A Reply to John Mearsheimer: Putin is Not a Realist

Since the beginning of crisis in Ukraine, a handful of high-profile American academics and former policy-makers — including University of Chicago Professor John Mearsheimer and former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger — have rushed to the defense of Putin’s actions based on a theory of international relations called realism. According to this theory, countries are part of an international system that is “anarchy.” This doesn’t mean that the world is inherently volatile or violent, but rather that there is not a central authority to regulate or punish the actions of individual countries. In this environment, countries are not bound by a set of rules that govern their behavior; instead, countries behave rationally to maximize their interests in the international system by warding off potential threats or taking actions to protect core interests.

According to some realists’ line of argument, Putin’s actions are a natural reaction to both NATO expansionism and Western interference in Ukraine. As a powerful state, Russia is particularly sensitive to foreign threats on its border, and is willing to take significant risks to defend its core interests. They believe that NATO expansion has put Russia on the defensive, making Russia hypersensitive about new potential threats on its borders. When Euromaidan toppled former Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych and replaced him with a pro-Western interim government, the perceived threat of further NATO expansion compelled Putin to act.

In his article ‘Why the Ukraine Crisis Is the West’s Fault’, which appeared in Foreign Affairs, Mearsheimer argues:

“Russian leaders have adamantly opposed NATO enlargement, and in recent years, they have made it clear that they would not stand by while their strategically important neighbor turned into a Western bastion. For Putin, the illegal overthrow of Ukraine’s democratically elected and pro-Russian president — which he rightly labeled a ‘coup’ — was the final straw.”

In this view, Putin is a realist, hyper-aware of foreign threats. But Mearsheimer, and the so-called realist consensus on Ukraine hardly seems correct. This approach to the Ukraine conflict makes unsupported assumptions about the nature of Russian interests, the West’s support for Ukraine, and Russia’s reasons for intervention.

Following the Euromaidan revolution, Ukraine’s prospects of joining the alliance remained unlikely. Although former Ukrainian presidents Kuchma and Yushchenko had previously expressed Ukraine’s intention to join the alliance, NATO never seriously considered adding Ukraine. Additionally, NATO status for Ukraine did not seem like a popular proposition for the majority of Ukraine’s population, even after Maidan. In April 2014, the Ukrainian polling agency Razumkov Center found that more than 41 percent of Ukrainians were still opposed to NATO membership, while only 36 percent supported membership. Russia’s moves against Ukraine will only continue to push Ukraine, and young people in particular, toward the West. The Ukrainian Twitter campaign, #NATOforUkraine, went viral last week during the NATO summit in Wales, and increasingly vocal members of Ukrainian society will continue to push for NATO membership as long as Russian aggression continues unabated.

Russia’s position as Ukraine’s single greatest security threat is now well-established. Further, Russia’s aggression has resulted in the mobilization of NATO troops to Russia’s border, altered NATO’s defensive posture, and reinvigorated the alliance at a time when NATO’s future was very much in doubt. If Putin was trying to undermine NATO and prevent its expansion, he’s instead triggered the very opposite effect.

The realists also overstate the West’s commitment to Ukraine. Rather than vigorously oppose Russia in the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, most western countries view Ukraine as an unwanted distraction to other issues. After Crimea’s annexation, the EU and United States imposed only minor sanctions, a ludicrously inadequate response. The West has slowly come around to imposing stiffer sanctions on the Russian Federation, and only after hundreds of Europeans were blown out of the sky by Russian proxies. Western countries have failed to provide the Ukrainian military with weapons, or offer much more than words of support.

Mearsheimer and other realists have misjudged Putin, his goals and motivations. Far from being a “realist” policy maker, Vladimir Putin is a myopic autocrat. Instead of enhancing Russian security, Putin’s illegal annexation of Crimea and intervention in eastern Ukraine has put Russia’s long-term status as a unified state in jeopardy. Not only have his actions mobilized NATO and injected new vigor into the alliance, but they have called into question Russia’s future control of minority regions of Russia. By cynically advocating for Crimeans’ “right to self-determination” and supporting militants in eastern Ukraine, Putin has opened a can of worms that he has long tried to keep sealed. With an 85 percent approval rating and an iron grip over Russia’s informational sphere, Putin can be reasonably confident in his ability to  crush Islamism, separatism and other forms of dissent in the short-term. But if the Russian economy continues to flag, or a cataclysmic event releases pent up frustrations against Putin and his cronies, Putin’s misadventures in Ukraine raise the risks of the Russian Federation fracturing along ethnic or regional lines.

Putin’s actions in Ukraine are best described as “pro-Putin,” not pro-Russian. Putin’s annexation of Crimea, and policy of continued instability in eastern Ukraine are designed to bolster his popularity and the strength of his regime, not Russia’s actual security interests. Euromaidan, as an expression of dissatisfaction against corruption and authoritarianism, represented a real threat to the Russian government. If the Ukrainian people could overthrow President Viktor Yanukovych, this raised the spectacle of the Russian people rising up against Putin. Such an affront demanded a disproportionate response and a billion-dollar propaganda campaign to discredit the Ukrainian revolution as fascist.

The annexation of Crimea has been an incredible success for Putin’s regime even as it undermines Russia. Putin’s soaring popularity ratings have given the Russian government the capability to continue to crush the remnants of Russian civil society and dissent. Putin has taken advantage of newfound leverage to pass a slate of laws suppressing Internet freedom in Russia, the last relatively free platform for Russian civil society. Putin continues to stoke the flames of ultranationalism by appropriating hardline rhetoric from Russian fringe figures like neo-fascist thinker Alexander Dugin and hardline politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky. Putin has increasingly spoken about the resurrection of something called Novorossiya, using a dubious historical narrative to lay claim to a broad swath of Ukrainian territory in the south and east of the country.

Putin’s attitude has limited Russia’s ability to disengage from Ukraine after having stirred powerful nationalist tendencies that are difficult to control. Putin’s Russia is unable to disengage from a situation that is increasingly isolating Russia politically, culturally and economically. By unleashing the forces of hyper-nationalism and separatism in Russia, Putin has engendered a combustible mix of political tensions that undermines Russia’s strategic flexibility and might eventually threaten the country’s territorial integrity.

Realists such as John Mearsheimer should take note that the interests of Putin and his cronies are not the interests of Russia. Putin’s actions in Ukraine have endangered the very interests that Mearsheimer claims Russia is defending. Russian intervention in Ukraine has resulted in a re-invigorated NATO on Russia’s borders, driven Ukraine closer into the arms of the West’s political and security system, and threatened to undermine Russia’s own territorial integrity. In the case of Putin’s Ukrainian intervention, Mearsheimer and other realists both misjudge the West’s role in the conflict and incorrectly define Russia’s long-term interests as that of Putin’s interests. The Crimea annexation and ongoing intervention in eastern Ukraine has little to do with NATO or the West, but has everything to do with retaining a kleptocratic system.

Chris Dunnett, Ukraine Crisis Media Center