The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Can realism explain the war in Ukraine?

When an elegant theory collides with a messy reality

A demonstrator with Ukrainian flag colors and a peace symbol painted on her face takes part in an antiwar protest outside the European Parliament in Brussels on March 2, 2022. (Yves Herman/Reuters)
4 min

The war in Ukraine has produced an awful lot of collateral schadenfreude. Many liberal internationalists are bemused that the accurate U.S. warnings about Russian intentions in Ukraine left traditional critics of U.S. foreign policy looking very, very foolish. Many Never Trumpers have exulted in watching folks like Donald Trump and Tucker Carlson scramble to walk away from things they said barely a week ago.

Within the foreign policy community, however, never underestimate the magnitude of realist schadenfreude. No other school of thought delights as much in standing back and claiming they saw this coming all along.

The realist position on Ukraine has been straightforward: To explain what is happening now, you have to go back to the U.S. move to expand NATO that began in the 1990s. In expanding that alliance and offering countries like Georgia and Ukraine the theoretical chance to join NATO, realists claim that the United States triggered a security dilemma with Russia that led to its invasions of Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014 and 2022.

Like all grand paradigms in international relations, there is some explanatory value to this argument but also some contradictory information. This argument rests on the premise that in the 1990s, Russia just wanted to strike a bargain with NATO and had no ambitions to reconstitute and expand its sphere of influence. That’s just not true. From 1992 onward, Russia economically coerced its near abroad all the time. A counterfactual in which Russia would not have expanded its sphere of influence in the absence of NATO expansion seems risible.

Still, realists like John Mearsheimer have cast blame on the United States for the post-2014 situation, and there are ways in which Mearsheimer’s warnings seem prescient given the current conflict. Russian government sources have amplified his warnings, leading to some nasty accusations on social media. But as someone who has also found his work embraced by unsavory global actors, I know this isn’t Mearsheimer’s fault. Mike Mazarr is correct to note, “What is sad is that essays on basic principles of IR [international relations] are weaponized by autocratic and criminal regimes — and then the authors condemned for disloyalty.”

It is also worth asking, however, whether the conflict has falsified some of realism’s assumptions. The New Yorker’s Isaac Chotiner interviewed Mearsheimer this week. He claims in the interview that “[Putin] understands that he cannot conquer Ukraine and integrate it into a greater Russia or into a reincarnation of the former Soviet Union. He can’t do that.” That does not necessarily jibe with what Putin was saying either last summer or in the week before the conflict.

More significantly, from a purely realpolitik perspective, the war in Ukraine has gone extremely well for the United States and extremely poorly for Russia. As previously noted in this space, Putin’s Russia is weaker now than it was before the invasion. Hopes for absorbing or neutralizing Ukraine and extinguishing Ukrainian nationalism have been dashed. Its reputation for the competent projection of power has been tarnished. Sanctions will badly damage the Russian economy. Realists predicted none of this.

Do not take my word for this, take Lawrence Freedman’s words. He noted that Russia’s assumptions about how the war would play out have been dashed. Therefore, “this is a war that Vladimir Putin cannot win, however long it lasts and however cruel his methods.” While this is a lose-lose conflict, it sure seems like Russia is losing more than the United States.

Mearsheimer thinks this is a strategic mistake. He tells Chotiner:

We should be pivoting out of Europe to deal with China in a laserlike fashion, number one. And, number two, we should be working overtime to create friendly relations with the Russians. The Russians are part of our balancing coalition against China. If you live in a world where there are three great powers—China, Russia, and the United States—and one of those great powers, China, is a peer competitor, what you want to do if you’re the United States is have Russia on your side of the ledger. Instead, what we have done with our foolish policies in Eastern Europe is drive the Russians into the arms of the Chinese. This is a violation of Balance of Power Politics 101.

As per usual, Mearsheimer undersells the importance of Europe and oversells the importance of Russia. To put it another way: European and Pacific Rim allies are far more important than Russia as components of any balancing coalition against China. The response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is more likely to foster cooperation against China as well.

Realism has some useful things to say about Russia and Ukraine. But it is far from clairvoyant. As Mearsheimer himself acknowledged to Chotiner, “Do I know what’s going to happen? No, none of us know what’s going to happen.”