Professor John Mearsheimer is one of the most accomplished and distinguished political scientists in the world. A leading authority in the field of international relations, he has authored several seminal books and lectured extensively around the globe (see his website here).
Prof. Mearsheimer came to wider public consciousness through his 2015 lecture in which he discussed the origin and causes of the brewing Russo-Ukrainian conflict. The presentation is a true tour de force and has posted more than 22 million views to date. In that lecture Prof. Mearsheimer not only offered a superb analysis of the situation, but he also made a prediction that is being fulfilled right before our eyes. This is what he said more than six years ago:
“The West is leading Ukraine down the primrose path, and the end result is that Ukraine is going to be wrecked.”
You can watch this now famous 2015 lecture here.
On February 15, 2022 – just nine days before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – Professor Mearsheimer gave a Zoom talk about the intensifying crisis to students at King’s College in Cambridge. In less than 25 minutes, he provided a superb assessment of the fragile situation that barely a week later erupted into open war. If you wish to truly understand why this conflict arose and who is responsible, this is the best short explanation you can find. The clarity of Prof. Mearsheimer’s presentation is second to none.
For those who prefer reading, below is a slightly edited transcript of Professor Mearsheimer’s talk.
Prof. Mearsheimer: Let me do two things. First let me talk about the origins and the history of this crisis. Then I will talk about why it is on the front burner today. Finally, I will say a few words in conclusion about where we are headed.
The conventional wisdom in the West is that Putin is responsible for this crisis. Most people think it is the Russians that are the guilty party here. There are good guys and bad guys in this, and, of course, we are the good guys, while the Russians are the bad guys.
This thinking is simply wrong.
It is the United States – and to some degree its allies – that are responsible for this crisis.
Why do I say that?
It’s very important to grasp what the West has been trying to do since 2008. It was to turn Ukraine into a western bulwark on Russia’s border. That policy had three dimensions to it: first and most important is NATO expansion. The idea was that we were going to expand NATO eastward to include Ukraine.
The second element of the strategy was EU [European Union] expansion. In other words, it was not just NATO expansion that was going to go forward and include Ukraine; it was also EU.
The third element of this strategy was the colour revolution, and in the case of Ukraine that was the Orange Revolution. The idea behind it was to turn Ukraine into a liberal democracy like Britain or the United States. Furthermore, it was supposed to be a liberal democracy that was aligned with the United States, because this is all part and parcel of that strategy that is designed to make Ukraine a western bulwark on Russia’s border.
As I already said, the most important element of the strategy was NATO expansion, which is why the April 2008 Bucharest NATO summit is of immense importance. At the end of that summit, NATO announced that Georgia and Ukraine would become part of the alliance.
The Russians, however, made it unequivocally clear that that was not going to happen. In other words, they drew a line in the sand. As you may know, there were two big tranches of NATO expansion before that 2008 meeting. The first tranche was processed in 1999 and included Poland Hungary and the Czech Republic. The second tranche came in 2004 and included countries like Romania, the Baltic States and so on.
The Russians swallowed those two NATO expansions. They intensely disliked both, but they swallowed them. But when NATO said in 2008 that further expansion would now include Georgia and Ukraine, the Russians said “no.” The Russians said this was not going to happen.
It is no accident that in August of 2008, a few months after the April 2008 Bucharest summit, a war broke out between Russia and Georgia. Remember that Georgia was the other country besides Ukraine that was going to be brought into NATO. The Russians, however, said “that ain’t happening,” and we had a war in August 2008 because of that.
Then on the 22nd February of 2014, a crisis broke out over Ukraine. This was mainly precipitated by a coup in Ukraine that overthrew a pro-Russian leader and installed a pro-American leader. The United States was involved in that coup. Seeing this, the Russians unsurprisingly went ballistic, and they did two things in response: first is they took Crimea from Ukraine. If you want to know why, you need to understand that there is a very important naval base called Sevastopol in Crimea. There was simply no way the Russians were going to let Sevastopol become a NATO naval base, which was the principal reason why they took Crimea.
The second thing the Russians did was to take advantage of a civil war that broke out in eastern Ukraine almost immediately after the February 2014 crisis. The Russians fuelled that civil war, and they have made sure that their allies, who were mainly Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine, were not defeated by the Ukrainian government. What the Russians were basically saying is this: “We will wreck Ukraine before we allow Ukraine to become a member of NATO.”
It is very important for our understanding of the situation to realize that the 2014 crisis was Russia’s response to what had happened at the Bucharest NATO summit in 2008.
The Russian response, then, was twofold: number one, they took Crimea. You should understand that Crimea is gone; it is never going back to Ukraine. And number two, they implicitly said that they would destroy Ukraine before they would let it enter NATO.
Now the question you want to ask yourself is this: Why do people in the West, especially in places like Britain and the United States, not understand that what the Russians are doing is simply real politic 101. This just boggles my mind.
After all, the notion that you could take a military alliance run by the United States – the most powerful country in the world – and bring it up to Russia’s borders and think that the Russians wouldn’t be bothered by it is simply naive.
