THE UKRAINE CRISIS ACCORDING TO JOHN J. MEASHIMER: IMPECCABLE LOGIC, WRONG FACTS
By Alexander Motyl, Professor of Political Science at Rutgers University-Newark
31 Oct 14. John J. Mearshimer, R. Wendell Harrison Distinguished Service Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago, has written a controversial analysis of the ongoing crisis in Ukraine, which neatly reveals why “realism” fails when applied dogmatically and without an adequate knowledge of the facts. The article, entitled “Why the Ukraine Crisis is the West’s Fault,” appeared in the September/October 2014 issue of Foreign Affairs .
“Putin’s actions should be easy to comprehend,” writes Mearshimer. Ukraine is a “huge expanse of flat land that Napoleonic France, imperial Germany, and Nazi Germany all crossed to strike at Russia itself.” Since Ukraine serves as a “buffer state of enormous strategic importance to Russia … no Russian leader would tolerate a military alliance that was Moscow’s mortal enemy until recently moving into Ukraine.” By the same token, no “Russian leader [would] stand idly by while the West helped install a government there that was determined to integrate Ukraine into the West.” After all, “great powers are always sensitive to potential threats near their home territory.”
The argument is marred by two fatal flaws. First, by invoking past invasions, Mearshimer goes beyond the analytical framework of realism, which assumes that “objective” threats would be recognized as such by any rational observer, and invokes Russian historical memory, ideology, and political culture—or perceptions. Once perceptions enter the picture, we leave the realm of realism’s logical rigor and introduce factors that contradict the objectivity and rationality assumption of realism and implode Mearshimer’s theoretical framework. After all, the power of realism resides in its claim that all rational observers, regardless of nationality, would assess national interests and power relations in approximately the same way. If they do not, because values, norms, ideas, and the like get in the way, then realism amounts to the banal observation that power somehow matters in our assessments of international relations. Who could disagree?
The second problem with the argument is that is it based on non-facts or twisted interpretations of real facts. For starters, Napoleon crossed today’s Belarus, not Ukraine; imperial Germany couldn’t have crossed Ukraine to strike at Russia, because Ukraine in 1914 was part of Russia; Nazi Germany attacked not Russia but the Soviet Union in general and Soviet Ukraine and Soviet Belarus in particular, when its forces launched Operation Barbarossa on June 22, 1941. Mearshimer might counter that this kind of criticism is picky and that his point is that three powers crossed Ukraine—“a huge expanse of flat land”—to attack Russia. But that image of Ukraine (and Belarus) is precisely the problem. Europe never consisted of aggressive states in the west, a powerless Russia in the east, and a “huge expanse of flat land” in between. Sometimes Russia incorporated that huge expanse; sometimes that huge expanse actually had a non-Russian political identity; and never was Belarus identical with Ukraine.
These elementary factual mistakes set the tone for the rest of the article. Thus, NATO is anything but an “impressive military alliance,” and everyone—from NATO, to the United States, to Europe, to Russia—knows it. Ever since NATO lost its raison d’etre with the end of the cold war and the collapse of the USSR, the alliance has been floundering, seeking a new rationale for its existence (and arguably finding it only after Russia invaded Crimea). Meanwhile, while American defense spending has remained high, that of the Europeans is declining, and almost no one in Europe or the United States can imagine the Europeans engaging in a concerted military action. Indeed, as I learned during a visit to NATO headquarters in June 2014