John Mearsheimer’s lecture on Ukraine: Why he is wrong and what are the consequences (2024)


On 16 June 2022, John Mearsheimer, Professor at the University of Chicago, delivered a lecture on the war in Ukraine at the Robert Schuman Centre of the European University Institute. During the lecture, Mearsheimer defended his controversial view that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is the fault of the United States and NATO. For scholars studying Central and Eastern Europe and the region’s citizens, the lecture is deeply problematic on factual, scientific, and moral grounds. This article addresses the validity of Mearsheimer’s central thesis, the quality of the presented evidence, and the lecture’s broader implications and the concept of academics’ social responsibility. It argues that Mearsheimer’s explanation of the war in Ukraine is intellectually unsatisfactory and that it rests on shaky empirical foundations. By publicly defending his scientifically unsound thesis, Mearsheimer legitimises Russia’s propaganda and violates the fundamental values of social responsibility that all academics should respect.

A controversial thesis

Mearsheimer’s main point is that the United States and its allies are to blame for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine since they allegedly pushed for Ukraine’s NATO membership, the prospect of which Russia has seen as an existential threat. There are at least four reasons why this account is wanting.

First, it ignores the fact that Ukrainians – like other Eastern Europeans – have been actively seeking NATO membership to protect themselves from the Russian threat. They did not need to be pushed, they have desperately wanted to join. They first officially applied for membership in 2008 and repeatedly declared it a policy priority after 2014. However, in Mearsheimer’s account, Ukrainians appear only as victims of Russia’s invasion, deprived of any agency. Ascribing to them a uniquely passive role is an analytical shortcoming that turns the blame game on its head, and an illustration of how condescendingly some Western academics and pundits regard Central and Eastern Europeans: as clueless pawns in a geopolitical game played by the “great” powers.

Second, Mearsheimer’s account is at least partially incomplete since, in isolation, it cannot satisfactorily explain the timing of the invasion or why other pro-Western countries in Russia’s immediate neighbourhood have avoided a similar fate. When Russia’s invasion started, it still appeared extremely unlikely that Ukraine would join NATO in the foreseeable future. What is more, the prospect that NATO, in the implausible scenario of Ukrainian membership, would launch an attack against a nuclear power is foolish. Indeed, Ukraine joining NATO would hardly be a credible military threat to Russia and, if Crimea remained in Russian hands, Russia’s key strategic interests would be largely preserved. All this suggests that any serious explanation of the invasion needs to consider additional factors such as Russia’s domestic political situation; the ideological and symbolic threat a democratic and prosperous Ukraine would represent to Russia’s incumbent political regime; and the potential desire of an ageing dictator to conquer immortality through territorial expansion. Without considering these factors and assessing them against solid empirical evidence, we will never understand what triggered the invasion.

Third, Mearsheimer’s explanation draws on his own version of the realist theory of international relations, offensive realism, which is not an overly reliable guide to the behaviour of contemporary states. Offensive realism holds that great powers such as Russia cannot tolerate perceived security threats in their neighbourhoods. However, here as elsewhere, offensive realism often fails on empirical grounds. The breakup of the Soviet Bloc, the post-Cold War military weakness of Germany, and peace among major European powers are just a few examples of such failures. Even if Russia really considered the prospect of Ukraine’s accession to NATO as an existential threat, which is far from certain despite Russia’s official rhetoric, there was absolutely no certainty that it would react in the way it did to Ukraine’s sovereign decision to seek joining the alliance. It is not by accident that the invasion took many members of Russia’s political establishment by surprise. Given the variety of alternative scenarios that could unfold, blaming the United States, NATO, or even Ukraine – if we acknowledge its active pursuit of NATO membership – for the war is not only morally wrong (i.e., wars are always started by those who pull the trigger, not those who join a defensive military alliance), but it is also intellectually unsatisfactory.

