Why is Ukraine the West's Fault?: Transcribing John Mearsheimer
Updated: Feb 24
For at least two months now, tensions between Russia and the West have ignited over a Russian military buildup on the borders of Ukraine, stoking fears of Russian invasion. According to the Ukrainian military, Russia has around 130,000 troops on the border, flanking Ukraine on all sides. In response, the United States and its European allies have begun to mobilize (though at this point, mostly rhetorically). President Biden has announced he will soon move US troops to Eastern Europe, and the UK's Johnson has signalled that British forces would do the same if Ukraine were ever invaded. For now, the guns have remained silent, but all sides are poised for war.
In light of the situation, I have revisited a lecture by the American international relations scholar John Mearsheimer, which he gave on June 4th, 2015 at the University of Chicago, focusing on the Ukraine crisis the previous year. Mearsheimer describes himself as a "realist" who views the world in terms of balance-of-power considerations. He also speaks from an American point of view, as someone who regularly communicates with US policymakers and has the interest of the United States in mind. His ideas are thus formulated through these lens.
Though we are nearly seven years on, I found many of the main points as relevant as ever to the current situation that we face today. Therefore I have transcribed his lecture - shortened and edited for clarity. My reflections can be found in the final section.
(you can watch the full lecture on Youtube here).
The subject I want to talk about is the causes and consequences of the Ukraine crisis which of course has been in the news in a really big way since February 2014, and indeed there was a big story on the civil war in eastern Ukraine in the newspapers this morning.
The outline I'd like to follow is, I'd like to make a number of preliminary comments to give you some background on this crisis and then I'd like to give you my thinking on what caused the crisis then tell you why I think the conventional wisdom is wrong and talk a little bit about the West's response so far to the crisis, which is just in my opinion making a bad situation worse and tell you what I think should be done, and finally wrap up with some discussion of the consequences.
Outline of the Talk:
Causes of the Conflict: My View
Causes of the Conflict: Conventional Wisdom
The West's Response: So Far
What Should Be Done?
I. Preliminary Comments
So let me start with some preliminary comments - first with regard to America's core strategic interests.
The United States' Core Strategic Interests
For me, "core strategic interests" are areas of the world where you're willing to fight and die and in my opinion, outside of the Western Hemisphere, which is of enormous strategic importance to us, there are only three areas of the world that really matter:
The Persian Gulf
It's very important to understand that since this country got its independence in 1783, Europe has been the most important area of the world. Even though the Japanese attacked us at Pearl Harbor, we had a Europe-first policy going into the war and we had a Europe-first policy throughout the war. And it's in large part because the great powers in Europe are more important than the great powers in Northeast Asia over time.
Of course, the Persian Gulf was an important area because that's where the oil is and oil is a critical resource that matters greatly in the international system.
So those are the three most important areas outside the Western Hemisphere and again since the beginning of this country, Europe has been number one. You want to understand that we're undergoing a fundamental shift of great importance: Asia, because of the rise of China, is going to be the most important area of the world for the United States. The Persian Gulf, because it's inextricably linked with Asia - oil flowing to India, oil flowing to China - will be number two. And Europe will be a distant three. We're basically leaving Europe in the rear-view mirror. And of course you want to keep this in mind because the Ukraine crisis is in Europe and involves NATO [the North-Atlantic Treaty Organization].
To think about the geography of Europe, this is a simple if not simplistic way of thinking about it. Here's a map:
Source: CIA World Factbook
You can see where Ukraine is. Let's see where Poland is; you can see where Russia is. The way I think about European security is: there's France, Germany, Poland, Ukraine and Russia. Of course, we're moving from west to east. These are the big kahunas, these are the big countries that matter and of course the two countries that matter the most historically are Germany and Russia or, for most of the twentieth century, Germany and the Soviet Union. As you well know, both Germany and the Soviet Union fought bitter wars in Poland and in Ukraine and, we could add, in Belarus as well.
