X Close

The Russian invasion was a rational act It is in the West's interest to take Putin seriously

Strategist or megalomaniac? (Contributor/Getty Images)

Strategist or megalomaniac? (Contributor/Getty Images)


and
September 14, 2023   7 mins

It is widely believed in the West that Russian president Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine was not a rational act. On the eve of the invasion, then British prime minister Boris Johnson suggested that perhaps the United States and its allies had not done “enough to deter an irrational actor and we have to accept at the moment that Vladimir Putin is possibly thinking illogically about this and doesn’t see the disaster ahead”. US senator Mitt Romney made a similar point after the war started, noting that “by invading Ukraine, Mr Putin has already proved that he is capable of illogical and self-defeating decisions”. The assumption underlying both statements is that rational leaders start wars only if they are likely to win. By starting a war he was destined to lose, the thinking went, Putin demonstrated his non-rationality.

Other critics argue that Putin was non-rational because he violated a fundamental international norm. In this view, the only morally acceptable reason for going to war is self-defence, whereas the invasion of Ukraine was a war of conquest. Russia expert Nina Khrushcheva asserted that “with his unprovoked assault, Mr Putin joins a long line of irrational tyrants”, and appears “to have succumbed to his ego-driven obsession with restoring Russia’s status as a great power with its own clearly defined sphere of influence”. Bess Levin of Vanity Fair described Russia’s president as “a power-hungry megalomaniac”; former British ambassador to Moscow Tony Brenton suggested his invasion was proof that he is an “unbalanced autocrat” rather than the “rational actor” he once was.

These claims all rest on common understandings of rationality that are intuitively plausible but ultimately flawed. Contrary to what many people think, we cannot equate rationality with success and non-rationality with failure. Rationality is not about outcomes. Rational actors often fail to achieve their goals, not because of foolish thinking but because of factors they can neither anticipate nor control. There is also a powerful tendency to equate rationality with morality since both qualities are thought to be features of enlightened thinking. But this too is a mistake. Rational policies can violate widely accepted standards of conduct and may even be murderously unjust.

So what is “rationality” in international politics? Surprisingly, the scholarly literature does not provide a good definition. For us, rationality is all about making sense of the world — that is, figuring out how it works and why — in order to decide how to achieve certain goals. It has both an individual and a collective dimension. Rational policymakers are theory-driven; they are homo theoreticus. They have credible theories — logical explanations based on realistic assumptions and supported by substantial evidence — about the workings of the international system, and they employ these to understand their situation and determine how best to navigate it. Rational states aggregate the views of key policymakers through a deliberative process, one marked by robust and uninhibited debate.

All of this means that Russia’s decision to invade Ukraine was rational. Consider that Russian leaders relied on a credible theory. Most commentators dispute this claim, arguing that Putin was bent on conquering Ukraine and other countries in Eastern Europe to create a greater Russian empire, something that would satisfy a nostalgic yearning among Russians but that makes no strategic sense in the modern world. President Joe Biden maintains that Putin aspires “to be the leader of Russia that united all of Russian speakers. I mean… I just think it’s irrational.” Former national security adviser H. R. McMaster argues: “I don’t think he’s a rational actor because he’s fearful, right? What he wants to do more than anything is restore Russia to national greatness. He’s driven by that.”

But there is solid evidence that Putin and his advisers thought in terms of straightforward balance-of-power theory, viewing the West’s efforts to make Ukraine a bulwark on Russia’s border as an existential threat that could not be allowed to stand. Russia’s president laid out this logic in a speech explaining his decision for war: “With Nato’s eastward expansion the situation for Russia has been becoming worse and more dangerous by the year… We cannot stay idle and passively observe these developments. This would be an absolutely irresponsible thing to do for us.” He went on to say: “It is not only a very real threat to our interests but to the very existence of our state and to its sovereignty. It is the redline which we have spoken about on numerous occasions. They have crossed it.”

In other words, for Putin, this was a war of self-defence aimed at preventing an adverse shift in the balance of power. He had no intention of conquering all of Ukraine and annexing it into a greater Russia. Indeed, even as he claimed in his well-known historical account of Russia-Ukraine relations that “Russians and Ukrainians were one people — a single whole”, he also declared: “We respect Ukrainians’ desire to see their country free, safe, and prosperous… And what Ukraine will be — it is up to its citizens to decide.” None of this is to deny that his aims have clearly expanded since the war began, but that is hardly unusual as wars unfold and circumstances change.

It is worth noting that Moscow sought to deal with the growing threat on its borders through aggressive diplomacy, but the United States and its allies were unwilling to accommodate Russia’s security concerns. On 17 December 2021, Russia put forward a proposal to solve the growing crisis that envisaged a neutral Ukraine and the withdrawal of Nato forces from Eastern Europe to their positions in 1997. But the United States rejected it out of hand.

This being the case, Putin opted for war, which analysts expected to result in the Russian military’s overrunning Ukraine. Describing the view of US officials just before the invasion, David Ignatius of The Washington Post wrote that Russia would “quickly win the initial, tactical phase of this war, if it comes. The vast army that Russia has arrayed along Ukraine’s borders could probably seize the capital of Kyiv in several days and control the country in little more than a week.” Indeed, the intelligence community “told the White House that Russia would win in a matter of days by quickly overwhelming the Ukrainian army”. Of course, these assessments proved wrong, but even rational policymakers sometimes miscalculate, because they operate in an uncertain world.

The Russian decision to invade was also the product of a deliberative process, not a knee-jerk reaction by a lone wolf. Again, many observers dispute this point, arguing that Putin operated without serious input from civilian and military advisers, who would have counselled against his reckless bid for empire. As Senator Mark Warner, the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, put it: “He’s not had that many people having direct inputs to him. So we’re concerned that this kind of isolated individual [has] become a megalomaniac in terms of his notion of himself being the only historic figure that can rebuild old Russia or recreate the notion of the Soviet sphere.” Elsewhere, former ambassador to Moscow Michael McFaul suggested that one element of Russia’s non-rationality is that Putin is “profoundly isolated, surrounded only by yes men who have cut him off from accurate knowledge”.

But what we know about Putin’s coterie and its thinking about Ukraine reveals a different story: Putin’s subordinates shared his views about the nature of the threat confronting Russia, and he consulted with them before deciding on war. The consensus among Russian leaders regarding the dangers inherent in Ukraine’s relationship with the West is clearly reflected in a 2008 memorandum by then ambassador to Russia William Burns; it warned that “Ukrainian entry into Nato is the brightest of all redlines for the Russian elite (not just Putin). In more than two and a half years of conversations with key Russian players, from knuckle-draggers in the dark recesses of the Kremlin to Putin’s sharpest liberal critics, I have yet to find anyone who views Ukraine in Nato as anything other than a direct challenge to Russian interests… I can conceive of no grand package that would allow the Russians to swallow this pill quietly.”

Nor does Putin appear to have made the decision for war alone, as stories of him plotting in Covid-induced confinement implied. When asked whether the Russian president consulted with his key advisers, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov replied: “Every country has a decision-making mechanism. In that case, the mechanism existing in the Russian Federation was fully employed.” To be sure, it seems clear that Putin relied on only a handful of like-minded confidants to make the final decision to invade, but that is not unusual when policymakers are faced with a crisis. All of this is to say that the Russian decision to invade most likely emerged from a deliberative process — one with political allies who shared his core beliefs and concerns about Ukraine.

Moreover, not only was Russia’s decision to invade Ukraine rational, but it was also not anomalous. Many great powers are said to have acted non-rationally when in fact they acted rationally. The list includes Germany in the years before the First World War and during the July Crisis, as well as Japan in the Thirties and during the run-up to Pearl Harbor. In both cases, the key policymakers relied on credible theories of international politics and deliberated among themselves to formulate strategies for dealing with the various issues facing them.

This is not to say that states are always rational. The British decision not to balance against Nazi Germany in 1938 was driven by Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s emotional aversion to another European land war coupled with his success at shutting down meaningful deliberation. Meanwhile, the American decision to invade Iraq in 2003 relied on non-credible theories and emerged from a non-deliberative decision-making process. But these cases are the exceptions. Against the increasingly common view among students of international politics that states are often non-rational, we argue that most states are rational most of the time.

This argument has profound implications for both the study and the practice of international politics. Neither can be coherent in a world where non-rationality prevails. Inside the academy, our argument affirms the rational actor assumption, which has long been a fundamental building block for understanding world politics even if it has recently come under assault. If non-rationality is the norm, state behaviour can be neither understood nor predicted, and studying international politics is a futile endeavour. Only if other states are rational actors can practitioners anticipate how friends and enemies are likely to behave in a given situation and thus formulate policies that will advance their own state’s interests.

All of this is to say that Western policymakers would be well-advised not to automatically assume that Russia or any other adversary is non-rational, as they often do. That only serves to undermine their ability to understand how other states think and craft smart policies to deal with them. Given the enormous stakes in the Ukraine war, this cannot be emphasised enough.

***

This is an edited extract from How States Think: The Rationality of Foreign Policy by John Mearsheimer and Sebastian Rosato


John Mearsheimer is the R. Wendell Harrison Distinguished Service Professor in the Political Science Department at the University of Chicago


Join the discussion


Join like minded readers that support our journalism by becoming a paid subscriber


To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.

Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.

Subscribe
Subscribe
Notify of
guest

186 Comments
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Matt Hindman
Matt Hindman
9 months ago

Geopolitics has always been ruthless, cold blooded, often very violent, and usually limited only by what you can get away with. For the rest of the world, this is just an understood business as usual. However there seems to have been either a big lie or wishful thinking in the West over the last 30 or so years. There was the this strange belief that the world was “no longer like that”. This made no sense because everyone was still acting in their self-interests (or sometimes stupid delusions of what was), things like ethnic cleansing and seizing territory were still ongoing, and wars with their accompanying war crimes happened all the time. Why are people more scared of the idea that Putin made a cold and calculated decision over him being a deranged mad man? There is a fantastical disconnect from reality that is terrifying here.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
9 months ago
Reply to  Matt Hindman

I enjoyed the article as well. I think people in the west just assume other nations perceive us as being kind and benevolent – they we always act with the best intentions. We might think of NATO as only a defensive alliance, but I’m pretty sure other nations don’t feel the same way.

Samir Iker
Samir Iker
9 months ago
Reply to  Matt Hindman

“For the rest of the world, this is just an understood business as usual”
You have just hit upon the reason why the US bloc has so little support elsewhere.

There have been very few countries in the “rest of the world” who have launched naked, full blooded wars of aggression against other countries in the last 30 years.
Not China, not India, Pakistan, nothing in Latam.

The worst has been Saudi against Yemen, Turkey against Kurds, ISiS (all three armed or propped up to a great extent by the West), the localised Chechenya or Amenia stuff, or a few random civil wars in Africa.

The few real wars in the real sense? All by the West. Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan….and that’s if you ignore the sneaky, covert stuff in Honduras and such.

That’s why you have no support.
When the only group of nations, which still considers war to be business as usual, needles Russia into war and then adopts a holier than thou stance…..
The rest of the world looks on on disgust.

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
9 months ago
Reply to  Matt Hindman

Inconceivable. That’s blasphemous traitor talk right there. History ended in 1991 and we’re all citizens of the world now. Didn’t you get the memo. *sarcasm off*

Colin Goodfellow
Colin Goodfellow
9 months ago
Reply to  Matt Hindman

The premise of the main piece is off. Putin was not seen as irrational, but having misjudged.. He succesfully took Crimea with barely a slap on the wrist. In for a penny. In the first days of the second invasion the US offered to shelter the Ukrainian President and Puitn had hoped to take Kieve. Both russia and US misjudged the Ukrainianian response and its effectiveness. The invasion was not irrational but misjudged and now Ukraine is taking back what was forfieted by the west in the first invasion using the moral trap created by the second for leverage. States have self interest and dependance does not a vassel make.

Erik Lothe
Erik Lothe
9 months ago
Reply to  Matt Hindman

Why people are more scared of the idea that Putin made a cold and calculated decision over him being a deranged mad man?
Because it opens the question of their own culpability.

Last edited 9 months ago by Erik Lothe
Tim Cross
Tim Cross
9 months ago

Sun Tzu said a while back that: ‘If you understand yourself and understand your enemy you need not fear the outcome of a thousand battles.’ We, the ‘west’, increasingly fail to understand who we are, and we certainly fail to understand our ‘enemies’. As a very senior Iraqi said to me in Baghdad back in 2003 – ‘The Americans don’t understand why we hate them – and that is why we hate them.’ Simply denouncing everything about Russia as irrational and/or bad (or indeed everything about Ukraine as rationally wonderful) doesn’t help much.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
9 months ago
Reply to  Tim Cross

I’m not even sure the US realizes that half the world hates them.

Stephen Kristan
Stephen Kristan
9 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

You assume that “half the world hates them.”
Prove it.
Prove that the Chinese Uighurs would prefer to remain in Xi’s internment camps than to decamp even to the shit-strewn streets of San Francisco.
Prove that the Taiwanese would prefer to be swallowed by PLA than to have hated America intervene on its behalf.
The unremitting influx of illegal immigrants — at great expense and often in peril of their lives — over the US southern border suggests that people are overcoming their hatred of America with considerable alacrity.
As for those who hate America, what are we supposed to do, lie sleepless at night fretting over what your alleged several billions of people think of us, and how we can curry their favor?

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
9 months ago

Sure. Hate is the wrong word. Many states and many people within those states are opposed to the US, and even more distrust the US. Do I really need to make a list for you?

Stephen Kristan
Stephen Kristan
9 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

That many people hate or distrust America — or any other nation or people — was not at issue in my comment. So, no, thanks for the offer, but keep the list for yourself. Resentment/hatred/distrust in a vast and tumultuous world (for that matter, even in a small town), especially for the leading military and economic power, is inevitable. C’est la vie.

Liam O'Mahony
Liam O'Mahony
9 months ago

..you’ll find that is only true when your (CIA+) military spends all its time invading, bombing, assassinating, regime toppling, looting, sanctioning etc. Merely having a huge military isn’t the problem.. Russia and China both have bigger miliaries (troops) and aren’t hated like the US is. Can you see why?

Stephen Kristan
Stephen Kristan
9 months ago
Reply to  Liam O'Mahony

So Russia and China aren’t “hated like the US is”? So that must account for the millions of people crossing illegally into those countries every year to live off the largesse of their tax payers. Thanks for the tip!

Liam O'Mahony
Liam O'Mahony
9 months ago

Yep, that IS what you’re supposed to do (not you personally of course; you’d be hopeless at it) ..but your DIPLOMATS should be doing so. Instead they are threatening sanctions and wars and countries are just sick of it.

Kat L
Kat L
9 months ago

As we have seen, they come here to take advantage of us and then attack (complain) us from within.

Last edited 9 months ago by Kat L
bdank22
bdank22
9 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

But do haters understand their hatred? Can we ever assume that the hate filled are rational? So in the “defense” of whatever nation, war is unleashed. And in this so called defensive war hundreds of thousands of your own are killed, are sacrificed. Will this lead to defensive leaders saying, now we are secure, only 500,000 of our own were killed (murdered). Whether the murderer is a leader of a nation or a hoodlum down the street, they consider themselves to be righteous. And these righteous ones hardly ever think of the innocents they have killed in their righteous cause.
what some may consider to be great about war is that the warriors can engage in guilt free killing whether by dropping bombs or in armed combat. And if they become guilt ridden, they are often called weak or cowardly and then there are military therapists who try to help warriors/killers become well adjusted. The absurdity never ends, and to call wars and warriors rational, just continues the absurdity.

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
9 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

A lot of people are going to dislike whoever is top dog in any hierarchy. I’m sure a lot of people in 1900 really didn’t have fond feelings for the British. If China takes over, everyone will hate them. It’s just human nature. At any rate all that hate doesn’t seem to stop foreigners from trying to get into the country.

Liam O'Mahony
Liam O'Mahony
9 months ago
Reply to  Steve Jolly

Depends on the breed of Top Dog.. The XL American Bully breed is extremely dangerous, 270 times more dangerous than dogs in general. The trick is to get to the nub of the problem.. it’s all in the breeding, or in the case of people, conditioning.

martin logan
martin logan
9 months ago
Reply to  Liam O'Mahony

Russia doesn’t seem to be liked by many in Ukraine.
In particular the Russophones in the south and east.
That’s why they take down statues of Pushkin in those areas.

Noel Chiappa
Noel Chiappa
9 months ago
Reply to  Steve Jolly

Thucydides gave your initial point out in Pericles’ ‘Funeral Speech’. It has a very long history indeed.

Liam O'Mahony
Liam O'Mahony
9 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

Half the countries nut ¾ of the people.. We white Christians tolerate them but hey, if you’re brown, Muslim/Buddhist etc it’s kind of trickier.. Even brown Catholics in Latam hate them.. you’ve got to be Christian AND white.. then you’re safe enough, kind of…

Stephen Hurworth
Stephen Hurworth
9 months ago

Pushing Russia into China’s arms is a result of the West’s reckless, inept and corrupt ruling class and the out of control military industrial complex.

Mangle Tangle
Mangle Tangle
9 months ago

Perhaps that was their point?

Jerry Carroll
Jerry Carroll
9 months ago

Russia was already in China’s arms and the Norks now make it a love triangle. It’s enough to make a decent person’s skin crawl.

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
9 months ago
Reply to  Jerry Carroll

Don’t forget Iran. Russia’s resources, China’s manufacturing, Iran’s intelligence and influence capabilities. We should all be afraid of being on the losing side of WWIII at this point.

Liam O'Mahony
Liam O'Mahony
9 months ago
Reply to  Steve Jolly

Yep, time to hedge your bets if not switch them completely. The dollar is doomed.

Liam O'Mahony
Liam O'Mahony
9 months ago

Yeah, sure.. Russia and China aren’t bright enough to spot an opportunity themselves and so needed to be pushed into cooperating with one another! Grow up.. Putin and Xi are super smart and next to Deep State US, fronted by senile Joe, Crazy Boris, and hopeless Schultz y Macron, they look even smarter! Even gullible, naive Africa has awakened. But a major factor was the commandeering of Russian wealth in the West.. now every despot around the world knows his looted millions in USUK isn’t safe! Hence the BRICS+.

martin logan
martin logan
9 months ago
Reply to  Liam O'Mahony

The invasion of Ukraine and Xi’s deliberate undermining of the Chinese economy are surely “super smart.”
Indeed, their concealment of any positive benefits to either nation from their policies is one of the master political strokes of the 21st Century!

martin logan
martin logan
9 months ago

“Look what the West made me do!”

