Ukraine: After the Last Sky

In a post back on February 26, I recommended a pair of lectures and an article by John Mearsheimer, going on to make a series of inferences from them about the aims and character of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. On reflection (and under some fair criticism), I’ve now come to think that Mearsheimer’s claims, though essentially right, were overstated and misleading, as were my inferences from them. Hence this follow up to that post, intended to clarify what I still think is right about Mearsheimer’s thesis, what I now regard as wrong, and what I take to be as-yet unclear.

I’ve also added links to material on the invasion that I found worth reading, mostly (though not entirely) in confirmation of my own views. I encourage others to post other readings, videos etc. in the comments, regardless of how those readings square with anything I say. I also encourage PoT authors to post anything they find worth posting, again, regardless of how their claims square with mine.

Here’s what I still think Mearsheimer gets right:

  1. Inviting Ukraine and Georgia into NATO was a major policy mistake, which played a problematic, indeed culpable role in generating the current Ukraine crisis.
  2. It’s a mistake to try to understand the crisis (or invasion) by abstracting from or ignoring the the role we played in bringing it about. Consequently, it’s a mistake to view the crisis simply as a re-play of the Nazi invasion of Poland ca. September 1939, or to think of Putin as little more than a twenty-first century Hitler figure.
  3. It was a mistake to have upped the ante with Russia rather than trying to reach a negotiated settlement with them. We should have dropped our inflated talk about Ukraine’s “right” to ally itself with NATO or “the West”–empty rhetoric we couldn’t enforce–and aimed at securing a kind of neutrality for Ukraine on the model of Austria or Finland during the Cold War.
  4. It’s a mistake to arm Ukraine now, or to fuel an insurgency there.
  5. Though widely accepted (at least at present), it’s worth reiterating that it would be a colossal mistake to initiate direct military hostilities in Ukraine, either by instituting a no-fly zone over Ukrainian airspace, or by sending US or NATO forces to Ukraine itself.

What I think Mearsheimer gets wrong:

  1. That “realism” (in the sense used in international relations) is true, and an adequate guide to the conduct of foreign policy.
  2. That NATO or the US were literally “at fault” for Putin’s invasion, or that their actions or omissions serve to excuse it.

What strikes me as unclear or as-yet undecided:

  1. That the aim of the Russian invasion was destruction rather than conquest, on the grounds that Putin would never attempt anything as egregiously irrational as a protracted occupation of Ukraine.

The just-preceding claim strikes me as an interesting hypothesis to try on for size, but not something that can dogmatically be asserted as true. At this point, not even Mearsheimer is wholeheartedly committed to it. And the contrast at the center of the claim now strikes me as dubious: destruction is so central to conquest, and conquest so crucial to the consolidation of whatever gains are sought through destruction, that it’s unclear that the two can easily be distinguished in practice.

For the same reason, the question of whether Putin is any sense “rational” now strikes me as a pointless exercise. I had previously suggested that while Putin’s ends were irrational, his means were tailored to them, so that he was in some limited sense instrumentally rational. But in retrospect, it seems to me that if someone’s ends are sufficiently irrational, they can shift over time and/or gain and lose determinacy in unpredictably irrational ways. When either or both things happen, the question of instrumental rationality becomes impossible to answer and pointless to pursue: if “the end” of action becomes impossible to pin down, so do the means to it.

That said, I don’t buy the conventional wisdom (reiterated constantly in the American press) that Putin has been greatly “surprised” or taken aback by events. It’s equally possible that he anticipated events to unfold more or less as they did, accepting (however irrationally, from an external perspective) the costs associated with them. It’s not as though he personally is going to bear those costs. It’s become a dogma in American political discourse that Putin “didn’t anticipate” the obstacles he’s currently encountering. I’ve seen no credible evidence of that except illicit appeals to authority.

As suggested above, I’m inclined to think that Mearsheimer’s commitment to IR-realism is a bug in rather than a feature of his view. So it’s helpful that others have offered non-realist arguments for conclusions somewhat like Mearsheimer’s, arguments that strike me as superior to Mearsheimer’s for their rejection of realism.

One is Ted Galen Carpenter, a libertarian think-tanker, who makes the case in The Guardian on conventionally liberal anti-interventionist grounds. Another is Noam Chomsky, who’s made the case on left-wing anti-imperialist grounds in a series of interviews with Truthout. A third is Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, who gave this webinar below to the Princeton-based Coalition for Peace Action a few weeks before the invasion itself. (Bonus: You can see yours truly on screen, frowning my way through Wilkerson’s lecture, not because I disagree with him, but because I agree.)