How to Think About European Security:
A Divided Country
To take this a step further, this is the ethnic breakdown of Ukraine.
Source: Wikimedia Commons
I'm going to show you a number of maps all of which are designed to show you that Ukraine is a badly divided country and what's taking place inside Ukraine today is in good part a civil war and to that extent it doesn't have that much to do with what the Russians or the West are doing there.
As you can see, in [red] are mostly Ukrainian-speaking people and then as you move further east, you're talking about lots of Russians and certainly lots of Russian-speakers. This is the Ukraine election of 2004 - this is the election in the wake of the famous Orange Revolution which I'll talk more about.
Source: Wikimedia Commons
As you can see the country is badly divided between the east and the west. The Russian speakers in the east and Ukrainian speakers in the west. This is the 2010 election, which resulted in Yanukovych getting elected - I'll talk about president Yanukovych as we go along.
[Yanukovych] was elected in 2010 and we can see there the voting patterns in the 2010 election look a lot like the voting patterns in the 2004 election. And then, there are two recent surveys that came out from the International Republic Institute - that's here in the United States:
Source: International Republic Institute
This one says if Ukraine could enter only one international economic union, which of the following should it be? And of course the blue is the EU and the red is the Customs Union of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan. You can see very clearly that people in the west would like to join the EU, [whereas] people in the east have little interest in joining the EU. Here are the NATO numbers:
Source: International Republic Institute
These two charts look virtually the same. But all of this tells you that you have a badly divided country. And the conflict between the West and Russia over Ukraine is played out in the context of this situation.
This is simple little view-graph that shows Europe's dependence on Russian gas.
It's quite clear from that view-graph that many of the countries in Eastern Europe and even countries like Germany are heavily dependant on Russian natural gas and of course that gives the Russians lots of political leverage in this crisis and it makes it very difficult for us to put pressure on the Russians. [See here and here for a sketch of how the US is currently responding to this leverage, and here for a more detailed breakdown of Europe's energy dependance on Russia].
Those are just a number of preliminary comments I wanted to throw out just to set this up. Let's talk about the causes of the conflict.
II. Causes of the Conflict: My View
I think if you're gonna talk about the causes of the  conflict, you have to come at it from three different perspectives. First of all you have to ask, what are the deep causes of the crisis? What are the structural factors that underpin this conflict? [Presumably these structural factors continue to underpin the conflict in Ukraine today].
Then you have to talk about the precipitating causes because the crisis broke out on February 22nd, 2014. Things were not terrible until February, 22nd, 2014, and that's when everything went to hell in a handbasket - and the question is, what caused it then? If you focus on deep causes it can't tell you why something happened in February 2014.
And then, what we want to talk about is the Russian reaction - why the Russians did what they did - with regard to Crimea [and] with regard to eastern Ukraine. We want to talk about exactly what they did and then why they did it.
The Deep Causes
My argument is that the West is principally responsible for this mess, not the Russians. This of course is not the conventional wisdom in the United States - and in fact, except for [the late historian of Russia] Steve Cohen, Henry Kissinger and maybe a handful of other people, there are not many people who agree with it. But I think the facts are quite clear on this. The West is responsible.
The main deep cause is that the aim of the United States and its European allies is to peel Ukraine away from Russia's orbit and incorporate it into the West. Our basic goal has been to make Ukraine a Western bulwark on Russia's border. And Russia says, "this ain't happening - period, end of the story - and we will do everything we can to make sure it does not happen". That's the deep cause. Now, to take it a step further; there are three key elements in our strategy:
Fostering an Orange Revolution
The first is NATO expansion - [it is] in many ways the most important. Since the Cold War ended, starting with the Clinton administration, we have been moving NATO eastward toward the Russian border, and the Russians have said, "this is an absolute no-no".
Second is EU expansion - EU expansion is all about integrating Ukraine economically into the West, the [same] way we're in the process of integrating Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, the Baltic states, into the West. And of course we're doing that with NATO as well.