Steve White
Steve White
9 months ago

I agree that it was rational and informed. Without remarking on it being the right or wrong move, some other questions arise. Why did our Western governments push the narrative that it was not, and why did they control the narrative by punishing anyone who stepped outside of it to point out any truths like the ones this article just stated?
Also, if they were willing to do this, and were not willing to listen to or take seriously Russia’s concerns over what was a threat to them before the war, what choice did our leadership in the West leave them? If we did not leave them with any other choice, then are we not somewhat culpable for the current situation, and also, why have our leaders not sought an end to this terrible war? 

Last edited 9 months ago by Steve White
Peter B
Peter B
9 months ago
Reply to  Steve White

Irrelevant.
As per my earlier comment, we are not responsible for the Russians’ delusions of grandeur about their world role and refusal to accept that the Russian empire is over.
Are you responsible for your neighbour’s mental illness ? I don’t think so.

Anna Bramwell
Anna Bramwell
9 months ago
Reply to  Steve White

The US approach to Ukraine has been purely to loot it. Remember Albright’s comnents?

Malcolm Webb
Malcolm Webb
9 months ago

I am not sure where this insight gets us. Of course paranoid, bellicose bullies have their reasons for behaving as they do – but so what? It certainly doesn’t mean that their reasoning is correct – nor that their actions are easily predicted.

Chris Maille
Chris Maille
9 months ago
Reply to  Malcolm Webb

As much as the globalists may dream of Russia just collapsing under the ‘pressure’ of the ukrainian suicide army, it is highly unlikely. That means that at some point, there is going to be a negotiating table. And that is exactly where this insight will get us. How do you expect there to be meaningful negociations if the globalists don’t understand Putin, and the Russians ?
Russia is far from being isolated, so the pressure does not exist. The russian economy performs better than most of the economies of nations currently ruled by globalists, most prominently Germany.
And if you look at it, the people in several EU countries as well as in the US and in Canada have had enough of the globalists’ pseudomorals that do not work in their favour. It can be expected that these elites will not be in power for much longer, which in turn will also liberate both the Russians and the Ukrainians from this unholy war.

Tom Graham
Tom Graham
9 months ago
Reply to  Chris Maille

Russia has collapsed under the pressure of fighting and losing a war three times since the start of the 20th century. So why do you assume it cannot happen again?

Nobody can negotiate with Putin because he makes it a point of principle to violate any agreement he makes with another state.
When you win a war, you don’t have to negotiate, you just impose terms or watch your defeated enemy implode.

Chris Maille
Chris Maille
9 months ago
Reply to  Tom Graham

… or watch you capitals vaporise in mushroom clouds.

Jim Haggerty
Jim Haggerty
9 months ago
Reply to  Chris Maille

Really…global thermonuclear war which destroys the planet is how Putin wins…

Peter Rechniewski
Peter Rechniewski
9 months ago
Reply to  Chris Maille

When was the last time this happene?

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
9 months ago
Reply to  Tom Graham

When did Russia collapse? Economic sanctions seem to hurting some European countries more than Russia.

Cassander Antipatru
Cassander Antipatru
9 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

The Czarist regime fell due to WW1, and the Soviet Union due (partly) to their defeat in Afghanistan. I’m not sure when the third occasion is meant to be.

Brian Kullman
Brian Kullman
9 months ago

I presume the writer was referring to the Russo-Japanese War c. 1905

Liam O'Mahony
Liam O'Mahony
9 months ago

Regime change and unilateral withdrawal don’t really count as ‘defeats’.. after all, every 2nd Presidential election in the US results in regime change (sometimes every election).. Regime change in the UK occurs every 10 minutes or so.

Anna Bramwell
Anna Bramwell
9 months ago

True that Russia introduced bread rationing jn 1917. This was hardly the collapse of the Tsarist regime.

Peter Rechniewski
Peter Rechniewski
9 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

That’s simply not true if one looks beyond GDP growth. Russia is spending billions to maintain its military activity which is why its GDP is growing. It’s income isn’t.

Liam O'Mahony
Liam O'Mahony
9 months ago

How much of America’s GDP is from its humongous military industrial complex? The rest comes from its dollar being the world reserve currency (for now). US debt is now $32,000,000,000,000 and since there are only 320m Americans that $100,000 per man, woman and childin the US! The UK is an economic basket case and Germany and France seem to be going under as well. I’d say Russia is doing okay.

Liam O'Mahony
Liam O'Mahony
9 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

No “seem” about it! Germany is screwed snd do is France now that Niergan Uranium has gone up in price from €11 to €218 .. So is the UK but that’s down to Brexit as well as it’s ill-advised 2nd Crimean War!

Anna Bramwell
Anna Bramwell
9 months ago
Reply to  Liam O'Mahony

There is uranium in the Sahel, but the West seems incapable of dealing with resources any more.

Last edited 9 months ago by Anna Bramwell
Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
9 months ago
Reply to  Tom Graham

Under what scenario does Ukraine win the war. Russia just packs up its bags and goes home? And do we even want regime change in Russia?

Peter Thomsen
Peter Thomsen
9 months ago
Reply to  Tom Graham

Has the us/nato won any war against any signigifant enemy since lastt ww2?
I guess that US lost the war in Vietnam- Iraq – Afghanistan – Somali- and the list go on…
only serbia they could bomb the shit out off like a schoolyard bullie… nothing to be proud off… or send Gadaffi in a sour beaten to death – thats what a bullie does…
But what comes around gets around…

Liam O'Mahony
Liam O'Mahony
9 months ago
Reply to  Peter Thomsen

The Schoolyard bully failed to notice that his classmates grew up, grew spines and ganged together in the BRICS+ bicycle shed!

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
9 months ago
Reply to  Peter Thomsen

It’s not about winning but rather to destabilze and upset (potential) competitors. Read George Friedman.

Liam O'Mahony
Liam O'Mahony
9 months ago
Reply to  Tom Graham

Obviously your reading hasn’t caught up with the Minsk Accords yet.. do try and keep up.

Kat L
Kat L
9 months ago
Reply to  Chris Maille

Don’t ever assume that they will give up power.

T Bone
T Bone
9 months ago
Reply to  Malcolm Webb

Consider as an example; when Progressives impose censorship under the guise of “stopping hate” I assume that while most politically-minded actors do so to silence political opponents not all are doing it for that reason.

I know that there are genuinely well-meaning people that believe imposing speech codes extends tolerance to people suffering emotionally.

Therefore any good faith observation requires both possibilities to be considered. A rational assessment of an individual’s actions requires empathy… and empathy should not be conflated with sympathy.

Last edited 9 months ago by T Bone
Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
9 months ago
Reply to  T Bone

I think this is fair. The value of free speech, however, is much greater than the feelings of any individual or group.

T Bone
T Bone
9 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

100%

Douglas Hainline
Douglas Hainline
9 months ago
Reply to  T Bone

If you, or anyone else here, knows of any serious studies of what motivates the modern “Left” (ie the ‘woke’ kids), I would be grateful for the references. I’m ex-Old Left myself, and while we were perfectly aware of the deep social backwardness of much of the working class, we didn’t have contempt for them, which the modern “Left” seems to have. We believed this backwardness would be burned away in the fires of the class war (with a bit of help from The Party). But the modern Left seems want to wage class war against the backward workers. I would like to know how these people think. What’s their vision of the society they would like to achieve? Will website designers earn the same amount as toilet attendants? What do they mean by ‘social justice’? I’m not looking for partisan put-downs of them, but some serioius study, along the lines of Jonathan Heidt’s work.

T Bone
T Bone
9 months ago

Cynical Theories by James Lindsay and Helen Pluckrose explains the evolution of Marxist analysis through dialectial reasoning and praxis (theory into practice).

Woke is Applied Postmodernism. Its a combination of Western/Cultural Marxism, which is seizing the means of knowledge production by taking control of institutions (Law, Media, Education, Religion, Politics) in order to prevent the old society from being reproduced. The belief was that because old society didn’t promote a revolutionary consciousness, it would preserve the status quo.

Postmodernism is really just a deconstruction of power dynamics. They were basically Romantics using a diagnostic tool to critique existing power structures and identify where power rested. It wasn’t meant to be applied.

Wokism uses Marxist activism and postmodern deconstructive tools to apply postmodernism. The goal is to reorder existing hierarchies and shape narratives to change public consciousness and create a bottom up revolution for the new underclass which the Western Marxists identified as racial and sexual minorities.

Michael McElwee
Michael McElwee
9 months ago
Reply to  Malcolm Webb

Nor does it mean they are incorrect or hard to predict. Cornered animals seem always to act in similar ways. How is it possible for the West not to know that?

Samir Iker
Samir Iker
9 months ago
Reply to  Malcolm Webb

“paranoid, bellicose bullies…. certainly doesn’t mean that their reasoning is correct – nor that their actions are easily predicted.”
Yes, it truly was unpredictable.

