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The Russia Debates

The Russia Debates

Never mind Putin’s actions or speech, realists are eager to hammer his motivations into the shape of conventional power politics.

Matt Johnson

In his 1945 essay “Notes on Nationalism,” George Orwell observed that the “intelligentsia have been more wrong about the progress of the war than the common people.” Mentioning a few of the strange arguments made by British intellectuals during World War II—such as that “American troops had been brought to Europe not to fight the Germans but to crush an English revolution”—Orwell concluded: “One has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe things like that: no ordinary man could be such a fool.”

This observation kept coming to mind while I listened to a recent debate about the war in Ukraine. The motion was: “Be it resolved, ending the world’s worst geopolitical crisis in a generation starts with acknowledging Russia’s security interests.” Harvard University’s Stephen Walt and the University of Chicago’s John Mearsheimer argued in favor, while former Polish Defense Minister Radosław Sikorski and former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul were opposed.

This framing is slightly misleading—Sikorski and McFaul made it clear that Russia’s legitimate security interests should, in fact, be acknowledged. Walt and Mearsheimer, on the other hand, refused to acknowledge that most of Vladimir Putin’s stated security interests are anything but legitimate—they’re deranged, paranoid, ahistorical rationalizations for naked imperialism. In his opening speech, Mearsheimer declared that all the talk about Putin’s desire to restore Russian glory by stealing his neighbors’ territory at gunpoint is nonsense:

The conventional wisdom—which I’m sure all of you have heard ad nauseam—is that Vladimir Putin is responsible for this war; Vladimir Putin is an imperialist; he’s either trying to create a Greater Russia or he’s trying to recreate the Soviet Union … There is absolutely no evidence to support that argument. There’s no evidence that he thinks that’s desirable. There’s no evidence that he thinks that’s feasible.

___STEADY_PAYWALL___In a July 2021 essay titled “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians,” Putin provided 7,000 words of evidence that he’s focused on the idea of reestablishing a Greater Russia. He doesn’t explicitly say “Here’s my plan to conquer and absorb Ukraine,” but the entire manifesto is a case for why doing so would correct a long sequence of historical injustices. He argued that there was “no historical basis—and could not have been” for the “idea of Ukrainian people as a nation separate from the Russians.” After outlining the shared history, culture, and language of Russians and Ukrainians, he demanded to know: “How can this heritage be divided between Russia and Ukraine? And why do it?” Putin observed that “modern Ukraine is entirely the product of the Soviet era. We know and remember well that it was shaped—for a significant part—on the lands of historical Russia.”

Despite Putin’s oft-cited observation that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century, Putin believes that the USSR actually caused the dissolution of Russian and Ukrainian unity. “Soviet national policy secured at the state level the provision on three separate Slavic peoples: Russian, Ukrainian and Belorussian, instead of the large Russian nation, a triune people comprising Velikorussians, Malorussians and Belorussians.” According to Putin, the “right for the republics to freely secede from the Union was included in the text of the Declaration on the Creation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics;” he describes this provision as a “dangerous time bomb” which eventually led to a “parade of sovereignties.” Immediately before the invasion of Ukraine, Putin lamented the “right of secession from the Soviet Union” and the “disease of nationalism.” To Putin, Ukraine’s existence as a sovereign democracy is a product of the dismemberment of the great pan-Slavic Russian nation which occurred in the 20th century.

Putin has argued that historically Russian territories were transferred to Ukraine when it was still part of the USSR: “In 1948, Zmeyiniy Island (Snake Island) in the Black Sea became part of Ukraine. In 1954, the Crimean Region of the RSFSR was given to the Ukrainian SSR….”  In 2014, Putin defended the invasion and annexation of Crimea because the “territory was transferred within the boundaries of a single state.… [W]hat seemed impossible became a reality. The USSR fell apart.” Putin regards the collapse of the Soviet Union as a tragedy, but not because he’s nostalgic for Soviet communism. He’s nostalgic for the Russian Empire, and he believes Russian unity can only be maintained through cultural and linguistic bonds that the USSR lacked:

The Bolsheviks treated the Russian people as inexhaustible material for their social experiments. They dreamt of a world revolution that would wipe out national states. That is why they were so generous in drawing borders and bestowing territorial gifts. It is no longer important what exactly the idea of the Bolshevik leaders who were chopping the country into pieces was. We can disagree about minor details, background and logics behind certain decisions. One fact is crystal clear: Russia was robbed, indeed.

This is a small sample of the vast library of evidence that Putin is an imperialist who is bent on clawing back as much territory as possible—territory he regards as historically and rightfully Russian. He has been broadcasting that this is the overwhelming priority of his foreign policy for many years—it’s what has led to his theft of Crimea, his long proxy war in the Donbas, and the ultimate invasion of Ukraine. Putin’s speeches and articles have always been freely available to anyone who cares to look. Yet Mearsheimer stood in front of a huge Toronto crowd months after Putin launched a massive invasion of Ukraine and declared that there’s “absolutely no evidence” for the imperialist war that’s happening right in front of him.