I’ve made the argument that whether sanctions “work” or not, they are subject to a problematic dynamic: the greater their efficacy, the greater the risk of Russian retaliation; the greater the intensity of that retaliation, the less support there will be for continuing sanctions, and the less efficacious they will ultimately be. When I taught IR almost two decades ago, the textbook we used was David Bancroft’s Economic Statecraft (now in a new 2020 edition), which takes a generally positive view of sanctions (and economic warfare generally). A more critical view is taken by Gary Hufbauer et al in Economic Sanctions Reconsidered (some of whose arguments are summarized here).

Glenn Gerstell echoes a claim I’ve made a few times, namely, that the United States is not prepared for all-out Russian cyberwarfare, which is likely en route (and has likely been prepared for long in advance). I’d tell you to change your passwords now, but I don’t think it’ll help at this point.

Many people want to “do more” for Ukraine, which means arming them, or even instituting a no-fly zone over Ukrainian airspace. This strikes me as crazy, but apart from an older piece by Mearsheimer, I haven’t encountered anyone making a cogent case against it (except me, in my own head). The closest approximation that I’ve seen is this rather belated article in The New York Times, mentioning “Washington’s Newest Worry: The Dangers of Cornering Putin.” I’m not sure what’s worse–that the worry really is “new,” or that they’re trying to break the news to us gently in the hopes that it becomes more palatable that way. At any rate, the article opens like this:

Senior White House officials designing the strategy to confront Russia have begun quietly debating a new concern: that the avalanche of sanctions directed at Moscow, which have gained speed faster than they imagined, is cornering President Vladimir V. Putin and may prompt him to lash out, perhaps expanding the conflict beyond Ukraine.

Well, I guess I’m glad that they’ve “begun,” though I have to wonder what they were thinking about before they got started.

Others, however, have made the case against sending troops to Ukraine on the grounds that it might provoke nuclear war. Here’s a piece from Vox to that effect, and here’s an interview with Fiona Hill suggesting that the nuclear threat is real.

Incidentally, the claim that we have not and will not sent troops to Ukraine has already been falsified. This piece in The Military Times points out that we already have 200 advisors on the ground there. If we send the Ukrainians military hardware they don’t know how to operate on their own, we will, doubtless, have to send more “advisors.” Naturally, those advisors will be in harm’s way, and therefore be armed. Being armed, they will just as naturally be under orders to shoot when fired on, and it is likely they will be fired on. But as long as they’re not wearing boots, we technically do not have “boots on the ground,” so no worries there, I suppose. Promises kept. (Presumably, American volunteers do not count as American troops on the ground, even if they are wearing boots.)

Truth is the first casualty of war, even when we’re not a direct party to the war. I see a lot of self-congratulatory material in the mainstream press about Russian disinformation, as though we were innocent of it (not that I doubt that they’re guilty of it). I’ve already banged on enough about Hillary Clinton’s defamations of Tulsi Gabbard, so I’ll just mention that to let it go for now. Suffice it to say that if that’s not disinformation, the word has no meaning. But in my view, some of the best writing on “Western” double standards has come from partisans of the Palestinian cause. This piece by Hatem Bazian strikes me as exactly on target. I’ve also profited from the work of Jonathan Cook, a British journalist of anti-Zionist views based in Nazareth, Israel. Though I don’t agree with Cook on all topics (e.g., COVID lockdowns), I agree with most of what he’s said about Ukraine and Palestine.

Watching the scenes of carnage out of Mariupol and other Ukrainian cities, it’s hard to resist the thought that what we’re seeing now out of Ukraine defies anything that can be said in ordinary prose. So here’s a poem by the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish with that thought in mind, describing the Israeli bombardment of Beirut during its 1982 invasion of Lebanon. It loses something in translation, but retains enough to make its point. (The poem is known by two different titles.) When every move leads to disaster, we reach the point Darwish describes in this poem: there’s nowhere to fly, after the last sky.


