From Fidel to Zelensky

“All right. I don’t know if you’re old enough to remember when Fidel Castro came to power in 1959. But shortly thereafter, we (the US) put sanctions on Fidel Castro, and on Cuba. And those sanctions are basically still on Cuba. We’ve never gotten over the fact that Cuba behaved in ways that we consider to be unacceptable. And I think you have a similar situation here. And my view is, yes, the Ukrainians have agency. But if they were smart, they divorced themselves from the United States, and try to work out a modus vivendi with Russia.” – Prof John Mearsheimer on the crisis in Ukraine

Talk by Prof John Mearsheimer on the crisis in Ukraine – analysis from a US ‘realist’.

I’d like to do like to break my talk into two parts. I’d like to first of all talk about the causes of the present crisis. And I’d like to speculate on where this is all headed. Now, with regard to the causes, it’s very important to understand that who caused this situation is of tremendous importance, because it involves assigning blame. You really have two choices here, you can argue that the West and especially the United States caused the crisis. Or you can argue that the Russians caused the crisis. But that means that whoever you argue caused the crisis is responsible for this disaster. And it is important to understand that this is a disaster.

Ukraine has lost Crimea. It’s, in my opinion, going to lose the Donbass. And the only interesting question to me at this point is whether it’s also going to lose more territory in the eastern part of its country. Furthermore, Ukraine’s economy is wrecked, its cities are in the process of being wrecked, the international economy is going to be badly affected by these events as they go on. This is going to have terrible consequences, I think for the Democrats in the fall.

Furthermore, it makes it difficult for the United States to pivot out of Europe and pivot to China where there is a potential threat, which is China. Furthermore, we’re driving the Russians into the arms of the Chinese, which makes no sense at all. And all at the same time, we’re making Eastern Europe a very unstable region, and therefore forcing us to, if anything up the ante there. So this is a disastrous situation. So the question of who caused it and who bears the blame really matters.

Now, the conventional wisdom in the United States and in the West more generally, is that the Russians are responsible for this, and in particular, Vladimir Putin is responsible, as I’m sure almost all of you know, I don’t buy this argument at all and I haven’t bought it for a long time. In my opinion, the West bears primary responsibility for what is happening today. And it was largely a result of a decision in April 2006 to make Ukraine and to make Georgia a part of NATO. We were going to integrate Ukraine into NATO come hell or high water.

Now, the Russians said at the time that this is categorically unacceptable. The Russians made it clear that they had swallowed the first two tranches of NATO expansion, the 99 expansion and the 2004 expansion. But Georgia and Ukraine were not going to become part of NATO.

They were drawing a line in the sand. They said, this is an existential threat to us. And indeed, in August of that year, of course, August 2008, you had a war involving the Russians and the Georgians over the whole issue of whether or not Georgia would become part of NATO.

Now, it’s important to understand that when we talk about Western policy, and we focus on NATO and expansion of NATO into Ukraine, that actually Western policy had three prongs to it.

The core prong was definitely integrating Ukraine into NATO.

But the other two prongs were integrating Ukraine into the European Union and turning Ukraine into a pro Western liberal democracy, in effect, putting in place the Orange Revolution.

In these three prongs of the strategy were all designed to make Ukraine, a pro western country, a country in the west or a bit sitting on Russia’s border. And again, the Russians made it unequivocally clear at the time that this was not going to happen. Now, the first crisis broke out in February 2014. The way I like to think about this is that you had a major crisis in February 2014 broke out that day, then you had a major crisis, breaking out in December of last year, that’s December 2021. And on February 24, of this year, the war started.

Now, what about this crisis in February of 2014, February 22, to be exact, it was precipitated in large part by a coup that was supported by the United States that took place in Ukraine, and resulted in a pro Russian leader, President Yanukovych, being overthrown, and being replaced by a pro American Prime Minister. The Russians found this intolerable. At the same time they were debating with the West and with the Ukrainians over EU expansion, and always in the background at that point in time was NATO expansion. This blew up and it had two consequences.

One is that the Russians, in effect took Crimea away from Ukraine for themselves. They had no intention of ever letting Sevastopol (inaudible).

Second thing happened is that the Russians helped foster a civil war in eastern Ukraine. And of course, that Civil War festered well after 2014, but the crisis really blew up in 2014.

