Though I realize that this lecture is currently in vogue among people on the extreme Right of American politics, I highly recommend it anyway. I’ve previously cited Mearsheimer and Walt’s work on Israel, and Mearsheimer’s now-famous lecture on Ukraine has the same clear-eyed quality about it. It is not a defense of Putin, and not to be construed as apologetics for the Russian invasion of Ukraine. But it puts things in context far, far better than anyone is doing in the mainstream media. The title is a little misleading, and probably best interpreted as asking, “What is the explanation for the part of the Ukraine crisis that is not Russia’s fault?” The lecture was given in 2015, hence doesn’t directly address the 2022 invasion. But if you listen carefully, you’ll hear Mearsheimer predict and explain the invasion in the same breath. (Here is the print version of Mearsheimer’s lecture in PDF.)
If Mearsheimer is right, then the purpose of the Russian invasion is not what many of us have been led to believe. The aim is not conquest or protracted occupation, but destruction. This hypothesis resolves many puzzles about what Putin has done and why.
Why is he invading? Simply to destroy Ukraine in revenge for the West’s having used it as a pawn in a geostrategic game against Russia.
Why is he invading with relatively few troops (i.e., few relative to what would be required for a protracted occupation)? Because he doesn’t intend to occupy.
Why is he giving the reverse impression? In other words, why is he giving the impression of launching a full scale invasion which is to be followed by an occupation? To lure the Ukrainians into an all-out counter-offensive so as to facilitate their participation in their own destruction, following which, when he is done playing with them, he will retreat to Russia.
Why would Putin repeat the mistake of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan? By not repeating it. This is not a replay of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Afghanistan was an act of protracted conquest and occupation. This is just an attempt to create havoc for its own sake.
Why does it look like the Russians are bogged down by Ukrainian resistance? They’re not. It looks that way because they want it to: it provokes the Ukrainians to fight to the last man. But it is doubtful that the Russians have any intention of going anywhere in particular. They’re not in Ukraine primarily to capture territory. They’re there to fuck it up. If they capture territory, they do. Maybe they install a puppet of some kind. If they don’t, they still destroy more of Ukraine, and leave the mess to work itself out to their advantage. Heads they win, tails they win. Either way, the Ukrainians lose. Vladimir Putin is neither crazy nor stupid. He’s not Hitler, either.
How is this our fault? Because we led Ukraine down the “primrose path” of expecting our assistance against Russia in just this situation, a promise we lacked both the will and capacity to deliver on.
Notice that by Putin’s strategy, the sanctions will not work at all. Sanctions will take time to work. But Putin doesn’t intend to spend much time in Ukraine. Once he leaves, it will be hard to maintain the sanctions. We will insist on maintaining them, but the Europeans will want to drop them. Eventually, they will fall apart on their own, as they were fated to do anyway.
Though Mearsheimer doesn’t dwell on this, here is my prediction: eventually, if the American-led sanctions begin to bite at all, Putin will retaliate, not just against Ukraine, but against us. The cheapest and easiest method will be cyberattack. The United States is about as ready for a full-scale Russian cyberattack as it was ready for COVID. Once it hits, Americans will start to cry. And once they do, whatever pathetic assistance we’ve given Ukraine will evaporate, and they’ll be on their own–which is exactly what Putin wants.
Once that happens, Ukraine will, like a beaten child, crawl back to its abusive parent. The role we played in this pathetic farce is analogous to that of the Division of Youth and Family Services on a really bad day–except that the day has lasted decades, and will last decades more. We gave the impression of being a savior to a child in a dangerous situation, knowing full well that we neither could nor would help it when the going got tough. When it did, we huffed and puffed, then cried a few tears, praised its valor, and then sat in front of CNN, watching dear old Dad kick the living shit out of his wayward son.
Pray for Ukraine. It won’t work, but neither will anything else.
It later occurred to me that this is the controversial Mearsheimer lecture that’s been making the rounds. I think Mearsheimer goes too far, but I agree in a basic way with his thesis.