Beware of foreign policy experts

I was sent a long video from 2015 of John Mearsheimer discussing the roots of the Ukraine crisis. At a superficial level his talk seems impressive. He’s very knowledgeable. Dig deeper, however, and it all falls apart.

One thing I noticed almost right away is that Mearsheimer is quite biased, and presents information is a misleading fashion. At times he seemed to be echoing RT talking points.

Here’s a minor but telling example. He presents a graph showing the poll results when Ukrainians were asked if they wished to join the EU or a Russian trade pact. In every single city in Ukraine, a plurality of those who responded to the question favored the EU over the Russian option. The graph goes by quickly and is rather complicated, however, and thus most listeners may not notice this fact. They might believe that Mearsheimer is telling the truth when he says the poll showed that Eastern Ukrainians have “little interest” in joining the EU. That interpretation is simply false. Among those who responded to the survey, a plurality favored EU membership in every single Ukrainian city, no matter how high the proportion of ethnic Russians. In other words, while no option got a majority in a few eastern cities, EU membership was the most popular option in all cities.

He makes a big deal of the 2014 Ukrainian revolution, which he misleadingly calls a “coup”. This was triggered by the Ukrainian government’s decision not to move forward on joining the EU. Mearsheimer says that joining the EU would be a terrible mistake because Ukraine needs to stay neutral. But neutrality in no way precludes a country from joining the EU. Sweden, Finland, Ireland and Austria are all EU members. Ukraine is a sovereign European country and thus has every right to join the EU. Doing so poses no threat to Russia, indeed I hope that someday Russia joins the EU.

His other big obsession is NATO. Mearsheimer seems to agree with Putin that NATO is a threat to Russia. If so, then why didn’t Putin complain when the Baltic States joined NATO? They are right on Russia’s border. He presents a dark image of NATO as an aggressive force, bent on overthrowing governments that it does not like. But his real target seems to be the US, particularly when he cites US foreign policy in places like Iraq.

Mearsheimer has some truly far-fetched analogies involving the Monroe Doctrine. He claims that the US would never allow foreign powers to get involved in our back yard. But Cuba’s been a Soviet/Russian ally for decades. Yes, we did support the foolish Bay of Pigs, but that was certainly not an all out invasion of Cuba with US troops. In any case, I’ve never liked Cold War moral equivalence arguments. What the Soviets did in the Warsaw Pact was outright colonialism, far different than NATO.

I suppose the best argument along those lines is that we did not tolerate Soviet missiles in Cuba. But if the Russians were merely arguing against US nuclear warheads in Ukraine then I’d agree with them. Indeed we pulled our nukes out of Turkey as part of the Cuba deal.

[To be clear, I am not arguing that we should now admit Ukraine to NATO, I’ve opposed that for quite some time. But I’m also opposed to a statement that Ukraine can never join NATO. I hope that at some point in the future all the world’s nations belong to NATO, and then if one country attacks another, the entire world goes to war with the aggressor. Obviously, that’s a dream for the 22nd century, if we are still around.]

Mearsheimer’s most notable mistake was his repeated claim that Putin was far too smart to invade Ukraine, and that this would be a disaster for Russia. Perhaps it will be a disaster (it’s too soon to say), but obviously he was wrong about Putin. He said that comparisons between Putin and Hitler were ridiculous. If by “comparison” you mean, “they are identical”, then Mearsheimer is correct. But if by comparison you mean, “just as Hitler used force in an attempt to create a Greater Germany, Putin will use force to create a Greater Russia”, then comparisons are appropriate.

This talk occurred in 2015. Since that time, the entire world has become far more nationalistic. Not just Russia, but also China, India, Turkey, Hungary and to a lesser extent even places like the US the UK, and Israel. Mearsheimer may not have anticipated this trend, which is why he thought Putin would never invade Ukraine.

When bad guys behave badly, beware of claims that the “root cause” is some minor policy mistake by the good guys. Bad guys are bad.

PS. This National Review article caught my eye:

Former Trump administration national-security adviser John Bolton dismissed the notion that President Trump deterred Russian president Vladimir Putin from behaving aggressively toward Ukraine while he was in office, arguing that the Trump administration was tough on Russia in spite of the president, not because of him. . . .

“But in almost every case, the sanctions were imposed with Trump complaining about it and saying we were being too hard. The fact is he barely knew where Ukraine was. He once asked John Kelly, his second chief of staff, if Finland were a part of Russia. It’s just not accurate to say that Trump’s behavior somehow deterred the Russians,” he added.

Finland part of Russia? And to think that my Republican commenters think Biden is senile!



93 Responses to “Beware of foreign policy experts”

  1. Gravatar of MIchael Sandifer MIchael Sandifer
    1. March 2022 at 11:44


    It’s a very common observation by scholars and practitioners who met Putin in the early 2000s that his views were quite different then. Yes, he’s been a thug and crook since his days as Deputy Mayor of St. Petersburg. He’s essentially always been an evil, money-hungry gangster, with zero interest in democracy, but his foreign policy views seem to have evolved.

    Also, Russia has issued many, many statements about viewing NATO expansion as a national security threat over the past generation. Their current claims are nothing new.

    And, people like George Kennan and Henry Kissinger have long argued that Ukraine is a special case in the Russian foreign policy mind. So, I think you’re way off on this point.

    That said, I do think your other points stand, including the fact that Putin is ultimately more concerned about his position in Russia than national security. EU membership for Ukraine doesn’t threaten Russia, but it does threaten Putin. He suffers by contrast with EU members leadership.

  2. Gravatar of Christian List Christian List
    1. March 2022 at 12:04

    Scott, you are 100% correct about Mearsheimer. His accuracy rate is just not good enough for a professor in his supposed specialty. He is so wrong so many times in this video, one can only roll one’s eyes.

    He also continually contradicts himself and doesn’t even realize it. He also uses extreme cherry-picking. All arguments that clearly speak against his theses, he simply ignores and pretends they don’t exist.

    He is also anti-American and anti-Semitic. After all, his whole theory is based on the idea that ALL powers pursue rational goals pretty much all the time. He concedes this to all great powers — except (of course) the US.

    US behavior he often calls irrational (even when it’s cleary rational) and Putin’s behavior he calls rational all the time, even at times when it’s clearly deranged, mythologized, pseudo-historical, and full of obvious propaganda lies that not even the Russians themselves believe.

    In short: He just doesn’t make any sense. If he has a few reasonable points, then they are buried by a huge pile of nonsense.