These are two sets of institutions: NATO, a military institution, the EU, an economic institution, and the idea again is to take Ukraine, peel it away from Russia, make it part of the West.
The third part of the story is fostering an "Orange Revolution". This is all about promoting a democracy in Ukraine and in other places. The United States runs around the world trying to topple regimes and put in their place democratically elected regimes. And for almost all of you, me included, it's hard being against "promoting democracy". We all love democracy, but if you're Vladimir Putin or if you're part of the leadership in Beijing, when the United States talks about "democracy promotion", that means toppling your regime. And you won't be surprised to hear this - they don't like that in Beijing, and they don't like that in Moscow!
The Chinese believe that we're behind the protests in Hong Kong [a pattern that repeated itself in 2019]. The idea that we're promoting democracy around the world and especially in East Asia just drives the crazy, because they think they're in the crosshairs, and you know what - they are in the crosshairs! Because our basic strategy is to topple regimes all over the world - not simply because we like democracy - but because we believe that whoever gets elected will be pro-Western. So we're killing two birds with one stone. We're promoting democracy and getting leaders who are pro-American.
But again, you can see the strategy here - NATO expansion, EU expansion and promoting democracy. I'll say a bit more about NATO expansion because it's so important. NATO expansion took place in two tranches. The first one was in 1999, that's when you get Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary incorporated into NATO. The second big tranche was in 2004. That's when the Baltic states - Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania up top - [and] Romania, Bulgaria [etc], that's the second tranche of NATO expansion.
Source: The Economist
Now, the [Russians] made it clear from the mid-1990s, they were adamantly opposed to NATO expansion. But number one, they were too weak to do anything about it, and [number] two, it didn't involve the states that were right on their border. There's no question, as you can see from the map, that Latvia and Estonia are on Russia's border, and Lithuania as well (if you want to include that little [Russian] enclave [Kaliningrad Oblast] between Poland and Lithuania). But the fact is these were very small states, it was early in the game, and the Russians were willing to live with it. But that's when the big trouble starts, and it comes in [NATO's] famous Bucharest summit in April 2008.
At the end of the summit, a declaration is issued which says:
"NATO welcomes Ukraine's and Georgia's Euro-Atlantic aspirations for membership in NATO. We agreed today that these countries will become members of NATO".
So, [afterward] the Russians made it perfectly clear this was unacceptable. Russia's deputy foreign minister said:
"Georgia's and Ukraine's membership in the alliance is a huge strategic mistake which will have most serious consequences for pan-European security".
Putin himself said:
"Georgia and Ukraine becoming part of NATO is a 'direct threat' to Russia".
You will remember that there was a war between Russia and Georgia in August 2008. That war was a consequence of this, because the Georgians thought we were sending them a signal that they could get uppity with the Russians and we would back them because they were gonna become part of NATO. That's not what happened. And you know what happened - the Russians clobbered the Georgians and Georgia is in deep trouble today because it thought it could become part of NATO. So you want to remember that April 2008 summit - very important - [and] that declaration - very important. And then what happens is you have a war.
So those are the deep causes - those three strategies: NATO expansion, EU expansion and promoting democracy. What about the precipitating cause?
The Precipitating Causes
It's the coup of February 22nd, 2014 [where Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych was toppled] that's of enormous importance. That's what really throws the crisis into gear. So the question is, what causes the coup?
It all starts in November 2013. At that point, President Yanukovych, is negotiating with the EU to form an association agreement that brings the EU and Ukraine much closer together. It's a step in the direction of incorporating Ukraine into the European Union, or to put it in slightly different terms, incorporating Ukraine into the West.
