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The Tragedy of Great Power Politics Comes for Ukraine?

M1 Abrams
U.S. Army Sgt. Ryan Duginski, M1 Abrams Tank Master Gunner, assigned to Battle Group Poland, performs a tank remote-fire procedure to ensure firing capabilities function properly at Bemowo Piskie Training Area, Poland, Nov. 6. (Photos by U.S. Army 1LT Christina Shoptaw)

The debate over the causes of the Ukraine War is intense. In the West, there has been much contention over whether the expansion of NATO after the collapse of the Soviet Union provoked the invasion. The most famous proponent of that claim has been John Mearsheimer, University of Chicago professor of international relations. Mearsheimer’s core argument is made here and here, and he has recently re-stated it here and here. Others have made this argument as well (here, here, here). The Russian government has even deployed Mearsheimer’s talks to defend its war.

Is Russia Due a Sphere of Influence?

The argument is that reckless NATO expansion provoked Russia into action against Ukraine, and it flows from two interrelated bodies of theory about US foreign policy – realism and restraint. Realism argues that world politics is a rough-and-tumble place, where the lack of a world government means states can and do use force against each other. Mearsheimer argues for a particularly aggressive version of this, ‘offensive realism‘.

It was, therefore ‘realistic’ and cautious to not take advantage of Russia’s post-Cold War troubles by expanding NATO into areas previously under Soviet domination. George Kennan, one of the most famous names in US foreign policy and the original architect of US containment of the USSR during the Cold, opposed NATO expansion for this reason. He, like Mearsheimer, feared it would provoke a backlash.

A second, related line of argument is US foreign policy restraint. The restraint school argues that the US meddles too much in other countries’ affairs. America does not respect political, cultural, or civilizational differences. And it fights too often, kills too many people, and wastes too much money. American restraint in Europe would mean learning to live with the ‘reality’ of Russian power and pushing the Europeans to take responsibility for their own defense.

In policy terms regarding Russia, all this means that the West should assent to a Russian demand for a sphere of influence in eastern Europe. Russian Vladimir Putin has referred to this space as the ‘near-abroad,’ suggesting its sovereignty is disputed or contingent on Moscow’s approval. And Putin has, prior to the current war, acted in Moldova, Ukraine, Georgia, and Armenia to signal his insistence that post-Soviet states’ foreign policy should align with his preferences.

Since Putin seems determined to force this agenda, even at the cost of war with Ukraine, the wise realist move recognizes the ‘reality’ of Russian power and interest there and compromises with it. Restrainers would note that NATO will not accept Ukraine as a member anyway, so this is hardly a concession.

Why Shouldn’t the West and the ‘Near-Abroad’ Push Back?

Much of the response to this argument switches away from a realist to a liberal or international legal logic. By that thinking, the small states around Russia are entitled to self-determination, including which alliances they belong to. Just because Russia dominated them in the past, does not mean it should in the future. The states of Eastern Europe wanted to join NATO and the EU. NATO and the EU were entitled to take them or not. Russia did not and should not have a veto over any of that. And the Eastern European desire to join was entirely understandable – an effort to finally escape centuries of Russian geopolitical bullying. The response of Western leaders to the war has broadly followed these lines.

But critically, the realist argument – that we should accommodate Russian power in Eastern Europe because it is a tough, dog-eat-dog world out there and we must learn to live with that reality – also fails on its own terms. If international politics is that tough, do Russia’s neighbors not also have a right to play tough?

In other words, if Russia is entitled to dominate by the harsh, strong-rule-the-weak laws of offensive realism, then its neighbors are also entitled to push back and escape if they can. If the international system is as anarchic and abusive, as Mearsheimer portrays, then the weak can fight also. And NATO too is entitled to exploit Russian weakness to the fullest under these rules. NATO expansion is the US and Europe playing by the same Mearsheimer rules which Putin’s Russia is demanding for itself.

Mearsheimer refines this claim to great powers specifically. These large states particularly feel ‘entitled’ to a sphere of influence in their regions. Even the US, a liberal democracy, proclaimed the Monroe Doctrine and fought Soviet penetration of the Western Hemisphere. Hence, a disproportionate role for Russia in its near-abroad is natural.

But this caveat fails for Russia too. Eastern Europe is not just Russia’s ‘near-abroad’; it is also that for the West, particularly for Germany. So Mearsheimer’s realism does not actually predict a Russian-dominated Eastern European space but, instead, a competition between Russia and Germany/the EU/the West to control it. And since dog-eat-dog realism suggests you grab gains and take advantage of windows of opportunity when the arise, expanding NATO at Russia’s expense after the Cold War is also ‘natural.’

