Playing by two different playbooks: John Mearsheimer on Ukraine, the students of Krakow on John Mearsheimer

Eoghan Hughes
Edited by Elizabeth White

I had not realised just how controversial Professor Mearsheimer was going to be until he delivered this line:

“The conventional wisdom in Europe is that the US is a benign hegemon.”

Looking at the smirks scattering across the room, I got the feeling that Mearsheimer would have been quite surprised by what the students were actually thinking. Later, when he suggested that the Ukraine embrace its role as a ‘buffer’ state, nestled between the EU and the Russian Federation, the scowls could have peeled paint from the walls — but that, Mearsheimer explained, was something he had expected.

John Mearsheimer, a professor of the University of Chicago and one of America’s most influential theorists on international relations, cut an odd figure at Krakow’s Uniwersytet Jagielloński. He delivered his lecture, “Why the West – not Putin – Is Responsible for the Ukraine Crisis”, to a full house in the main hall of the Collegium Novum, surrounded by images of Polish kings, Copernicus and the rich blues and reds of the room’s intricate décor. Scrutinised by students from the East and West, from Russia, the Ukraine, Poland, France, Germany, Ireland, the US and more, you could almost believe he had forgotten who his audience was, with his talk of the aggressive expansion of NATO, the ‘peeling’ of Ukraine from Russia, and the sound logic of Putin’s decision to annex the Crimea. Yet Mearsheimer was well aware of his audience, and past experience had taught him what to expect.
Just a few weeks previously, in Warsaw, he had been confronted by several Ukrainian women, who were “so mad” that he had been afraid that they “might kill [him]!” He said this with an easy laugh that characterised the good humour with which he approached this grave topic. That wasn’t the first time he had made people angry, and it won’t be the last.

Mearsheimer’s argument tends to get him in trouble, he concedes.


The intricacies of Mearsheimer’s arguments are well beyond the scope of this piece, as they span several articles, lectures and books, but a sketch of his major points might give you some idea of the trouble he can find himself in.

The central idea underlining Mearsheimer’s theory is that Great Powers are very paranoid about their security: if a perceived threat intends to expand towards the border of Russia, then, in realist terms, Russia as a Great Power must do all it can to prevent this from happening. An advocate of the ‘Great Powers’ school of thought, Mearsheimer thus contends that the Ukraine crisis has its roots not in any delusions of Vladimir Putin, but in a concentrated policy by the EU and US of gradually expanding eastwards towards Russia. This expansion was fueled by the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, which allowed for Hungary, the Czech Republic and Poland to join the military alliance in 1997. Russia, under Yeltsin, opposed NATO expansion but they had little power to prevent it. According to Mearsheimer, NATO “got away with it” because of Russian weakness, not because the nature of the country’s politics had changed.

In 2008 a NATO proposal to allow Georgia and Ukraine to join the alliance caused a powerful backlash from the recovering Great Power. Russia under Putin had regained international maneuverability and would go to great lengths to prevent further expansion. Months later the Russo-Georgian war scuppered any immediate plans for accession. This conflict served as a stark prophecy of what was to come for Ukraine.

The EU, comprised of many NATO nations, is considered yet another envoy of the alliance. Therefore, EU expansion in the Ukraine, made all the more likely by the Association Agreement, would have constituted a direct threat to Russia’s borders. Putin, according to this theory, was given little choice but to annex the Crimea and destabilise eastern Ukraine, when the Ukraine-EU Association treaty came close to fruition, bettering the country’s prospects for membership of NATO and of abandoning its age-old function as a buffer between Russia and Western Europe. According to this reasoning, Mearsheimer claims, Putin is a “rational actor,” not the “second coming of Adolf Hitler”, and this action in the Ukraine, far from being expansionary, is in fact reactionary. Russia, being a declining power in terms of population and economic significance, has no resources for a long-term war, and knows very well that an invasion of the Ukraine would be self-destructive.

“In the modern world, conquering and occupation are a recipe for disaster” says Mearsheimer, referencing the Afghan war and the occupation of Iraq. Putin, he claims, is a strategist and knows well that such an effort would end badly. Instead, to maintain Russian security, Putin has decided to “ruin” the Ukraine: a strategy which, even if it is morally reprehensible, still makes sense on the part of Russia. Putin, as Mearsheimer puts it, is playing politics according to the rules of Great Power theory, the playbook of the twentieth century.

This is what he pinpoints as the major flaw in the western assessment of the crisis. NATO and the EU are playing by a different playbook to Russia; they are playing by the book of international law and the ‘new world order’ established by the fall of the USSR. This has allowed NATO to position itself as a benign entity, and sell its expansion as something more political than military. Yet Putin and Russia do not buy this, and have made clear in the past, according to Mearsheimer, that NATO expansion will be treated as an aggressive act.