Fourth, one would hope that such a controversial thesis would be borne out by strong empirical evidence. Yet, the evidence presented during the lecture largely boils down to an uncritical reading of selective official statements made by the Russian leadership. Furthermore, the justification of the use of this “evidence”, referring to the alleged sincerity of Russia’s president, reveals further cracks in the credibility and scientific value of the central argument.

Weakness of the empirical evidence

Why should one believe what Russia’s leaders say? “Because Putin rarely lies to foreign audiences”, claimed Mearsheimer. He went on to pre-empt disagreements by reminding the lecture hall that he had authored a book on lying in international politics, which finds that political leaders lie to other countries much less often than we think. This attempt to mute criticism regrettably failed to mention that the book is not based on systematic research (page 12 of the book); that lying is rare particularly for democracies like the United States (p. 13), which Russia is not; and that the frequency of lying largely depends on the definition of what lying is (p. 26), which is somewhat restrictive in the book at hand. During his talk, Mearsheimer thus remained oblivious to Russia’s numerous lies on public record, including Putin’s original denial of any involvement in Crimea in 2014, which was followed by open boasting about the annexation a few months later. The US Department of State even went so far as to officially publish two 10-item lists of documented Russia’s falsehoods on Ukraine in 2014.

Mearsheimer’s lack of critical scrutiny of Russia’s statements contrasts with his refusal to consider that Russia could have imperial ambitions and that the invasion’s objective could (also) be territorial. While he was willing to take selected statements on the existential threat by Putin at face value, he would accept the imperial motivation only if somebody proved that Putin “thought it was a desirable goal, […] a feasible goal, […] [and] that he intended to pursue that goal”. It is hard to imagine what kind of evidence Mearsheimer would like to see as Putin has been quite clear in his repeated pre-invasion statements, denying the legitimacy and even the very existence of the independent Ukrainian state. On the eve of the invasion, Putin explicitly argued that Ukraine never had “real statehood,” and said it was an integral part of Russia’s “own history, culture, spiritual space.” After the invasion, he went on to compare himself to the 18th century Tsar, Peter the Great, and to declare that Russia was simply reclaiming its territory.

Engaging in curious intellectual gymnastics, Mearsheimer defended his central thesis by claiming that while Putin’s objectives escalated during the invasion into imperial ambitions, Russia originally did not want to annex territory before the invasion. Why? “Because there were only 190,000 soldiers in Russia’s invading army, which is far too small a force to vanquish and occupy Ukraine”. Yet again, this argument does not hold much water when we remember that Russia clearly targeted Kiev from the first day of the invasion and that it suffered terrible military losses arguably due to poor intelligence. All available evidence points to a disastrous miscalculation by the Kremlin leadership consisting, among others, in a serious over-estimation of the effectiveness of its own army, and of the popular support for Russia within Ukraine. Russian may have assembled fewer troops than would be normally necessary for controlling a country the size of Ukraine because it expected little resistance. Its military operations were supposed to be backed by a network of Ukrainian collaborators, most of whom, however, may have existed only in reports prepared by Russia’s security officials. According to Ukrainian official sources, which certainly need to be interpreted carefully in wartime, Putin discovered that his secret services may have embezzled $5 billion allocated from the Russian budget for subversive operations in Ukraine between 2014 and 2022.

More generally, denying the plausibility of Russia’s imperial objectives oddly clashes with the core tenets of Mearsheimer’s own theory and a large amount of circ*mstantial evidence from Central and Eastern Europe. Offensive realism argues that great powers aim to maximise their material capabilities. If Russian intelligence reports suggested Ukrainians would not resists their invaders, why wouldn’t Putin want to annex Ukraine’s territory? And why would his plans escalate from intervention to annexation when the invasion did not go as planned, as Mearsheimer claims? On the contrary, such escalation would have made much more sense if the invasion had proceeded smoothly. By questioning Russia’s imperial ambitions, Mearsheimer turns a blind eye to the nostalgia for the Soviet empire in Russian public opinion, the persistence of a hierarchical and imperial worldview among Russian elites and in the Russian media, and Russia’s meddling in the politics of Central European countries. Moreover, in the months leading up to the invasion, Russia required a Ukrainian pledge to not join NATO, but also a NATO pledge to withdraw all troops from the territories of its post-1990 members in Central and Eastern Europe. Clearly, Russia’s ambitions do not stop with Ukraine. That is fully in line with offensive realism, but it runs counter to Mearsheimer’s current thesis, which implies that if the US did not push for Ukraine’s NATO membership, there would be no “crisis.”

