November 18, 2022
The Kremlin Posse is out in force: first it was vanden Heuvel, then Walt, and now, of course, Mearsheimer, this time in an interview for The New Yorker. All peddling the same story, which is not surprising — they are three people but it’s the same circle jerk that’s been peddling anti-Americanism for decades. Oh yeah, it might be disguised as some sort of “building understanding with the USSR” or “the US is to blame for Putin’s behavior,” or “the Jews control US foreign policy,” but it’s all the same, which also happens to explain its insane popularity in places where the message deeply resonates, from Moscow, to Budapest, to Latin America, to — until recently at least — inside the Beltway, or inside the undergraduate classrooms with impressionable youngsters hungry to hear how the elders have done everything wrong and ruined the world in the process.
Mearsheimer is the grand-daddy of “let’s blame the US” for whatever happens to be the crisis du jour, and the war in Ukraine is no exception. He blamed the US for Putin’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, and claimed that “the United States is principally responsible for causing the Ukraine crisis” — that he said this in June, after nearly 5 months of full scale war, and still chose to call it a “crisis” is already indicative of what is going to turn out to be a fundamental problem with what he says: he is dishonest (and that’s only because he’s clearly too smart to actually believe what he sells).
The first part of the interview is unexceptional in that it is right. From the fact that “the Russians want to win the war”, to the claim that “their goal is to conquer and control those four oblasts that they have annexed, and to make sure that the Ukrainian rump state is left neutral and is not associated with NATO in any formal or informal way.” Aside for the ridiculous idea that a rump state under Russian domination can be “neutral”, this is what I have been saying as well.
But then it immediately goes off the rails. The journalist reminds him that when the war began he had argued that Putin “is not interested in conquering and integrating Ukraine into Russia. It’s very important to understand that we invented this story that Putin is highly aggressive and he’s principally responsible for this crisis in Ukraine,” and asks Mearsheimer if he still stands by this assessment. And here is where the dishonesty begins — it’s clearly impossible for him to argue that Putin isn’t interested in conquest — it would be ludicrous after the annexations, and he had just acknowledged as much in the previous answer. So what does he do? He invents a ludicrous story on the fly: Putin, apparently, had NOT intended to do any conquering, but his “goals have escalated since the war started.”
It’s a pity that the journalist does not press him on this point: what is the evidence that this is some new goal, and how would one explain such expansion of war aims when the war does not seem to have gone the way the Kremlin had expected it to? The problem is that all the evidence we have tells us that the annexation was Putin’s original aim. I have written about this many times, so here’s a quick checklist:
- In 2014, unmarked armed men seized administration buildings not just in Crimea but also in the oblasti that Putin has now annexed; in Kharkiv and Odesa, they were chased out, but in Donetsk and Luhansk they managed to gain a foothold from which the “separatist” conflict grew out — the fact is, the plan was much more ambitious in 2014, it’s just that it worked in Crimea, half-worked in Donbas, and failed everywhere else.
- The recognition of independence of the so-called LNR and DNR preceded the invasion by 2 days, which indicates that there was never any intention to let them remain part of even conquered Ukraine.
- Putin has repeatedly spoken about the oblasti as being unfairly given by the Bolsheviks to Ukraine, and properly belonging to Russia.
- The invasion involved a surgical strike to decapitate the government in Kyiv but a massive invasion of the oblasti on Putin’s list with clear intent to occupy and hold them.
- The preparations for “referenda” to justify their annexations started immediately in all of these oblasti — the Ukrainian Kharkiv Offensive sped up the timetable and forced the Kremlin to conduct the “referenda” before they lost control of more territory — the Ukrainians have recovered the “referendum” materials for Kharkiv (where they never managed to run it) and it was already becoming clear that Kherson is likely to be lost next. Ideally, they would have preferred to run them after gaining full control of the oblasti to their administrative borders (and so they repeatedly pushed back announced dates for the referenda through the summer).
- The invasion strikes also very clearly indicated that Putin was aiming to deprive Ukraine of access to Black Sea, which is why the Russians kept pushing toward Mykolaiv (gateway to Odesa), desperately attempted to cling to Snake Island until the Ukrainians forced them to abandon it (for supporting strikes on Odesa as well as an amphibious assault), and stirred trouble (still ongoing) in Transnistria (which is a convenient place from where to launch another force toward Odesa).