  3. Gravatar of Michael Sandifer Michael Sandifer
    1. March 2022 at 12:11

    I’ve watchted Mearsheimer for years and he strikes me as ideologically realist, as he sees realism. No framework is 100% reliable, but he tends to seem to want to make the facts fit his framework.

  4. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    1. March 2022 at 12:31

    Michael, You said:

    “And, people like George Kennan and Henry Kissinger have long argued that Ukraine is a special case in the Russian foreign policy mind. So, I think you’re way off on this point.”

    Huh, where did I deny that Russia views Ukraine as very important? It’s the key to their dream of a Greater Russia.

  5. Gravatar of MSS1914 MSS1914
    1. March 2022 at 12:55

    That Putin had to resort to force to have any hope of achieving a “Greater Russian Empire” is a good sign there won’t be a “Greater Russian Empire” in the future. The long term prospects of integrating the Ukraine by force has no better chance of success than the USSR keeping their “republics” under their rule.

    This war does seem to be more of Putin’s personal war than some carefully, thought out conflict designed to promote the national interest and with the wide support of the Russian elite. The fact that active Russian government officials signed a letter of protest regarding the invasion seems to confirm my belief:

    If Putin really cared about the future of Russia and its people, he would have done his best to build a state that would make the “little Russians” want to voluntarily join his project. Perhaps they would even vote to form a union between the two states (like Scotland and England – perhaps a bad example since that might come undone in the near future, but you get my point).

    But Putin never wanted or cared about any that; he only wants to preserve his power and riches.

  6. Gravatar of Capt. J Parker Capt. J Parker
    1. March 2022 at 13:14

    Scott Sumner said: “He makes a big deal of the 2014 Ukrainian revolution, which he misleadingly calls a “coup”. This was triggered by the Ukrainian government’s decision not to move forward on joining the EU. Mearsheimer says that joining the EU would be a terrible mistake because Ukraine needs to stay neutral. But neutrality in no way precludes a country from joining the EU.”

    The problem is that the agreement that Yanukovych declined to sign (under pressure from Moscow) had clauses in it explicitly calling for Ukraine to ultimately integrate with the military security of the EU. Moreover, EU member states are bound by a mutual defense clause under Article 42(7) of the Treaty of the European Union. (see So, in my estimation Mearsheimer is correct on this point – joining the EU would prevent Ukraine from remaining neutral.

    If you believe, as Mearsheimer does, that a neutral Ukraine is important for stability in its part of the world then the ouster of lawfully elected Yanukovych, over his refusal to lead Ukraine away from neutrality, by violent street protesters occupying government buildings would be an important and not necessarily beneficial event. So, I think Mearsheimer is probably correct to say the 2014 Revolution in Ukraine is a big deal.
    I make no effort to defend Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, only to try to critically assess everything being said puzzle out were ground truth lies.

  7. Gravatar of Sean Sean
    1. March 2022 at 13:19

    Too many people in the media seem to focus on culture and military in this engagement. It’s 100% economics. Ukranians realized plugging into EU and Germany (Putins Nazis) supply chains offer a realistic change of getting to 30k per capita income from 10. Putin knows their lows forever on that path. Since he can’t offer than wealth he decided it was worth bullets.

    The west invaded Ukraine with money. Putin with bombs. Money is legal. And Ukraines rightly realize their poor forever in Russians sphere.

  8. Gravatar of art andreassen art andreassen
    1. March 2022 at 13:26

    Scott: Just read an interview by Luke Groman on PaliadesRadio on YouTube. Eyeopening. He points out that Russia, with its vast resources, especially oil, can not be sanctioned because cutting off her oil now that the U.S. and Europe have made themselves so dependent on Russian oil they will face depression. China, resource poor, stands by as the E.U., the U.S. and Russia, resource bountiful, drive themselves into economic ruin.

    As distasteful as Trump is, he is certainly right that it is in the interest of these three to cooperate. Together with their population of one trillion as compared to China’s 1.4 trillion and China’s drive for world domination it is now imperative for them to unite.

  9. Gravatar of Egor Duda Egor Duda
    1. March 2022 at 13:35

    Capt. J Parker, have you read the link you’ve sent?

    “No formal procedure has been set out and the article does not say that the assistance should be military in nature, so countries such as Austria, Finland, Ireland and Sweden that have a policy of neutrality, can still cooperate.”

  10. Gravatar of Christian List Christian List
    1. March 2022 at 14:00

    @art andreassen
    Dude, what is it with all these Putin nutters and Putin understanders who still want to form a grand alliance with Putin when he has proven for 22 years over and over again that he hates the Western world and the Western values with all his guts? Dude, what are you guys smoking, it must be obscene stuff.

    Putin has as much in common with Western values as brimstone butterflies with brimstones. I gladly concede to Scott that the Chinese are more rational and trade friendly than Putin. Not less dangerous though, but more rational. And maybe Scott is even right about the danger part, let’s sure hope so and pray for it.

  11. Gravatar of Capt. J Parker Capt. J Parker
    1. March 2022 at 14:37

    Egor Duda,
    Oh Yeah, I’m sure that that ambiguity is a great comfort to Putin. I sand by what I said. Mearsheimer is correct in saying EU membership precludes Ukranian neutrality. What was the purpose of Zelensky’s sudden application for EU membership after Putin invaded? Was he just hoping to sell more matryoshka?

  12. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    1. March 2022 at 14:43

    Parker, You said:

    “Moreover, EU member states are bound by a mutual defense clause”

    So can I assume that Russia doesn’t care if Finland joins NATO, because they are already part of Western defense alliance?

    And see Egor’s comment.

    Art, You said:

    “As distasteful as Trump is, he is certainly right that it is in the interest of these three to cooperate.”

    I’d love to cooperate with Russia, but they show zero willingness to do so.

    As for “China’s drive for world domination”, I see almost no evidence for that claim.

    Christian, Just to be clear, I am NOT predicting that China will be completely peaceful–a Taiwan invasion would not surprise me. I’m merely saying they are less militaristic than Russia.

  13. Gravatar of Classical Liberal Classical Liberal
    1. March 2022 at 15:06

    It’s amazing how similar the views of the pro-Russia/pro-Putin wing of the GOP are with global radical anti-American left. If you look at the countries that said this war was caused by “NATO aggression”, the list is Cuba, Venezuela, North Korea, Myanmar, Iran, Syria and Belarus. That’s it. Great company you’re in there guys.

