A few days ago, the most widely read journal of international politics in the United States, Foreign Affairs published an article by University of Chicago professor John Mearsheimer entitled “Playing with Fire in Ukraine: the Underappreciated Risks of Catastrophic Escalation.” The online version is accessible here – https://www.foreignaffairs.com/ukraine/playing-fire-ukraine
This publication was a major event in itself given FA’s orthodox spin on everything to do with Russia and the challenges to the Washington narrative made by Mearsheimer ever since his article “Why the Ukraine Crisis is the West’s Fault” appeared in the autumn 2014 issue of Foreign Affairs. At the time, that article prompted a paroxysm of rage among the hardliners who form the majority of the American foreign policy community and of the journal’s readers.
The video of a speech on the same subject which Mearsheimer made in 2014 shortly after the article came out has been viewed by more than 12 million visitors to the www.youtube.com site. An updated version of the same speech presented on youtube during this spring has attracted more than 1.6 million viewers. It is safe to say that John Mearsheimer is the most widely seen and listened to academic disputing the conventional wisdom on the Ukraine war today.
I freely acknowledge the merit of Mearsheimer’s new article: to warn how the conflict in Ukraine could easily spin out of control and escalate to a nuclear war. The White House team of inexperienced and ignorant advisers must be shaken from their complacency and anything published in Foreign Affairs will necessarily be brought to their attention, whereas a piece published by www.antiwar.com, for example, will be burned before reading.
However, this does not excuse Mearsheimer from basing himself on the same restricted and distorted sources of information as are used by mainstream media and mainstream academics, while ignoring other sources of information that would give greater depth to his analysis and possibly change his conclusions substantially. To be explicit, I believe he has been listening too closely to Washington and Kiev’s rosy forecasts of a counter-offensive that will result in a stalemate, possibly in a Russian defeat, and he is not listening to Russian reporting on the progress of their campaign on the ground, which points to a slow and steady grinding down of all in their path to conquest of the Donetsk oblast, meaning the capture of the entire Donbas.
The Russian advance is only slightly slowed by diversion of troops to the Kherson region to nip in the bud that well advertised Ukrainian attack. The latest news is of the Russians approaching the strategic strong points of Slavyansk and Kramatorsk, the cradle of the Donbas independence movement in 2014. By taking these central region cities, they are cutting off the supply of weapons to the most heavily fortified Ukrainian positions just outside Donetsk city, which have been bombarding residential districts and killing civilians daily for the past eight years. This explains their finally overrunning and destroying Ukrainian positions in the town of Peski just two kilometers from the DPR capital this past week.
The capture of Peski was not reported in Western media just as the war crimes nature of its activity, concentrated on civilian targets in violation of international conventions on conduct of war, was never reported. Thus, the Russian advance carries no hint of ‘shock and awe,’ which is to say the Russians are doing nothing to grab headlines and force the hand of Biden to implement some disproportionate escalation.
The Russians’ latest timetable, as announced in their leading televised talk shows, is to complete the liberation of the Donbas by year’s end. After that, if there is no Ukrainian capitulation, the likely case will be ongoing advance through Odessa to Transdnistria and the Romanian border, at which point no peace treaty would be needed by anyone. The Zelensky regime could be left to die on the vine as mutual recriminations shake his power base.
Mearsheimer’s article goes into great detail over the many possible scenarios for dangerous if not catastrophic escalation of the conflict. But these are myriad and largely unforeseeable, so that he ultimately covers only a fraction of the possibilities for things to go haywire. They are, as he admits, not very likely to occur. Amen.
One of those possibilities for catastrophic escalation that has captured the attention of global media at present is the stand-off at the nuclear power plant in Russia-occupied Zaporozhie, Europe’s largest such power plant. Both sides to the conflict are playing up the threat inherent in artillery and rocket strikes on a nuclear installation for propagandistic purposes, to paint the other side as madmen: the Ukrainians speaking of the Kremlin leadership as nuclear terrorists and blackmailers, the Russians speaking of the Ukrainian forces firing on the power station as ‘apes carrying grenades.’ Surely damage to the plant followed by the release into the atmosphere of radioactive substances was on the mind of Mearsheimer when he formulated his article. However, let me be perfectly clear: this is a phony issue, just as the alleged Russian blockade of Ukrainian ports supposedly was forcing starvation on African nations that were failing to get grain they had ordered from Ukraine before the conflict. The fact is that the nuclear reactors are encased in meter-thick concrete walls which are impervious to all the projectiles which the Ukrainians are capable of launching. The risks are to the administrative buildings and cooling systems. The Russians are fully capable of shutting down the nuclear reactors at any time to prevent a catastrophe.