Then starting about mid year, and really heating up at the end of last year, I would say in December 2021, was a second major crisis. And the question is what caused this crisis. And in my opinion, it was caused largely by the fact that Ukraine was becoming a de facto member of NATO. It’s commonplace in the West, especially in Washington these days, to say that Ukraine had nothing to fear regarding, excuse me, the United States had nothing to fear. What start, Russia had nothing to fear regarding Ukraine becoming part of NATO, and Russia had nothing to fear because NATO was doing nothing to move forward. Ukraine’s incorporation into NATO. I think in addition, your a sense that’s absolutely correct. But in a de facto way, that’s wrong. What we were doing was we were arming the Ukrainians and you want to remember, it’s President Trump in December of 2017, who was under great pressure who decided to arm the Ukrainians. So we were arming the Ukrainians. We were training the Ukrainians, and we were forming ever closer diplomatic ties with the Ukrainians and this spook the Russians. It especially spooked the Russians in the summer of last year, when the Ukrainian military used drones against Russian forces in the Donbass region. It especially spooked the Russians last summer when the British drove a destroyer through territorial waters, Russian territorial waters in the Black Sea. It especially spooked the Russians in November, when we were flying bombers within 13 miles of the Russian coast.

So all these events coupled with this de facto de facto bringing of Ukraine into NATO, push the Russians to what Sergey Lavrov said was the boiling point, you know, Lavra was asked in January why the Russians had reached this point, and why we were in the midst of a crisis. And he said Lavrov said in January, we had reached a boiling point, first expansion of NATO second expansion of NATO, and then all of these events associated with Ukraine, the Russians had had it. So you had a crisis of massive proportions, which of course resulted on February 24 in the Russians invading Ukraine, and we are now in the midst of a real war.

This is not just a civil war in eastern Ukraine, which is what we had before February 24. We now have a real war. So this brings us to the question of what is the conventional wisdom on this subject? And how do I think about the opposing argument? The opposing argument is that this has nothing to do with NATO expansion. It’s really quite remarkable, remarkable when you listen to people in the administration speak. And when you read editorials in the Washington Post, words like this is spoken, this has absolutely nothing to do with NATO expansion. I don’t know how anybody can say that. The Russians have been saying since April 2008, that this is all about NATO expansion, that NATO expansion into Ukraine is an existential threat to them.

But Americans simply refuse to believe that not all Americans, but many Americans, and certainly the policy elite in this country. And instead, what they have done is they’ve created a story that is not American policy. It’s not NATO expansion that’s driving this train. Instead, it’s Vladimir Putin. And it’s the fact that Vladimir Putin is either bent on recreating the Soviet Union, or he’s interested in creating a greater Russia. But whichever one of those two outcomes you take, he is ultimately an expansionist. He’s on the march. And thank God, we expanded NATO, because if we hadn’t expanded NATO, he probably be in Berlin by now, if not Paris, this is the basic argument. He is an aggressor.

There are a number of problems with that argument. First of all, before February 22 2014, nobody was arguing that he was aggressor. Nobody was arguing that NATO expansion was required for the purposes of containing Russia before February 22 2014. We didn’t think he was a problem. And in fact, when the crisis broke out on February 22 2014, we were actually shocked if you go back and look at the newspapers at the time, the Obama administration was caught with its pants down. Why? Because they didn’t think that Ukraine to me that the Russians were aggressive. But of course, we had to invent the story after the crisis broke out, so that we weren’t blamed for what happened. We had the blame the Russians, so we created the story. Second reason you want to doubt this, is that Putin has never said that he is bent on recreating the Soviet Union, or he’s bent on creating a greater Russia. He’s never said he was bent on conquering Ukraine and integrating it into Russia.

There’s no question that in his heart, he thinks that it would be appropriate for Ukraine to be part of Russia. In his heart. He’s made it clear he loved back to bring back the Soviet Union. But he’s also explicitly said that in his head, he fully understands that this is a bad idea. So if you look at what he said, there’s no reason to think he’s bent on recreating Soviet Union or creating a greater Russia to take this a step further, he doesn’t have the capability. He doesn’t have the capability for two reasons. First of all, he doesn’t have a big enough military. This is a country whose gross national product is smaller than Texas’s right. This is not the former Soviet Union in its heyday. Furthermore, the Russians understand that occupying country and occupying countries or occupying territory in eastern Europe is a prescription for big trouble. Most of us on this call are old enough to remember the Cold War and all the trouble that the Soviets had. Think East Germany 1953 Hungary 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968, constant trouble with the polls and one could argue that the Romanians and the Albanians were the biggest pain in the next day ever faced. Russians are surely sophisticated enough to know that not only do they not have the capability, but that occupying Ukraine, occupying the Baltic states would be like swallowing a porcupine, this would be crazy. So I think there’s hardly any evidence to support that. And the final point I’d make is if you look at what the Russians are doing militarily in Ukraine at the moment, it does not look like they’re bent on conquering the country and occupying it and integrating into a greater Russia.

But anyway, here we are. And I think everybody is very interested in the question of where we go from here. So let me say a few words about that.