If Russia rejects the liberal international order – as it now clearly does under Putin – then it places itself back into Mearsheimer’s realm of anarchy and realism. Putin may use that to justify lording over his neighbors and invading Ukraine, but that realism also allows those neighbors to push back, as Ukraine is doing. Realism, the perils of anarchy, and the use of force explain Putin’s war only if they also explain NATO expansion and Ukrainian resistance. So Mearsheimer should not blame NATO; it did exactly as he would predict it did.

Robert Kelly is a professor in the Department of Political Science at Pusan National University in South Korea and a 1945 Contributing Editor. Follow his work on his website or at Twitter.

Written By

Dr. Robert E. Kelly (@Robert_E_Kelly; website) is a professor of international relations in the Department of Political Science at Pusan National University. Dr. Kelly is now a 1945 Contributing Editor as well. 



  1. Alex

    March 16, 2022 at 12:32 pm

    Great power and own security are somewhat different terms.
    Is there a documentary video of NATO promising Russia not to expand eastward? There is. It was published in Germany not so long ago.
    Did the Ukraine authorities promise not to oppress the Russian-speaking population and their culture, of which there are more than 50% in Ukraine? They promised and staged genocide, especially in the Donbass.
    The President of Ukraine said that he did not like the Minsk agreements? Said.
    The government of Ukraine said that it would hit Russian nuclear power plants with missiles? They said.
    The government of Ukraine said about the manufacture of a dirty nuclear bomb? They said.
    Did NATO have a plan to create a port of warships in the Crimea? yes, there was a plan.
    Did the US have a plan to deploy weapons in Ukraine? Yes, there was a plan.
    What about American biological laboratories on the territory of Ukraine and the development of biological weapons?
    Only an idiot could believe that Russia would do nothing. Everyone knows: Russia is either silent or brings its actions to the end, no matter what the cost.

  2. Eric-ji

    March 16, 2022 at 1:45 pm

    In politics and warfare it is always whatever you can get away with.

  3. Chris Kyle

    March 16, 2022 at 2:33 pm

    russian troll farms tears are delicious. moar pls.

  4. Alex

    March 16, 2022 at 2:41 pm

    Chris, you keep writing the same thing. Don’t you think that the troll… Is it just you? Take Xanox, poor guy.

  5. A penny tossed to the wind

    March 16, 2022 at 4:12 pm

    The idea of NATO is very unsophisticated. “We have a neighbour who is very different from us so let’s gang up.”

    Of course it’s going to lead to tension and countering. It’s a continual threat, whether it expands or not. ‘NATO expansion’ has moved from and centre, the point of argument, when the problem resides underneath it.

    This is not to say “dismantle NATO”, it’s to say in its current state it is unsophisticated. It is, itself, a brute, a bully, by mere existence.

    A new ordering, after this invasion, would benefit by giving it a rethink. What are its end goals? What more of the contemporary world can be brought into it, to update it, reshape its identity and, especially, its character and image. Rename it.

    Again, this invasion is about lessons.

    Where grand and big ideas were once thought impossible, the difference in the contemporary age is that the world citizen, individuals from every country around the world, are now able to demand in unision the big changes.

    The international order is a construct, born of who the individual citizen in any country brings cause to create by expression of what is wanted and expected from a domestic leader.

    There are essentially two elements to it. One is the established order, full of backrroom bureaucrats, absolutely cemented in each country’s ways of operation. The other element is the citizenry of each country, the individual.

    Prior to this contemporary age – being the age of interconnectedness and interconnectivitity – individuals within each country elect or select their national leader, one way or another, and then had no real bearing upon anything after that: world affairs. That was the old way. The individual citizen played no role in determining what happens in world events.

    The contemporary age is changing that. Yet it hasn’t yet wholly grasped its power. It hasn’t yet wholly realised that the individual citizen, connected to another, is a new determining force.

    It will realise this, and it will coalesce and act. This is because that’s a natural thing people do.

    This invasion is not just about Ukraine and Russia, or as others would like it: about democracy and autocracy (that is, a form of government).

    The invasion is an upending of ordering, a shattering of structures that got us, the world of people, to this point.

    This is absolutely the best chance people have, the world over, to contribute to reshaping the new world order. The “new world order” being how those structures come to arrange and settle.

    Those cemented, established bureaucratic structures, the unelected backroom, no longer in this contemporary age are situated to on their own determine world events. The individual, in collective interconnectivity, is forming to also contribute and determine.

    As citizens of the world, this is our time.

    And our national (and by instant default then ‘international’) leaders would do well to take note. Better, to acknowledge the new contemporary world order is one of interconnectivity. And embrace this new force. After all, it’s the ultimate force that determines who leads and how.

    A re-think of NATO would be smart to include this. How can the goal of NATO be achieved, with the removal of ‘threat’, in a sophisticated embracing of this developing force?