The Russians make it clear that this is unacceptable - the Russians are willing to do a deal that involves the EU, Russia, the IMF and Ukraine, but the idea that Ukraine is going to do a deal exclusively with the EU and the Russians are going to be left out in the cold is not something that Putin is willing to countenance. He puts significant pressure on the Ukrainians. He offers them a terrific deal and, as you can imagine, the EU was not offering Ukraine a particularly good deal because - you can know how much corruption there is in Ukraine - and the EU wants Ukraine to eliminate that corruption, which the Ukrainians really don't want to do. So what Putin does is not only make it clear that that deal is not going to happen, but he offers a sweetheart deal of his own.
So Yanukovych, on November 21st, say "no" to the EU. This leads to a series of protests. The Ukrainian government, truth be told, under Yanukovych, overreacts to the protests, which causes them to spiral out of control. And in January of 2014, you have your first two deaths in the protests - these are the "Maidan" protests. And then in the February 18th-20th time period, lots of people die, it's really messy. And what happens is a number of European foreign ministers - the German, French etc. foreign ministers - they fly to Kiev, and a deal was worked out to have elections that will in effect remove Yanukovych from power. But the protesters refuse to accept the deal, there are significant fascist elements among the protesters - who are armed; there's killing on the Maidan, and as a result, Yanukovych flees for his life to Russia. This all happens on February 22nd.
On February 23rd, [the Ukrainian] parliament votes to repeal minority language laws in the east - this is basically the Russian language. And then on February 27th, Russian units begin seizing checkpoints in the Crimea. On the 28th, additional Russian forces begin moving into the Crimea. The Russians didn't "invade" Crimea - they were already here because they had a leasing agreement - there's a naval base as Sevastopol, and Russians were leasing that base from Ukraine, so they had military forces there. So [the Russians who seized those checkpoints on the 22nd] were already there. Then additional Russian forces begin moving in on the 28th. And then on the 16th and the 18th [or March] you have a handful of events that lead to Russia incorporating Crimea. And then of course, shortly after that, conflict breaks out in eastern Ukraine, and it's quite clear that the Russians are involved.
Key Events Leading Up to the Coup:
Nov. 21, 2013: Yanukovych says "no" to EU deal.
Dec. 1, 2013: Large demonstration on the "Maidan" ["square"] and protestors seize City Hall in Kiev.
Dec. 17, 2013: Putin announces $15 billion loan to Ukraine.
Jan. 22, 2014: First two deaths in protests.
Feb. 18, 2014: Street clashes leave 26 dead.
Feb. 20, 2014: Street clashes leave 40 dead.
Feb. 21, 2014: Deal worked out for May elections.
Feb. 22, 2014: Yanukovych flees the country.
Key Events After the Coup:
Feb. 23, 2014: Parliament votes to repeal minority language laws.
Feb. 27, 2014: Russian units begin seizing checkpoints in Crimea.
Feb. 28, 2014: Additional Russian forces begin moving into Crimea.
Mar. 6, 2014: Crimean parliaments votes to join Russia and hold a referendum on the matter.
Mar. 16, 2014: Referendum held in Crimea [official results claim a 97% vote to join Russia].
Mar. 18, 2014: Russia incorporates Crimea.
The Russian Response
What is the Russian response? Two parts: first is, they took Crimea, and they're not giving it back; Crimea's gone. Second is, what they're doing is not trying to conquer Ukraine - there are many people who say the Russians are going to go on a "rampage" and they're going to try to re-establish the Soviet Union or "Greater Russia" and so forth and so on. That's not going to happen. Putin is much too smart for that.
You remember what happened when the Russians invaded Afghanistan [1979-89]? You remember what happened when we invaded Afghanistan [2001-21]? You remember what happened when we invaded Iraq [2003-11]? You remember what happened when the Israelis invaded southern Lebanon [1982-2000]? You want to stay out of these places. In fact, if you really want to wreck Russia what you should do is encourage it to try to conquer Ukraine. Putin is much too smart to do that.