First of all, let me start with US policy, US policy is to double down. That’s what we’re gonna do. This is what we did after 2014. Instead of reevaluating, and saying, maybe NATO expansion is not such a good idea. We went in the opposite direction. This is why I’m telling you that by 2021, the Russians understood that we were turning Ukraine into a de facto member of NATO, they understood that. So what we did after 2014, with is double down. And what we’re going to do now and what we’re doing now is doubling down. And what does that mean, we’re encouraging the Ukrainians to resist, we’re not going to fight for them, you understand, we’re going to fight to the last Ukrainian, but we’re not going to do any of the fighting. They’re on their own in that regard. But we’re going to arm them and do what we can to train them at this late date, and hope that they can hang in there. And, and duke it out with the Russians, and nobody believes they’re going to defeat the Russians.

But maybe you’ll get a stalemate. Now the question you have to ask yourself, this is really the key question is what are the Russians going to do? Right? It seems to me that a lot of people in the West think that if the Ukrainians provide enough resistance, the Russians will roll over and play dead. Or maybe Vladimir Putin will throw his hands up, he’ll surrender. He’ll say this was all a bad idea. I regret doing it. Or maybe there’ll be a coup in Moscow, he’ll be overthrown. And they’ll bring in leaders who will work out a deal with us and Ukraine will live happily ever after we will live happily ever after. And the Russians will be chastened. I’ve spent my entire adult life studying great power politics, a lot about power politics. This is not the way the world works. And it is certainly not the way the Russians work. You want to understand, going back to what I said about the April 2008 decision, the Russians said at the time, this is an existential threat is an existential threat.

Right. So even before the current war, Ukraine, and Ukraine becoming part of NATO was viewed as an existential threat. Now you’re talking about a situation where you defeat the Russians in Ukraine. This is a much worse outcome for the Russians than what happened in April 2008. And a much worse outcome that would happen in February 2014. And the Russians are not going to roll over and play dead. In fact, what the Russians are going to do is they’re going to crush the Ukrainians. They’re going to bring out the big guns.

They’re going to turn places like Kiev and other cities in Ukraine into rubble. They’re going to do Fallujah’s. they’re going to do Mosul’s. They’re going to do Grozny’s. You know what happened in World War Two, when the United States was faced with the possibility of having to invade the Japanese home islands in early 1945. The idea of invading the Japanese home islands after what happened at Iwo Jima and then later what happened and open our really spooked us so you know, we did we decided to burn Japanese cities to the ground starting on March 10 1945. We killed more people the first night we firebomb Tokyo them killed it either Hiroshima or Nagasaki. And we were systematically burning Japanese cities to the ground. Why? Because we did not want to invade the Japanese main islands, when a great power feels threatened when

the Russians are going to pull out all stops in Ukraine to make sure that they win. And then there’s the nuclear dimension to this. The Russians have already put their nuclear weapons on high alert. This is a really significant development, because what they were do in was sending us a very powerful signal as to how seriously they take this crisis and what’s going on. So again, if we start winning, and the Russians start losing, you want to understand that what we’re talking about doing here is backing a nuclear armed great power that sees what’s happening as an existential threat into a corner. This is really dangerous. Go back to the Cuban Missile Crisis.

I don’t think that what happened in the Cuban Cuban Missile Crisis was as threatening to us, as this situation is to the Russians. But if you go back and look at how American decision makers thought at the time, they were scared stiff, they thought that Soviet missiles in Cuba was an existential threat. And they were willing, many of Kennedy’s advisors to use our nuclear arsenal against the Soviet Union. That’s how serious, great powers get when they think they face existential threats. So in my opinion, we are in a very dangerous situation, I think the likelihood of nuclear war is very small. But the likelihood doesn’t have to be high for me to be really scared because of the consequences associated with nuclear use. So we better be extremely careful here regarding what we do in terms of pushing the Russians into the corner. But again, I’m not sure that’s going to happen. Because I think what’s going to happen here is that in a competition between us and the Russians, the Russians will win. Now you’re saying to yourself, why is he saying that? I think that if you think about this, you want to think about who has the greater resolve, right? Who really cares more about this situation, the Russians or the Americans, the Americans do not care that much about Ukraine, the Americans have made it clear, they are not even willing to fight and die for Ukraine. So it’s not that important to us. For the Russians, they have made it clear, it’s an existential threat.

So the balance of resolve, I believe, favors them. So as we walk up the escalation ladder moving forward, my guess, and it’s just my guess, is that the Russians will prevail, not the Americans and the Russians will prevail, because the balance of resolve favors them. Now, the question is, who loses this war? I think it doesn’t matter much to the United States, if we lose in the sense that the Russians prevail. In Ukraine. I think the real losers in this war are the Ukrainians. And I think what’s happened here is we have led Ukrainians down the primrose path, we have pushed very hard to encourage the Ukrainians to want to become part of NATO, we have pushed very hard to make them part of NATO, we have pushed very hard to make them a Western Bulwark on Russia’s borders, despite the fact the Russians made it clear that this was unacceptable to them, we in effect, and here, I’m talking about the West, we took a stick and we poked the bear in the eye. And as you will know, if you take a stick and you poke a bear in the eye, that bear is probably not going to smile and laugh at what you’re doing, that bear is probably going to fight back. And that’s exactly what’s happening here. And that bear is going to tear apart Ukraine, that bear is in the process of tearing apart Ukraine. And again, we go back to where we started, who bears responsibility for this, to the Russians bear responsibility for this? I don’t think so. There’s no question the Russians are doing the dirty work. I don’t want to make light of that fact. But the question is what caused the Russians to do this? And in my opinion, the answer is very simple. The United States of America. Thank you.

