Mearsheimer, NATO Expansion, and the Ukraine War – M Predicts Russia’s Desire to Dominate Ukraine, but also NATO Expanding to Fill a Vacuum

UkraineEveryone seems to have a take on Mearsheimer and Ukraine, so here’s mine: Mearsheimer’s offensive realism predicts Russian’s desire to dominate its borderlands, but ALSO a NATO effort thwart that via expansion. So its awkward that he blames NATO, because playing international politics toughly is what his offensive realist theory would predict NATO to do.

This is a re-post of an article I wrote a few days ago at I should say to start that I find damning Mearsheimer as some kind of Russian operative or stooge is wrong. He’s been predicting this for years, and he’s an academic with a reputation for integrity. He’s a far cry from embarrassing, pro-Putin hacks like Tulsi Gabbard or Glenn Greenwald.

Still, I think Mearsheimer gets Ukraine wrong, because he only looks at it from Russia’s perspective. His theoretical priors – offensive realism – do predict that Russia will try to control its borderlands. But offensive realism ALSO predicts that

1. those borderlands will try to escape Russian domination (which Ukraine is doing now and Eastern Europe did by joining NATO)

2. Russian competitors will try to help those borderlands escape (which NATO did by accepting Eastern European states)

3. Germany/EU/NATO, for which Eastern Europe is also a borderland, will also try to dominate it (which has indeed been the case historically – Germany and Russia have contested to dominate EE)

4. states with a window of opportunity for gain against an opponent (Russia’s post-Cold War weakness) will take it (which NATO and Eastern Europe did by consolidating expansion when Russian was weak)

In other words, Mearsheimer’s own theory does not predict Russian domination of Eastern Europe as a stable equilibrium but instead predicts a dynamic contest between Russia, the states it seeks to dominate (Ukraine included), and Germany/EU/NATO for whom Eastern Europe is also a borderland.

Here’s that essay on

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.

Please read the rest here.

Robert E Kelly
Assistant Professor
Department of Political Science & Diplomacy
Pusan National University