What Putin is doing is he's basically in the process of wrecking Ukraine and he's telling the West in very simple terms, "you have two choices, you either back off and we go back to the status-quo-ante before February 22nd, 2014, where Ukraine is a buffer state, or you continue to play these games where you try and take Ukraine and make it a Western bastion on our doorstep, in which case, we'll wreck the country". And they are, of course, now in the process of wrecking it. And they're going to keep this conflict going for as long as they have to. That's the basic game here, again two steps: one, take Crimea - no way they're going to let Crimea become a NATO base - and two - to wreck Ukraine so that it could not become a part of the West.
Question number two here is, what motivates this? What motivates this is that Russia is a great power and it has absolutely no interest in allowing the United States and its allies to take a big piece of real estate of great strategic importance on its Western border and incorporate it into the West. This should be hardly surprising to the United States of America. We have a "Monroe Doctrine" [est. 1823, which] basically says, "the Western hemisphere is our backyard and nobody from a distant region is allowed to move military forces into the Western hemisphere".
You remember how [during the Cuban Missile Crisis] we went stark raving crazy at the idea of the Soviets putting military forces in Cuba? Nobody puts military forces in the Western hemisphere - that's what the Monroe Doctrine is all about. Can you imagine twenty years from now a powerful China forming a military alliance with Canada and Mexico? And moving Chinese military forces onto Canadian and Mexican soil, and [the United States] just standing there are saying, "this is no problem, we're all 21st century people, and worrying about Chinese forces there is what 19th century people like Vladimir Putin worry about"? Of course that's not going to happen - we're going to maintain the Monroe Doctrine with regard to China just as we did with the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
So nobody should be surprised that the Russians were apoplectic about the idea of us putting Ukraine on the Western side of the ledger. And by the way, they told us [in the wake of the Bucharest summit, which led to the August, 2008 Georgia war]! The precedents were there, the rhetoric was there, they told us. But we did not stop our efforts to make Ukraine a part of the West, and the Russians responded.
Now let's talk a bit about the conventional wisdom.
III: Causes of the Conflict: Conventional Wisdom
Conventional wisdom is that:
Putin is the main cause of the crisis.
Putin is crazy or irrational (Angela Merkel was making this argument for a while).
Putin is bent on creating a Greater Russia.
Putin bears marked resemblance to Adolf Hitler.
To say a few words about each of these; I know a great deal about Adolf Hitler, I've written and I teach extensively on Nazi Germany's behaviour in the '30s and during World War II. The idea that [Putin] bears any resemblance to Adolf Hitler is laughable in the extreme.
The idea that he's bent on creating a Greater Russia. I think if he could do it, he'd do it [but] he can't do it. Russia's a declining great power, and if they were to try to create a Greater Russia by invading Ukraine and by invading the Baltic States, they'd be jumping into the briar patch. In fact, again, if you want to wreck Russia what you should do is tell them to try and create a Greater Russia. It will lead to no end of trouble. I think Putin's much too smart for that and he's in the process of wrecking Ukraine because he's basically saying to the West, "you can't have it and I'll wreck it before you take it".
Is he crazy or irrational? I don't think so - I think he's very strategic, and I [also] don't think he's the main cause of the crisis.
Another set of arguments associated with the conventional wisdom:
The US is a benign hegemon seeking to promote stability in Europe (and the rest of the globe).
Putin's (aggressive) behavior proves that it was wise to expand NATO eastward, to try to include Ukraine and Georgia.
[On the first point], there's some countries like Japan and Germany, for sure, who view the United States as a benign hegemon. There are many countries out there who do not - Iran is one, China is another, and Russia is a third. They just don't see it that way, and because they don't see it that way, you should understand that when the United States takes measures that they think will be interpreted as benign, the other side might not see them that way. They will see them as threatening.
[On the second point], what's very interesting is that there is no evidence that [the United States] thought Putin was aggressive before the  crisis. There's no evidence that we were talking about expanding NATO because we had to contain the Russians. Because again, NATO expansion was driven by twenty-first century men and women, who believed that balance-of-power politics is dead. Putin is a nineteenth century man - he does view the world in terms of balance-of-power politics, as do we when it comes to the Monroe Doctrine and the Western Hemisphere.