  14. Gravatar of David S David S
    1. March 2022 at 16:06

    Scott, thank you for watching that video so I didn’t have to. I only heard of Mearsheimer in this blog’s comments threads and now I know that I should probably avoid him. It’s impressive how quickly has managed to turn a great nation into another North Korea in about a week. Although he is maintaining impressive control over Russian media he’s going to need a victory in Ukraine before he’s dealing with large-scale demonstrations in Russian cities. The implicit bargain of Putinism was relative prosperity for everyone and sustainable kleptocracy in exchange for getting to be a tsar. I don’t think the general populace is going to tolerate a decline in living standards under harsh sanctions. He’ll play the blame game against “Nazis in the EU and the U.S.” but patriotic fervor can break down when people who felt rich suddenly get poor.

  15. Gravatar of Michael Sandifer Michael Sandifer
    1. March 2022 at 16:41


    You replied:

    “Huh, where did I deny that Russia views Ukraine as very important? It’s the key to their dream of a Greater Russia.”

    The point is that it was foolish to offer a path to NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia, given Russian views of the danger of NATO expansion and their special view of Ukraine.

    I don’t give a damn about their national security concerns, or especially, how they view Ukraine in particular, except when it comes to understanding the consequence of our actions. We have hung Ukrainians out to dry.

    Here’s Kennan, the architect of the US policy of containing the USSR, remarked about expanding NATO in 1998:

    “[George Kennan] warned in a May 2, 1998 New York Times interview about what the Senate’s ratification of NATO’s first round of expansion would set in motion. ”I think it is the beginning of a new cold war,” Kennan stated. ”I think the Russians will gradually react quite adversely and it will affect their policies. I think it is a tragic mistake. There was no reason for this whatsoever. No one was threatening anybody else.”

    “…gradually react…”

  16. Gravatar of Classical Liberal Classical Liberal
    1. March 2022 at 17:16

    Michael Sandifer

    Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia, Romania and Bulgaria were added 18 years ago. No countries close to Russia’s borders have been added since. And Putin was not bothered by those additions in 2004.

    What he was bothered by was his man in Ukraine getting ousted in 2014, which prevented him from having a Belarus-like regime there. Instead Ukraine has been pushing to joining the EU which drives him nuts. That’s why he’s been at war with Ukraine ever since.

    Putin is not worried in the about NATO being a danger to Russia. He’s worried about a Ukraine government, civil society and economy that evolves away from the Putin/Oligarch model and toward the European model. He thinks that if Russia waits too long it will never be able to re-integrate Ukraine with Russia. His great miscalculation was not realizing that it is already too late for that.

  17. Gravatar of c8to c8to
    1. March 2022 at 17:25

    Good analysis.

    Mearsheimer does make some valid points – NATO expansion was a sticking point for the bear.

    I think you’re right – let Ukraine join EU and remain eventually neutral.

    They probably should have held onto their nuclear weapons – although that is probably very a-historical.

    I think around 55% russia gets bogged down and gets its arse handed to it. And a 10% chance that the oligarchs or a popular revolution gets rid of putin.

    The Ukrainians need hundreds more drones and thousands more anti-tank weapons to take the armour out. Hopefully Russia doesn’t establish total air superiority – that has been a strange absence so far – again hopefully its due to lack of air-borne smart weapons (and others) and logistic causes.

    Urban warfare is going to be hell – theres probably a million more able bodied hopefully armed Ukrainians, and its going to be hard to establish any control when every russian soldier can be sniped as soon as out of a vehicle, and without taking those buildings the armour will be vulnerable to sabotage. Its usually thought to take 5 attackers to take out a single defender in an urban setting.

  18. Gravatar of Michael Sandifer Michael Sandifer
    1. March 2022 at 17:27

    Classical Liberal,

    I strongly disagree that Putin, and Russia more broadly, don’t see NATO expansion as a very serious national security threat. I also don’t doubt that Putin has his own concerns that outweigh any he has about Russia. Your second point is valid, and not mutually exclusive with my point.

    I’m only arguing that we helped expose Ukraine to this mess and we have a stronger responsibility to defend them than we’ve shown thus far, though I was pleasantly surprised by the new sanctions and weapons flows announced Sunday.

  19. Gravatar of Classical Liberal Classical Liberal
    1. March 2022 at 17:46

    Michael Sandifer,

    “I strongly disagree that Putin, and Russia more broadly, don’t see NATO expansion as a very serious national security threat.”

    Fine, they see it as a threat. But they didn’t seem overly bothered by the big expansion in 2004. There were even joint exercises with Russia and NATO and talk of them eventually joining. NATO wasn’t nearly as much of a problem for them at the time of expansion. But the 18 years of ever-souring relations with the West I’m sure gradually made NATO seem like more of a threat.

    The desire to maintain the Putin/Oligarchic political and economic model is at the heart of all of this. Did the West make mistakes? Of course. But blame for this war is 100% on Putin.

    And wholeheartedly agree with you we need to do more. As much as we can, quickly. And I think we need to be creative.

  20. Gravatar of Michael Sandifer Michael Sandifer
    1. March 2022 at 18:13

    Classical Liberal,

    Russia warned about NATO expansion in 1993 and did complain about expansion in 2004. For example, consider these NTY articles:

    The Russian parliament in 2004 wasn’t quite the rubber stamp it later became, though it certainly wasn’t as robust as one would like.

    I didn’t just start following these issues last week, though I’m obviously far from expert. I thought NATO expansion was ludicrous at the time and its led to just the sort of problems I imagined then. I’m just surprised it took this long for something like this to happen.

  21. Gravatar of anon/portly anon/portly
    1. March 2022 at 20:12

    After seeing the link here I went and watched it – I had seen references to Mearsheimer’s supposed sagacity on Twitter.

    A large part of his worldview seems to be the “19th-century thinking vs. 21st-century thinking” thing in foreign policy. I don’t have any idea which set of views is better, but thought it was kind of revealing, perhaps, when he said he fits in better when he goes to China, because then he talks to people who think in 19th-century terms like he does.

    Two points that he made stood out to me as maybe odd or slightly wacky.

    One was his suggestion that our view of Putin changed suddenly in February of 2014, that before that we didn’t view him as that aggressive but then after that he became the bad guy.

    But I had just read this tweet thread, which points out that Putin has behaved pretty consistently Putinish over time:

    The other was his comment (30 minute mark) along the lines of “we believe democracy promotion is an unalloyed good and we can’t understand why people like Putin and the leaders in Beijing don’t understand this.”