The Earth is closing on us
pushing us through the last passage
and we tear off our limbs to pass through.
The Earth is squeezing us.
I wish we were its wheat
so we could die and live again.
I wish the Earth was our mother
so she’d be kind to us.
I wish we were pictures on the rocks
for our dreams to carry as mirrors.
We saw the faces of those who will throw
our children out of the window of this last space.
Our star will hang up mirrors.
Where should we go after the last frontiers?
Where should the birds fly after the last sky?
Where should the plants sleep after the last breath of air?
We will write our names with scarlet steam.
We will cut off the hand of the song to be finished by our flesh.
We will die here, here in the last passage.
Here and here our blood will plant its olive tree.

– Mahmoud Darwish

24 thoughts on “Ukraine: After the Last Sky

  1. What if the realistically worst-case scenario is Putin being cornered and using one or more tactical nukes — his fully realizing that no one will risk a large-scale, strategic nuclear war and so also realizing that, once he does this, he will achieve strategic advantage (in that negotiations to end the war will start immediately and with full urgency, with the priority being avoiding larger-scale nuclear exchange, justice for Ukraine be damned). So maybe the salient risk is this happening, not large-scale strategic nuclear war? This slows down inference to the idea that we should (in the ways that matter) pretty much tolerate the brutalization of the Ukrainian people. There is obvious moral utility in drawing a hard line at any nuclear weapons being used (and in people thinking of this as some kind of all-or-nothing, semi-end-of-the-world scenario) but I don’t think such attitudes are supported by relevant tactical and strategic considerations. And so I hesitate, for moral reasons, in giving deserved credence to this line of thinking.


    • Answer: because it’s not the realistically worst case scenario. Once Putin uses tactical nuclear weapons, we’re gambling with all-out annihilation via strategic nuclear warfare. There is no reliable way for an early warning system to distinguish a tactical from a strategic nuclear strike, and the idea of being able to make such split-second distinctions in real time after a nuclear strike of any kind is unrealistic in the extreme. This is just not a game we should be playing, and in any case, there is at this point, no alternative to the brutalization of Ukraine. They are being brutalized right now. Nothing we can do can save Mariupol from what is happening to it. A fortiori, courting nuclear war will not do it. But nuclear war + Ukrainian brutalization is a worse option than Ukrainian brutalization full stop.

      I don’t really understand what anyone thinks that an insurgency will accomplish. It’s not clear what Putin has in store for western Ukraine (meaning: how fast he intends to get there), but the more arms we ship through that western corridor, the stronger the incentive for him to get there ASAP, wreck the place, take revenge on the inhabitants, and close down the space between Poland/Slovakia and Ukraine. That is eventually going to happen; it’s just a matter of time. And there is nothing we can do about it. So I don’t see what is accomplished by rushing one more bit or two more bits, or n more bits, of military hardware there before it does. Once it does, the game is basically over. (And of course, the more we use Poland and Slovakia etc as a point of departure for an insurgency, the more Putin will “test” the defenses on the other side, by “accidentally” running over the border into those countries, etc.)


      • How, exactly, is Putin going to get troops to the Poland/Ukraine border? From what I’ve seen he’s already sent most of his soldiers into Ukraine on other fronts; they’re not going to get to Lviv until all the regular Ukrainian forces elsewhere have been defeated, and Kiev and Odessa are captured. If Russia had enough force to threaten Lviv from Belarus as well as the fronts they have opened, Russia would have done so before now. It’s far more likely that Lviv, and the supply line from Poland and Slovakia, will be the last part of Ukraine to fall.

        It’s my impression (for what it’s worth) that the strategy of sanctions and arming an insurgency is aimed at destroying Russia’s logistics – always a weak point with them, and the point the Ukrainians have been attacking. It doesn’t matter how many men Putin sends into the field; if he can’t get them fuel or ammunition, he’d be better off leaving them at home. And I don’t think it certain that the strategy will fail, either. It all depends on whether the Russians can secure their supply lines into Ukraine against Ukrainian partisans.


        • Oh, I have no idea how Putin intends to get west. Thankfully, that’s his problem to solve, not mine. My point is, to arm an insurgency is to run a kind of race with him: how much can we supply until he closes off the supply route? Yes, I understand the logic: maybe we can help the Ukrainians bog him down before he gets there. But one risk is nuclear war. Another risk is reprisals against the countries from which we are supplying the Ukrainians, i.e., a widening of the war. And a third risk is: unless we are confident that this strategy will succeed–not may succeed, or might succeed, or just might succeed, but will–what are we supposed to do on the day when it happens not to? A fourth risk is an intrinsic part of the strategy itself: how long are we supposed to arm this insurgency? Until it wins, of course. But how long is that? The whole predicament was caused by an incautious entanglement with Ukraine. How is it to be resolved by an indefinite multiplication of further wartime entanglements?