Take a country like Russia who have faced brutal genocidal invasions by Mongols, Napoleon, the Austrian painter.

Expand a hostile military alliance all the way to their border

Overthrow a democratically elected leader in their neighbouring nation and subsequently batter the Russian minority there.

Better still, launch the prospect of a NATO base in Crimea, which is far more Russian ethnically, culturally and historically than the Malvinas are British.

Who could have predicted that those paranoid bullies in the Kremlin would react that way, rather than behave in the sensible, rational manner that the Americans patented in Libya and Iraq.

Tony Lee
Tony Lee
9 months ago

The article as a whole sounds perfectly logical to me. Threaten my back yard and I will defend myself or if necessary, retaliate. The West has been dismissive of, patronising toward and frankly ignorant in their dealings with Russia. And where on earth the idea comes from the Ukraine is closer to Western thinking than Russia, heaven alone knows.

Talia Perkins
Talia Perkins
9 months ago
Reply to  Tony Lee

Ukraine is not Russia’s back yard, it is Ukraine’s alone.

Noel Chiappa
Noel Chiappa
9 months ago
Reply to  Tony Lee

So when the US invades Mexico (again), because they are threatening the US (between the drug traffic, which is killing tens of thousands every year, and the human invasion over the border, it’s hard to think of any other characterization), you’ll be good with that?

Paul Hendricks
Paul Hendricks
9 months ago
Reply to  Noel Chiappa

I wish we would invade Mexico, but alas, it appears extremely unlikely. For starters, many Americans support an “open border.”

Peter Kwasi-Modo
Peter Kwasi-Modo
9 months ago

“Illogical” means the conclusion does not follow from the premises, so some kind of fallacious reasoning occurred. But we don’t know what Putin’s premises were, so we cannot assert that he was illogical. In logic, the validity of the premises is irrelevant. 
The authors define rationality as “figuring out how [the world] works and why — in order to decide how to achieve certain goals”. Maybe Putin reasoned that Russia bombed Chechnya back into the stone-age and now Chechnya was a staunch ally, so he concluded that he could do the same with Ukraine. Would that make him rational?
When a politician says an opponent is “illogical” and “irrational”, it means little more than that the politician wants to express disapprobation, without going into detail.
For what its worth, I suspect that Putin was neither irrational nor illogical. His military and security advisers told him that Russia could deliver a knock-out blow to Kiev in a few days and that the West had little appetite for retaliation. It was a risk and he was given the wrong idea about the likelihood of success.

Last edited 9 months ago by Peter Kwasi-Modo
Peter B
Peter B
9 months ago

Largely because he appointed the wrong people ! That’s what you get when you insist on promoting “yes men”. It’s all his own fault.

Anna Bramwell
Anna Bramwell
9 months ago

Wasnt Chechnya already in the Stone Age?

Will K
Will K
9 months ago

So good to read a rational discussion, instead of the usual demonization of everything Russian.

Noel Chiappa
Noel Chiappa
9 months ago
Reply to  Will K

To go with the usual demonization of the US and NATO…

Chipoko
Chipoko
9 months ago

Western leaders from Clinton to Biden have massively mismanaged the strategic relationship with Russia, from the moment former Eastern European countries were admitted into the EU then NATO. Moreover, the same Western leaders gave assurances to Putin that they would not expand NATO, then did just that. Their discussions with Ukraine about its admission into NATO was the last straw for Russia. It suits western leadership to portray Putin as irrational in order to distract attention from the real causus belli which they created. The 2014 invasion of Crimea was a clear warning which our arrogant ‘democratic’ leaders ignored. Given its close religious, cultural, scientific and historical ties with Western Europe, Russia should have been developed as a strong ally, not least in relation to the common Islamic terror foe. Instead, Russia was pushed further into the cold and provoked over three decades into an increasingly isolated and defensive stance.
We have been ill-served by our leadership in this and so many other respects.

Noel Chiappa
Noel Chiappa
9 months ago
Reply to  Chipoko

The whole ‘NATO threatened Russia’ meme would be hilarious, if the results of believing it weren’t so incredibly tragic.
NATO in the early 2000’s was crumbling into irrelevance. (Trump berated many European nations for not keeping up their military spending – and got openly laughed at by, among others, the Germans, and by the Democrats who now think that Putin is Hitler reborn, for doing so. Many NATO countries, including those same Germans, cheerfully handed over their energy lifeline to the country that NATO was created to defend against.)
The final irony of Russia’s professed fear of NATO, as a cause for the invasion, is that it led to Finland joining NATO, thereby vastly expanding NATO’s direct border with Russia. Brilliant anti-NATO move, Vladimir!

Right-Wing Hippie
Right-Wing Hippie
9 months ago

I would describe it as rational but stupid. I still can’t believe Russia didn’t establish total air supremacy on day one. If I had been running the show, there wouldn’t have been a single Ukrainian plane left above ground. But then, if I had been running the show, I wouldn’t have invaded in the first place.
The list includes Germany in the years before the First World War and during the July Crisis
This comparison is especially apropos, because it was Germany’s fear of encirclement that led to its diplomatic bellicosity that, in turn, led to the very encirclement it had been afraid of in the first place.

D Walsh
D Walsh
9 months ago

At the start of the war the Russians had the best air defense system in the World, S-300, 400 ect (and they still do), the Ukraine probably had the second best, S-300 mainly. This is the main reason the Russians could not establish total air supremacy on day one. At this point the Ukrainians are almost out of S-300 missiles and the patriot system is not as good

Your last point can also be applied to the Ukraine, the Ukrainians were paranoid of Russian invasion, so they constantly pushed for NATO membership, this then caused the Russian invasion they always feared

They should have declared themselves Switzerland on the Black sea, 100% neutral, with language and cultural rights for all

Last edited 9 months ago by D Walsh
Mangle Tangle
Mangle Tangle
9 months ago
Reply to  D Walsh

Very good points.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
9 months ago
Reply to  Mangle Tangle

“They should have declared themselves Switzerland on the Black sea, 100% neutral“

Would that really have saved them?

ps. My apologies, meant for D Walsh Esq! (Arthritic fingers!)

Last edited 9 months ago by Charles Stanhope
Kat L
Kat L
9 months ago

It appears that way

Peter B
Peter B
9 months ago
Reply to  D Walsh

More delusional nonsense. Not even logical.

Tony Price
Tony Price
9 months ago
Reply to  D Walsh

Paranoid of FURTHER Russian invasion – you seem to forget that Russia invaded and occupied Ukraine in 2014.

Anna Bramwell
Anna Bramwell
9 months ago
Reply to  Tony Price

It invaded Crimea. The fantasy that it invaded Eastern Ukraine remains just that, a fantasy.

Tom Graham
Tom Graham
9 months ago
Reply to  D Walsh

Russia doesn’t have the best anything in the world in military tech.

They failed to achieve air superiority because their air force is rubbish, only competent to drop bombs on Syrian villages.
Just like the Russian army failed to take Kiev.

The Ukrainians didn’t cause the Russian invasion, Putin did. He invaded because, as he has said repeatedly, he doesn’t think Ukraine is a legitimate country, it is rightfully part of the Russian Empire and he cannot bear to see it be a successful country independent of Russian control.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
9 months ago
Reply to  Tom Graham

Given today’s reported attempt by a Russian jet fighter to take down an RAF airplane, might we call their military ordnance “misguided missiles”?
Rogue Russian pilot tried to shoot down RAF aircraft in 2022 – BBC News

Last edited 9 months ago by Steve Murray
D Walsh
D Walsh
9 months ago
Reply to  Tom Graham

Sorry to be the one to tell you Tom, but its a cold hard fact, that the Russians have the best air defense systems in the World. you won’t find any independent expert who says otherwise. way back in the 90s the Serbs, using dated Soviet tech, managed to shoot down a F-117, and the systems the Russians use today are far better

I think they have the edge in a few other areas too. You need to ask yourself, if Western military hardware is so superior, then why are the Russians destroying it so fast ? what is the average life expectancy of a Leopard tank, a challenger or a Bradley ect has a Leopard tank managed to hit even one Russian tank yet ?

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
9 months ago
Reply to  D Walsh

Didn’t seem to work too well in Crimea yesterday, this fantastic air defence system

Guy Aston
Guy Aston
9 months ago
Reply to  D Walsh

I suspect they’d have took look hard to find a Russian tank at the moment!

Nigel Rodgers
Nigel Rodgers
9 months ago
Reply to  D Walsh

Ukraine before the invasion did offer linguistic/cultural rights for non-Ukrainians. Andrey Kurkov, the famous Ukrainian novelist (books strongly recommended) speaks Russian as his first language and writes in Russian, only then translating into Ukrainian. Russian is even the first language of Zelensky. Putin’s interference in Ukraine’s internal politics and then his naked aggression since 2014 have driven many Russian-speaking residents of Ukraine to support Kyiv rather than Moscow. The idea of Ukraine as a Black Sea Switzerland still has appeal, though the Swiss have always kept up their armed forces. Russia as a large if chaotic state is certainly not going to disappear, so diplomacy will have to be resumed at some stage. But not perhaps with Putin in the Kremlin.

