John Mearsheimer is no stranger to controversy. But the University of Chicago professor and prominent proponent of political realism seems all too ready to swallow Russian propaganda being disseminated by Vladimir Putin.
In an interview with the New Yorker’s Isaac Chotiner that became bitter and contentious as Mearsheimer bristled at questions about Russian election interference and about Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, Mearsheimer continued to blame the US and our allies for sparking the war in Ukraine, even as Putin’s imperialistic ambitions have been borne out.
“[T]here’s no evidence that he had imperial ambitions before the war,” Mearsheimer said. “He would have had to say that it was desirable. There would have to be evidence that he had said that it was desirable to conquer Ukraine and incorporate it into Russia.”
At face value, this seems like an insane assertion. But when you look into it, it also turns out to be insanely stupid.
Chotiner noted that we can’t necessarily trust what Putin says. After all, he pointed out, Putin has continued to say that he never meddled in US elections, even as overwhelming evidence exists that he did – even as one of the key men in his orbit, Yevgeny Prigozhin, recently stated, “we have interfered, are interfering, and will interfere.”
Mearsheimer claimed ignorance: “I don’t know whether the Russians interfered in the election in a serious way…. This is a highly disputed issue.”
Maybe by the Russians, it is…depending on what day you get a spokesperson or insider.
But there’s also another reason Mearsheimer’s contention that Putin never said he had imperial ambitions is incorrect: Mainly – that he did.
In a 5,000-word essay entitled “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians,” Putin declared that Russians and Ukrainians are “one people.” He claimed that Russia was “robbed” of Ukraine and that “true sovereignty of Ukraine is possible only in partnership with Russia.”
This is very much akin to the logic (and methods) that Hitler used for the Sudetenland.
Why are people interviewing this Mearsheimer fellow like he’s the Pope? Clearly hasn’t a clue what he’s talking about. Very confused.
— Roland Oliphant (@RolandOliphant) November 17, 2022
Of course, another fact belies Mearsheimer’s argument as well, and that’s that Putin has repeatedly emphasized a return to Russian world prominence and has built his career on waging war.
Alexander Litvinenko, the former FSB agent who was murdered by Putin in 2006, revealed that in 1999 Putin instructed the FSB to blow up Moscow apartment buildings in order to blame Chechen rebels and justify an invasion of Chechnya – a claim there is reasonable evidence to believe.
The 300 Russian deaths then led to 50,000 dead in the war. But Putin got what he wanted: he was elevated to the presidency and essentially hasn’t left us since.
Putin also invaded Georgia in 2008. And took Crimea in 2014. And has been meddling in Syria and Afghanistan. And has been flexing his muscles in the Arctic region.
Mearsheimer: It wasn't imperialistic of Russia to try to dismember Ukraine by carving off two oblasts into puppet states, by which I mean that it's not imperialistic of Russia to annex four oblasts, by which I mean it would not have been imperialistic of Russia to annex Odessa. https://t.co/EpDEUxTN5X
— Jacob T. Levy (@jtlevy) November 17, 2022
Mearsheimer attributes all of this to our increasing the size of NATO. Of course, we would not feel the need to grow NATO if Putin didn’t feel the need to mass armies on borders.
Mearsheimer still argues that Putin never had imperial ambitions. Because in the world of realist theory, the theory is never wrong and every piece of conflicting evidence is smelted down until that square peg can be poured into the round hole. https://t.co/DMiz512FjN
— Tom Nichols (@RadioFreeTom) November 17, 2022
Many have argued (rather convincingly) that, had Ukraine already been a member of NATO, there would not have been an invasion. Since the invasion, Finland and Sweden have moved to join, which was actually fairly predictable.
Ukraine officially filed for inclusion in September of this year, looking to join many other former Soviet states that have done so.
Perhaps Mearsheimer is just making the mistake that other ideologues have of trying to fit everything into their own paradigm – to a hammer, everything is a nail. It’s difficult to say.
He’s also in his career endorsed a self-hating Jewish antisemite, so perhaps he’s just not the genius he thinks he is. And maybe he’s too enamored with himself and his ability to meet with (horrendous) world leaders like Orbán.
Or maybe he just needs someone to wake him up.
Join me as I go after more bull on Twitter. @RossRosenfeld