Consequences and academics’ social responsibility

Mearsheimer’s determined promotion of his controversial view is hard to understand. Whether it is motivated by his attachment to the realist theory, a taste for provocation, or even some proximity to Russia’s interests is hard to tell. Nevertheless, his account has limited explanatory power and little scientific value. It inter alia leads to theoretical inconsistencies, relies on cherry-picking of official statements made by a serial liar in international relations, sets double standards when assessing available evidence, and uses rhetorical gymnastics to address unfavourable new realities. What is enrobed in a scientific cloak is punditry with far too serious real-life consequences. It plays into the hands of Russian propaganda, which the Kremlin does not hesitate to instrumentalise. Mearsheimer clearly does not realise or care how socially detrimental his questionable claims are.

While the right to express unpopular academic ideas needs to be defended, their authors are responsible for the consequences. They should always weigh the strength of the supporting evidence, the ideas’ potential benefits to society, and the likely repercussions of expressing them outside purely academic circles. When the evidence is weak, societal benefits are low, and the repercussions are disastrous (such as legitimising a criminal invasion), academics should choose a different topic for touring the world’s lecture halls.

Filip Kostelka is Professor and Chair in Political and Social Change at the Department of Political and Social Sciences of the European University Institute.

John Mearsheimer’s lecture on Ukraine: Why he is wrong and what are the consequences (2024)


What did John Mearsheimer believe? ›

Mearsheimer is best known for developing the theory of offensive realism, which describes the interaction between great powers as being primarily driven by the rational desire to achieve regional hegemony in an anarchic international system.

What is the consequence of the Russian invasion of Ukraine? ›

Impact on markets and economies. The 2022 attacks and the subsequent economic sanctions had a severe impact on the Russian and Ukrainian economies, and decreased supply to some worldwide markets.

What are mearsheimer's assumptions about the international system? ›

Mearsheimer outlines five “bedrock” assumptions on which offensive realism stands: (1) the international system is anarchic; (2) great powers inherently possess some offensive military capability; (3) states can never be certain about the intentions of other states; (4) survival is the primary goal of great powers; and ...

How does offensive realism cause war? ›

Offensive realism, a theory of international relations, holds that states are disposed to competition and conflict because they are self-interested, power maximizing, and fearful of other states. Moreover, it argues that states are obliged to behave this way because doing so favors survival in the international system.

What does Mearsheimer say about international institutions? ›

Though he does not deny the existence of institutions, Mearsheimer's arguments reveal his extreme position that institutions have minimal influence on state behavior.

What is realism theory by John Mearsheimer? ›

John Mearsheimer summed up this view as follows: "great powers recognize that the best way to ensure their security is to achieve hegemony now, thus eliminating any possibility of a challenge by another great power.

Is Russia more powerful than NATO? ›

The combined total of Nato military personnel currently exceeds 5.4 million – around four times as many as Russia, according to Statista. It has about five times as many aircraft, four times as many armoured vehicles and three times as many military ships.

Is Ukraine important to the world? ›

Ukraine has long played an important, yet sometimes overlooked, role in the global security order. Today, the country is on the front lines of a renewed great-power rivalry that many analysts say will dominate international relations in the decades ahead. Ukraine's Counteroffensive: Will It Retake Crimea?