Anna Bramwell
Anna Bramwell
9 months ago
Reply to  Nigel Rodgers

Except that the US backed coup sent off a legitinately elected president who represented the Russian speaking 52%. There were rumours that the new governnent would ban Russian, and the civil war that ensued ( remsmber the burning alive of 50 Russian speaking
trade unionists in Odessa?) was partly about that .

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
9 months ago
Reply to  D Walsh

Yes, of course, but had they done that, all the delicious money laundering would have to be done in another fully corrupt but sympathetic-looking, camera-friendly state.

Bret Larson
Bret Larson
9 months ago
Reply to  D Walsh

They still can.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
9 months ago

You exculpate the wretched French who never forgave their abject humiliation of 1870, and seethed with thoughts of revenge thereafter.
To this end they assiduously funded the somewhat inept Romanov colossus that was mother Russia.
In fact by 1904 thanks to the entente ‘fatale’, Germany was already encircled.

Last edited 9 months ago by Charles Stanhope
Tom Graham
Tom Graham
9 months ago

Germany had to work very hard to overturn Britain’s commitment to neutrality in Europe and persuade them to join the entente against them.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
9 months ago
Reply to  Tom Graham

Building the High Seas Fleet certainly didn’t help.
Otherwise Asquith, Grey and Churchill did the rest!

Niall Cusack
Niall Cusack
9 months ago

Don’t forget Haldane!

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
9 months ago
Reply to  Niall Cusack

No indeed, he did his best but it was too late by then.

Brian Kullman
Brian Kullman
9 months ago

it is unclear to me that “air superiority” can ever be achieved in the face of greatly improved anti-aircraft weapons. Aircraft are hugely expensive compared to unmanned missiles. The idea of having air superiority over a competent and well-armed foe may be military old-think.
We won’t know more until Ukraine gets F15s and employs them over the battle zone within range of Russian AA missiles. Russian jets generally stay out of range of Russian-designed AA missiles; they are used as launch platforms for air to ground missiles.

Jerry Carroll
Jerry Carroll
9 months ago

Imagine an article where Joe Biden is quoted on rationality.

rob clark
rob clark
9 months ago

Great article. Post cold war policy makers in the West still cling to the “end of history” conceit that has led to so many un-rational polices that continue to weaken us.

Andrew Boughton
Andrew Boughton
9 months ago
Reply to  rob clark

And to divide nations and economies that would thrive if united. A retreat from classic free trade liberalism, into self-defeating competitive geopolitical goals, while claiming to advance it. The end of history as not intended.

Paul Rodolf
Paul Rodolf
9 months ago

How is it that we all read the books and yet here we are anyway? Forever wars, thought police, speech hall monitors. It’s almost like it was scripted. Is it some kind of self-fulfilling prophesy?

Andrew Boughton
Andrew Boughton
9 months ago
Reply to  Paul Rodolf

Paul, it has that feel. Add the improbable petty coincidences that led to WWI, which at the peak of Western achievement kicked everything off, the incredible improbabilities of Hitler surviving and thriving. Not intending to sound mystical, it all has that feel.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
9 months ago

The article conveniently ignores the fact that NATO had kept their promise of not conducting military exercises or stationing its troops in any country that shared a border with Russia, that countries domestic forces not withstanding obviously. NATO only moved its troops eastwards after Russias annexation of Crimea, mostly at the behest of those ex Soviet republics who understandably feared for their safety having just watched the Kremlin take a large chunk out of Ukraine. It’s a bit rich to blame the NATO for building up its defensive capabilities in the eastern bloc, when it was done as a response to Russia invading their neighbour.

Will K
Will K
9 months ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

The order of actions may reflect the better foresight of one party.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
9 months ago
Reply to  Will K

So Russia invaded eastern Ukraine and annexed Crimea all those years ago in anticipation of NATO moving their defences eastward in retaliation?
There really are none so blind as those who will not see!

Anna Bramwell
Anna Bramwell
9 months ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

All the countries that joined the EU in 2004 and 2007 had to join NATO.

Last edited 9 months ago by Anna Bramwell
Billy Bob
Billy Bob
9 months ago
Reply to  Anna Bramwell

No they didn’t, they’re two completely seperate organisations, although there is a crossover in terms of membership. Norway and Turkey are members of NATO but not the EU, Ireland is in the EU but not NATO. There was no rule stating that the eastern bloc had to join NATO when they joined the EU, they did so because they feared what is currently happening in Ukraine would also happen to them if they weren’t under the collective defence

Tyler Durden
Tyler Durden
9 months ago

The ultimatum that Putin and Lavrov gave Biden and Blinken over winter 2021-2 not to admit the Ukraine to NATO was never going to be accepted. American geopolitics remains neoconservative and wedded to the military-industrial complex. Only a populist figure like Trump could be an exception.
It seemed that the march on Kiev was a destructive ruse to distract from the annexation of the Donbas republics. Unlike Crimea, that was brutal and morally reprehensible.
In terms of wider ethics, one can only say that power abhors a vacuum and Cheney and Biden knew that all too well in the 2000s. And Putin knew exactly what was happening with NATO expansion as he was doing much the same with the former Soviet satellite states.
But what has transpired in the last 10 years of competing Russian and Ukrainian is gross incompetency under the stewardship of Blinken and Nuland in the US State Department. Apparently munitions stores are being sent to the Ukraine but as far as the US taxpayer is concerned more than a quarter of a trillion dollars has been ploughed into a proxy war to remove Putin.

Tom Graham
Tom Graham
9 months ago
Reply to  Tyler Durden

The march on Kiev wasn’t a ruse. It was an attempt to take Kiev that failed.

Putin mistakenly believed his army was capable of conducting a blitzkrieg operation against a country a quarter the size and with almost exactly the same equipment.

He committed his best elite forces to storming Kiev and decapitating the Ukrainian state. They failed, and were wiped out, because it turns out they weren’t so elite.
It turns out the Russian army are not the wermacht of 1940, or the US army that conducted Desert Storm and Iraqi Freedom.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
9 months ago
Reply to  Tom Graham

WEHRMACHT !
Comparison with ‘Desert Storm’ and Iraqi Freedom is invalid, as most of the Iraqis quite sensibly ran away!

Dumetrius
Dumetrius
9 months ago

Wasn’t the most rational war ever, McNamara’s Vietnam?

R Wright
R Wright
9 months ago
Reply to  Dumetrius

Rational if one had no idea how much the Vietnamese and Chinese hate each other.

Dr. G Marzanna
Dr. G Marzanna
9 months ago

Even more: the irresponsible talk of Ukraine joining the EU that was bandied about almost as soon as Zelenskyy was elected.
No way Ukraine is qualified to join the EU, but then they broke their own rules for Greece, Romania and Bulgaria.
Clearly the plan is for all of them to join NATO The EU is the carrot.
No wonder Putin – whom I don’t support – was alarmed.
While Putin is the bad guy here, given what has happened, he was provoked.
My Ukrainian friends just want it to be over and don’t want to be in NATO. My Russian friends want it to be over and don’t want to occupy Ukraine
Meanwhile I see the gravy train to “rebuild” Ukraine is being allocated. This will, in the end, be the true atrocity.

Noel Chiappa
Noel Chiappa
9 months ago
Reply to  Dr. G Marzanna

While you make some good points, I cannot agree that Putin was ‘provoked’ in any way that justified the invasion. Yes, Russia was losing its sphere of influence in Eastern Europe – but his attempt to rebuild it with force will end up making Russia far worse off than if they had tried some other approach to dealing with that change.

Nardo Flopsey
Nardo Flopsey
9 months ago

The selective and hypocritical application of the term “rationality” strikes me as analogous to the endless befuddlement of white liberals over why minorities so often “vote against their own best interests” since the white liberals are supremely confident of such interests.
A perhaps unnoticed explanation for irrational behavior is that sometimes the public reasons for military action differ in subtle ways from the private reasons, a classic strategic tactic known as bullshit. Even the great WWII can be viewed as a cynical clash of empires over colonial territories.
This also features prominently in the behavior of American politicians who like to attend climate conferences in private jets, whilst not flying around the globe counseling the wretched refuse of the Earth that climate policy as well as good manners dictate that they cease any and all attempts to raise their living standards to a first-world approximation. There simply is not enough to go around, and we are using all of it heretofore & forthwith.

Kat L
Kat L
9 months ago
Reply to  Nardo Flopsey

Minorities vote for liberals in large numbers. They’ve never voted conservative enough to win. Trust me, liberals never wonder why minorities vote the way they do.

Kevin Dee
Kevin Dee
9 months ago

Isn’t the non rational, crazy/evil dictator stuff for the plebs anyway? The people in the know understand exactly why he invaded Ukraine.