    How can anyone possibly *not* understand that?

  22. Gravatar of steve steve
    1. March 2022 at 20:35

    I think they talk security but its really economic. Note that Ukraine was going to soon leave the Russian power grid and join that of the EU. Russian GDP per capita has already been dropping.


  23. Gravatar of mbka mbka
    1. March 2022 at 21:07

    Scott, everyone,

    agreed on Maersheimer, not so great.


    “10% chance that the oligarchs or a popular revolution gets rid of putin.” No, it won’t be a popular revolution and it never was in Russia. All revolutions were done by professionals. Putin might meet his “Ceaucescu moment” after a trigger by popular resentment. But it would be carried out by his own elites. See this video for reference, more enlightening than Maersheimer, it was recommended by Phil Glass on this blog.

    Overall theme is about how communism morphed into fascism-like authoritarian populism. Key phrase related to how Putin came about, and how he may end: “Communism stopped working for the pigs” (in the Orwellian sense)

    Watch this at 9:27:

    Basically, authoritarian systems change whenever they stop working for the pigs. Hence the pretty smart move by the West to target the elites etc directly, not by honor type sanctions, but by hurting their lifestyles.

    That said, Puting himself strikes me as more of an ideologue, genuinely Hitler style. I don’t think it is the money that makes him tick.

  24. Gravatar of mbka mbka
    1. March 2022 at 21:38

    One more thing about rationality. I think it is a hugely misunderstood concept. Academics and intellectuals especially seem to conflate rationality (or, relatedly, intelligence), with goals. But the two are completely different concepts. Rationality can’t give you goals. And it’s meaningless to call goals either rational or irrational.

    Rationality is about asking, how appropriate are my actions towards achieving a goal, given that goal. Rational actors pursue actions that are aligned with the goals they intend to achieve. Irrational actors act in a manner that is inconsistent with the goals they intend to achieve. Intelligence helps with being more rational, but is not a pre-requisite.

    Now this leaves a lot of wiggle room for actors lying about their true goals, possible disagreements of what course of action is appropriate to achieve a particular goal, the possibility that even actors are not clear about their goals, or that actors may have unconscious goals. But clearly, goals are “sui generis”, they come from a place outside of rationality. My goal could be riches. My goal could be family. My goal could be religious enlightenment. My goal could be suicide to prevent further possibility of suffering in this life. None of these can be justified “rationally” unless you subsume them under an even higher goal, which would then again become the generator for courses of action. So: goals come first, and rationality doesn’t apply. Then comes course of action. Rationality defines how well the two are matched.

    Corollary, an economic “rational actor” need not be profit-maximising (though s/he is usually defined as such). Just an actor doing what is consistent with achieving their goals.

    Corollary 2: There is no such thing as a “good strategy” unless you also pair it with “given what you intend to achieve”.

  25. Gravatar of Mike sax Mike sax
    2. March 2022 at 03:15

    As you say it’s too soon to say if it will be a disaster for Russia. But if the early estimates of casualties is even remotely accurate it’s stunning. According to the NYT-the Ukrainian military estimates 5800 in Russian losses. If true that’d be stunning as we lost 2100 troops in Afghanistan over 20 years.

    Of course we don’t know if they’re accurate but even the US and European experts put Russian losses in the 1500-2000 range

  26. Gravatar of Mike sax Mike sax
    2. March 2022 at 03:25

  27. Gravatar of Tacticus Tacticus
    2. March 2022 at 05:35

    I’ve met Mearsheimer maybe 4 or 5 times, in both the US (Chicago) and UK (London and Oxford). Some good friends have served as TAs and research assistants for him over the years. He is undoubtedly one of the most influential IR scholars of the past 2-3 decades. He is also a complete fool – as are most, possibly all, IR scholars. Anyone with a PhD in IR should be treated with extreme scepticism, in my view. Morgenthau would be appalled by the state of the field.

  28. Gravatar of art andreassen art andreassen
    2. March 2022 at 06:08

    Scott: No one has mentioned the Luke Groman interview on YouTube. A big mistake. We are at the last moment the West and Russia has to end this Ukraine thing and stop a complete financial collapse of both. It is in the interest of both to compromise and come up with a mutually beneficial solution. The West missed its opportunity when the Soviet Union collapsed by not being more generous financially to Russia and inclusive to her. Right now the next step on our present paths is nuclear destruction both fiscally and materially. It is the time to recognize the present path benefits only China. We should be more receptive to Russia’s border concerns and offer Western financial help to avoid this financial collapse. China is 10 times the size of Russia and assuming that China will not take the resources from Russia that she will need in the future is naive.

  29. Gravatar of art andreassen art andreassen
    2. March 2022 at 06:37

    Scott: Not one commentator had mentioned the Luke Groman Youtube Palisadesradio interview. A big mistake. We are at the last moment to stop this war before it turns financially and materially disastrous for the West and Russia. It is the moment when the errors that the West made at the collapse of the Soviet Union can be rectified. Only China can benifit if we both continue on the present path. The idea that China at 10 times the size of Russia will not take from her the resources she needs is naive. The Russians have paused her attack on Kyiv and seems open to offers. See what she wants concerning borders and offer financial help along with pledges on her part to the Ukrainian people as well as the West’s concerns concerning its borders. We are on the edge of a nuclear financial and material disaster that both can avoid and come out with mutual benefits.

  30. Gravatar of ChrisA ChrisA
    2. March 2022 at 06:56

    I don’t understand why people are saying this war is about Putin or Russia in general wanting to stop Ukraine entering Nato. Putin has explicitly said, in his paper of 2018 and in his recent justification for the war, that this is about pan slavic nationalism, Ukraine rightly belonging to Russia. Nato is only important in that it would impede this goal. Americans usually make any international issue about them, as in what did they or their domestic political opponents do to make this bad thing happen. But agency exists independent of the US and I doubt any action by the US caused this war.

    On the war itself, it is very clear this is a major miscalculation by Putin, first he thought that the Ukrainian people would largely welcome the invasion as they did in Crimea, second he thought the Ukrainian leadership and army would cave in very quickly due to fear (perhaps projecting there), third he thought the Russian army was in good shape and modernised, and fourth he thought that the west would only apply some token sanctions due to his stranglehold on European energy supplies. All these assumptions were wrong.