What is Sweden's view on Ukraine? ›

Sweden supports Ukraine's aspirations to join the European Union. Sweden condemned the Russian occupation of Crimea in 2014 and the violence against Ukraine by Russian forces.

What is the false promise of international institutions according to Mearsheimer? ›

The short story:

It concludes that institutions have minimal influence on state behavior, and thus hold little promise for promoting stability in the post-Cold War world.

What is the balance of power according to Mearsheimer? ›

From an offensive realist point of view, John Mearsheimer contends that states concerned with balance of power must think in terms of relative rather than absolute gain – that is, their military advantage over others regardless of how much capability they each have.

What is hegemony according to Mearsheimer? ›

According to Mearsheimer, global hegemony is an unattainable goal; instead, a state which has achieved the level of regional hegemon will then work to prevent the development of peer competitors in other regions.

How does realism cause conflict? ›

The realistic conflict theory states that whenever there are two or more groups that are seeking the same limited resources, this will lead to conflict, negative stereotypes and beliefs, and discrimination between the groups.

Is mearsheimer a defensive realist? ›

Mearsheimer, a prominent offensive realist who is a Professor of International Relations at the University of Chicago. This article argues that although Mearsheimer is indeed a realist, his offensive realism is but one of many different realist theories that can forward an explanation of the Ukraine War.

What are the 5 assumptions of realism? ›

With this caveat then, the main assumptions of realism are: state-centricity; the state as a unitary, rational actor; the notion of power; the primacy of national security issues; and the emphasis on structure.

What do realists believe about collective security? ›

Collective security selectively incorporates the concept of both balance of power and global government. However, collective security is not the same as the balance of power, which is important in realism. According to Adreatta, the balance of power focuses on a state's unilateral interests in stopping aggression.

What is the liberal democratic order? ›

Liberal democracy emphasizes the separation of powers, an independent judiciary and a system of checks and balances between branches of government. Multi-party systems with at least two persistent, viable political parties are characteristic of liberal democracies.

What do realists think about international law? ›

Realists believe that foreign policy is based on a rational calculation of a State's interests.

What is the main argument of realism theory? ›

The key point in understanding realism is that it is a theory that argues that unsavoury actions like war are necessary tools of statecraft in an imperfect world and leaders must use them when it is in the national interest. This is wholly rational in a world where the survival of the state is pre-eminent.

What is the main argument of classical realism? ›

Classical realist theory adopts a pessimistic view of human nature and argues that humans are not inherently benevolent but instead they are self-interested and act out of fear or aggression. Furthermore, it emphasizes that this human nature is reflected by states in international politics due to international anarchy.

What are the three theories of realism? ›

At its core, political realism is guided by three S's: statism, survival, and self-help.

Who is more powerful NATO or USA? ›

NATO, which was formed in 1949, is the most powerful military alliance in the world.

Who is more powerful Russia or USA? ›

In short, Russia is ranked 2nd out of 140 in military strength while the US is ranked 1st.
Russia vs US Military Strength: Comparison.
ComparisonRussiaThe United States
War deaths3390
Ranks in War DeathsRanked 17th.Ranked 73rd.
13 more rows
Mar 7, 2022

Which is the strongest military in the world? ›

1. United States Of America. US Military has the biggest defence budget in the world. They are known for their most powerful Air Force on the planet, named as United States Air Force (USAF).

What does Ukraine give the world? ›

Ukraine is normally the world's top producer of sunflower meal, oil, and seed and the world's top exporter of sunflower meal and oil.

What would happen if Russia won the war? ›

To put it in a nutshell: A military or strategic victory by Russia would have enormous consequences for the West and especially for Europe. It will help draw a new political map of Europe, both at the level of political parties and blocs and at the level of the cohesion of the European Union itself.

Which country is doing the most for Ukraine? ›

Much of that European aid is financial rather than military, most of which is coming in the form of loans and grants. The United States has given the most in grants, valued at 25 billion euros ($26.5 billion).

