993 that Ukraine would be vulnerable to Russian aggression without a nuclear deterrent and advocated for Ukraine to keep its nuclear weapons. Following the Russian Invasion of 2022, Mearsheimer’s position was proven correct.
However, The primary point of contention with him relates to his lecture titled “Why Ukraine is the West’s Fault,” delivered at the University of Chicago and his article published in Foreign Affairs magazine.
In his article and lecture, he argues that the West’s prevailing view of the Ukraine crisis, which blames it entirely on Russian aggression, is incorrect. Instead, the United States and its European allies share most of the responsibility for the crisis due to Eastern enlargement of NATO, enlargement of the EU, and efforts to spread democracy in Eastern Europe and eventually in Russia. Russian leaders have long opposed NATO enlargement, and Putin saw the overthrow of Ukraine’s democratically elected president as the final straw, leading to the annexation of Crimea and destabilisation of Ukraine.
Mearsheimer’s argument, which has garnered criticism and support from various political factions, centers around NATO enlargement and the West’s role in the Ukraine crisis.Those who oppose American imperialism on the far-left find comfort in Mearsheimer’s criticism of NATO expansion, while supporters on Far Right republican ideology are drawn to the isolationist and ‘power is key’ aspects of his argument.
Mearsheimer’s thesis has been criticised by some supporters of Ukrainian sovereignty who view it as a way of justifying defeatism and making concessions to Russia. In this interpretation, Ukrainians are seen as victims of great power politics rather than key actors in the conflict. This type of dismissal also applies to other realpolitik arguments, including those made by Henry Kissinger and commentators who have highlighted George Kennan’s warning against NATO expansion.
Some critics, such as Anne Applebaum, have gone as far as to accuse Mearsheimer of providing the narrative for Russian aggression. And some went on to claim that Mearsheimer is a known Russian’s puppet and is a traitor. However, The pushback against Mearsheimer’s argument may be driven more by liberal frustration with the West’s inability to prevent the war, rather than a genuine engagement with his ideas.
Accusations of this kind only serve to harm Ukrainian supporters, particularly those in the Global South, where US Cold War policies have generated lots of sympathy for Russia.
Mearsheimer argues that such reactions highlight a persistent aversion towards realism and a risk to democracy and free speech.
After all, In 1994, he was one of the few who advocated for the retention of the Ukrainian Nuclear Arsenal. It is worth noting that Darden, writing in the New York Times, Charles A. Kupchan in the Washington Post, and Stephen M. Walt in Foreign Policy were among those who strongly opposed sending weapons to Ukraine in 2015, believing it would be a major mistake. Are they traitors too?
Rather than resorting to name-calling, let us analyze Mearsheimer’s arguments one by one and offer an effective intellectual rebuttal.
Enlargement of European Union: John’s argument that the European Union was attempting to include Ukraine in the EU is incorrect. It was not the EU that desired Ukraine to be part of the EU, but rather Ukraine itself that wished to join the EU. Infact, the EU did not want Ukraine to join the economic Union.
During the 2000s, successive Ukrainian governments aimed for a closer relationship with the European Union (EU). Negotiations for an association agreement with the EU had been ongoing since 2012, but the trade agreement would have conflicted with Ukraine’s trade agreements with Russia, their largest trade partner at the time. Despite stating his intention to enter the agreement, President Viktor Yanukovych continuously postponed it, leading to accusations that he was trying to back out of the deal. This sparked a wave of protests known as the “Euromaidan” movement.
The protests began in November 2013 when Yanukovych refused to sign the association agreement with the EU at a meeting in Vilnius, Lithuania. Instead, he opted for closer ties with Russia, who offered $15 billion in aid and cheaper gas prices, while the EU offered $838 million in loans.
The EU also demanded significant regulatory and legal changes, while Russia did not. A multitude of demonstrators, led by activists equipped with protective gear, marched towards parliament, only to be met with lethal force from police snipers. Eventually, on February 21, Yanukovych and the opposition leaders signed an agreement to establish an interim unity government, undertake constitutional reforms, and hold early elections. Later that same day, the police abandoned central Kyiv, and the protesters gained control. Yanukovych fled the city that evening.