Hi, it’s Ron Maxwell here. Can you hear me?

I can hear you. But I thought we’re going to go to REI next to talk and then go to questions.

Well, somebody I have to leave in about 30 minutes. But if back to one question, I followed your whole argument. The one thing you left out is the agency of the Ukrainian people. If you talk about this, as if it’s really the United States, and Russia that has any stakes here, it seems to me the highest stakes are with the Ukrainian people. And what we’ve watched in the last week, is that they have something to say about this, which has nothing to do with what we want or what the Russians want. It’s what they want. And it seems to me, based on what we’re seeing 24/7 They will never surrender. And the Russians will be faced with a situation much worse than they faced in Afghanistan. Well,

we’ll see whether that happens or not. There’s no question that the Ukrainians have agency. I don’t dispute that and my view all along is that if the Ukrainians were smart, what they would do is divorce themselves. From the United States, right, they’ve hitched their wagon to the United States. And your description of how the Ukrainians are behaving today is absolutely correct. And we’re encouraging that. Right. And as I said in my presentation, the question is, what are the consequences of that? You’re quite confident that the Russians will lose in Ukraine, the way they lost in Afghanistan. I would not bet a lot of money on that. But I would know that even if the Russians lose in the process, they will destroy Ukraine. And from Ukraine’s point of view, that’s not a good thing. This is why my view is that Ukraine should have long ago divorced itself from the United States, and worked out a modus vivendi with Russia. My view is if you’re a reasonably small power in the international system, and you live next door to a gorilla, you have to go to great lengths to accommodate that gorilla. And the last thing you want to do is poke that gorilla in the eye because the gorilla will do great damage to you and it probably will never forget.

Prof John Mearsheimer
4 March 2022

2 thoughts on “From Fidel to Zelensky

  1. samir sardana says:

    The aim of Nato was to provoke Putin ,to invade !

    NATO purpose is served,as it has justified its existence,and has 3 more applications (excl UKR), and will raise more funds,and NORD 2 is gone (thus trapping the Germans).

    The very purpose of NATO and US was to financially cripple Russia and start an insurrection in Russia.Putin CANNOT withdraw,as his aims are NOT achieved.Longer he stays – more the sanctions – and soon,sanctions will hit the common man – and then the Orange Revolution by the CIA in Moscow.

    CIA aim,was to turn the Russians and Military,against Putin. Will there be a coup or martial law ?

    The day RUSSIAN RESERVES IN EU banks, WERE FROZEN – THAT WAS WAR BY NATO ! But Putin moved late ! At that stage, a Thermo Nuke test in Siberia,was in order !

    The aim of CIA is to induce shortages and hyper inflation in Russia – FASTER than Putin taking Kiev and Partitioning UKR.Who will succeed 1st ? ddindooohindoo

    Even if Putin just keeps the 2 provinces – US and NATO will not lift the sanctions !

    They will keep Russia in UKR for a long time – and keep tightening the financial screws !

    Lindsay is wrong on dong a HIT JOB ON PUTIN !

    The way to TRY to topple Putin is to create mass unrest via shortages and hyperinflation and LETTING PUTIN TAKE KIEV and then send in the mili aid to insurgents – and keep Putin in UKR – and then tighten sanctions – and that will lead to food shortages and mass unemployment (as Russia is an export driven economy)

    Then Soros and CIA can start the Orange revolution

    Then at that stage,some one from the Milit MIGHT TRY TO TOPPLE Putin !

    BUT IF PUTIN ACHIEVES SPECTACULAR SUCCESS IN UKR OR PRC MAKES A MOVE IN SCS – THEN PUTIN WILL THRIVE !

    PRC is watching the sanctions on Russia !

    SCS is different from UKR

    If there is war in SCS – then US Navy will block the Malacca and SCS – and no OIl will flow to PRC.Until PRC can solve that riddle,it will wait.PRC needs SUPPLY of oil at FAIR RATES.War risk premiums on Voyage charters will blow a hole in the Oil bill – if the Oil comes in.

    Better for PRC to take North East India or Indon-ass-eaaah or Vietnam !

    Until the PLN can keep the shipping lanes open !

Please comment down below