Whence John J. Mearsheimer? Taking Russia’s Side in the Ukraine

About 20 years ago, John J. Mearsheimer predicted that Russia and Ukraine were headed for war. Now that we are there, Mearsheimer argues that any escalation — even sending arms to the Ukrainians — would worsen the crisis and get more people killed. We should back off, Mearsheimer counsels. We don’t want to see what Putin will do if he feels cornered.

This seems like an eminently reasonable conclusion. Yet, as is so often the case with Mearsheimer, in eccentric orbit around this conclusion we find odd interpretations and some dubious premises. 

First, Mearsheimer insists the former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was pushed from office in a “coup” and that he then left Ukraine because “he feared for his life.” 

A more conventional explanation is that Yanukovych abandoned his office. Yes, protestors were massed in Independence Square. They were mourning the loss of almost 80 Ukrainians killed in anti-Yanukovych demonstrations. Many protestors remained even after Yanukovych signed a pact with opposition leaders agreeing to early elections. Yanukovych, perhaps anticipating the arrest warrants that soon followed, recorded an official statement of resignation and fled to the Russian-controlled east. 

So, not a ‘coup’ in the traditional sense. And while Yanukovych might reasonably have feared for his liberty – pending murder and corruption charges – it is not so clear “he feared for his life.”

Yet, Mearsheimer, in September of 2014, insisted it was a ‘coup.’ He did so on a conference call regarding Ukraine hosted by Foreign Affairs. Martin Burcharth, a reporter for a progressive Danish paper, picked up on it. After Burcharth asked Mearsheimer about Putin’s attitude towards democracy in the Ukraine, Burcharth pressed Mearsheimer for clarification.

BURCHARTH: But I also think that the way you have approached your analysis of what happened in Ukraine would not be shared by quite a lot of Western Europeans. Perhaps the radical left would share your view on that. So calling it a coup, when actually Yanukovych left on his own volition the country, and the parliament that had remained there actually voted in favor of the new government, is a little beyond what I think realistically happened.

Mearsheimer held to his position. Burcharth kept trying different ways to ask Mearsheimer what he was talking about. After Mearsheimer repeated for the third time that Yanukovych fled because he was scared for his life, Burcharth – perhaps exasperated – asked “what does it mean to be scared for your life?”*

Apparently not expecting an answer, Burcharth then asked Mearsheimer why he says that the EU and NATO offered membership to the Ukraine.

This not a minor point, this idea that the EU and NATO reached to include Ukraine. For Mearsheimer, it is Exhibit A. It is the basis for his claim that the West blundered and forced this crisis on Putin.**

BURCHARTH: But the EU never offered membership to Ukraine…

MEARSHEIMER: Yeah, in the short term. But there is talk on numerous occasions of Ukraine eventually becoming a member of the E.U. and also becoming a member of NATO. I mean, it wasn’t going to happen right away, but over the long term, this was held out as a promise for Ukraine.

BURCHARTH: I don’t think there’s any evidence to that.

MODERATOR: Let’s keep going. We’ve got a few more.

Earlier that summer, Michael McFaul, former U.S. Ambassador to Russia was also left scratching his head at Mearsheimer’s premise. McFaul recalled getting heat because NATO was not planning to offer membership to Ukraine.

McFaul: …The assumption in your question, that the United States was pushing for Ukraine to join NATO, is just not true. Some Ukrainians…were incredibly upset at us for that. Go back and read the letter in 2009 from a group of very prominent East Europeans, wrote about the Obama administration saying that we had sold out the project of NATO. So this has been concocted as a result of this crisis. This has not been a policy before.

McFaul’s point is that Putin is using supposed NATO expansion as a post hoc rationale for cross-border aggression.

Again, none of this means that McFaul, and most of the mainstream Western media, are right in their assertions about what happened in Ukraine. Maybe Mearsheimer, and Russia Today, and Oliver Stone are right.

But how did Mearsheimer wind up on that side of the divide?

* Mearsheimer is not alone in believing that Yanukovych was deposed in a violent coup and fled the country in fear for his life. This is, for instance, the official line of Putin’s captive propaganda organ, Russia Today. It is also an orthodox position among the conspiracyminded far-Left, like Oliver Stone.

** Perhaps not coincidentally, this is also Putin’s claim and the editorial line of Russia Today.

About the Author
Richard E. Ford is a communications specialist in Washington DC with a keen interest in Israel, and an abiding belief that small facts are more useful than big narratives.