          Why are we running such risks, and courting such imponderables, for a country that is not a NATO ally, and that it made no sense to invite into NATO in the first place? There is no reason for confidence that the strategy can succeed. There are huge risks involved. Even on a fairly optimistic construal, arming them pulls us into this war for however long it lasts. Why are we doing this, again? Not that anyone bothered to explain it the first time around.


  2. This is a much better translation of the Darwish poem, but I had trouble deleting the other one and inserting this in its place, so here it is:

    Earth Presses Against Us

    Earth is pressing against us, trapping us in the final passage.
    To pass through, we pull off our limbs.
    Earth is squeezing us. If only we were its wheat, we might die and yet live.
    If only it were our mother so that she might temper us with mercy.
    If only we were pictures of rocks held in our dreams like mirrors.
    We glimpse faces in their final battle for the soul, of those who will be killed
    by the last living among us. We mourn their children’s feast.
    We saw the faces of those who would throw our children out of the windows.
    of this last space. A star to burnish our mirrors.
    Where should we go after the last border? Where should birds fly after the last sky?
    Where should plants sleep after the last breath of air?
    We write our names with crimson mist!
    We end the hymn with our flesh.
    Here we will die. Here, in the final passage.
    Here or there, our blood will plant olive trees.

    translated by Munir Akash and Carolyn Forche


  3. [1] I regard myself politically as a classical liberal, and what I think that implies for the Ukraine–Russia conflict is strong support for Ukraine’s aspiration to be free and independent of Russian domination. So, my sentiments are well-reflected by pieces such as these:

    I also think we should be exerting ourselves on behalf of Ukraine more vigorously, not less, than we are doing now.

    [2] I admire John Mearsheimer’s ideas, which I first became aware of when he published his attack on “the Israel lobby” with Stephen Walt in 2007 (which Irfan alludes to). I was and remain essentially in complete agreement with what Mearsheimer and Walt said there, but I am not in complete agreement with what he says about Ukraine or, more broadly, about “liberal hegemony.” It is easy to see that the U.S. has screwed up its “unipolar moment” big time (and no surprise either). And it may well be that expanding NATO eastward was politically inept, as well as the other tactical mistakes the U.S. international relations community now stands accused of. But that doesn’t mean Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is not a dangerous threat to the world and to the progress that liberalism has made since the fall of the Soviet Union or that we shouldn’t fight to stop it. I think people like Mearsheimer and Ted Galen Carpenter tip their hand when they speak of the U.S. trying to turn Ukraine into a “U.S. military asset” and “NATO pawn.” This cynical talk dismisses the basic moral issues at stake here. And the reason they dismiss them, I fear, is that they don’t care about them.

    [3] At the same time, I view the end of the U.S. unipolar moment as a broadly good thing. It’s time people in the U.S. focused attention on issues that actually matter, and maybe foreign competition will help us to do that. Mearsheimer makes this point, and see also here.

    [4] Perhaps the most significant revelation of the Ukraine invasion for me has been the reaction on the right, much of which has taken the attitude that the Ukraine–Russia conflict is the progressive elites’ war and we want nothing to do with it. When I learned of Tucker Carlson’s “meh” attitude (“At least Putin never called me a racist”, etc.), I thought it was strange and wondered where it was coming from. But I have since had some experiences that have taught me that it is coming from a depth of hostility toward the “elites” that I had not realized.

    Think of it this way. After 9/11, only leftists like Susan Sontag and Ward Churchill blamed America for the attack. America’s conservative intellectuals were full of outrage and thirsting for blood, and the conservative populace was composing and singing new patriotic songs. But now with the invasion of Ukraine, half the conservative intellectuals are blaming America for the invasion and many of the conservative populace are saying things like this:

    [5] It seems that cancel culture is coming for Russian arts institutions and individuals. And yes, I’m against that too.


    • Just to focus on (5): Cowen’s position on cancellation is absurd. He claims to favor a strong US response to Putin. That means–can only mean–that he favors sanctions. But he’s against cancellations because he endorses this “principle”:

      It is simply not possible to draw fair or accurate lines of demarcation.