- These territories were always meant to “return” to Russia, and the rump Ukraine, shorn of its access to sea, deprived of most of its energy generation capacity, and surrounded on three sides by Russia/Belarus would have to maintain a regime that would do whatever Moscow wants it to.
These are the facts — it is very hard to discern where, exactly, that mysterious “escalation” of war aims happened that Mearsheimer has now conjured up out of thin air. In a sure sign that he knows that Putin wants these conquests, Mearsheimer even grants that “he probably would’ve gone to Odesa and incorporated all of Ukraine that runs along the Black Sea.” Yes, this is correct, but that’s because this has always been the plan.
But Mearsheimer is unfazed by trivialities like inventing escalating demands amidst a stalled war; he stands by his original nonsense that “this conflict is all about balance-of-power politics.” Since I have no idea how he calculates “balances of power” (and neither does he, actually, or anyone else — balance of power is a thing that you can claim is there and works if there’s no war and that has been violated and does not work when there is a war), let’s just go with his next assertion: “What motives [Putin] is fear of Ukraine becoming part of NATO.”
Since the Russian military itself demolished this claim before the war began, and because I’ve written so much about it, I will leave that be. The journalists, however, does push him about the comments Putin had made about Peter the Great, and whether this meant Putin wanted to create a greater Russia. Mearsheimer claims that Putin “did not make any comments of those sorts before February 24” (and then asserts, without evidence, that “he was not interested in conquering those four oblasts before the war started. It was only after the war started.”)
First of all, Putin has repeatedly spoken about the illegitimacy of the Ukrainian state generally, and has also repeatedly talked about Malorossiya (i.e., the region that includes these oblasti, and more) as properly belonging to Russia. Putin, in fact, is not the only one who has said this. The Russian elites have denied Ukraine’s legitimacy in its 1991 borders since the very beginning. Even the most “liberal” among them would not countenance that Crimea should not belong to Russia, and for most, the claims were even more expansive. The Ukrainians knew this, which is why they were so reluctant to give up their nuclear weapons, and why they found it so difficult to agree on how to divide the Soviet Black Sea fleet with Russia. It was only when they were staring an economic disaster in the face and the US promised to provide financial aid that they agreed to the infamous Budapest treaty, where they were guaranteed territorial integrity in exchange for relinquishing the nukes. One of the principal guarantors was Russia, which never intended to live up to its word (Yeltsin at some point had contemplated military action against Ukraine over the crisis).
To claim that Putin never mentioned how Ukraine cannot exist in its 1991 borders (or even its 2014 de facto ones) reveals either an appalling lack of knowledge about the conflict about which he pontificates so much or mind-boggling dishonesty about the evidence.
Second, I know Mearsheimer does not speak Russian, so he probably could not follow what Putin said about Peter the Great, but had he known a bit of history and what Putin had mused about it, he should have also understood that when Putin refers to Peter the Great, he talks of him as the Great Restorer — the person who managed to take back Russian lands that had been stolen or illegitimately given away, not as a conqueror who just took foreign lands. So the parallel that Putin sees for his role today is very clear: the Ukrainian state possesses territories that are Russian, and Putin is merely taking back what should be in Russia anyway. From this perspective, Putin is actually remarkably consistent, which is also how we know that these territories were always meant for incorporation into Russia.
At this point, the journalists presses Mearsheimer a bit, by challenging him whether we know that Putin originally did not intend to annex the territories. Mearsheimer blandly asserts, “Yes,” and the journalists responds with “Oh, O.K.” [he does not sound convinced]. What follows is another remarkable piece of intellectual sloppiness that is necessary to support the unsupportable narrative: Mearsheimer argues, apparently with a straight face, that because Putin had recognized the independence of DNR and LNR, “he was not interested in conquering the territory.” Really? Two statelets that cannot possibly exist on their own, whose economies were already in ruins after eight years of fighting, whose governments are controlled by Moscow, were going to be “independent”? Mearsheimer cannot possibly believe this nonsense.
But then again, maybe he does because his ignorance of the subject is, apparently, bottomless. The problem is that under Russian law, the government cannot annex new territories — referendum or not — unless they are independent. (Yes, imagine that, the law prohibits the government from annexing someone else’s territory.) So, a necessary step toward annexation is, you guessed it, independence. Do you know what the “referendum” looked like in Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, which were still — under Russian law — part of Ukraine in September? They had two questions — one, whether to declare independence, and another, whether to join Russia. Before signing the annexation instruments, Putin signed decrees that recognized the independence of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia. Only then could he annex them legally under Russian law, which he promptly did. So much for the “independence” argument.