Mearsheimer’s critics, when not addressing his logic, tend to focus on his moral position. One Ukrainian observer later commented that Mearsheimer’s point of view showed a lack of integrity or concern for the democratic will of the Ukrainian people, something the scholar himself denies.

Instead, Mearsheimer claims that the Ukraine is caught between “two gorillas”: the western alliance comprising NATO and the EU to the west, and the Russian Federation to the east. He believes that the current policy of sanctions and a soft power approach won’t work because Russia is concerned with its security, not its economy. A Great Power, he claims, can be willing to “absorb” a lot of damage in the interests of its security. Instead, the West must change its tactics.

For Mearsheimer, the most important aspect of a new plan towards the Ukraine crisis is for it to be realistic. A realistic approach would involve abandoning the sanctions against Russia, putting a stop to the expansion of NATO and the EU eastwards and focusing on building a cooperative partnership with Russia, something Mearsheimer believes will be necessary to deal with the crises in the Middle East, as evidenced by the Syrian situation, and against an expansive China.

On top of that, he believes the Ukraine, instead of seeking to become a member of either the EU or the NATO alliance, should optimise its placement as a buffer between the two ‘gorillas’, seeking financial partnership from both, and reap the benefits of serving as a meeting point between East and West, akin to Austria’s position during the Cold war, where it served, in Mearsheimer’s theory, as a meeting point for the two sides.

Knowing this, one student asked, why would NATO or the EU seek to add the Ukraine, a country with little to no strategic value in military or economic terms, to the West?

“I don’t understand what we are doing!” Mearsheimer replied, throwing his arms and casting a look upwards. He may think of Putin as a rational actor, but he certainly has his doubts about the ‘West’.


Mearsheimer’s talk was always going to be controversial, and the student reaction was diverse and telling of the audience. Aside from the aforementioned comments from some Ukrainian students, other students, generally from European countries with a longer history of European integration, had a variety of responses, from the negative to hearty praise. One commentator, fellow Euroculture student Galina Thieme had this to say:

”I experienced Professor Mearsheimer’s lecture on the current crisis in Ukraine to be refreshingly honest and rational as opposed to most mainstream intellectual and medial opinion makers, who constantly blame Putin and offer uncritical support of Poroschenko. Instead of pouring more gasoline into the fire, in my opinion Mearsheimer provided feasible solutions, taking into account Ukraine’s critical geographic position and the divide of its society in ethnic Russians and ethnic Ukrainians.”

For others, Mearsheimer’s theories relating to Russia failed to account for its actions, or at least did not convince them as to why it would be wise to change strategy vis-à-vis EU and NATO expansion, which was seen by one Polish student, who would prefer not to be named, to be the best strategy for “containing Putin”.

A student of European politics from Portugal, on the other hand, found Mearsheimer’s talk interesting, but was troubled by his seeming lack of understanding of current European thought on these issues, especially in the way he perceived the average European’s opinion on US foreign policy.

This gap between the students and Mearsheimer manifested itself in a number of ways. Indeed, in addition to a cultural gap, there seemed to have been a significant generational gap.

During the Q&A, Mearsheimer responded to a question on security by alluding to the slim but real possibility that a cornered Russia may resort to nuclear warfare. He compared the current policy, involving sanctions and doubling down on the Eastern Neighbourhood Policy, as placing a single bullet in a gun with a thousand chambers, and then putting the gun to our head and pulling the trigger.

For many students, the nuclear scare of the cold war isn’t a memory, but a note in a history textbook. For Mearsheimer, however, who had earlier referred to himself as a “dinosaur” of twentieth century politics, this threat has as much importance as any crisis of modern Europe.

Mearsheimer’s lecture was revealing in two very different ways; both in the provoking perspectives it offered on this defining crisis of EU foreign policy, and in the way it highlighted certain gaps that exist — between the perspectives of the United States and the European Union, between the world views of different members of Europe, and between the concerns of one generation and the next. Mearsheimer offered an important alternative to the narrative adopted by the West and challenged a new generation to think seriously about this crisis on their own terms, rather than relying on the conventional wisdom espoused by the current world order. Playing by different playbooks we may be, but as long as universities like Jagiellon continue to offer a platform to speakers from the entire political spectrum, and promote a dialogue about their views, our different playbooks do not have to mean that we are playing for different teams.

The opinions expressed in this essay do not necessarily represent the views of The Euroculturer.


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