      In other words, because we can’t draw fair or accurate lines of demarcation with respect to who is worth cancelling and who isn’t, we should not cancel anyone ever, regardless of the fact pattern involved.

      Either Cowen’s principle is likewise true of sanctions, or it isn’t.

      If his principle is true of sanctions, and yet he favors sanctions, then his principle applies to cancellation but not to sanctions. That seems ad hoc.

      But if it’s not true of sanctions, then he seems to be saying that there is a way to draw a line of demarcation between sanctions and cancellations such that we can “draw fair or accurate lines of demarcation” when it comes to sanctions, but not to different kinds of cancellations. That claim seems ad hoc, too. Why should it be so hard to make relevant distinctions when it comes to cancellations, but so feasible when it came to sanctions?

      Another alternative is that it’s not possible to draw fair or accurate lines of demarcation in either case, but while that matters with respect to cancellations, it doesn’t matter with respect to sanctions. But this claim is ad hoc, too. Why do cancellations matter more than sanctions? Both create collateral damage. Sanctions create more collateral damage than cancellations. How could one kind of damage matter so much, and another matter not at all?

      The “principle” itself seems preposterous. Take four examples:

      Person 1 is revealed to be an SRV agent knowingly spreading Russian disinformation and being paid for it. He’s arrested but acquitted on a narrow procedural technicality, but there is no doubt regarding his culpability.
      Person 2 is an explicit apologist for the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
      Person 3, a Russian immigrant living in the United States, once defended Putin, but no longer does, and now condemns the invasion.
      Person 4 is a person of Russian descent currently living in the United States.

      Cowen’s principle implies–no, says–that it’s impossible to evaluate Persons 1 and 2 as guilty of anything, and likewise impossible to judge Persons 3 and 4 as innocent of serious wrongdoing (innocent of any wrongdoing in [4], and of serious wrongdoing in [3]). That’s a reductio.

      Far from being the rejection of “McCarthyism” he takes it to be, Cowen’s column is a subversion of the very idea of moral judgment. If McCarthyism presents a threat, so does a culture totally incapable of making even basic moral distinctions between contributing to evil and being “connected” to the commission of evil by a series of irrelevant free associations. Obviously, a person’s being Russian has no bearing on whether they contribute to the Russian war effort or not. But just as obviously, a person’s contributing to the Russian war effort has bearing on whether someone contributes to the Russian war effort! That’s literally the distinction Cowen wants to erase.

      And no, his argument is not saved by his narrow focus on Russian performers. That’s just another ad hoc mis-framing of the issue from the outset. The issue is not “cancelling performers” (or cancelling members of any particular profession or demographic) but cancelling whoever deserves cancellation, regardless of their profession or demographic. In and of itself, being a Russian performer is not grounds for cancellation. But being a Russian performer (or any ethnicity/profession) who functions as an apologist for Putin certainly is. Even if that set under that description is currently null–i.e., there are no Russian performers currently functioning as apologists for Putin–the underlying principle is obvious: apologetics for Putin or the invasion is morally off-limits regardless of who does it, and when clear-cut, deserves cancellation.

      All that Cowen has managed to do here is to confuse the issues. He hasn’t defended any principle or institution worth defending. I don’t think, for instance, that Anna Netrebko should be cancelled, but I certainly wouldn’t defend that claim by saying that she shouldn’t be cancelled because it’s impossible to make any relevant distinctions about who should be cancelled and who shouldn’t. To say that is to say that nothing distinguishes Anna Netrebko from, say, Valery Gergiev or an SRV disinformation agent–not exactly a compliment, and not in touch with reality, either.


    • To focus on (1) and (4): I don’t see the logical route from an avowal of classical liberalism to intervention in the Ukraine war, and don’t find Bryce Mitchell’s view all that objectionable.

      This the closest that any of the first three links comes to making an argument for intervention:

      The questions involved in escalating a conflict with Russia are agonizing, but they do not get any easier if we avoid the relevant decisions; quite the contrary. Neither is the question a binary one of either staying out and providing assistance from the sidelines or jumping all-in with U.S. troops. Besides continuing to arm the Ukrainians with any and all equipment they can use, the West must show a willingness to put other, potentially riskier options on the table as well—like aggressive cyberwarfare, the use of proxies, covert operations, and maybe even the much maligned idea of a no-fly zone over parts of Ukraine, along with making it clear that we have more time, resources, and determination to wage and win this conflict than Putin does by amassing a sufficient military presence on NATO’s eastern flank.