    As to why he made this mistake, unusual for such realistic thinker, my view is that he had increasingly become disconnected from day to day ruling. He was relying too much on a small circle of yes men, who simply appease and flatter him. Even in his rare meetings with businessmen and foreign politicians he was paid as much respect as a monarch, not as a politician. If you never hear dissent, then you never get a chance to correct your thinking except through reality. Also the problem with a disconnected leader in a hierarchical society like Russia is that no hard decisions are taken, only the easy ones. For those who haven’t been in Russia for a while, it is hard to explain just how stagnated the the top leadership has become, literally nothing gets done unless it is a crisis, and often not even then.

    Putin stands a real chance of losing power as a result of this, my guess is probably from the army leadership, which currently hold a lot of cards, not from his immediate circle who are too scared to do anything.

    In terms of what the US or the west should do now, I think the phrase that never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake best sums it up. Help the refugees, send medical and armaments to Ukraine, but otherwise leave him to it.

  31. Gravatar of Carl Carl
    2. March 2022 at 07:01

    Russians are still advancing on the battlefield and they are incinerating people in cities. Ukraine is not a domino. The world looks more like it did before WW I than before WW II and escalation is the greater danger than appeasement. Russian people will feel our sanctions this time but, in the long run, we are accelerating a trend where others decouple from Western institutions to limit their reach. Our systems are becoming regional. This is not a war to determine the fate of humanity…unless we escalate. Let us keep those things in mind as we make our decisions about escalation versus possible compromises such as Donetsk, Luhansk and Crimea in exchange for a cessation of hostilities.

  32. Gravatar of Classical Liberal Classical Liberal
    2. March 2022 at 07:48


    We’re accelerating the trend toward regional if and only if Putin doesn’t agree to end his insane war ad there is to some type of reasonable settlement that includes an independent Ukraine. If he does that, the sanctions will come off, RUB will rally like crazy and we’ll go back to the previous trend (which was Russia pulling away from the West but only gradually) If he doesn’t, and he intends on swallowing the whole of Ukraine at any cost, then then the divide Russia and the West is already so wide that it cannot be bridged in any event. We won’t go back to business as usual in that case. Maybe Europe doesn’t have the military strength to counter Russia but its under no obligation to do business with her. If Putin slaughters Ukrainians by the thousands Europe will find alternatives to Russian energy (LNG imports, fracking in France, nukes) and multinational companies will leave. Russia will, ultimately, become a wholly owned subsidiary of Beijing. Only Putin can decide if things move back to something approximating the pre-invasion business relationship between the EU and Russia. We cannot.

  33. Gravatar of Christian List Christian List
    2. March 2022 at 08:27


    Let us keep those things in mind as we make our decisions about escalation versus possible compromises such as Donetsk, Luhansk and Crimea in exchange for a cessation of hostilities.

    Carl, you are artificially separating things that belong closely together. The West can force a solution that hands over the Donbas region and Crimea to Putin and perhaps even preserves the rest of Ukraine. But we have to intervene now in order to do that.

    Now the reality check: This is not happening at all. Biden is rambling something about yachts, luxury apartments and private jets. This is one important difference: Putin has ideas and Biden waffles about luxury goods and believes that the Russians care. This is just crazy talk.

    The West does not intervene, and fools like Biden and Scholz even emphasize this weakness again and again. This means Putin can do whatever he wants in Ukraine, and he does. It is totally up to Putin now. Get a grip on reality, really.

  34. Gravatar of art andreassen art andreassen
    2. March 2022 at 08:34

    Carl: Right on. MSNBC had no problems with Obama giving Crimea. Another possible outcome is that Putin is overthrown. With our present stand we are not giving backing to that option.

  35. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    2. March 2022 at 08:39

    Michael, You said:

    “The point is that it was foolish to offer a path to NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia, given Russian views of the danger of NATO expansion and their special view of Ukraine.”

    Maybe so, but that’s not what caused this war. Ukraine was not on a path to joining either NATO or the EU a month ago, so why did Russia invade now? This war makes Ukraine more likely to join. The EU is already making moves in that direction.

    Art, China is not going to invade Russia. Russia has enough nukes to completely wipe out China. (The real danger is to Taiwan.)

    Appeasing people like Hitler and Putin just makes them want more.

  36. Gravatar of Carl Carl
    2. March 2022 at 09:02

    @Classical Liberal
    People outside NATO will remember that Russia had its financial systems partially shut down by the West. That loss of sovereignty will be long remembered regardless of whether trade levels pick back up after this is over.

    @Christian List
    The Winter War may serve as a model.

    Can you elaborate on what you meant by “we are not giving backing to that option?”

  37. Gravatar of MIchael Sandifer MIchael Sandifer
    2. March 2022 at 09:34


    I think the seeming ambivalence about NATO in general, qmong NATO members, in part due to disagreements over which countries should join and when, contributed to Putin’s miscalculation. Putin obviously underestimated how much Ukrainian independence mattered to the West.

    Again, in 2008, the US wanted Ukraine and Georgia as NATO members, while countries like Germany did not. But, NATO issued a public statement at the time that explicitly said Ukraine and Georgia would be members, and laid out MAP. Georgia was invaded by Russia just a few months later.

    I also think the Trump election, along with years of luke-warm commitment to membership responsibility on the part of some European members, and our weak responses to the Georgian and Crimean invasions, along with signals of low resolve as the present crisis mounted all led to Putin underestimating the response of the West.

    Of course, there’s also more than a fair amount of incompetence on the part of Russia as well.

  38. Gravatar of Classical Liberal Classical Liberal
    2. March 2022 at 09:36

    Why in the West do we have a pathological desire to blame ourselves? The cause of, and blame for, this is plain as day: Putin. Does seriously anyone think that Putin wouldn’t have wanted to invade the Ukraine if Latvia hadn’t joined NATO?

    And yet we argue with each other and blame Biden, Obama, Bush, our energy policies, NATO aggression, NATO weakness, EU not spending enough on defense and on and on. It’s not our fault. 100% of the blame lies with Putin.

  39. Gravatar of Christian List Christian List
    2. March 2022 at 09:36

    The point is that it was foolish to offer a path to NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia, given Russian views of the danger of NATO expansion and their special view of Ukraine.


    The greenest, most left-wing newspaper in Germany wrote 1-2 days ago: We are so sorry, we were wrong and George W. was right.

    George W. Bush wanted Ukraine to join NATO quickly in 2008 and Germany and 2-3 other EU countries rejected it.

    NATO entry per se is not the problem, but you have to do it in time. Merkel (and in parts Obama) prevented it for 16 years and then of course it becomes a huge problem. A NATO member (or EU member) Ukraine before 2014 and Putin does not attack at all.