Now let me turn attention to the nuclear risk that Mearsheimer identifies in the article. He has taken up exactly the same argument as mainstream commentators in the United States, namely that Russia might resort to nuclear weapons in case the campaign turns against them due to higher levels of Western intervention including troops on the ground. We all know that troops are already on the ground, namely the ‘instructors’ who are directing fire for HIMARS. We know that senior American and other Western officers liaising with their Ukrainian counterparts were recently blown to bits by the Russian rocket attack on Vinnitsa. That was all hushed up and the only tip-off of this disaster for Washington was the firing of the Ukrainian intelligence leadership the next day.
Of course, no one knows what might yet force an escalation. But there again, Mearsheimer misses some important considerations. Why does he assume the Russians must escalate to nuclear options and why those options would be directed against Kiev and not, for example, against London? More to the point, he is missing the fact that the Russians have hardly begun to fight, as Putin recently said publicly. They have not mobilized and put out draft notices, they have not put the economy on a war footing. And they have not deployed their most consequential weaponry. Instead, they have held it back, ready for use if necessary in a direct war with NATO. This is massively destructive conventional payloads carried by hypersonic rockets and similar.
Then there is another dimension to the conflict which Mearsheimer does not address in his article though it will exert a decisive influence on whether Washington or Moscow wins the tug of war: the economic damage from sanctions on Europe through blow-back that is about to become politically unsustainable as the fall and winter heating season arrives. The Baltics and Poland are and will remain immune to reason, led as they are by delusional Russophobes. However, when the inevitable street demonstrations come in France, the most volatile of the major EU states, followed by Eastern Germany and even by Belgium, a more passive country, as I hear from the local elites I talk to, then the politicians of Europe will head off in contradictory directions and unity will collapse. The Russians are sure to win this psychological war despite all the efforts of EU state media to put a lid on it. The day when Scholz gives the go-ahead to opening Nord Stream II will mark the Russian victory and put an end to US-driven suicidal decision making here in Europe.
For all of the above reasons, I urge professor Mearsheimer and his followers to pay closer attention to what the Russians are saying and less attention to the hot air coming out of Washington.
©Gilbert Doctorow, 2022
60 thoughts on “John Mearsheimer’s latest article on Ukraine in “Foreign Affairs” – a critique”
I am convinced that the talk about Russia using Nukes is just propaganda. However there seems a distinct possibility that when the USA government decides it is not in their interest, despite differences between them and the Kiev crew, to let Ukraine definitely and convincingly be defeated to engage itself more directly in the conflict, i.e. with US rockets fired from land or sea bases into the Russian controlled areas, or into Russian border areas.
I refer to this article here, that gave me pause to assess how close he USA actally already is o engage directly:
“There are increasing reports of military attacks on Crimea and other parts of the Russian Federation. The Belgorod Region neighboring Ukraine has been bombed several times with villages being evacuated. A Ukraine drone also reportedly tried to attack the Kerch Bridge which connects the Russian mainland with Ukraine. The 19-km bridge was opened in May 2018 by Russian President Vladimir Putin at a cost of $3.7 billion.
It is not clear yet what are the exact causes of these explosions. Initially, Russian authorities claimed they were accidental fires, but now they are admitting acts of sabotage being committed. Western media reports claim U.S. and NATO missiles or drones are involved.”
If that direct engagement should come to pass, then Russia made it clear no nation that is a NATO member will be exempt from counter strikes. And this cold lead to nuclear escalation, started by the USA.
Thanks for this. I read that same article by Professor Mearsheimer and had the same reaction as you: he has bought into the story of Russia being stalemated by Ukraine and the awesome US wunderwaffen.
Reality is that the Russian military is slowly grinding down the opposition, Russian public support stays strong and the non western world sees through the western agenda so is not anti Russia. As winter comes along, the European gas issues will become real too. The Russian position gets stronger not weaker.