But in the case of Europe, we were thinking like twenty-first century men and women, and we thought we could just drive up to his doorstep and it wouldn't happen. We did not think that Russia was aggressive. What happened here was that after the crisis broke out on February 22nd, we then decided that Russia was aggressive. We then decided that Russia was bent on creating a Greater Russia. It was after the fact. This is why President Obama and virtually all of Washington was caught with their pants down when this crisis broke out after February 22nd, because they did not see it coming.
I'll talk a little bit about our response.
IV: The West's Response: So Far
We're basically doubling down, we're getting tougher and tougher with the Russians, that's our strategy, and that's exactly what you'd expect if you're going to blame them. Given that we're incapable of blaming ourselves - because we never do anything wrong (you all know that; all the problems in the world are caused by everybody else, never by the United States, cause we're a benign hegemon). Well, if we're the good guys and they're the bad guys and they're misbehaving, they're bent on creating a Greater Russia - this is the 1930s all over again - any sort of concession to Putin is "Munich", you can't do that, so what you do is double down, you get tougher and tougher.
This brings us to the question of whether we can succeed or not; my argument is you're playing a losing hand, and the reason you are is because this is a competition between economic considerations and security considerations. The basic mindset of people in the West is that you can punish the Russians economically and they'll throw their hands up. My argument is, when security considerations are at stake, when core strategic interests are at stake - and there's no question, in Russia's case this is a core strategic interest - countries will suffer enormously before they throw their hands up. So, you can inflict a lot of pain on the Russians and they're not going to quit, because Ukraine matters to them, and Ukraine does not matter to us [refer to Mearsheimer's discussion of "core strategic interests" in Section I]. So in terms of the balance of resolve, it's all on their side.
But let's assume that I'm wrong, let's assume that we're playing a winning hand and that we're capable of backing Putin into a corner, and we're getting close to pushing him off a cliff. Is this good? We're talking about a country that has got thousands of nuclear weapons, and the only circumstance under which states use nuclear weapons is when they're desperate - when they like their survival is at stake. So, what you're talking about is putting Putin in a situation where he's desperate. So, you're putting yourself in a position where you're willing to risk a possible nuclear war over a piece of real estate - Ukraine - that is not a vital strategic interest to the United States.
By the way, what's truly amazing about all of this is that we were talking about incorporating Ukraine into NATO when we have now acknowledged by not taking military action over Ukraine that it's not a vital strategic interest. You understand that when you incorporate Ukraine into NATO, you're giving them an Article V guarantee, which says you'll come to their defense if they're attacked. You only give Article V guarantees to countries that a vital strategic interest, like Germany during the Cold War. What were we doing? Thinking about giving an Article V guarantee to a country that's not a vital strategic interest - it just shows you how discombobulated American foreign policy is these days.
So the point is, I don't think this is going to work, but if it does work, I'm not sure it's a good thing.
[Here, Mearsheimer summons a quote from the New York Times that portrays the "hardball" stance of the Obama administration.]
In Cold War Echo, Obama Strategy Writes off Putin (NYT, April 19, 2014)
"Just as the United States resolved in the aftermath of World War II to counter the Soviet Union and its global ambitions, Mr. Obama is focused on isolating President Vladimir V. Putin's Russia by cutting off its economic and political ties to the outside world, limiting its expansionist ambitions in its own neighbourhood and effectively making it a pariah state
In effect, Mr. Obama is retrofitting for a new age the approach to Moscow that was first set out by the diplomat George F. Kennan in 1947 and that dominated American strategy through the fall of the Soviet Union [that of "containment"]. The administration's priority is to hold together an international consensus against Russia, including even China, its longtime supporter on the United Nations Security Council."
V: What Should Be Done?