    Christian, Just to be clear, I am NOT predicting that China will be completely peaceful – a Taiwan invasion would not surprise me. I’m merely saying they are less militaristic than Russia.


    Okay, I get it better now, but that doesn’t really calm me down then.

    The CCP’s motives in Taiwan seem to be nationalistic-ideological and not particularly rational. Very similar to Putin and Ukraine. Taiwan has never been important to China, they could just ignore it, but the opposite is true, the CCP is really fixated on it. Similar things can be said about Tibet. This is really disturbing.

    If one acts so irrationally and passionate in one field, then it is no longer certain that the same party will act rationally in all other areas. Why would they?

    On top of that, they may develop a taste for these kind of actions after the invasion of Taiwan. Oftentimes, the really big appetite comes when you’re eating.

    And less militaristic? I wouldn’t say less, the level of militarization is pretty much the same as in Russia. The real difference seems to be that the CCP has other methods in their toolbox as well, such as trade and economic strength. The Chinese have learned their lessons from 1989/1990, the Russians have rather not.

    The limitations of Putin’s Russia are there for all to see; the limitations of the CCP are yet unclear. Similar ambiguities exist about the actual military capabilities of the Chinese Red Army.

    We now know that the Russian Army is outdated and poorly organized. We know almost nothing about the real abilities of the Chinese Army.

  40. Gravatar of Christian List Christian List
    2. March 2022 at 09:44

    @Classical Liberal
    Putin is a vicious figure. It is not enough for the good guys to simply be good. They must also adjust correctly to the bad guys and react properly and decisively. This has not happened. This is the mistake that the aforementioned politicians have made.

    If a psychopath assaults and rapes a woman (named Ukraine), you as an observer (or even a policeman!) cannot say either: This is the psychopath’s fault, I won’t interfere. Of course, it’s the psychopath’s fault but that’s besides the point.

  41. Gravatar of Michael Sandifer Michael Sandifer
    2. March 2022 at 09:52

    John Mearsheimer gets many things wrong, but he did predict that Russia would wreck Ukraine for many years, in part, because of the soft commitment to let it join NATO. The commitment puts the crosshairs on Ukraine even more than would have already been the case, and the softness of commitment invited Putin to take action.

    Let’s not get distracted by the sloppiness of his analysis, and miss the fact that his central point was valid.

    Now, does that mean Putin never would have wrecked Ukraine otherwise? No. No one knows for sure. But, our actions contributed to this problem and we owe the Ukrainian people more than we’ve offered thus far.

  42. Gravatar of Michael Sandifer Michael Sandifer
    2. March 2022 at 09:58

    I should also say I haven’t failed to notice that I haven’t seen a single expert on these matters recommending direct military intervention by NATO in Ukraine, and I’ve heard and read the opinions of very, very many. Also, Tom Nichols agrees with Scott that direct intervention would help Putin’s PR narrative, and he thinks such intervention is too risky anyway. So, this makes me think that people shouldn’t listen to me on favoring more direct intervention.

    Nonetheless, Putin having his forces severely degraded in the field and the prospect of eventual “success” far less certain certainly could present considerable PR challenges also. And, it could be traumatizing enough to Russia to keep it in a box for sometime. Just don’t want Putin to go overboard, should he grow too desperate.

  43. Gravatar of Christian List Christian List
    2. March 2022 at 10:06

    @Michael Sandifer
    Please look at reality. 90% of what he said was wrong. Mearsheimer said Putin was not the important cornerstone. He said it was not nationalistic-ideological. He said Putin was very rational. He said Putin had zero interest in Greater Russia.

    Even your statement is wrong: He said Putin just wants to wreck Ukraine a little bit and that’s it. He said Putin would never invade, that would be crazy.

    Don’t you see that his entire basis and his entire premise is wrong? Mearsheimer’s proposal doesn’t work at all. Do exactly what Mearsheimer said: Make Ukraine a new neutral Finland or a new neutral Switzerland. A lovely buffer zone. Do it from 2008 to 2018. Nothing will change, nothing at all. Putin will still take Crimea. Putin will still invade, and maybe even sooner, because Mearsheimer creates zero ambiguity as to whether the West will stand by or not.

  44. Gravatar of art andreassen art andreassen
    2. March 2022 at 10:11

    Scott: I am not trying to appease Putin I am trying to get an outcome that is the most beneficial to Russia and the West. I think it is in both their best interests for Russia to be with the West, it is closer for them culturally, really. Your point about Russia’s nukes is well taken. Putin may have grandiose dreams but that does not mean that the Russian people agree and a possibility for them to be closer to the West is probably what they would prefer. Look at the demonstrations, looks like the West.

    I am just saying don’t put all Russia into a corner, offer them an option and an encouragement to get rid of Putin.

    Gromen lays out the financial disaster that our present path is leading.

  45. Gravatar of Michael Sandifer Michael Sandifer
    2. March 2022 at 10:14

    Christian List,

    I’m making the same points I’ve made all along. Putin is 100% responsible for these crimes. My point is that we, being NATO, doomed Ukraine, as I said in my first comments on the matter here.

    I don’t want to sit aside and watch these good people die. I think we’re somewhat too fearful of limited wars within the MAD framework. But, I know of no experts who agree with me, and anyway, the overwhelming consensus among actual leaders is to slowly watch these people die.

    It’s disgusting.

  46. Gravatar of Carl Carl
    2. March 2022 at 10:15

    Some of my comments seem to be disappearing into the ether. Sorry if I’m double posting.

    Classical Liberal
    One of the enduring lessons of this incident will be how Russians a great deal of sovereignty when we turned off some of their financial system. They and others will work hard to remedy that.

    Christian List
    The Winter War may be a model for a compromise that did not involve direct great power escalation.

    What did you mean by “With our present stand we are not giving backing to that option.”

  47. Gravatar of Christian List Christian List
    2. March 2022 at 10:22

    @Michael Sandifer
    But then you contradict yourself. Mearsheimer’s suggestions do not work in any way. They are useless and even harmful. At “best”, Putin’s invasion will just come even faster.

    And the “mistakes” of the NATO countries are that they did not take Ukraine in way sooner — and that we do not intervene now.

  48. Gravatar of Michael Sandifer Michael Sandifer
    2. March 2022 at 10:25

    If I were Biden, I would look at the reality of the prospect of any consensus that would even allow for direct strikes by the US, after having some national security meetings on the subject. I would certainly be open to being talked out of my desire to strike by the experts in the meetings, and/or by those of our allies.