Nicholas Rowe
Nicholas Rowe
9 months ago

If Chamberlain, and King George VI for that matter, had an ’emotional’ reaction to another European war, why should that be irrational and thus mistaken? That aversion, if there was one, could equally be rational. Is a desire for war, simply as war, rational?
Was Lord Halifax’s guarantee to Poland rational or irrational? It meant that Poland’s government had no pressing need to reach a negotiated (rational or irrational?) settlement with Germany over the disputed territories. It meant that Poland was available as an ally to be used in a repeat of the strategy employed in the Great War to defeat Germany. Meanwhile, Chamberlain, supposedly emotionally averse to war, was ensuring that Britain’s radar net was completed.
Churchill’s rationality was correct in 1940. His same rationality was disastrously wrong in the July crisis of 1914 when he assured the cabinet that any future war with Imperial Germany would only involve the Royal Navy and be cheap in financial terms.
Disaster – to be without a lode star. There are prayers that Heaven, in its anger, grants. If Sir Edward Grey lied to the cabinet over German peace offers in order to get his wish that Britain would always support France; if Halifax’s guarantee had the desire of tripping Germany into a war when there was, allegedly, numerical parity of forces between the Allies of 1939 and Germany; whether Washington wanted a war with Russia using a proxy; whether the Kremlin wanted to territorially recreate the USSR, these prayers, if they were made, and even before they were made, have been answered. And their reason issued as folly. God thwarts the wisdom of the wise (Isaiah 29:14).

Last edited 9 months ago by Nicholas Rowe
Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
9 months ago

War can happen for both rational and irrational reasons. The Ukraine war was indeed, as the author points out, the culmination of decades of unchecked NATO and EU expansionism that encroached on Russia’s historic sphere of influence. First the old communist countries of eastern Europe, which the Russians conceded, but pushing beyond that encroaches into even pre-Soviet Russian territory, so it was predictable that this would trigger some form of Russian retaliation. On the other hand, the people of Ukraine have the right to resist Russian influence and assert their independence as indeed all people do, but to do so, they needed help, and the rational place to turn was to Europe and the US. It is likewise in the interest of Europe and the US to help the Ukrainians as Ukraine is strategically important and has many natural resources that Europe at least desperately needs. War occurs usually when the rational interests of rival powers are both significant and mutually exclusive. It can occur as a result of irrational actions by the powerful, but the size and bureaucratic nature of modern nation states makes that far less likely. The real problem is that even rational actors usually have imperfect information. The European powers would not have gone to war in 1914 if they had been able to see the consequences, that they would lose their colonial empires and be reduced to satellites of the US or Russia respectively. Of course they didn’t know that. Nobody knows exactly what will happen until it does. Putin, like the rest of us, is just making half blind guesses based on the information he has, and like the rest of us, he is often wrong. If and when China decides to attempt to control Taiwan by force, it will probably result in another global war nobody really wants because both sides have compelling national interests to defend and both have enough reason to believe they can succeed in thwarting the other. What actually happens is anybody’s guess.

Andrew Boughton
Andrew Boughton
9 months ago

Brilliant as always. What is most alarming about this war is the ease with which public opinion and the media have rushed us back to 1914. All we have is the ridiculous “evil Kaiser” theory, which our leaders push because it obviates their incompetence, and people buy because it satisfies their primitive urges. I used to misunderstand John’s realism, but have come to fully appreciate it as the only responsible and moral theory. A sane mind and spirit among weaker ones.

Last edited 9 months ago by Andrew Boughton
Noel Chiappa
Noel Chiappa
9 months ago

Mearsheimer is “brilliant” the way Charles Lindbergh was brilliant. I await with bated breath his explanation of why Russia’s invasion of Poland in 1939 was ‘brilliant’.

Andrew Boughton
Andrew Boughton
9 months ago
Reply to  Noel Chiappa

Wow, that’s special, Noel, though you seem to have lost your sense of perspective just a little, in the sense that you claim an objective and uniquely prescient Jewish geopolitical thinker who has dedicated his professional life to averting war is a Nazi apologist. What next? Perhaps Mother Teresa as a child molester?

Noel Chiappa
Noel Chiappa
9 months ago

What on Earth are you talking about? I didn’t mention Nazis in any way,, shape, or form. Can you point out what you are referring to?
PS: Until you mentioned it, I was completely unaware that Mearsheimer is Jewish. That’s completely irrelevant to me; I judge him on his thinking.
PPS: I thought perhaps you had misread the comment about Poland in 1939 and thought I was referring to the Germans. However, it now strikes me that the ‘Nazi’ you were speaking of was probably Charles Lindbergh. Now, Lindbergh had many faults (including some bizarre ideas on race, which paralleled Nazi thinking on the subject; but saying that makes him a Nazi is like saying that Eisenhower’s liking for highways made him a Nazi, because they were big on autobahns). When I mentioned Lindbergh, I’d actually been thinking of his ‘America First’ focus in the late 1930’s, which has a lot of parallels today. But when it comes to Lindbergh being a Nazi, there is a lot of debate (I personally don’t think he was – he was missing important elements of Nazi thinking, such as German nationalism) – but most people do agree that he was an apologist for the Nazis in the late 30’s. Which is quite ironic – because Mearsheimer is an apologist for Putin. Which makes the parallel closer than I was thinking.

Last edited 9 months ago by Noel Chiappa
Andrew Boughton
Andrew Boughton
9 months ago
Reply to  Noel Chiappa

Well, Noel, I appreciate your response and agree that Lindbergh is a bit comme si comme ca when it comes to actual Nazism versus fascism which can be quite distinct ideologies that have become welded together in the world’s mind. He was a bit like a like a modern-day astronaut, high in his plane above the earth, seeing oneness, more likely to encourage anti-nationalist perspectives.
But it’s your final observation that captures the problem from my perspective. To say Mearsheimer is “a Putin apologist” is both meaningless and spectacularly naive. It’s a highly pejorative phrase, utterly devoid of meaning.
Nobody needs to be an apologist, to apologise, or any other such nonsense. What we need to do is apply the same reasoning to the needs and motives of other states as we do to our own state, and the gist of Mearsheimer’s work is no more nor less than that. I happened to work for the Americans and Russians immediately at the end of the Soviet era, and I can assure you, not that you will accept my assertions or that I need you to do so, that we not only did not do a fine job of finally integrating Russia with Western Europe and the US, but that we did a terrible job. So terrible that Russia needed to recue itself in the end. Moreover, we decided that we weren’t going to win the Cold War only to lose the ensuing peace, so we did certain things that were almost incomparable in their folly.
Just as George Kennon was no Soviet apologist, nor General Marshall and President Truman suspect for assisting Germans and Japanese so generously after World War 2, John Mearsheimer is very much as they were in terms of outcomes.
And outcomes are all that count in this world. Ideology and all its associated epithets like “apologist” and its bigotry are meaningless games.

Last edited 9 months ago by Andrew Boughton
Andrew Boughton
Andrew Boughton
9 months ago
Reply to  Noel Chiappa

Replied but the reply seems missing, who knows, it may turn up in duplicate.
Calling Prof. Mearsheimer a “Putin apologist” is just silly.
Our core mistake was strategic, deciding to ‘finish’ the Cold War after 1991 on our terms, rather than end it, there and then. Too tempting for too many people of influence with a deep historical interest. And those terms were not happy for Russia.
Our bad, and now our decision-makers want to cover their tracks with the “Evil Kaiser” theory. It worked so well in WWI that it was many years before it was debunked by historians and strategists, and residual enough that even now it has come back to life with Putin.
Such are facts, but you’re welcome to view it any way you wish.

Last edited 9 months ago by Andrew Boughton
Alan Hawkes
Alan Hawkes
9 months ago

It could be argued that it was not rational of Churchill to decide to fight on in 1940. Had less of the army been rescued from Dunkirk the choice to negotiate might have been overwhelming. To some extent hindsight makes it seem the rational decision.
Russia has been invaded many times and the European plains from Poland into Russia and from Ukraine into Russia are obvious invasion routes. I don’t defend President Putin’s decision, but the alternative of watching Ukraine join NATO and the EU would lead to the inevitable question: what will the West do after that?

Noel Chiappa
Noel Chiappa
9 months ago
Reply to  Alan Hawkes

So, instead, he caused Finland to join NATO, which doubled (or something like that) Russia’s border with NATO – and mere miles from St. Petersburg (I keep wanting to type ‘Leningrad’). Brilliant move.
You’re quite right about the ‘usual invasion routes’, but if Putin really understood Western minds, he’d have understood that the chances of the West invading Russia (a Russia armed with thousands of atomic weapons) were 0.0000. Instead, he’s done damage to Russia (casualties) that will take generations to recover from (if it ever does).
The final irony is that in his screed “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians”, he takes (just as the title says) the position that the two are brotherly peoples. As a result of his (and the Russians’) brutal invasion (Bucha, etc), for generations to come, the very worst insult one Ukrainian will be able to offer another is to call them a Russian. I’ve previously written that after the war, the Ukrainians need to give Putin a medal, for his accomplishments in increasing Ukrainian solidarity as a nation.

Peter B
Peter B
9 months ago

Noise.
It doesn’t matter whether Putin’s behaviour is “rational” or not. Simply not relevant in the big picture.
Let’s consider this:
“In other words, for Putin, this was a war of self-defence aimed at preventing an adverse shift in the balance of power.”
Frankly, Russia has been and remains in long term relative decline. There’s nothing Putin or anyone else can do to change this. They’re in demographic decline. They are massively lagging the US and Asia in technology. China passed them as a world power some time ago. India will.
There is nothing – absolutely nothing – Putin or Russia can do to prevent an “adverse shift in the balance of power”. No more than Britain could retain its Empire after WWII.
They need to lose their delusions of grandeur and wind down their attempts to maintain the old Russian empire.

