Center for Strategic Communication

By James Schumaker, Guest Contributor

James Schumaker, a retired Foreign Service Officer, has served in various capacities in the United States Government over the past several decades, with professional experience in the Soviet Union, Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia.

In this essay, Professor John Mearsheimer explains to us why the Ukraine crisis is all the West’s fault, and why Putin’s Russia is only reacting to Western aggressive moves, and justly so.

If I were on the editorial board of Foreign Affairs, after reading this draft I would have told Professor Mearsheimer to go back to the drawing board.  In particular, I would have recommended that he leave his Ivory Tower and try doing a little field work for a change, which might give him a more grounded sense of reality.

For those who are unfamiliar with Professor Mearsheimer’s work, he is what is called an “offensive realist.” In other words, he believes in amoral “balance of power” politics, where the Great Powers establish spheres of influence with only the faintest of consideration for the desires of the smaller powers who might get in the way.  Also, he does not believe that ideology or domestic politics should be considered when making foreign policy decisions, and he downplays the ability of individual personalities like, say, Hitler or Putin, to affect the course of world events.

This is essentially an elitist view of foreign policy that has a certain congruence with the later views of George Kennan, but in the case of Europe, lacks Kennan’s depth of knowledge of the Soviet Union and its successor states. In some cases, Mearsheimer’s policy prescriptions have been spot-on, as when he supported the 1991 Gulf War and opposed vigorously the 2003 invasion of Iraq.  In other cases, particularly when it comes to European affairs, Mearsheimer seems to have lost his way.

For example, in 1990 he predicted the imminent demise of NATO.  We’re still waiting. 

Similarly, while he does have a story to tell with regard to the current Ukraine-Russia crisis, it is almost laughably out of date, and gets the story of what has happened almost completely wrong.  The only people who might agree with Mearsheimer’s account would be Putin apologists like Dr. Stephen Cohen or the editors of Russia Today, since he repeats Putin’s propaganda line virtually word for word.

Mearsheimer also fails to analyze the Ukraine-Russia problem correctly because ideology (democracy vs. messianic Russian nationalism) and personality (Putin) have tremendous roles to play in the current crisis, and upset all of his tidy social-science calculations.

Mearsheimer would do well to go to Ukraine and actually talk with a few Ukrainians before he dismisses their interests as unimportant as compared to those of Russia. The current crisis in Ukraine is not the West’s fault, and it is not because of some mythical Western desire to surround Russia and bring Ukraine into NATO.

The fault lies wholly with Putin’s Russia, and with Putin. As Kennan himself said, “Russia can have at its borders only enemies or vassals.”  Ukraine doesn’t want to be a vassal anymore, and so it is an enemy. That’s not our fault, and it’s not Ukraine’s, either.  Mearsheimer should revise his theory of international relations to reflect that reality.

See also: Anders Aslund, “Is the West to Blame for Russia’s Aggression in Ukraine?  Of course not” August 20, 2014

Contributor Note: Excerpts from James Schumaker’s personal memoirs can be found on his blog.