Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has, naturally, sparked widespread debate on the causes that drove it. One highly respected political scientist who addressed the issue some time ago is John Mearsheimer, an academic who shaped the field of international relations as we know it today.
In the fall of 2014, after Russia invaded Ukraine, annexed Crimea and took control of part of the Donbas region, Mearsheimer published an essay in Foreign Affairs magazine holding the West and its strategic expansion of NATO responsible for the crisis. He also stressed that European Union expansion and Western support for democratic movements in Ukraine were instrumental in Russia’s military intervention. He went on to indicate that the 2014 overthrow of then Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was tantamount to a coup, thus justifying the seizure of Crimea so it would not become a NATO naval base. For Mearsheimer, it was the West’s liberal delusions that provoked a reaction from Russian President Vladimir Putin, rendering it inevitable.
Like all the great theoretical approaches in international relations, realpolitik – of which the writers are proponents – is invaluable in explaining many things but also labors under contradictions. The argument explaining Russia’s stance, therefore, is based on a supposition that fails to stand up analytically and historically, ergo that the only thing Moscow wanted in the aftermath of the Cold War was a deal with NATO and it had no desire to regroup and expand its spheres of influence. This supposition, however, flies in the face of the fundamental tenet of “offensive realism,” which holds that in order to survive, great powers evolve into aggressive and violent power-maximizers who will not work with others when this means more power for their rivals. Nevertheless, Moscow started exerting hegemonic pressure on its immediate vicinity shortly after the Cold War ended. And under fear of this pressure, the majority of post-Soviet states turned to the West for synergies that would help them sever ties with Moscow and secure their independence. They knew that as soon as Russia got back on its feet, it would try to trample them. After all, in March 1992, when Russia carved up Moldova to establish Transnistria as a de facto state or when Russian forces invaded Abkhazia at around the same time, NATO expansion was not even under discussion.
We could, of course, understand Russian concerns about NATO expansion in the context of Cold War rivalries and the USSR’s ideological and, more importantly, strategic defeat. Perhaps, through this prism, the current leadership in Moscow views an expansion of the Alliance as a threat and an effort to surround Russia, given that its strategic mind-set is based on the assumption that Russia is vulnerable to invasion from the East and West because of its massive natural borders. This argument, however, is basically little more than a pretext, when the fact is that no one has threatened Russia; quite the opposite, the West tried to incorporate it into the post-Cold War world’s security architecture. If there were real cause to point to, it would probably be the tolerance shown by the West for Russia’s interventions in its immediate vicinity, in combination with China’s rise and the West’s relative decline, rather than NATO expansion.
There are various reasons and facts supporting this argument.
First, it made perfect political – if not moral – sense to allow the victorious Soviet Union to create spheres of influence in the aftermath of World War II; not so in 1990. Given the balance of power and geopolitical situation in 1990, it was no surprise that the countries of Eastern Europe would choose to side with the winners of the Cold War.
Second, Ukraine’s prospects of being included in NATO basically vanished in 2008, despite Kyiv’s efforts to revive them. And third, Russia had already invaded and split Ukraine in 2014 and had seized military control of areas it annexed, like Crimea, or declared independent, like a large chunk of Donbas, where Ukrainian authorities had no control whatsoever. After all, the onus of flouting the Minsk agreement weighed equally on both sides. Most importantly, though, Russia was not facing any actual threats. Even from the 1990s, the West had bolstered Russia both economically – with programs worth tens of billions of dollars and direct foreign investments – and strategically. Russia’s inclusion in the World Trade Organization, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the Council of Europe and the G8 (without having the economic clout to justify it), along with the 1997 NATO-Russia cooperation and security agreement and the establishment of the NATO-Russia Council in 2002, with Putin’s signature, formed a very fundamental framework of cooperation and consultation. Washington and the Europeans did enough – though not everything – to include Russia in the post-Cold War architecture. If Russia’s exclusion and conflict had been the plan all along, Europe would never have allowed its energy security to be so reliant on Russia, and certainly not from 2005 onward, when the first Moscow-Kyiv energy crisis broke out and caused Europe to freeze.