      We face a situation of enormous gravity, but a Russian win or an ambiguous outcome is completely intolerable. It is also worth remembering that, for all the scrutiny of America’s sins of commission in places like Iraq, the sins that created our current situation are sins of omission, from the lack of clarity over the real prospects of Ukraine’s integration into the West, to our series of Russia “resets,” to our failure to respond more decisively to Putin’s many depredations over the course of the past decade.

      Enough. If a peaceful, rules-based order is to continue to exist in Europe, this aggression cannot stand.

      I would challenge anyone to turn this into a successful argument without committing an informal fallacy. As it stands, it’s less an argument than an instance of question-begging straight out of the textbook. It says: We have to intervene because, well…not intervening is not an option, and would be intolerable besides. The form of the argument is: p is the case because p absolutely must be the case. And that’s as close any of them come to an argument.

      No matter what objections anyone makes to Mearsheimer’s recent arguments, the fact remains that if his advice had been taken when it was first offered, we would not be in this situation at all. This is not to say that Russian might not have invaded Ukraine. It’s to say that we would not be entangled in a Russian invasion of Ukraine. Defenders of intervention are defenders of further entanglement. But no one defending intervention that I’ve read has explained the end-game, or any of the intermediate steps towards it. Nor has anyone explained why our security required NATO expansion in 2008, or requires intervention in Ukraine now. There is a lot of loose talk about Putin’s psychology, but though Mearsheimer’s realism may be wrong, his newfound skepticism is right: none of these speculations counts as knowledge.

      The double standard between responses to Ukraine and responses to Palestine is, frankly, amazing. Even on my cynical, frankly anti-American reading of the relevant history, we are culpable in the Ukrainian case, but far less culpable than Putin–and far less culpable than Israel vis-a-vis Palestine. As regards Palestine, the US is proudly, self-righteously on the side of aggression, occupation, and expropriation, and has been for 55 years. Israel’s wars against Gaza have been bloodier and far more prolonged than the Russian war so far waged in Ukraine. If Americans really cared about classical liberalism or really opposed military occupation, they’d have done something about that by now. But they haven’t, and won’t do so any time soon. It will soon become a crime to trade with the Russians, but Congress is considering a law that will criminalize boycotts of Israel.

      Click to access ZELDIN_Israel%20Anti-Boycott.pdf

      The Israeli occupation is politically speaking our occupation. The Russian one is not. So I don’t see how intervention on the Ukrainian side is more central to our liberal commitments than withdrawal of support from the Israeli one.

      As for Bryce Mitchell’s comments, they’re not very eloquently put, and he’s not the kind of student I’d want in an undergraduate philosophy seminar. But that aside, I don’t find his views all that objectionable. Here is a UFC fighter being asked, out of the blue, for his views on geopolitics. It’s a ridiculous request. He complies with it, first of all, by a series of honest avowals of ignorance. There’s nothing wrong with that. A lot of people currently speculating about Vladimir Putin’s motives could stand to do the same.

      To the extent that BM says anything substantive, there’s a charitable way of understanding it: if someone asks you to intervene in a faraway fight, they bear the burden of explaining how entering that fight advances your interests. If they fail at that, they’ve failed to persuade you to get involved. And he’s right to think that they have in this instance. To that extent, he’s on stronger grounds than his critics are.

      No one fights for abstractions like “classical liberalism.” They fight in defense of the concrete things that exemplify those abstractions. Maybe those concrete things should be bigger and grander than the State of Arkansas, but it’s a long, long way from “Come on, Bryce, you should at least be willing to fight for western Tennessee,” to “Come on Bryce–you should want your country to intervene in a war taking place thousands of miles away, running the risks of nuclear war, with no end game in sight, operating at a strategic disadvantage relative to the enemy, to defend the freedom of a country that was deliberately left out of your own nation’s grand strategy on grounds of irrelevance to it.” But that, it seems to me, is a fair description of the idea of intervention in Ukraine.


  4. Regarding this: “Inviting Ukraine and Georgia into NATO was a major policy mistake, which played a problematic, indeed culpable role in generating the current Ukraine crisis.”

