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ACURA ViewPoint: Transcript of John Mearsheimer’s April 7th Presentation

Originally published: American Committee for U.S.-Russia Accord (ACURA) on April 18, 2022 by John Mearsheimer (more by American Committee for U.S.-Russia Accord (ACURA)) (Posted Apr 20, 2022)

Thank you very much for inviting me to be here. And I recall our travels in Germany fondly, especially when Steve and I debated the Ukraine issue back then. I agree with what you said by the way, Katrina, when you said that this is the most dangerous crisis since the Second World War. I think it’s actually more dangerous than the Cuban Missile Crisis, which is not to minimize the danger of that crisis. But I think basically what we have here is a war between the United States and Russia and there’s no end in sight. I cannot think of how this can end in the near future. And I think there’s a very dangerous chance of escalation. First of all, escalation to where the United States is actually doing the fighting against Russia, the two sides are clashing militarily, which hasn’t happened so far.

And I think there’s a serious danger of nuclear escalation here. I’m not saying that it’s likely, but I can tell stories on how it actually happens. So the question is, how did we get in into this mess? What caused it? And the reason it’s very important to deal with that issue is it has all sorts of implications for understanding Russian thinking. If you want to understand how the Russians think about this crisis, you have to understand the causes. Now the mainstream view, which I of course reject, is that Vladimir Putin is either a congenital aggressor or he is just determined to recreate the Soviet Union or some version of the Soviet Union. He’s an expansionist, he’s an imperialist. I think that argument is wrong and my view is that this is really all about the West’s efforts to turn Ukraine into a Western bulwark on Russia’s borders.

And the key element in that strategy of course, is NATO expansion. And in my story, it all goes back to the April 2008 decision at the NATO summit in Bucharest where it was said that both Georgia and Ukraine would become part of NATO. The Russians made it manifestly clear at the time that this was unacceptable, that neither Georgia nor Ukraine were going to become part of NATO. And in fact, the Russians made it clear that they viewed this as an existential threat. Very important to understand those words. From the Russian point of view from the get go, this was perceived as an existential threat. Lots of people in the West do not believe it is an existential threat to the Russians, but what they believe is irrelevant because the only thing that matters is what Putin and his fellow Russians think, and they think it is an existential threat.

Now I think, to be honest, that the evidence is overwhelming that this is not a case of Putin acting as an imperialist and it is a case of NATO expansion. If you look at his February 24th speech justifying why Russia invaded Ukraine, it is all about NATO expansion and the fact that is perceived to be by him, an existential threat to Russia. If you look at the deployment of forces in Ukraine, it’s hard to make the argument that the Russians are bent on conquering and occupying and integrating Ukraine into a greater Russia. If you listen to Zelenskyy talk about a possible solution, the first thing he goes to is talking about creating a neutral Ukraine. That tells you that this is really all about NATO expansion and Ukrainian neutrality. Furthermore, there is no evidence of Putin saying that what he wants to do is actually make Ukraine part of Russia.

There’s no evidence of him saying that this is feasible and that he intends to do it. There’s no question, in his heart he would like to see Ukraine be part of Russia. In his heart he would probably like to see the Soviet Union come back. But as he has made manifestly clear, that is not possible and anybody who thinks that way is not thinking straight. He has in effect said that. So I would like someone to point out to me the evidence where he makes it clear that what he is actually doing in terms of formulating policy is trying to create a greater Russia or reconstitute the Soviet Union. All of this is to say, if you believe like I do that he is facing an existential threat, you’re in effect saying he views this as a threat to Russia’s survival. And if he’s in a situation like that, he cannot lose. When you face an existential threat, you don’t lose. You have no choice. You have to win.

Now, this brings us to the America side. What are the Americans doing? What we’re doing, which is what we did after the crisis broke out on February 22nd 2014, is we’re doubling down. We have decided that what we’re going to do is we are going to defeat Russia inside of Ukraine. We’re going to deliver a decisive defeat against the Russians inside of Ukraine. And at the same time, we’re going to strangle their economy. We’re going to put wicked sanctions on them and we’re going to bring them to their knees. We, in other words are going to win and they’re going to lose. Furthermore, the Biden Administration and the president himself has gone to enormous lengths to ramp up the rhetoric and portray the Russians as the font of all evil and to portray us as the good guys and to create the impression in people’s minds that this is a situation that doesn’t lend itself to compromise because you can’t compromise with the devil. In fact, what has to be done here is we have to win.