Given its nuclear arsenal, Russia faces no immediate security threats. And this means that Moscow’s actions are driven by a desire to exert influence and control over the immediate vicinity
Fourth, it is true that the interventions in Iraq in 2003 and Libya in 2011, Kosovo’s independence in 2008 and the “color revolutions” aimed at establishing pro-American regimes in Georgia and Ukraine in 2003 and 2004, cultivated Putin’s belief that the West was taking advantage of Moscow’s weaknesses. He concluded that he could not trust the intentions of the Westerners and also that he had to do everything in his power to divide them. On the other hand, the West barely bothered Moscow when it was razing Chechnya or carving up Moldova and Georgia. Even over Crimea in 2014, the West’s reaction could be described as one of appeasement.
Fifth, Russia is still the world’s biggest nuclear power in terms of sheer quantity. It has more than 6,000 nuclear warheads, advanced ballistics technology, second- and even third-strike capabilities, and a relatively modern nuclear triad. The United States offered several deals that would exclude the Baltic countries from the deployment of ballistic missiles. The sure thing is that given its nuclear arsenal, Russia faces no immediate security threats. And this means that Moscow’s actions are driven by a desire to exert influence and control over the immediate vicinity.
In a recent interview, Mearsheimer argued that Putin “understands that he cannot conquer Ukraine and integrate it into a greater Russia.” This, however, is contradicted by the Russian president’s statement on February 21, three days before the invasion, according to which Ukraine has no right to regard itself as a sovereign and independent country.
In 2008, Russia invaded Georgia, claiming that Tbilisi had tried to recapture South Ossetia by force. Its invasion of Ukraine was not a reaction to any specific event, but the execution of a strategic plan. In his speech on February 21, Putin heralded the upcoming offensive. He made the – groundless – claim that Russian-speaking populations in the self-proclaimed republics in Donetsk and Luhansk needed defending from the threat of “genocide” in order to justify their secession and recognition as independent. He also portrayed the invasion as an act of collective defense. The claim that Russian security was jeopardized by Ukraine’s potential NATO membership (which was refuted), was just a thinly veiled excuse. The February 24 invasion resembles an expansionist war. Moscow is carrying out war crimes against civilians as it aims to annex the Russian-speaking territories at the detriment of Ukraine’s sovereignty. It is fully responsible for the blatant violation of international law and it cancels out efforts by international institutions to maintain international peace.
For Mearsheimer – and this is yet another controversial point in his argument – Russia is more important than Europe. It is Russia, not Europe, that can help the US deal with the rise of China. However, his understanding disregards the structure of power. Europe, by any standard and in every aspect, has greater power than Moscow. Sure, a close relationship between China and Russia could create problems for the US, but only if a confrontation between Washington and Beijing is, again, seen as inevitable. In any case, as a junior partner of China, Russia will only have a small impact on this momentum. As far as the Indo-Pacific is concerned, India is infinitely more important for the US than Russia is.
However, even from a purely realist perspective, the invasion of Ukraine will not leave Moscow better off. Its security will not have been bolstered at the end of this. Moscow should expect to gain no tangible geopolitical benefit. The day after will find Russia weaker and the West more united and more determined to ramp up its security on the basis of a new dogma for the containment of Moscow. Unlike the time of the Cold War, when the West and the USSR were locked in a relative equilibrium, the balance of power is now overwhelmingly in the West’s favor.
According to all theoretical branches of political realism, the irrational player here is not the West but Putin. Lawrence Freedman has said that no matter the level of force it resorts to, Russia has launched an unwinnable war. Inside Russia, no credible analyst expected Putin to go to war given that he already controlled Crimea and Donbas. The reason was not that they did not comprehend the logic of a military campaign; in fact, it was exactly the opposite. There was absolutely no reason for this risk and the uncertainty of war. And they know that at least since the time of World War I, no war ended in a good way for the side that started the war (with the exception of liberation and anti-colonial uprisings). This is why, while believing that war cannot be eradicated from international politics, realist scholars believe that states are capable of collective learning. The Russian leadership tried to elevate a regional superpower into a global one; and it failed miserably. Now it will have to pay the price, in an environment that is even more volatile.
Alexandros Diakopoulos is a retired vice admiral of the Hellenic Navy, a former national security adviser and a special consultant at the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP); Professor Petros Liakouras teaches international law and heads the International and European Studies postgraduate program at the University of Piraeus; Kostas Ifantis is a professor of international relations at Panteion University and head of the Institute of International Relations (IDIS); and Constantinos Filis is the director of the Institute of Global Affairs (IGA) and an associate professor of international relations at the American College of Greece.