My view is we should create a neutral Ukraine, which is a buffer state between NATO and Russia. Basically, what I'm talking about is going back to the status-quo-ante before we got this foolish idea in our head that we could peel Ukraine away from Russia and make it part of NATO, part of the EU, and more generally, part of the West. We should work to create a situation where Ukraine is neutral, and it's a buffer state.
To go back to my simple graphing - this is how I think about European security. This is what you want - you want NATO to include France, Germany and Poland. You want Ukraine as a buffer state, and then you want Russia on the eastern flank of that border state.
And this is not what you want; you do not want a divided Ukraine where western Ukraine is in NATO, eastern Ukraine is in Russia, and the Russians and the Americans - who hate each other at that point - are eyeball to eyeball on the Dnieper river. Not a good idea.
How do you get [the better] end? Very simple, explicitly abandon NATO expansion. By the way, NATO expansion is dead; I've talked to countless policymakers who say this; it's dead. What we have to do is explicitly abandon it.
We have to fashion an Economic Rescue Plan for Ukraine that includes Russia, the IMF and the EU. This, of course, is what Putin wanted to do in 2013 and the EU said "no", foolishly.
You also want to go to great lengths to guarantee minority rights, especially language rights in Ukraine. This goes back to those maps I was putting up that showed that this is in very important ways a civil war and what we have to do is dampen down the conflict inside Ukraine. We have to give the people in eastern Ukraine a lot of autonomy and we definitely have to protect minority rights.
Are we going to do any of this? No.
Will there be a new Cold War? No. Russia is not the Soviet Union, and we have a potential peer competitor on the horizon who could be of proportions we've never seen before. The Chinese threat, once it materializes, if going to be something like we've never seen. We're going to have our hands full in Asia. Europe is not going to matter, and Russia's going to be with us; the balancing coalition against China is going to be South Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Taiwan, Singapore, India and Russia. The Russians will be with us, and that's another reason this whole [American] policy is so stupid, what we're effectively doing is driving the Russians into the arms of the Chinese.
We need the Russians on Iran [and yet] we drive the Russians closer to the Iranians; you saw they just sold the Iranians [Russian-made] S-300 anti-aircraft missiles. We need the Russians on Syria; we need the Russians on all sorts of issues, we don't need to have a fight with the Russians now. We're not going to have a Cold War.
Will the United States still pivot to Asia? Yes. All we need is one big crisis out there; it's coming, probably in the South China Sea, sooner rather than later. Once that happens, we will focus laser-like on Asia, because that's a peer competitor. Russia is not a peer-competitor.
What are the implications for NATO? This gets back to the previous question. I think that NATO is in serious trouble and will disappear as a functioning alliance over time in large part because I think we're going to pivot to Asia.
What are implications for our Asian allies? It's a very interesting question. I was in Japan in December 2014 and the Japanese, like a lot of people in Asia, number one, wonder whether we're going to be there for them, because they see us causing trouble over Ukraine, they see us picking a fight with ISIS and they say, if the United States is fighting ISIS, [and] dealing with thee Russians over Ukraine, and they going to be able to pivot to Asia? And then, furthermore, they say, even if the United States does pivot, can we trust them? If you look at how this gang operates in Washington, it looks like the gang that can't shoot straight [i.e. they can never do anything right]. If you're the Japanese, and you're depending on the American security umbrella, especially the American nuclear umbrella, you'd scratch your head and say, "can I rely on Washington in a crunch with the Chinese?" Not clear. So I think this has not been good for our relations with our Asian allies.
What are the implications for Iran and Syria? As I've said before, it remains to be seen. We need the Russians on Iran and on Syria, and if you take a stick and you poke the Russians in the eye and you continue to poke them in the eye, they're going to look for ways to retaliate, and I wouldn't be surprised if somewhere down the road, they don't play ball with us on Iran. If we don't get a deal with the Iranians, it will be interesting to see what the Russians then do, see if they're interested in maintaining the sanctions regime. [As it turns out, a deal was agreed on July 14th, 2015 - about a month after this talk - and remained in operation until the Trump administration announced its withdrawal on May 8th, 2018; in the aftermath, the Russians took a far less combative stance on Iran than either the Americans or the Europeans].