Walt and Mearsheimer struggle to see what’s clearly happening in Ukraine because the conflict does not fit neatly into their favorite academic theory: realism. Realism is a theory that emphasizes the structure of the international system and how individual states fit into that structure. Realism is primarily concerned with the distribution of power—because the international system is anarchic and has no centralized authority, states are stuck in a sort of permanent Hobbesian war of all against all. This means states are constantly trying to maximize their power in relation to other states, which is what they’ll always do regardless of which type of government they have or who’s in charge of that government at any particular time.

This is why Walt and Mearsheimer have to downplay (and in some cases, completely ignore) Putin’s ideological and historical grievances—they think Russia would behave in precisely the same ways regardless of who’s sitting behind the gigantic desk at the Kremlin. During the debate in Toronto, Walt made the case that “major powers, including democracies, often act in brutal and dangerous ways when they believe their security is at risk.” This is the first component of the realist argument on Ukraine. Mearsheimer summarized the second component: “If you listen to Putin’s speeches and if you read his writings, he has made it unequivocally clear that this is the principal problem: Ukraine joining NATO.” Never mind the fact that Putin’s speeches and writings are bulging with bitter resentment for the loss of Russian power and territory, as well as contempt for the very idea of Ukrainian sovereignty. Or the fact that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has acknowledged that his country won’t be joining NATO in the foreseeable future. As Sikorski explained: “President Zelensky has already conceded that Ukraine doesn’t need to join NATO—Ukraine can become a neutral country. At which point, President Putin should have said, ‘Right, I’ve won my war. I can go home.’ And yet, nothing like that has happened.”

One advantage of realism is that it encourages us to look at the world from our adversaries’ point of view. This can demystify the behavior of autocrats like Putin—as Walt noted during the debate, great powers have a tendency to exaggerate the threats they face, which is why Moscow was outraged by NATO expansion. However, it’s also worth considering how Russia would have behaved without NATO expansion—do Walt and Mearsheimer think Putin would have quietly minded his own business? Or would he have viewed NATO’s absence as a power vacuum he could exploit to bully and threaten the Baltic states and Russia’s other neighbors?

Far from provoking further Russian aggression, Sikorski observes that membership in NATO will deter Moscow: “I think it’s the Finns and the Swedes who are the realists here, because I think that if they apply and join NATO now, Russia will not invade them.” Sikorski further questioned the fundamental tenets of realism, arguing that any given country “behaves differently depending on its ideology. Just like Iran defined its interests differently under the Shah and differently under the Ayatollahs.” There’s an imperialist dictator in the Kremlin who’s terrified of the ideological threat posed by the democracy next door, so it’s no surprise that Russia launched a war to destroy that democracy. Walt and Mearsheimer insist that governments in the United States and Europe should respect Russia’s interests—but what are the former to do when those “interests” include trampling the democratic rights of a sovereign state?

If it’s true that Putin’s goal was only to check NATO and deter other countries from joining the alliance, the war has been a calamitous failure: not only are Finland and Sweden intent on acceding as quickly as possible, but NATO has also overseen what a recent Financial Times article described as the “most significant—and rapid—military deployment in the history of modern Europe.” NATO has provided robust support for Ukraine throughout the war, from billions of dollars in weaponry to logistical assistance. Meanwhile, the European Union and the United States have imposed crippling sanctions on Russia’s economy, while major European powers like Germany have drastically increased defense spending.


While the strength of European and American resolve on Ukraine has almost certainly come as a surprise to Putin, NATO, the EU, and the U.S. government had made it clear that Russia would face catastrophic consequences if it went ahead with the invasion. The decision to publish intelligence about Russia’s intentions in the run up to the war was wise, as it exposed that Putin wasn’t operating in good faith and had planned to invade as negotiations were supposed to be taking place. Recall Sikorski’s point: Walt and Mearsheimer believe Ukraine’s potential membership in NATO is the reason for the war, but Zelensky’s declaration that his country wouldn’t join the alliance anytime soon made no difference. It’s impossible to know what Putin would have done if NATO and Zelensky had offered assurances of Ukrainian neutrality before the war, but massing 200,000 troops on your neighbor’s border (along with field hospitals, artillery, tanks, and other heavy weaponry) isn’t exactly a routine negotiating tactic. Allowing aggressive, expansionist dictatorships to exercise a veto over what their democratic neighbors can do by force isn’t a precedent the United States and NATO should have set, and Putin’s fallacious public rationale for the war (the “de-Nazification” of a country with a Jewish president who was elected with 73 percent of the vote) suggests that he was willing to invent just about any “reason” to invade.

No matter how clearly or exhaustively Putin explains his desire to reconstitute the Russian Empire, realists will always try to hammer his motivations into the recognizable shape of conventional power politics. In his closing statement, Mearsheimer repeated a claim he made at the beginning of the debate: “You can find no evidence that Putin is an imperialist.” This time, laughter echoed through the hall. It’s possible that members of the audience were thinking that you really do have to belong to the intelligentsia to believe such things.

Matt Johnson writes for Haaretz, Quillette, The Bulwark, Areo, Arc Digital, and many other publications. He is author of the forthcoming book How Hitchens Can Save the Left: Rediscovering Fearless Liberalism in an Age of Counter-Enlightenment (November 2022).

AuthoritarianismDemocracyRussiaU.S. Foreign Policy

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