    Mearsheimer believes this because he thinks that NATO’s invitations raised the odds that Putin would make war on Ukraine; that it was possible that he’d have been satisfied with a Ukraine that was officially independent and neutral, free to do anything except serve as a base for attacks on Russia. I cannot agree with him. It’s quite true that Russia’s national interests would be well served by such an arrangement, but Mearsheimer’s realism makes him unwilling to consider that Putin might not see it that way. Putin’s own words strongly indicate that he would not accept anything less than a Ukraine subservient to Russia, which means the negotiated settlement Mearsheimer wanted was never a real possibility.

    That being so, it’s much harder to argue that NATO’s overtures to Ukraine were a culpable error. If they had any effect on Putin’s policy decisions at all, they caused him to delay making war for fear of how the NATO members would respond. In other words, it created the situation that a negotiated settlement, if that were possible, would have formalized – and that was what Putin found intolerable.

    Besides, how would the settlement Mearsheimer envisioned have been guaranteed? Certainly, if it hadn’t included Putin holding veto power over Ukraine’s policy – that is, subjugation – it would have needed a way for NATO to enforce it, by punishing Russia if the terms were violated. The neutrality of Austria and Finland was guaranteed by the threat of nuclear war (in both directions.) If the US wasn’t willing to risk nuclear war for a Ukraine that belonged to NATO, it wouldn’t risk it for Ukrainian neutrality, either. So… what does that leave of Mearsheimer’s position?


    • Your argument above attributes to Mearsheimer the belief that it it was possible that Putin would be satisfied with a neutral Ukraine, but nothing that you say after that actually contradicts that possibility. What you raise is the possibility that Putin would not have been satisfied with a neutral Ukraine. But the latter claim is perfectly compatible with the former. Both things were possibilities. Where there is a possibility of avoiding war, and no necessity of falling into it, it’s perfectly rational to try to avoid war–which is what Mearsheimer suggests we should have done. You haven’t rebutted him.

      You ask how the settlement Mearsheimer envisioned would have been guaranteed. It wouldn’t have been. It would have been a gamble. But had we followed Mearsheimer’s advice from the outset, the issue of our negotiating or “guaranteeing” a settlement would never have arisen. We are in the position of trying to “guarantee a settlement” because we have irrationally gotten ourselves as involved as we have. Had we not pushed NATO expansion, the issue of what-to-do-about-a-country-that-was-irrelevant-to-our-security would never have arisen. Russia might have pushed its luck by invading Ukraine, or pushed its luck by fighting a proxy war with separatists in Ukraine, or perhaps been smart enough to leave well enough alone. But none of these issues would have been our problem–because they are not our problem. The issue of a settlement on neutrality arises as a second-best or nth best resort before open intervention in a hot war because we flouted Mearsheimer’s advice in the first place. So the suboptimal nature of his resolution is less a rebuttal of his view than a way of underscoring what it got right at the outset.

      The reason we can’t guarantee a settlement is because we have no way of enforcing our will in Ukraine–and lack a good reason to do so, as well. But that is why we should never have pushed NATO expansion in the first place. It makes no sense to invite a country into a mutual defense pact when it can make no net contribution to your security, and when you lack the means and the will to defend it against aggression. Mearsheimer’s argument is irrefutable in capturing the all-out irrationality of that dynamic.


      • You mistake the fault in my argument. I didn’t just say it was possible that Putin would never accept an independent, neutral Ukraine; I said it was certain he wouldn’t. The fault is that I gave no evidence for that assertion. Nor am I in a position to do so now, though I’m convinced that it’s true.

        But now I’ll take a different tack. If I understand you, Mearsheimer is committed to the following: that even if we knew that Putin is set on dominating Ukraine and incorporating it into Russia, and also that the Ukrainians don’t at all wish to be ruled by Russia and will resist anything Putin does to establish such rule, we ought not to offer Ukraine any assistance to resist Putin; for any such help, if effective, Putin will treat as a provocation and a cause for war. NATO membership is not special in this respect – sanctions and arms shipments are just as bad, from Putin’s point of view, as a security guarantee.

        Frankly, that sticks in my craw. What’s more, given what you’ve been saying of late about complicity in injustice being itself unjust, it ought to stick in yours as well. As a foreign policy realist Mearsheimer of course rejects the whole idea that there are obligations of justice between nations – but last I knew, you are a Kantian, and hold that moral duties are universally binding. Can you, without inconsistency, hold that there’s a positive duty not to give aid to the likely victims of an unjust war?