Syria is a total mess, and if there's any hope of resolving that, the Russians are going to have to be involved, and again, it's going to be hard to get a lot of cooperation given what's going on over Ukraine. [Mearsheimer was saying this even before the Russians began their full-fledged military intervention in Syria in September 2015].
Is Crimea lost to Russia for good? Yup. It's gone.
What are the implications for Ukraine? This is in many ways the most important part of my talk, and I'll just take two or three minutes [on this]. When I give this talk, many people in the West think that there's sort of a deep-seated immoral dimension to my position because I'm blaming the West and not Putin, who certainly has authoritarian or thuggish tendencies, there's no question about that.
But I actually think that what's going on here is that the West is leading Ukraine down the primrose path and the end result is that Ukraine is going to get wrecked. And I believe that the policy that I'm advocating, which is, neutralizing Ukraine and then building it up economically and getting it out of the competition between Russia on one side and NATO on the other - is that best thing that could happen to the Ukrainians.
What we're doing is encouraging the Ukrainians to play tough with the Russians. We're encouraging the Ukrainians to think that they will ultimately become part of the West, because we will ultimately defeat Putin and we will ultimately get our way; time is on our side. And of course the Ukrainians are playing along with us and the Ukrainians are almost completely unwilling to compromise with the Russians and instead want to pursue a hardline policy. If they do that, the end result is their country is going to be wrecked. And what we're doing is in fact encouraging that outcome.
I think it would make much more sense for us to work to create a neutral Ukraine. It would be in our interest, it certainly would be in Russia's interest, and most importantly, it would be in Ukraine's interest - to put an end to the crisis.
I found Mearsheimer's views to be interesting particularly because they cut against the grain of much that we see in the Western media about the situation in Eastern Europe (summarised in Section III on the "conventional wisdom"). The media typically gives the impression of a David-vs-Goliath type struggle where the Russian aggressor sort of comes out of nowhere to attack a Ukraine that simply seeks self-determination (and in so doing, seeks to join our side).
Mearsheimer turns this on its head to portray Russia's response as a sort of defensive one. Not "defensive" in the sense that Russian territory is being directly attacked, but "defensive" in the great power sense - the same sense in which the United States would perceive any malign activity in the entire Western Hemisphere as a direct threat to itself. Great powers achieve their status through their sphere of influence, and in the case of Ukraine, Russia sees its sphere as being under threat. Mearsheimer contends that in order to avoid conflict between Russia and the West, the West must abandon its project of incorporating Ukraine into itself.
Why should we seek to resolve tensions with Russia? Mearsheimer presents the answer in two terms. Firstly, Russia is a nuclear-armed state that, if pushed to the brink, may do something completely destructive, both to itself and to the West. Second, the West could seek to benefit from constructive cooperation with Russia, on issues such as Syria, Iran, and especially China. What I found most intriguing is Mearsheimer's suggestion that Russia may join a bloc with the United States to counter-balance China.
Then again, this certainly fits with the patterns of history, whereby great powers form alliances and partnerships for strategic gain. Throughout most of the early Cold War, the US saw the Soviet Union and China as a consolidated bloc; however, in the early 1970s, the US sought a rapprochement with China, spearheaded by the Nixon administration. Certainly, as China grows stronger, it is not impossible that the US and Russia would be pushed together. In the current-day partnership between Russia and China, the balance of power far favours China. Its economic strength and military spending far outweigh that of Russia, and question is, how long would Putin be willing to tolerate this situation? (It is true that in a partnership with the US, Russia would still not the dominant player, but its influence may be felt to a greater degree).
There are several interesting ideas to unpick from this lecture. What's certain is that, though it was given in response to a specific situation, its import stretches far wider.