The following day, February 22, the Ukrainian parliament voted overwhelmingly (328 to 0, or roughly 73% of its 450 members) to oust Yanukovych from power. However, Yanukovych denounced the vote as unlawful and sought assistance from Russia, which decried the events as a “coup”. In response, pro-Russian and counter-revolutionary demonstrations erupted in southern and eastern Ukraine. Russia went on to occupy and annex Crimea, while armed pro-Russian separatists seized government buildings and declared the autonomous states of Donetsk and Luhansk, ultimately sparking the Donbas conflict.
The benefits of joining the EU are numerous, including membership in a community of stability, democracy, security, and prosperity. Joining the EU can provide a stimulus to GDP growth, create more jobs, and lead to higher wages and pensions. There is also the advantage of having access to a growing internal market and domestic demand, as well as free movement of labor, goods, services, and capital. Additionally, free access to 450 million consumers is a major draw for countries like Ukraine, who desire to be a part of Western society.
It is not the West’s fault that countries and their citizens desire a better and more prosperous life for themselves, nor is it the West’s fault that Russia has been unable to provide them with improved economic opportunities.
Enlargement of NATO :
In reference to the second point, Mearsheimer contends that Western leaders were unaware of the potential threat NATO would pose to Russia. While this may have been true in the past, the evidence cited is nearly a decade old.
While Western leaders may have made errors in judgment at the time, it does not necessarily mean they are unchanging. Mearsheimer acknowledges that the missile defence shield on NATO’s eastern border was essentially abandoned, and that Western leaders endeavoured to assuage Russian concerns by creating the NATO-Russia council. This demonstrates that Western leaders did recognise that some of their actions could be perceived as a threat to Russian security. Even though statements were made publicly that may have led Ukraine and Georgia to believe that they would eventually become members of NATO, Mearsheimer should be aware that words are often hollow, and such statements are not tantamount to actual admission of these countries.
It is rather perplexing that Mearsheimer fails to acknowledge the relevance and existence of Russia’s nuclear arsenal, particularly given his assertion that realpolitik remains important and that Putin is a skilled strategist (with which I disagree). As Mearsheimer himself has posited, nuclear weapons represent the best means of deterring foreign aggression. Even if NATO were to extend its reach into Ukraine, an improbable scenario given recent events and developments in the country, why would this be of significance? A missile defence system stationed on the Russian border would still be powerless to prevent a nuclear attack launched by Russia. The United States, European leaders, and Putin himself are cognisant of this fact. Therefore, Mearsheimer’s failure to mention the role of nuclear weapons is rather disconcerting.
Mearsheimer is a vocal advocate of “realism” in the field of international relations, which emphasises the marginalisation of a state’s ethical character, including its principles, institutions, and governance structure. Realists, as per Mearsheimer, are inclined to avoid making a distinction between “good” and “bad” states since all great powers operate according to the same rationale, regardless of their culture, political system, or leadership. Mearsheimer and other like-minded “realists” view the “great powers” as those states with the most significant military and economic capabilities, as they are the most significant players on the global stage.
The destructive nature of the amoralist framework is apparent in Mearsheimer’s suggested solution to the crisis. Despite the fact that many Ukrainians are risking their lives fighting Russia’s invasion and dreading a future under Putin’s authoritarianism, and that they want to reshape their country to safeguard their freedom, Mearsheimer’s analysis appears to give little consideration to those factors.
Instead, he proposed the idea that Ukraine should contemplate becoming a neutral state, forgoing membership in NATO, and attempting to “accommodate” Russia (which could be interpreted as a form of appeasement). Mearsheimer advocates that the United States should work towards establishing friendly relations with Putin.
To counter his argument, I’m taking the liberty of rephrasing Ronald Reagan. Admittedly, there’s a risk in any course we follow other than this, but every lesson of history tells us that the greater risk lies in appeasement, and this is the specter well-meaning John Mearsheimer refuse to face, that his policy of accommodation is appeasement, and it gives no choice between peace and war, only between fight or surrender. If we continue to accommodate, continue to back and retreat, eventually we have to face the final demand, the ultimatum. And what then, when Putin takes his next step of aggression, he knows what our answer will be? He will think that we’re retreating under the pressure of the defensive realism, and someday when the time comes to deliver the final ultimatum, our surrender will be voluntary, because by that time we will have been weakened from within spiritually, morally, and economically. He believes this because from our side he’s heard voices pleading for peace at any price, or as one commentator put it, he’d rather live on his knees than die on his feet.