    But, I do point out that the fact that both sides used mixed defense strategies, that is, large conventional forces, along with tactical and strategic nuclear forces, means that there were formal contigent plans for limited conflicts. This suggests that we’ve always strongly believed limited conventional conflicts between nuclear powers were possible.

  49. Gravatar of Michael Sandifer Michael Sandifer
    2. March 2022 at 10:26

    Christian List,

    I didn’t say Mearsheimer was recommending the right policies. He properly criticized the wrong policies.

  50. Gravatar of TGGP TGGP
    2. March 2022 at 10:55

    You might be interested in Scott Alexander’s evaluations of the accuracy of various Ukraine prognosticators:
    Of course, he’s discussing recent predictions there rather than 2015.

    I actually met John Mearsheimer once, closer in time to the Iraq war when he was well known for his opposition to it. I found his understanding of domestic politics to be disappointingly shallow, and I thought to myself that his political science department should contain people who’ve actually studied that and he could talk to once he ventured out of simple realist IR theory. Richard Hanania seems to have a more solid grasp of how our government’s foreign policy doesn’t follow realist logic (or really any coherent logic).

  51. Gravatar of Christian List Christian List
    2. March 2022 at 11:55

    Michael Sandifer,

    No. Just no. He described the actual problem close to completely wrong. He presented an alternative solution that was close to completely wrong. This is like criticizing a math problem, but your solution is much worse than the solution proposed up to that point, and to top it off, you don’t even grasp the actual problem. He could not have been more wrong.

    This suggests that we’ve always strongly believed limited conventional conflicts between nuclear powers were possible.

    Of course it is possible. Nuclear weapons are useless when your enemy has nuclear weapons as well. That’s basically all one needs to know about this subject.

    There is an addendum: Of course, you can’t drive your opponent completely into a corner, you have to let the opponent save face, because annihilation is not possible.

    If you try to annihilate your opponent, you will annihilate yourself at the same time. But that’s actually a very positive feature: Wars between two nuclear powers don’t escalate. On the contrary they are very limited, both time-wise and space-wise, as well as materially.

    But not wanting to fight these wars in the first place, and then also babbling about freedom, which Biden says will never be defeated. This is so craven, so dishonest, so mendacious. And it just doesn’t add up.

  52. Gravatar of Michael Sandifer Michael Sandifer
    2. March 2022 at 12:03

    Christian List,

    I opposed the original expansion of NATO and still think it was a mistake. I especially opposed promising future membership without a real NATO commitment.

    That said, I now think we may as well commit to defending the rest of Europe, because we’re in so deep now, we have obligations, and to stop at this point is to reward Putin’s behavior. As I mentioned, we owe Ukraine and Georgia, at this point, and the thought of allowing Finland or Sweden, EU members, to face Russian aggression without direct American intervention is absurd.

  53. Gravatar of Michael Sandifer Michael Sandifer
    2. March 2022 at 12:10

    To expand on one point, I don’t think the EU could handle Russia alone, despite their overwhelming advantage in economic and collective military power. This is because the US provides most of the logistical backbone for the EU military capability. Europe couldn’t even deal with the Yugoslav civil war without the US leading operations.

    The US has enough of an interest in European peace such that we can’t leave such matters to Europe, and everyone knows it. It’s why so many NATO members have taken the membership requirements so casually.

    Scott can worry about moral hazard all he wants, while drawing distinctions between organizations like NATO and the EU, but in reality, the distinctions are functionally not so important, from the perspective of US interests.

  54. Gravatar of Christian List Christian List
    2. March 2022 at 13:06

    NATO should have just said: “An invasion of Ukraine will not be accepted at all. It will trigger an alliance case automatically even though the Ukraine is not part of NATO and never will be. We will protect the Ukraine at all costs, starting right now. End of story.”

    — Then Putin would never have invaded. And even if he had invaded anyway, NATO could still have considered whether to go through with the promise or not. There is no automatism. In the worst case, it would have been an extremely low-cost, quasi-free, called bluff.

    Incidentally, this is almost EXACTLY the same theoretical framework that Scott follows in his theory of market monetarism: You have to make a really credible promise (“whatever it takes”), and then you will achieve your goal, and it will end up costing you little to nothing — or at least the costs are not comparable to the immense costs in a situation where you don’t make a credible promise.

  55. Gravatar of MIchael Sandifer MIchael Sandifer
    2. March 2022 at 13:21

    Christian List,

    One should never bluff with security guarantees.

  56. Gravatar of Christian List Christian List
    2. March 2022 at 13:59

    @Michael Sandifer
    You’re right again, of course, because then, in the worst case scenario, Putin invades Ukraine and bombs everything into oblivion, while the West watches, sucks its own dick, and pretends to be ethical. So in the worst case scenario it’s a completely different outcome compared to now. /Irony off

    That is one of its basic mistakes, that the West never bluffs. They have been telling Putin exactly what they are going to do for 20 years. And Putin was thus able to calculate very precisely. And, oh boy, did he calculate.

    Putin, on the other hand, has been bluffing for 20 years. And now that the West has been completely fooled, there is not even a change of course. Where is Biden’s u-turn? There is no u-turn. It’s unbelievable.

    And where is the media? It’s almost like under Obama. No relevant, substantial criticism whatsoever.

    Biden is simply doing what he promised to do. No ambiguity, no element of surprise, no nothing. How simple-minded, how naive. Putin was able to factor all of this in beforehand. Putin is laughing his ass off. Welcome to reality. The West should really stop sucking its own dick all the time. It’s just awkward.

  57. Gravatar of Tacticus Tacticus
    2. March 2022 at 16:54

    A lot of people being awfully cavalier about a NATO/Russia war breaking out.

  58. Gravatar of mbka mbka
    2. March 2022 at 18:44


    regarding China, what this war has already shown is that you can not assume from the outset that overwhelming military superiority automatically translates into overwhelming victory. And there is still, in my eyes, a significant possibility that Putin might get the Ceaucescu treatment: your own elites taking you down. Both bits taken together make an invasion of Taiwan look a lot riskier to China than it may have appeared a week ago. Riskier for China, and riskier for the Chinese leadership. And look at the international consensus about not just invading a country because you can. The sacrifice of Ukraine may possibly have saved Taiwan. For now.