Why did Russia fight the Swedes? ›

The goal was to instigate a coup de état in Russia and depose Empress Catherine II. Sveaborg was set as the forward base of operations for the campaign. However, the whole concept was based on the assumption that the Swedish open sea fleet would be able to decisively defeat its Russian counterpart.

Is Sweden no longer neutral? ›

The accession to the European Union in 1995 meant that neutrality as a principle was abolished. Sweden is still today a neutral and non-aligned country in regard to foreign and security policy.

Who does Sweden ally with? ›

As a NATO partner country, Sweden conducts an open and regular political dialogue and engages in a wide range of practical cooperation with the Alliance. NATO and Sweden actively cooperate in peace-support operations, exercise together and exchange analysis and information.

What is liberal institutionalism theory? ›

Liberal institutionalism (or institutional liberalism or neoliberalism) is a theory of international relations that holds that international cooperation between states is feasible and sustainable, and that such cooperation can reduce conflict and competition.

What is the difference between absolute and relative gains? ›

Relative gain is related to zero-sum game, which states that wealth cannot be expanded and the only way a state can become richer is to take wealth from another state. It differs from absolute gain, which is the total effect of a decision on the state or organization, regardless of gains made by others.

What do you mean by collective security? ›

The concept of collective security replaces the one of military alliances between States, which prevailed until World War II, to ensure the collective defense of a State by its allies in case of aggression by another State.

Why is the great power politics tragic according to mearsheimer? ›

From these assumptions, Mearsheimer argues that states will constantly seek to accumulate power, and that cooperation between states is hard. The "tragedy" of great power politics is that even security-seeking great powers will nonetheless be forced to engage in competition and conflict with one another.

What are the criticism of balance of power? ›

Balance of Power Theory Criticism

Balance of power critics have often pointed to the fact that the theory assumes state intention occurs or is influenced at the global level and leaves out room for incorporating individual state policies and practices.

Is balance of power relevant today? ›

In contemporary times balance of power continues to operate at the regional if not at the global level. Even at the global level it continues to be an important principle of foreign policy-making and implementation.

What did mearsheimer believe? ›

Mearsheimer's basic argument is that deterrence is likely to work when the potential attacker believes that an attack will be costly and is unlikely to succeed.

Is the US a hegemon? ›

The hegemony of U.S. dollar is the main source of instability and uncertainty in the world economy. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the United States abused its global financial hegemony and injected trillions of dollars into the global market, leaving other countries, especially emerging economies, to pay the price.

What are the three types of hegemony? ›

The three types of hegemony are military, political, and economic. Some countries in history have exercised all three of these at once, and other countries have only controlled a single type of hegemony while being weak in other aspects.

What is the negative impact of realism? ›

First, Realism has typically relied on a gloomy view of humans derived from assuming a supposedly unchanging conflict-prone 'human nature. ' This leads to the second weakness, a tendency to treat politics both within and between states as involving unending competition for advantage.

Is the Ukraine war realism? ›

From beginning to end, what has happened in the case of the Russo-Ukrainian war is exactly what realism would, and many realists did, predict. Russia came to believe that Ukraine was drifting out of its sphere of influence and ever more fully into the Western orbit.

Do realists believe in war? ›

Realists agree with most standard definitions that peace entails the 'absence of war and other forms of overt violence' (Anderson 2004, 102). However, to the realist, 'peaceful' does not equal power free.

What are the 5 assumptions of John Mearsheimer? ›

Mearsheimer outlines five “bedrock” assumptions on which offensive realism stands: (1) the international system is anarchic; (2) great powers inherently possess some offensive military capability; (3) states can never be certain about the intentions of other states; (4) survival is the primary goal of great powers; and ...

What is a real world example of defensive realism? ›

To take an American example of defensive realism, think of America's role in Latin America. The paramount security concern in the 20th century for the U.S. in Latin America was the Panama Canal.