The issue is whether western politicians will put national interest first. The US Neo Cons strike me as total ideological crazies who simply want to maintain the empire. That is really what the overall war surrounding the SMO is about. They have no off ramp. Many of the European elites seem to be in their pockets and are behaving in a similar manner. I do wonder how much US soft power has been exerted at the personal level. In the UK we are likely to get the super silly and ignorant Liz Truss as PM. She really does represent the scraping of the barrel and seems quite mad. My fear is these corrupted and misguided individuals will not behave rationally on behalf of their countries. They certainly do not have the ability to challenge their own deep states that seem instinctively inclined to follow the US – no doubt because there are career opportunities for civil servants and army officers from doing so.
What I also believe is that history may very well see Vladimir Putin as the greatest Russian leader since Peter The Great and Catherine The Great: the man who presided over the recovery from the terrible 90s, got the West / oligarchs out of running the country and then confronted them when he had to, while creating a network of alternative partnerships. Some similarities with Peter The Great’s reign are almost eery – eg getting the oligarchs out of running the country has similarities to Peter subordinating the nobility to the state, the current battlefields are even not so far from Poltava. Of course, Peter westernized. Putin is no doubt regretful that Russia has had to turn its back on the west.
History will remember Putin I suspect long after Biden and co have been forgotten as just part of a string of western politicians who led us into decline. They will be seen as the equivalent to Rome’s fifth century emperors who all just blur into one another.
I read that article by Mearsheimer too and with great interest (and fear). I hope that everyone will also be aware that a nuclear war has no winners, as the world population will most certainly starve, as a recent simulation study led by Rutgers University has shown. I was partially reassured, though, to hear that damage to Ukrain’e nuclear plant would not be as catastrophic as Zelensky threateningly forecasted (at least according to experts’ reports). However, it should still be avoided for the sake of the many people nearby, and I’m glad to read the plant will be inspected by IAEA.
Mearsheimer, as far as I understand, was quoting Western sources based on British intelligence reports. They were fairly accurate when predicting the invasion. How much should we rely on them versus Russian news, which I’m sure, wish to reassure the population on the progress of this war?SMP?
On the topic of sanctions and their effectiveness: what do you think of this opinion on the Financial Times? https://www.ft.com/content/eebc166b-0ab3-4a69-b61c-62908ee984e5
The question of whether Russian news is more or less credible than Western sources based on British intelligence reports is a non-question. this is not ‘he said,’ ‘she said.’ either you have taken Peski or you have not taken Peski. Either you are closing in on Slavyansk or you are not closing in. Russian reporting is from the field and is easily verifiable. I have not seen any refutations of Russian claims to taking this or that town. And when you piece together what they are capturing day by day, you see who is winning and who is losing immediately. As for the FT, well I am a subscriber, because I love their weekend edition Lunch interviews and a few other features, as well as good company news. As for geopolitics, the FT is a propaganda rag of Downing Street and nothing more. Don’t believe a word they publish.
“They were fairly accurate when predicting the invasion.” Considering the plans by Ukraine to begin a massive push against Donbas and Lugansk (clearly signaled by massing troops in the area) of which Russia was likely aware, to forecast the Russian response was a no-brainer…..
Do you have a source for the pre-invasion “massive push against Donetsk and Lugansk” by the Kyiv regime? Not doubting you, but seriously asking, as I try to make sense of this situation. Thanks.
There were a variety of sources at the time previous to the Russian SMO, but unfortunately, because of the bias by google that automatically converts the search into “Russian troops massing at the border” I found only a few sources at present, using Quandt:
and as to the increase in artillery attacks on Donbas after the RF acknowledged the independent status of the republics:
an overview of the development to the SMO: https://marktaliano.net/the-military-situation-in-the-ukraine-jacques-baud/
I remember Putin and other Russian diplomats dismissing the West’s claim that Russia may be invading as a warmongering, fear-mongering lies. But it happened. I know somebody in the Ministry of Defense in the UK who was giving me tidbits of information in the run up to the invasion, even 4 months before the event. Will he do it or not? AMany analysts believed he would not. Then Putin came with his speech on 23 or 24 February.
“I remember Putin and other Russian diplomats dismissing the West’s claim that Russia may be invading as a warmongering, fear-mongering lies. But it happened.”
Of course, it did, after Russia’s attempts at negotiations were blithely dismissed and not even deemed worth a proper answer, after Elensky had threatened to regain Crimea by force, and after he actually demanded to gain access to nuclear weapons after he had amassed 150 000 troops in Donbas, (of course, with Russia having secured its own border just in case), and after the Ukrainian forces increased their shelling of Donbas and Lugansk manifold immediately following Russia’s recognizing the status of the new republics.