Now, you’ll know that it would be a devastating defeat for Joe Biden if the Russians were to win this war. And of course, as I just said to you, from the Russian point of view, they have to win this war because this is an existential threat that they are facing. So the question you then want to ask yourself is, where does at leave us? Both sides have to win. It’s impossible for both sides to win, not when you think about the situation that we’re facing here. So how do we get a negotiated settlement? I just don’t see it happening. I don’t see the Russians giving any meaningful ground and I certainly don’t see the Americans giving any meaningful ground. So what is likely to happen? There’s now talk on our side, and even on the Russian side, that this war is going to go on for years. In other words, we’re going to have a war between the United States and Russia that goes on for years.

Now, I understand that we are not involved in the fighting at this point, but we are about as close as you can get to being involved. And then you start saying to yourself, is it not possible that we will get dragged into this one? There’s a huge amount of political pressure on the Biden Administration for us to implement the no-fly zone to actually go in for humanitarian purposes to Ukraine and so forth and so on. So far Biden has been able to resist that pressure, but will he be able to resist it forever? And what if we have a military incident that drags us into the fighting? So we could very well end up in a situation where the United States and Russia are fighting against each other in Ukraine. Then we come to the issue of nuclear escalation.

I think first of all, if the United States gets dragged into a fight against Russia and it’s a conventional war in Ukraine or over Ukraine in the air, the United States will clobber the Russians. If the Ukrainians are doing so well against the Russians militarily, you can imagine how much better the Americans will do in air to air engagements and even on the ground, right? In that situation, don’t you think it’s possible that Russia would turn to nuclear weapons? I think it’s possible. I’ve studied a lot of military history. I’ve studied the Japanese decision to attack the United States at Pearl Harbor in 1941. I’ve studied the German decision to launch World War I during the July crisis in 1914. I’ve looked at the Egyptian decision to attack Israel in 1973.

These are all cases where decision makers felt they were in a desperate situation and they all understood that in a very important way they were rolling the dice, they were pursuing an incredibly risky strategy, but they just felt they had no choice. They felt that their survival was at stake. So what we’re talking about here is taking a country like Russia, right, that thinks it’s facing an existential threat, that thinks its survival is at stake and we’re pushing it to the limit. We’re talking about breaking it. We’re talking about not only defeating it in Ukraine, but breaking it economically. This is a remarkably dangerous situation, and I find it quite remarkable that we’re approaching this whole issue in such a cavalier way. And by the way, I think a lot of this has to do with the fact that so many people who were involved in thinking about this problem today were raised during the unipolar moment and not during the Cold War. During the Cold War, as someone like Jack can tell you even better than me, we thought long and hard about nuclear war.

We thought long and hard about US-Soviet relations and how that might lead to a nuclear war. People who grew up in the unipolar moment are much more cavalier about these issues. And I think this presents a very dangerous situation. Now I would note that even if the Russians and the Americans don’t end up fighting each other, but the Ukrainians are able to stagger the Russians in Ukraine and deliver significant defeats on them, the Russians may still turn to nuclear weapons. It’s possible. Is it likely? No, but it’s possible. And that scares me greatly and it should scare most Americans and certainly most Europeans. So all of this is to say, when I look at the US-Russia relationship today, I think we’re effectively at war with each other. Although again, the Americans are not fighting against the Russians on the battlefield, but this is a very dangerous situation.

Now what about Ukraine? Don’t the Ukrainians have any agency? I mean after all, it’s their country that’s being destroyed. One could make the argument that the West, especially the United States, is willing to fight this war to the last Ukrainian. And the end result is Ukraine is in effect being wrecked as a country. Given that they have agency, is it not possible that the Ukrainians themselves will say enough is enough and put an end to this? Sadly, I don’t think that’s the case. And I think the fact is that the United States will not allow the Ukrainians to cut a deal that the United States finds unacceptable. The Washington Post had a piece on Monday that made it very clear that the administration and our NATO allies are very worried that the Ukrainians are going to cut a deal with the Russians that makes it look like the Russians won or that in fact, concedes that the Russians have won at least to some extent.

We do not want that to happen. As I said before, the Biden Administration is out to inflict a decisive defeat on Russia. If the Ukrainians decide to cut a deal and allow Russia to win in some meaningful sense, the Americans are going to say that’s unacceptable. And the Americans will work with the right wing nationalists in Ukraine to undermine Zelenskyy or his successor. So I see no way Ukraine can step in and put a stop to this crisis. I just see it going on and on. I may conclude by saying that George Kennen said in the late 1990s, that NATO expansion was a tragic mistake and that it would lead to the beginning of a new Cold War. At first, it looked like he was wrong. We had the first tranche of expansion in 1999 and we got away with it. We had the second tranche of expansion in 2004 and we got away with that. But then when the decision was made in April 2008 for a third tranche, which would include Georgia and Ukraine, it’s quite clear that we had moved a bridge too far. And the end result, I’m sad to say, is that I think that Kennen’s prediction has proved true. Thank you.

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