    Last point, this excellent article draws attention to discussion about the role USA has played in coming to this point in world events.

    That discussion has long been extant, but now, the difference is that the world’s individual citizens are in a position to share in discussion, and en masse present as a determining factor in how the USA could benefit by changing its approach, its behaviour.

    Think that’s not so? You are, right now, in your own country in this world and by reading these words doing precisely that. You are participating in discussion, and your response in this contemporary age matters. It has an effect.

    For my input, I think the USA could benefit from a rethink to its approach in simple, yet important ways.

    To date, the US makes its stance in world affairs on the basis of the size of its military. On that basis, it has deemed itself ‘the leader’ of determining world events.

    That basis – size of military – is pretty damn selective.

    And because it’s so selective and minimalist it is fraught and not only ineffective (because world events have remained full of wars or their consequences) that minimalist basis is a cause of world problems.

    Simple stuff. Taken for granted. But huge in consequence. Things like this: “We are the leader of the free world.”

    Apart from those continual declarations being autocratic, the question to ask is: Based on what?

    The size of US military?

    Not good enough. How about medicine, or sport, or education, or national wellbeing? Name any number of these bases, and you’ll get the point.

    It is now not only a hollow claim, it is getting ever more ridiculous, as the US is full of domestic problems that bear no claim to it being a world leader in many of them.

    So remove that statement. Or change it to its true expression: “We are the leader of the free world because of the size of our military” – then see how you go. You’ll be laughed at and decried the world over for saying it. Because, again, that’s an insufficient, fraught basis on which to make the claim. Which is the basis on which its made, and has for a long time.

    “We are the leader of the free world because of the size of our military” is the actual statement made, and isn’t made less ridiculous by truncating it.

    Being ridiculous is no way to lead.

    What such statements do, too, is play straight into the hands of autocracies. You’re giving them a grab-bag of arguments their leaders provide to their citizens for maintaining their governmments as they are.

    So not only do such declarations diminish the brand of the US, it acts as counter to its goals.

    Another, mentioned previously, are things like this: “We will bring democracies to the world!”

    Just stop and think about that. You’ve (US leadership) been saying it for years and years and by saying it you’ve been stating and re-stating, reaffirming, a threat.

    The US leadership, shoved full of unelected backroom urgencies, says it in times of relative world calm between the US and the countries it aims at.

    So here is a citizen or leader in an autocratic country sitting down to an evening meal, had a long day, going about her or his own business, and on comes the evening news. The USA, in some domestic fervour, making a threat.

    Does the US expect those citizens and that leader on their behalf to respond well?

    Simple stuff.

    But big in consequence. Those statements and declarations, which are loved domestically no matter the president, are threats which hit hard into these other cultures and create there a domestic disposition of hatred against the US and the West.

    That disposition can then more easily be inspired, or provoked, by its leadership to rise and defend their own way of life, their culture.

    Because a speech is an act of behaiour, an International Leader Code of Conduct would set paramaters that cover it.

    Such a code would cause a rethink within the US administration, of any Party, to restate their goals as intended by those speeches and statements and declarations in a way that is not a threat. In a way that achieves its goal, but is not a cause for world problems.

    Basic behavour. A speech that is a threat would not be allowed in any other forum. No corporate board member could make one, for example. It might sound good and feel good at the time, within that moment, but it’s counterproductive. Codes of Conduct the world over covers speech because of that.

    It’s not just the big, ohvious things that have led us to this place of world upheaval. If we can’t change attitudes, and we probably can’t, then let’s change how we continually allow unwanted behavour to occur, far less celebrate it by cheering and shouting and pumping fists in the air.

    Because the above article brought into focus a discussion about US behaviour, this comment focused on the US, but all Western leaderships (which include the unelected backrooms) would surely benefit from a long, hard rethink.

    The West is in many ways an aggressor without realising it.

  6. Commentar

    March 16, 2022 at 7:19 pm

    NATO is an anachronistic leftover from the cold war, a period of history where washington kept the american people on edge with warnings of ‘gaps’ and europe with warnings of soviet tanks crossing the german border despite having west berlin.

    Yet today, we find european nations still living in the era along with the fears or nightmares spun by washington.

    It is time for europe to become free, free from cold wars, free from nightmares, free from tied to apron strings and free from great power politics.

  7. Jerry Singelton

    April 30, 2022 at 3:57 pm

    If world events threatened the lease the U.S. has on Guantanamo, or if events threatened the U.K.’s control of Gibraltar, is there any doubt that the U.S. or U.K. would aggressively act to eliminate the threat? If world events threatened the large (maybe the largest) Russian naval base at Sevastopol why would there be any doubt that Russia would aggressively act to eliminate the threat?

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