I am also sure that Russia was very aware of when the Ukrainian forces had planned to invade the new republics, and preempted this attack by her own actions to protect the new republics. And please note: Russia seems far from destroying any civilian targets in Ukraine proper, otherwise: how would the NATO lords and ladies be able to dance in the streets of Kiev or enjoy its nightlife?
Is it not clear who is the real aggressor here? And no, it is not Ukraine, it is those controlling that puppet not so remotely at least since 2014, if not since the dissolution of the USSR
Are the attacks on the nuclear plant a desperate attempt by some semi-sane Ukes to force a settlement? Maybe someone thought the threat of a nuclear catastrophe would even shake the Europeans out of their temporary insanity.
Your article is spot on. I read and re-read Mearsheimer’s op-ed and was stunned. His initial realist notion of not poking the bear was fine, but now he seems to have lost his way. I don’t feel that Russia will attack NATO capitals. Russia is more likely to opt for military infrastructure of ‘allies’ who provide Ukraine with deadly weapons.
Russia must do something about Western sabotage attacks in Crimea. This issue is widely promoted in Western corporate media and fuels the idea that Ukraine can win the war.
Your penultimate paragraph is particularly interesting because it coincides with my last article in which I raise the question of whether the EU will survive the energy crisis, or whether “only” the eurozone will implode. The link is: https://geopoliticincontext.wordpress.com/2022/08/18/overleeft-de-europese-unie-de-energiecrisis-of-sneuvelt-enkel-de-eurozone/
The translation is provided by the ‘Google translate’ tool in the top right corner.
Paul Lookman – your link does not work, as far as I have tried
Otherwise – I agree with you entirely; Mr Doctorow has written a very judicious clear minded summary of both the failures of John Mearscheimer’s latest article, and especially of the current situation of the SMO, and how to form an opinion without falling for ridiculous propoganda, on one side, and very much more reasonable propoganda on the other
The one point I have seen emphasised with regard to Russian conduct and reporting of the war- that it is designed to spare Russian (and other) lives in the first, to be convincing to the people of Ukraine, and to appeal to the reasonable opinions of the non allied world, the great mass of people who are very interested to witness the first dramatic in real time evidence of resistance and overthrow of the oppressions formulated and imposed by the US
This has been a long time coming
Something went wrong with the link. The cotrrect one is: https://geopolitiekincontext.wordpress.com/2022/08/18/overleeft-de-europese-unie-de-energiecrisis-of-sneuvelt-enkel-de-eurozone/
In Mearshimer’s defense, if he had deviated from parroting the conventional wisdom about the progression of the war, the article could have had less impact – although it also could have been a wake-up moment. OTH, he could have described the “factual” reality of lost territory, and used that as one of this “scenarios” towards a Russian victory and a west over reacting. Is it verboten to note that the only country to actually use nukes militarily is the US?
And he neglects completely that the war has a (as you note) critical economic component. The entire western plan only worked if the economic war collapsed the Russian economy and the ability to mass produce artillery. But in a bigger economic warfare sense, how far will the west go to fight de-dollarization? It could certainly lead to escalation and its inconceivable that Mearsheimer is unfamiliar with the Thucydides trap.
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Perhaps Mearshimer’s article would not have been published had it challenged the “official” western narrative about the war. Or he actually believes what he wrote.
I had a similar impression to your own when I read that Mearsheimer article.
One context I would add to this post, which is excellent overall: Mearsheimer knows his audience. He is accepted among the American academic elite. To convince them, it’s useful to demonstrate that he’s one of them–that he shares at least some of their biases. Privately, I suspect he would agree with everything you’ve said, but publicly he has to be careful not to paddle too far beyond the shore.
In addition to rhetorical considerations, there’s the oppressive American cultural milieu Mearsheimer must navigate. Over the past two decades, the powers that be have engineered a potent disciplinary apparatus that could precipitate the downfall of a figure like Mearsheimer. Besides the Twitter “cancel” mobs, Mearsheimer’s enemies could actuate academic kangaroo courts to discipline him for a trumped up charge–something as simple as a former student, perhaps one from decades ago, anonymously claiming that he looked at her too lustily. Though he might beat such a charge, in the process the press would drag his name through the mud, his careerist colleagues would distance themselves from him, speaking invitations would become scarce, and official outlets would cease to publish his views.