        • I invoke Kant every now and then, but I’m not a Kantian. I do think that moral duties are binding, but not that one.

          The duty we have is to reduce our complicity in the myriad injustices we’re already involved in, not to find new sources of trouble to get into.


  5. The extended nuclear umbrella of the US has always been doubtful with respect to Israel, but not NATO countries. Perhaps I’m a relic of a bygone era ending in the ’80’s, when I left off keeping up with nuclear strategists and all of the technology. I bet not. If Russia strikes with a tactical nuclear weapon the nuclear threshold is crossed. Still pretty sure there is some advantage to strategic first strike, and the race is on. The Russian military should still expect that too. But their leader may tell himself a lot of lies about the nuclear situation and all the nuclear missiles and bombers around the globe poised to annihilate Russian nuclear capability and Russia with it as necessary, even if our own chance of survival doesn’t eventuate. // Many Americans seem to me “born this morning.” Blinders on for keeping their attention on comparatively smaller issues of life and liberty such as which bathroom to go to, illegal crossings at the Mexican border, the reason Stephen can’t get his maple syrup lately from Canada, governmental mandates on wearing a mask or staying home in the latest contagion, all the while little to no voiced concern or campaigning on balancing the federal budget, which the top eventual threat to security and liberty for our country. Even with elevated nuclear danger, they want to continue to focus on their Dem. v. Rep. blood warmers. However shall the budgets in the red become the priority collective action issue, the priority of elected officials that needs understanding and remedy? // When I was almost 14, a day in October 1962, my father received a call at home to get to the the base NOW because they were going to lock down. His face turned white. He was a civilian who worked in War Plans at the SAC base. That evening he was waiting with the generals in the War Room as the President announced his decision on Cuba. We were in hair-trigger readiness to annihilate the Soviet Union. I doubt human nature has changed much since then nor the depth of nuclear mutual unacceptable damage nor the reality of the chance those triggers will be pulled in a crises.

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  6. Mearsheimer’s analysis explains the view from the Kremlin (and rebuts the ridiculous idea that Putin is an insane Hitler), but that’s basically as far as it goes. When you ignore the non-superpower states (or non-states for that matter)’ dynamic solely to focus on the major powers, you are not telling the full story.


    • I’m not a realist, so I don’t disagree. Mearsheimer’s argument has to be put on a non-realist footing in the way that leftists like Chomsky and Lieven have tried to do, and some libertarians have also tried to do. Straight realism is wrongheaded, I agree.


  7. March 2022

    From the Russian Union of Rectors:
    “Before our eyes, events are taking place that excite every citizen of Russia. This is Russia’s decision to finally end the eight-year confrontation between Ukraine and Donbass, achieve the demilitarization and denazification of Ukraine, and thereby protect itself from growing military threats.
    “We, the Rector’s Corps of the Russian Federation, have been developing and strengthening Russian-Ukrainian scientific and educational ties for many decades, treating each other with care. Our joint research has made a huge contribution to world science, so the long-term tragedy in the Donbass resonates with particular pain and bitterness in our hearts.
    “It is very important these days to support our country, our army, which defends our security, to support our President, who, perhaps, made the most difficult, hard-won but necessary decision in his life.
    “It is important not to forget about our main duty – to conduct a continuous educational process, to instill patriotism in young people, the desire to help the Motherland.
    “Universities have always been the backbone of the state. Our priority goal is to serve Russia and develop its intellectual potential. Now more than ever, we must demonstrate confidence and resilience in the face of economic and information attacks, effectively rally around our President, by our example strengthening the optimistic spirit and faith in the power of reason among young people, instilling hope for an early peace.
    “Together we are a great force!”

    From the North American Kant Society:
    “The Board of Trustees and the Officers of the North American Kant Society condemn the Russian government’s unprovoked war of aggression against Ukraine, in clear violation of international law.
    “In light of this, we recommend that the Kant-Gesellschaft revoke its agreement to hold the 14th International Kant Congress in Kaliningrad, Russia, in 2024, and we encourage its leadership to secure a different venue for this important international celebration of Kant’s tercentennial. We are grateful to the organizers in Kaliningrad for their activities and remain open to supporting the International Kant Congress being held in Kaliningrad at some point in the future, but only under significantly different circumstances.”

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