We in the United States have the Monroe Doctrine. The Monroe Doctrine says that no distant great power is allowed to form a military alliance with a country in the Western Hemisphere.
I remember the Cuban missile crisis very well. What happened there was that the Soviets put nuclear tipped missiles in Cuba. The United States said that this was categorically unacceptable, because military forces from afar are not allowed in the Western Hemisphere. And because of that we got the Cuban missile crisis with the end result that those missiles were removed.
When the Soviets were later talking about building a naval base at Cienfuegos, the United States told them in no uncertain terms that they were not going to build a naval base there. This was just not going to happen, because the United States views the Western Hemisphere as its backyard, and it prohibits distant great powers from coming into its backyard.
Don’t you think, then, that the Russians would be deeply disturbed when the United States tried to turn Ukraine into a NATO bulwark right on its borders? Of course, they are going to be upset. The Russians told us that immediately after the Bucharest summit. They made it categorically clear that Ukraine is not going to become part of NATO.
But the Americans and their allies did not listen, because we believe that we are the good guys. Here in the United States, we think we are a benign hegemon, and that and we can do pretty much anything we want in the world. For a while, it looked like we could get away with that. As I said, the Russians accepted the first NATO expansion in 1999 then another expansion in 2004.
After the Bucharest summit in 2008, however, the Russians said Ukraine and Georgia were not going to go into NATO. As a result, we had a major crisis breaking out in February 2014. The crisis tamped down quite a bit after 2014, but in the fall of last year it began to ramp up. And now, in early 2022, it became a full-blown crisis and we want to understand why and how it happened.
So, the question is this: Why has this crisis moved from the back burner to the front burner?
It happened because the United States and its allies were turning Ukraine into a de facto member of NATO. Today you hear lot of rhetoric that the Russians really had nothing to worry about, because nobody is talking about making Ukraine a member of NATO. That’s technically true, but if you look carefully at what we were actually doing, it is a different story. First of all, going back to the Trump administration and continuing into the Biden administration, we were arming Ukraine.
We were not arming Ukrainians during the Obama administration in February 2014 when the crisis broke out. We were not arming them in the first few years after that crisis when the Obama administration was in power. We refused to arm the Ukrainians because we knew it would enrage the Russians.
It would have scared the Russians, because you must understand that the Russians view Ukraine becoming a part of NATO as an existential threat. This is what’s going on here: the Russians are sending a very clear message to the West. They are telling us that they take this threat seriously and are willing to use military force if necessary to eliminate it. The Russians are not fooling around here.
What you had happening in 2021 – and, of course, it started before under the Trump administration – is we were arming the Ukrainians. And when you arm Ukrainians, you also arm those Ukrainian forces that fight against Russia’s allies in eastern Ukraine.
One thing that really spooked the Russians was that the Turks gave the Ukrainians drones and drones have become a very effective weapon on the battlefield, as the Azerbaijanis proved against the Armenians last year. The Azerbaijanis were using Turkish drones. The Turks were giving the Ukrainians drones, and the Americans and the British were giving them all sorts of other weapons.
We define those weapons as defensive weapons, but there is, of course, no meaningful distinction between defensive weapons and offensive weapons. What looks defensive to us looks offensive to them. If you are training the Ukrainian forces the way the British and the Americans have done, don’t you think the Russians are going to see that as a threat? I can guarantee you they will, and they are right.
What has been happening is that we have been arming and training the Ukrainians. And if you look at how we have been dealing with Ukraine diplomatically, you will see that we were basically treating it as if it were an ally or a partner. It looked, then, as – diplomatically and militarily – the bonds between the West, especially the United States and Ukraine were tightening.
At the same time, we were doing a number of provocative things outside of Ukraine that bothered the Russians enormously. The British foolishly ran a destroyer through Russian territorial waters in the Black Sea this past summer. The Americans took a bomber and drove it right up against the Russian coastline in the Black Sea. It is no surprise that the Russians were really disturbed by this.
From all this, the Russians had a very powerful sense that NATO was moving eastward. They felt that NATO was moving right up to the Russian border, mainly by turning Ukraine into a de facto member of the alliance. Add to this the provocative measures with the British destroyer and the American bomber, and for the Russians things reached what their foreign minister Sergei Lavrov described as “the boiling point.” They had it, and they were no longer interested in negotiating anymore. They wanted to alter the status quo, and the end result is that we have this massive military build-up, which is doing enormous damage to the Ukrainian economy that was already a basket case before. The Ukraine situation is getting worse and worse; the Russians have sent a very clear signal to us that if the West upped the ante, they will also up the ante and Ukraine is not going to become part of NATO.
So, this is where we are today. We have this major crisis on our hands which really goes back to April 2008. That was when the decision to make Ukraine part of NATO was taken. Then we had a crisis breakout in February 2014 [the American led Orange Revolution], which was overtime ameliorated somewhat and pushed to the backburner. Now it has suddenly broken out again.
It there any hope we can settle this crisis?