What are 4 arguments against direct realism? ›

The eight main arguments against Direct Realism are the Causal Argument, the Time- Lag Argument, the Partial Character of Perception Argument, the Perceptual Relativity Argument, the Argument from Perceptual Illusion, the Argument from Hallucination, the Dubitability Argument, and the Objective Feature Argument.

Do realists believe that there is an objective reality? ›

Realists believe that there is an objective reality “out there” independent of ourselves. B. This reality exists solely by virtue of how the world is, and it is in principle discoverable by application of the methods of science.

What do realists believe? ›

Realism (including neorealism) focuses on abiding patterns of interaction in an international system lacking a centralized political authority. That condition of anarchy means that the logic of international politics often differs from that of domestic politics, which is regulated by a sovereign power.

What is the belief of liberalism theory? ›

Liberalism is a political and moral philosophy based on the rights of the individual, liberty, consent of the governed, political equality and equality before the law. Liberals espouse various views depending on their understanding of these principles.

What does Mearsheimer argue in the false promise of international institutions? ›

It concludes that institutions have minimal influence on state behavior, and thus hold little promise for promoting stability in the post-Cold War world. All institutionalist theories examined are flawed, because each has a problem in its causal logic, and they all find little support in the historical record.

What are the theories of IR liberalism? ›

Liberal theories of international relations (IR) focus on the demands of individuals and social groups, and their relative power in society, as fundamental forces driving state policy and, ultimately, world order.

What is realist hegemony theory? ›

Traditionally, Realist hegemony describes the dominance of one state over several others, while Gramscian theory defines hegemony as a combination of coercion and consent which is not merely exercised by the state, but by civil society as well (Howson and Smith 2008).

What is the difference between a liberal and a conservative? ›

Conservatives believe in the importance of stability, and promote law and order to protect private property. Liberals believe in universal access to health care; they believe personal health should be in no way dependent upon one's financial resources, and support government intervention to sever that link.

What are the three core assumptions of liberalism? ›

Liberalism is a school of thought within international relations theory which revolves around three interrelated principles: Rejection of power politics as the only possible outcome of international relations; it questions security/warfare principles of realism. Mutual benefits and international cooperation.

What is the conservative ideology? ›

In the United States, conservatism is based on a belief in limited government, individualism, traditionalism, republicanism, and limited federal governmental power in relation to U.S. states.

What do realists think about institutions? ›

Realists believe that sovereign states are the principal actors in the international system. International institutions, non-governmental organizations, multinational corporations, individuals and other sub-state or trans-state actors are viewed as having little independent influence.

What is the difference between a liberal and a realist? ›

Realism is a school of thought in international relations that emphasises the conflict and competition of global politics. Liberalism, however, asserts notions of values, norms and civil liberty within international relations with a focus on international institutions and organizations.

What are the 6 main IR theories? ›

The five main theories of international relations include: realism theory, liberalism theory, Marxism theory, constructivism theory, and feminism theory.

What is the liberal theory of democracy? ›

In liberal democracy, an elected government cannot discriminate against specific individuals or groups when it administers justice, protects basic rights such as freedom of assembly and free speech, provides for collective security, or distributes economic and social benefits.

Why is the US a hegemony? ›

The hegemony of U.S. dollar is the main source of instability and uncertainty in the world economy. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the United States abused its global financial hegemony and injected trillions of dollars into the global market, leaving other countries, especially emerging economies, to pay the price.

What is the Marxist idea of hegemony? ›

In Marxist philosophy, cultural hegemony is the dominance of a culturally diverse society by the ruling class who manipulate the culture of that society—the beliefs and explanations, perceptions, values, and mores—so that the worldview of the ruling class becomes the accepted cultural norm.

Is hegemony a Marxist? ›

Hegemony had been a common term in debates among Russian Marxists and usually described the leading (or “hegemonic”) role of the working class over its allies in a political coalition.

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