JJ Barnett
JJ Barnett
9 months ago
Reply to  Peter B

“It doesn’t matter whether Putin’s behaviour is “rational” or not. Simply not relevant in the big picture.”

Of course it matters.

This will end with either a flying nuke, or a negotiation. We all know it’s most likely the latter, but how much death and destruction occurs before that negotiation happens is the wildcard.
So, of course it matters if you are negotiating with a rational actor, or with a madman.

You can negotiate effectively with someone you absolutely despise, if they are a rational actor. You can understand what they want, and what their actions and behaviours indicate. You can make rational deductions, and they are doing the same.

That’s not true with a madman (a irrational negotiating partner).
There are individuals who are unstable; deluded religious zealots, ideologues and radicals of various flavours, etc. Trying to negotiate with an organised crime lord is easier than trying to negotiate with an Islamic jihadist on a ‘mission from god’. They’re both bad guys, but the former is likely to engage you rationally, and we can make progress (and presumptions) on that basis. The jihadi is at the madman end of the scale, and has already embraced the idea of martyrdom; he is acting on the basis of what’s happening in another world than the one you’re stood in, trying to negotiate with him.

Much as we may loathe what Putin has done, this article is positing that he is not a madman, he is acting rationally (from his own position / view). That’s important to know, it will be essential to negotiating an end to this carnage.

Last edited 9 months ago by JJ Barnett
Peter B
Peter B
9 months ago
Reply to  JJ Barnett

You cannot negotiate with someone who has impossible and unachievable goals. What Putin wants – things like NATO leaving Poland and Eastern Europe (and yes, that’s precisely what he unilaterally demanded in December 2021) – simply is not possible.
The fact that Putin believes that Russia needs and deserves an empire and has a right to control buffer states on its border doesn’t make any of that sensible or achievable. They are currently trapped in their historical self-delusion. Along with a number of Westerners who simply cannot or will not see the big picture.

bdank22
bdank22
9 months ago
Reply to  JJ Barnett

It is possible that one can enter or begin war as a rational being. But it is also quite possible that war can transform the rational into madmen. The reason that Tv war reporting is censored, that people cannot see the carnage, that seeing everything may lead people to become mentally disordered, they may actually become disturbed!

bdank22
bdank22
9 months ago
Reply to  Peter B

Most likely the only Russians who would lose their delusions of grandeur are the Russians whose mothers, fathers, sons and daughters have been killed in the defense of the delusion.

Jim Haggerty
Jim Haggerty
9 months ago

I understand the point that Putin does not want NATO / EU to be within a few hundred miles of Moscow. That is a rational view but neither can NATO / EU accept that Putin will leave Ukraine independent and not move up to the Polish border. The argument that Putin would leave Ukraine free other than what he has taken now flies in the face of his other actions in Georgia and elsewhere. And the amount of troops he mobilized with the actions they took at the beginning of the invasion…The leadership are all Nazis according to him…

Arthur G
Arthur G
9 months ago

Sorry. Russia is a country with unlimited land and natural resources and a rapidly declining population that has zero rational fear of invasion because it has 3000+ nukes. No one was ever going to attack Russia.
For such a country to launch a war of aggression to gain land, and the cost of hundreds of thousands of dead and maimed young men, significant economic damage and diplomatic isolation, is as clearly irrational as you’re going to get.
There was no existential threat to Russia except its internal cultural rot.

bdank22
bdank22
9 months ago
Reply to  Arthur G

Yes, well stated.

Simon Humphries
Simon Humphries
9 months ago

1. “He had no intention of conquering all of Ukraine and annexing it into a greater Russia”. Really? Just how does Mearstheimer know this?
2. His thesis seems to rely on the thought that, if NATO expands up to Russian’s borders, it will then invade. What is his evidence for this.
3. Lastly, and more importantly, why does he never consider the wishes of the populations he wants to move around on his chessboard? Do they count for nothing?

Jürg Gassmann
Jürg Gassmann
9 months ago

As to 1.: The article here is a summary of a longer paper, where he is clear that there is no evidence that Russia intended to annexe all of Ukraine, and plenty of evidence to the contrary.
Recent scholarship has also shown that belligerents’ stated reasons for going to war are most of the time the actual reasons – the opening of the Soviet archives after the collapse of the Soviet Union spectacularly showed that there were no juicy secrets – the internal documents on policy reflected the publicly stated policy.
As to 2.: NATO’s track record since the collapse of the Soviet Union – NATO has re-defined its role as expanding beyond the defence of Western Europe, and one of the early proofs of the new policy was NATO’s unprovoked war of aggression against Serbia. Aggression against Syria, Afghanistan, Libya, etc. followed. There is in the West a stated policy of regime change in Russia, and of breaking up Russia.
As to 3.: The population of Crimea declared its independence from the Soviet Union before Ukraine did, but after Ukraine declared independence, Ukraine violently suppressed Crimea’s independence. All the available evidence shows that the 2014 referendum reflected the wishes of the vast majority of Crimeans. Does that count for nothing?
In 2014, the US assisted in a coup that toppled the legitimately elected president of Ukraine and installed a US-designated appointee.
Or does the wish of the population only count when the population vote the right way?

Noel Chiappa
Noel Chiappa
9 months ago
Reply to  Jürg Gassmann

NATO has re-defined its role as expanding beyond the defence of Western Europe” –
NATO’s purpose has always been to prevent Russian expansionism. Russia currently dresses up its expansionism as fear – but it’s been acting the same way for hundreds of years (which is why Finland was a Russian Grand Duchy before WWI, to give one extremely minor example, for a country that stretches 10 time zones).
The Baltics, etc joined NATO not because NATO pushed them into doing so, but because they had learned painfully just who the Russians really are.

Last edited 9 months ago by Noel Chiappa
David Wildgoose
David Wildgoose
9 months ago
Reply to  Noel Chiappa

Finland became a Grand Duchy of Russia as a result of Sweden’s imperial invasion of Russia. Sweden lost, and had to give up their possession of Finland.

Noel Chiappa
Noel Chiappa
9 months ago

So what’s your explanation for the Russian invasion of the Baltics in 1940? (We’ll leave for the moment the march to the Bering, and the seizure of the Stan’s.)

Rasmus Fogh
Rasmus Fogh
9 months ago
Reply to  Jürg Gassmann

there is no evidence that Russia intended to annexe all of Ukraine

You are playing word games. Russia wanted Ukraine to be under Russian control, with a government that took orders from Moscow. Like East Germany, or maybe Belarus. They may not have wanted to formally incorporate Ukraine in Russia, but given that Ukraine would ultimately be run from Moscow the practical difference is rather limited.

Jürg Gassmann
Jürg Gassmann
9 months ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

You mean just like Germany meekly accepts its own economic self-destruction for the benefit of the US neocon dream?

D Walsh
D Walsh
9 months ago

To answer Q1
Mearsheimer calls himself a realist, he tries to see the World as is, avoiding wishful thinking, BS, ect, he sees the Russians and Putin as being similar. All of the Ukraine is just to big for the Russians to annex, he assumes Putin wants about 40 to 50%, the Dnieper could end up being the main boarder, with the Russians also taking Odessa

To answer Q2
You need to see the World from the Russian POV, the US/NATO keeps attacking Russian allies, or states Russia is friendly with, Serbia, Iraq, Syria, Libya, soon Iran. its not a huge leap for the Russians or even the Chinese to think the US wants war with them too. I don’t think you understand the neocons, they are the most blood thirsty people on the planet, they have killed millions with out a care, and will continue no matter how this war pans out

To answer Q3
Mearsheimer DOESN’T support the war, he wanted, and still wants a peace deal, but he is a realist, there will be no peace deal, the war will probably end when the Russians think they have achieved their objectives

You should search for him on youtube, he explains his views far better than I can, and IMO he’s looks to be right so far. He’s mainly just a realist, don’t hate him for telling it like it is

Last edited 9 months ago by D Walsh
Rasmus Fogh
Rasmus Fogh
9 months ago
Reply to  D Walsh

Re Q1:With Russia holding the eastern half of Ukraine and all the Black Sea ports, Ukraine would be entirely in Russias pocket. It would be irrelevant whether Russia governed it directly or through a puppet regime.
Re Q2: With a huge territory, army and nuclear weapons Russia would be entirely safe from direct military attack. The threat, if any, is against Russias ability to conquer other states.
Re Q3: Apart from getting a peace by giving Putin what he wants (worked so well with old Adolf, no?) there is an alternative. You could make the price of winning so high for the Russians that they decided to modify their objectives, and then do the negotiations. That would seem to be the normal political calculation, in fact. The fact that Mearsheimer accepts the Russian objectives as reasonable and immutable and expects the US side to do all the accommodating makes his views seem somewhat peculiar.

Noel Chiappa
Noel Chiappa
9 months ago
Reply to  D Walsh

Just like the Afghan war ended when the Russians achieved their objectives there?

bdank22
bdank22
9 months ago

Your third point- yes for Putin they count for nothing, just another sacrifice of the innocent for a good cause, of course.