Mearsheimer then keeps repeating that Putin magically escalated his goals after the war started, and the journalist actually pushes him on this. I will not rehash that part since it covers arguments we discussed, but I do wish to point out that Mearsheimer is either straight out lying or is — again — appallingly ignorant about what Putin was saying about Ukraine for years when he asserts that Putin “recognized Ukraine was a sovereign state.” I do not believe Mearsheimer understands what Putin means for Ukraine to be a sovereign state. In the article that Mearsheimer refers to, Putin had said, “I am confident that true sovereignty of Ukraine is possible only in partnership with Russia.” Or maybe we should cite Putin’s October 27 speech at the Valdai conference, where he said, “To be honest, the only true, serious guarantor of Ukraine’s statehood, sovereignty, and territorial integrity can be Russia, which created contemporary Ukraine.” This sure does not sound like any definition of sovereignty I am aware of. But it does sound like the definition of a “client state” — this take on Ukraine’s sovereignty exceeds even what Moscow is prepared to grant Belarus, which is not a whole lot. Putin has always regarded Ukraine as a fake state with a fake nation, pushed into separation from Russia by a perfidious West, and in possession of lands that belong to Russia. It’s as simple as that, no matter what pretzel Mearsheimer wants to make of logic.
Mearsheimer then digs himself into another hole when he asserts that we know Putin did not intend to conquer all of Ukraine because they did not invade with forces sufficient to do that. Let’s start with the sleight of hand that substituted “all of Ukraine” for the “four oblasti” — most analysts like me have argued that the invasion aimed to topple the government in Kyiv and install a pro-Russian puppet regime while simultaneously conquering the eastern and southern territories in order to incorporate them into Russia. I do not believe anybody in the Kremlin even planned to have to occupy the entire country (which is what would be required if they wanted to conquer it). The nearly 200,000-strong force nearly succeeded in the original task — and it did surprise many analysts that the attempted takeover of the administration in Kyiv failed. The Russians tried several version of the original airborne assault and then even rushed the infamous column, to no avail. But it was close. We cannot infer from the failure that they did not intend to do it. Moreover, the occupation in the east and south went extremely well — the Russians crossed the Dnipro and took Kherson without a fight, which is also how they took most of Luhansk (where ZSU fell back without resistance) and parts of Zaporizhzhia. The Russians had prepared relatively well for the type of war they had intended to fight, complete with a network of spies and informants and fifth-columnists at all levels of municipal, regional, and even national governments. They had wanted (and believed) that the takeover would be relatively bloodless — as indeed it was in most of the areas — that after the government falls, the military would not resist and that the population would not rise against them — they were wrong about that, and many of us had said so from the start, but I can see why they believed it.
Mearsheimer, of course, knows that the Russians were not trying to conquer Kyiv. So what were they doing? Apparently, Putin “was interested in threatening Kyiv for the purpose of coercing the government to change its policy on membership in NATO.” Yes, it’s a well-known threatening tactic to send multiple assassination squads and attempt to take over the government in order to coerce the government into changing policy.
In other words, Mearsheimer invents a strawman of a goal — conquest of all Ukraine — then says that the forces committed were not enough to accomplish that goal, and wants to use this as evidence that Putin was pushed into the invasion by the possible NATO membership for Ukraine. If one of my undergrads wrote this in their essay, I would fail them.
The rest of the interview quickly goes downhill after the journalist attempts to get Mearsheimer to talk about his visit with Orban, which, for some reason, is apparently a touchy subject. I have no idea what this is about, so I am going to end it here.
The plain conclusion from this is that faced with the reality repeatedly clashing with his preferred explanation of Putin’s motives, Mearsheimer is concocting an ever more elaborate and disconnected from reality auxiliary explanations to sustain the increasingly shaky edifice. It’s like the epicycles in the Ptolemaic model — sure, it can “explain” what you see but that does not mean you are right. Just as it turned out with Ptolemy’s geocentric model, Mearsheimer’s fundamental problem is that reality does not revolve around his boundless belief in his own infallibility.