I’ll tell you what I think the best solution is. I think it is an obvious solution, but one that is politically unacceptable at this point in time. The obvious solution is to turn Ukraine into a neutral state, more or less a buffer between Russia on one side and NATO on the other. This is effectively what we had up until February 2014.
Ukraine got its independence when the Soviet Union broke apart in December 1991, and from December 1991 until roughly early 2014 there was no real problem with Ukraine. The United States and its allies were not fighting with the Russians over Ukraine. There was a verbal dispute going back to the April 2008 Bucharest summit, but there was no crisis because from 1991 until 2013 Ukraine was effectively a neutral state. It was a buffer.
It was NATO that changed this situation. We now have this rhetoric to make the Russians look like the bad guys. You hear all this talk that Russia is bent on creating the second coming of the Soviet Union and that it is bent on creating a greater Russia. That the Russians are the bad guys is a story that was invented after February 22nd, 2014. Nobody was making this argument before that. And neither was anybody arguing that we had to expand NATO to contain Russia before that time.
In February 2014 this cockamamie strategy that we had invented to make Ukraine a part of NATO blew up in our face. When it blew up because of our flawed policies, we were not going to admit that we had screwed up. No, we had to blame the Russians, so we said they were bent all along on dominating Eastern Europe.
You hear this same argument made today. They say, it is the Russians who are the bad guys; Putin is really dangerous and we can’t negotiate with him. This implies that this situation is the equivalent of Munich, which is another way of saying that Putin is the second coming of Adolf Hitler, and making a deal on Ukraine would be like making the deal on Czechoslovakia in October 1938.
This is all pure unadulterated nonsense. There was no threat from Russia before February 2014. We just invented that story. Anyway, the ideal situation would be to create a neutral Ukraine. We could have a Ukraine that looks a lot like the Ukraine that existed between 1991 and 2014.
We, however, cannot do that because, in large part, the Americans are unwilling to make any sorts of concessions regarding NATO expansion. Furthermore, to make neutrality work, to create a stable neutral Ukraine, it is very important that the Ukrainian government in Kiev reach some sort of modus vivendi with the Russian speaking population in Donbass. This is the famous Minsk agreement. It is imperative that the Kiev government implement the Minsk accords so that the civil war – and it is effectively a civil war – between the people in Donbass and the people in western Ukraine be settled. But the politics inside of Ukraine make this impossible at this time.
It is also impossible to envision President Biden saying that he is going to give up on NATO expansion. The end result is that this crisis will be going to go on and on. That is the sad truth, in my humble opinion.
Question: Does the UK play any role of importance in this crisis? What about the European Union and the United Nations?
Prof. Mearsheimer: Let’s talk about the UK. This would also apply to any major European country including Germany and France. The Russians don’t want to negotiate with the Germans, they don’t want to negotiate with the French, and they don’t want to negotiate with the British.
They understand full well that it is the United States that runs the show and that the British will do what the United States asks them to do. You can have perfunctory conversations with the British, but it really doesn’t matter. The Russians really want to talk to the United States. They don’t even want to talk to NATO. The Russians want talk to the United States, because they know that the Europeans basically do what the Americans tell them to. That the British will do Americans’ bidding is almost axiomatic. The Germans and the French sometimes resist, as we know from the Iraq war in 2003, but Tony Blair was a mere cheerleader for the United States in that war. Britain does not have much of a role to play here. The United States is the key player. I don’t say that because I’m an American and, indeed, I think American policy is usually so foolish these days that it would be better if the United States had less influence.
It would be better if Europeans, especially the Germans and the French, stood up to the Americans. With regard to the EU, it is very important to understand that it is not just NATO expansion that is designed to make Ukraine a western bulwark on Russia’s borders. It is NATO expansion, EU expansion and the colour revolution. The Orange Revolution was the movement to “democratise” Ukraine. On the point of democratisation, the Russians fear that what we try to have is a colour revolution in Russia itself. If you go to Beijing or Moscow, you learn that in both places the leadership lives in fear that the United States will try to foster a colour revolution inside China or Russia.
Democratisation, EU expansion and NATO expansion are the three elements of the strategy although NATO expansion is the key. The EU and NATO are not much of a player here. It is the United States that is driving this train. Let me make one more point before I talk about the UN. It is very important to understand that at the April 2008 Bucharest summit, Germany and France were adamantly opposed to any movement to make Ukraine a member of NATO. Germany – and here were talking about Angela Merkel, much to her credit – understood that this was asking for serious trouble. But it was the Americans who as always prevailed and at the end of the Bucharest summit a statement was issued at American insistence that said that Ukraine and Georgia would become members of NATO. The Europeans – the Germans and the French – understood that this was a foolish thing to do, but they failed to stand up to the Americans, as is so often the case.
As far as the UN goes, it is effectively useless for one very simple reason: the Russians have a veto right in any dispute between countries that have a vote on the Security Council. This obviously includes both Russia and the United States. The UN is not going to be very meaningful simply because the Russians can veto anything that they do not like and so can Americans. The bottom line is that this problem has to be solved by the United States and the Russians.
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