Frank Farrell
Frank Farrell
9 months ago

In fact it is the Collective West – most particularly the US and UK – that is irrational. When this catastrophe comes to an end with Crimea and Donbas under Russian control, no NATO membership for Ukraine and the country wrecked for two generations, our Peter Pan leaders will proudly proclaim “At least we saved Eastern Ukraine and kept the Russians out of Poland!” Good work guys.

Noel Chiappa
Noel Chiappa
9 months ago
Reply to  Frank Farrell

It’s unclear what the outcome will eventually be – but even if Russia does retain Crimea and the Donbas, it will be an utterly Pyrrhic victory. With its low birth-rate, and large land-mass, Russia has a lot more use for the men it is losing than it does for some extra land. Russia, in just a year and a half, has already lost several times as many men as it lost in 10 years in Afghanistan – a war which was a large factor in the breakup of the USSR. Far from undoing that ‘great catastrophe’, Putin is going to repeat it – and on an even greater scale.

Julian Hartley
Julian Hartley
9 months ago

Perhaps all this tells us is that we tend to use the word “irrational” when we mean “stupid”? Stupidity is far more important than irrationality — and far more contemptible.

Christopher Barclay
Christopher Barclay
9 months ago

“Other critics argue that Putin was non-rational because he violated a fundamental international norm. In this view, the only morally acceptable reason for going to war is self-defence, whereas the invasion of Ukraine was a war of conquest.” A conflation of rationality and morality. In an immoral world, it is often or even usually rational to be immoral.  

Andrew Boughton
Andrew Boughton
9 months ago

The purpose and import of John and Sebastian’s work seems to have sailed by unnoticed by the chess players, intent on their game. Ironic and sadly instructive of how this all happens, despite democracy. All mind and no heart, as Paul Johnson observed, can be worse than all heart and no mind.

Andrew Stoll
Andrew Stoll
9 months ago

Take immorality, mental instability and political extremism seriously by all means but never ever accept it as representable or legitimate

Noel Chiappa
Noel Chiappa
9 months ago

Putin may have made a ‘rational’ decision (for reasons that he has not been really open about, like fortifying his rule in Russia), but the fact remains that he ‘rolled the iron dice’ (to use Bethmann-Hollweg’s memorable phrase). I.e. it’s an inherently risky move (because wars are hard to predict with perfect accuracy, as many people who have started one found out, the hard way).
Is making an inherently risky move ‘rational’, unless you’re left with absolutely no other choice? I’m not inclined to agree. He didn’t have to invade – and in the long run, he’s going to pay for that mistake.

Noel Chiappa
Noel Chiappa
9 months ago
Reply to  Noel Chiappa

At one point this had some down-votes; for reasons that, re-reading it, aren’t clear to me.
The observation that wars are often ruled by chance seems irreproachable. The best recent example I can think of is Midway, without question one of the two most important battles of WWII. Japanese errors of doctrine certainly played a role (Yamamoto should have had his battleships up with his carriers), but it’s amazing how much chance played a huge role (mechanical failure on a Japanese search plane; the accidental timing of the US torpedo attack that pulled the Japanese CAP down to sea level; the Japanese re-arming that left dismounted bombs and fueled planes everywhere at just the wrong moment, and on and on).
I suppose one could disagree with my conclusion (“making an inherently risky move [is not] ‘rational’, unless you’re left with absolutely no other choice”),but it agrees with the old folk wisdom about half a loaf.

Johan Grönwall
Johan Grönwall
9 months ago

” viewing the West’s efforts to make Ukraine a bulwark on Russia’s border … ”

Not tru. Whole article as well as comments sounds constructed out of the usual excuses for Russias invasion.

martin logan
martin logan
9 months ago

Interesting bit of sophistry.
And a quite ingenious attempt to salvage a now-discredited theory of Real Politik.
So Napoleon’s and Hitler’s invasion of Russia was “rational?” They certainly had what they thought were rational goals.
The author’s cleverly blur the distinction between “rational” and “stupid.” Also between “goals” and “capabilities.”
The greenest lieutenant knows that he has to calculate his capabilities before he decides to embark on any operation.
Putin never learned that, never having been served a day in the Red Army.
And neither have our two authors.

Charles Levett-Scrivener
Charles Levett-Scrivener
9 months ago

What rubbish:
“viewing the West’s efforts to make Ukraine a bulwark on Russia’s border ”
There was no such effort; this is just a figment of imagination.

Post the invasion of the Crimea and the Donbas limited aid was given; mainly training troops.
Again rubbish:
“On 17 December 2021, Russia put forward a proposal to solve the growing crisis that envisaged a neutral Ukraine and the withdrawal of Nato forces from Eastern Europe to their positions in 1997. But the United States rejected it out of hand.”

Any withdrawal of NATO troops from Eastern Europe would have been opposed by nearly all Eastern European members.

Jürg Gassmann
Jürg Gassmann
9 months ago

Post the invasion of the Crimea and the Donbas limited aid was given; mainly training troops.

Yes, but the aid was expanding in quantity and quality, and Ukraine was being tied ever more closely into NATO.
The nub of the “rationality” argument is that Russia determined that it had to invade before NATO was so firmly established in Ukraine that Russia would lose a war. The German fear of Russia’s developing “railway supremacy” was one of the factors determining the timing of WW I. The US argued that it had to invade Iraq when it did to forestal Iraq creating viable WMD.

Any withdrawal of NATO troops from Eastern Europe would have been opposed by nearly all Eastern European members.

No doubt – but the point is that Russia has consistently said, and US diplomats in Russia have consistently reported back to Washington, and US foreign relations experts have consistently warned, that the alternative would be war.
So instead of reacting “whoa, if you feel so strongly about it, let’s discuss”, Washington’s reaction was “dare you.”
So we got war.

Matt F
Matt F
9 months ago

“On 17 December 2021, Russia put forward a proposal to solve the growing crisis that envisaged a neutral Ukraine and the withdrawal of Nato forces from Eastern Europe to their positions in 1997. But the United States rejected it out of hand.” Of course they did; it’s not up to the US to dictate policy regarding NATO membership to democratically elected governments, particularly at the behest of a bully like Mr Putin and his regime. On the contrary, regimes such as his are precisely the reason why they choose to become NATO members and contribute to it’s expansion A self-defeating policy if ever there was one. Remember, these are mostly the same nations who had to endure years of post war Russian / Soviet domination, so they don’t take freedom and democracy for granted like many others. In invading Ukraine Vladimir Putin did in a way behave perfectly rationally, as an aggressive totalitarian bully who’d seen years of weak and/or inconsistent leadership from the West.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
9 months ago
Reply to  Matt F

“Of course they did; it’s not up to the US to dictate policy regarding NATO membership to democratically elected governments…”

This made me chuckle. Everything else you say may or may not be correct, but US respect for democratically elected govts is a back slapper.

Matt F
Matt F
9 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

Their record may not be blemish free, but please provide an example where the US has been any worse than others in this respect?

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
9 months ago
Reply to  Matt F

I’m not sure what you mean. I don’t expect China to support democracy. I do expect the US to do this though. The US just asked the Pakistani military to get rid of Prime Minister Imran Khan because he didn’t give unwavering support to Ukraine.

Matt F
Matt F
9 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

So Pakistani internal politics, including the notoriously opaque relationship between the military and the civilian government, has recently become as simple as the question of support for Ukraine? What material difference would this have made?

Cassander Antipatru
Cassander Antipatru
9 months ago
Reply to  Matt F

I believe that current NATO members have the right to veto new members, so the US could, if it wanted to, simply undertake to veto any Ukrainian application.

Matt F
Matt F
9 months ago

Correct, as all NATO members can, but I thought we were talking about an evil US driven expansionist plot to include Ukraine and provoke conflict with the eminently reasonable Vladimir Putin?

Noel Chiappa
Noel Chiappa
9 months ago
Reply to  Matt F

The irony of Russia’s professed fear of NATO as a cause for the invasion is that it led to Finland joining NATO, thereby vastly expanding NATO’s direct border with Russia.

Leandro William Capstick
Leandro William Capstick
9 months ago

I must strongly disagree with your conclusion about Russia’s initial goals. They most definitely wanted to conquer the entire country, they wouldn’t have charged for the Capital Kyiv otherwise. All they did was shift the goal posts when things didn’t go to plan, as they’ve so often done.

Noel Chiappa
Noel Chiappa
9 months ago

There is a theory from some people that the attack on Kyiv was in the main intended to distract the Ukrainians away from the South, so it could be grabbed with less resistance. Whether that’s accurate, or just post-hoc rationalization, I have no strong idea.

Navaneel Ray
Navaneel Ray
9 months ago

It was a “rational” decision to the extent a dictator can be counted upon to take action to crush the “weak”. Putin (and many in the West) underestimated Ukrainian nationalism and overestimated Russia’s own military capabilities. After the chaotic US withdrawal from Afghanistan, Putin underestimated the Western alliance as well. As a result, Putin is now in a quagmire of his own making.
Diehard Russia supporter (and apologist) Mearsheimer continues to shout that no one empathizes with poor ol’ Putin’s point of view. Why should they? Hundreds of thousands of innocent people will die and millions will st