Mearsheimer’s no doubt highly sensitive to such threats. He may even have been warned not to go too far. This would explain the oddly blinkered account in his recent Foreign Affairs piece.
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I used to share your POV regarding “how far one can go” but, over time I have become convinced that people who are trustworthy never engage in one sided, politically motivated self-censorship. I have observed that type of censorship is only one short step step from the slippery slope that has taken almost all formally-reliable observers in western media into the valley of state-run propaganda, from which….there is no return.
You ignore the possibility of one or more shells sending up into the air some the spent fuel stored on site while it “cools” down.
Indeed, WADR Gilbert does not understand what, exactly, are nuclear power plants. Damage the cooling system or damage the spent fuel pools and the spent fuel becomes probably a couple orders of magnitude more catastrophic than a reactor ever could be.
In general I really appreciate Mearsheimer’s work, but thank you so much for the much needed correctives to his article. I have noticed before that while he is an excellent analyst from a historical perspective his military expertise and analyses usually leave much to be desired. Your objective and clear evaluation of the situation is much appreciated.
Mearsheimer has a doctorate on Cold War use of armor in Europe; he is a West Point alum; and a veteran of US Army and Air Force.
Andrei Martyanov’s “charitable” take on the article is that Mearshimer is an historian who understands little of military affairs. I tend to think that is likely the case.
“They have not mobilized and put out draft notices, they have not put the economy on a war footing”
OK – why not? If polls are to be believed, ordinary Russians are just rarin’ to go kick some butt in Ukraine, and would gladly undertake the sacrifices necessary. In the past, draft dodging has been rampant in Russia. Would that still happen now?
Six months of “not yet fighting” is a peculiar strategy.
Like others who have commented, I read the Mearsheimer article with much skepticism and was pleased that you challenged some of Mearsheimer’s dubious assertions. However, there is one assumption of Mearsheimer’s I thought you would question but in fact left untouched: I am referring to Measheimer’s assumption that if the US/Nato entered the conflict directly Russia would be unable to prevail without resorting to nuclear weapons. Other commentators who have compared the military capabilities of Nato with those of Russia are much less certain that Nato/US would overpower Russia in the event of an all-out non-nuclear war between the two. What is your view?
I thought I covered this issue when I questioned the assumption that Russia would escalate by using nuclear weapons, tactical or strategic. Since 2014, Russia has developed very powerful conventional explosives which when mounted on their hypersonic missiles could achieve devastating effect against NATO installations without opening the Pandora’s box of nuclear arms and vast civilian casualties. They demonstrated this in Ukraine when they destroyed early in the campaign a Ukrainian hardened multistory arms depot. They did not use this again, because they are holding back their store of such weapons against the possibility there will be a direct and open war with NATO.
Excellent article. It always useful to point out erroneous mainstream assumptions which may be missed by the casual viewer.
I would say the risk isn’t the crazy number the west think, but it also isn’t zero. I don’t know the Russian VVR designs well enough, but I do know that the Westinghouse PWR and GE BWR(Fukushima) both have similar risk profiles for the case of loss of cooling water and loss of back-up electrical supply. If the Ukranian artillary was pervasive enough to damage the long term diesel fuel supply, knock off the grid, that would be enough, but it would take days of intensive shelling to achive the effect. If they did the same and also happed to either damage the pump house (outside the Nuclear Island) or cooling water culverns, then with a loss of reactor external cooling, it would require intensive use of DC power for I&C for 2 weeks to bring the reactors to a safe cold shutdown, but batteries are only good for about 1-2 days. This was what did in Fukushima, one the back-up batteries were down, and because there was no way to bring in external power, the operators could do nothing. China made serious efforts to upgrade their redundant power systems for the (already superior to American original) French PWR designs, I kind of doubt Westinghouse and Ukraine did anything similar if it was needed, and I don’t think they’d have asked the Russians to look at the design case by then.
From the article: “We know that senior American and other Western officers liaising with their Ukrainian counterparts were recently blown to bits by the Russian rocket attack on Vinnitsa. That was all hushed up…”
In “War With Russia?” (p. 145), Stephen F. Cohen wondered what the U.S. reaction would be if U.S. weapons trainers sent to Ukraine were “killed by Russian-backed rebel forces, even unintentionally”.
The answer, at least so far, appears to be ‘not much’ aside from seeing that it wasn’t reported by news media.
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