    The much bigger picture is the strong consensus on values. 18th-19th Century imperialism is not experiencing a revival. It seems it is experiencing its own violent death. The West and liberal values were supposed to be on the decline. What we saw instead is a very strong statement of “enough, we actually care”. And as you pointed out yourself, the most unlikely stakeholders keep on making strong statements for these values. The Greens in Germany. Sweden. Finland. Switzerland!! nevermind neutrality. If anything this looks like the “Burger” revolts mid 19th Century. Powers that had appeared like they cared only for commerce and the fine arts (EU, Scandinavia) just voted for standing up to lethal power without batting an eyelid. Putin and Lavrov casually threaten nuclear Armageddon and no one even listens.

    Why is this so important? Because this consensus is both very strong, yet was completely hidden. We never knew how much people all over actually believe in liberal values. These are liberal values. This is hugely important. Now think of other forces that may be strong, yet hidden. Maybe public support for Putin, for this war, in Russia is not as strong as we believe. Maybe people in China have opinions quite different from what it appears too. Maybe liberal values are much stronger than we thought – everywhere.

  59. Gravatar of anon anon
    2. March 2022 at 20:37

    Would the “enough, we actually care” materialize if/when PRC invades ROC and PRC would be cut off or it would all become a “sad, bad, lets go on with our lives (there are some twitter threads on fire on the blue eyed/blond/just like us comments of western folks on the UKR-RUS war).

    christian list
    So US could state if PRC invades ROC, US (EU) will recognize ROC and then do whatever it takes (be it a bluff or actually meant?) to reinstate status quo ante?

  60. Gravatar of mbka mbka
    2. March 2022 at 21:47


    I have no idea what would actually happen re: Taiwan. But that wasn’t my point. My point was that Ukraine has shown that things can turn out very differently very quickly from what many would have expected just a week ago (Ukraine overrun in days, West weeps crocodile tears and gets on with their lives). That in turn raises perceived risk in all countries contemplating similar actions. And the KPI for any contemplated action of any leadership in any country surely follows this order of priorities 1. benefits leadership staying in power 2. benefits groups important to the leadership, therefore (1.) is fulfilled 3. everything else, such as, benefits country, ideology, historical qualms etc . Making a contemplated action riskier, makes it less likely to occur, unless the perceived potential benefits also rise to be commensurate with the risk. Ukraine just raised risk of similar actions and showed that perceived benefits may be lower to non-existent (perceived cultural unity non-existent, international status decreased, not increased, etc).

  61. Gravatar of anon anon
    2. March 2022 at 22:51

    Non proliferation is now on death bed, if it weren’t already. A death by just one massive cut. A Fist (or many fists) of God for everyone.

  62. Gravatar of Michael Sandifer Michael Sandifer
    3. March 2022 at 04:35


    Who, specifically, is being cavalier about the use of force against Russia?

  63. Gravatar of Michael Sandifer Michael Sandifer
    3. March 2022 at 04:50

    It’s rather unfortunate that I feel the need to point this out, but Russia’s had a naval base in Crimea since the late 18th century. As I pointed out, NATO explicitly said, and put it right on its website in 2008, that Ukraine and Georgia would become members of NATO. There was no time frame offered, but the statement is still there.

    That was, of course, when Crimea was still part of Ukraine.

    How many countries would just shrug and allow this to happen? That naval base is home port of the Black Sea fleet.

    And to do this, knowing that some NATO members didn’t want Ukraine and Georgia… How can policy get any more stupid or irresponsible?

    We, the US particularly, pushed for NATO expansion to these countries, we’re the hegemonic leader of NATO, and provide its operational logistical backbone, and hence we are uniquely responsible for this crisis.

    This doesn’t excuse Putin. That’s not the point. We should punish Putin as much as we can. The point is, we owe Ukraine more than we’re giving them.

    Are we really so dumb that we don’t see that, even absent informal assurances that we wouldn’t expand NATO as the Warsaw Pact collapsed, that Russia assumed we’d understand they wouldn’t tolerate NATO taking the territory that holds their naval base?

    Nonetheless, we’re surprised when Russia takes Crimea.

  64. Gravatar of Spencer Bradley Hall Spencer Bradley Hall
    3. March 2022 at 07:39

    As a result of Ukraine, the Europeans have completely lost faith in America.

  65. Gravatar of Kenneth Duda Kenneth Duda
    3. March 2022 at 08:27

    Scott, thanks for reviewing the Mearsheimer video and posting your analysis. Sorry for my naivete; the video was the first intelligent analysis I had seen of the Ukraine/Russia situation, so it stuck. Sort of like the way Krugman-style Keynesianism appealed to me until I found this blog 🙂


  66. Gravatar of Christian List Christian List
    3. March 2022 at 10:03

    @Michael Sandifer
    You’re turning what happened upside down again. Even the green-leftest newspaper in Germany put it differently a few days ago: Bush wanted Ukraine to join NATO in 2008 almost immediately. Just announce the entry. And done. States like Germany have blocked this again and again. That’s how this idiotic deadlock happened in the first place. A quick NATO entrance is not a problem. Putin is not attacking any NATO country. He is attacking states that are not in NATO. The only scenario where Putin does not attack Ukraine is a quick NATO entry.

    It’s really not that hard to get your head around. What is so difficult about it? Like Mearsheimer, you simply ignore the passages where Putin explicitly says that Ukraine does not exist, that Ukrainians do not exist, that fascists rule there and that it is a Russian nucleus since 998. Ukraine will not save itself when it does not join NATO. It is all lies. What’s so hard to understand?

    And you also ignore what the Ukrainians wanted. They wanted to join NATO and the EU asap. They certainly didn’t want to wait till 2022 until Putin finished his war preparations and Nordstream 2. They have always said: When Nordstream 2 is built, Putin will launch an attack. Why didn’t Europe listen to that? It was so obvious.

  67. Gravatar of steve steve
    3. March 2022 at 10:40

    “As a result of Ukraine, the Europeans have completely lost faith in America.”

    Oddly enough my life is not centered upon making Europeans happy. On the larger scale the US is not a God in whom they should place faith. What we are is an ally who has an interest in maintaining peace in Europe. It is good for us and for the world. However, we dont actually live there. Europe does. They are primarily responsible. Europe, especially Germany, has done pretty much everything it can to leave itself vulnerable to Russia. (OK, not so much the Scandinavians countries and Switzerland, UK and France.)

    Also, lets not forget that Ukraine has always been a very poor, very corrupt country. Some of that is due to Russia but not all of it. I understand not wanting them in NATO. They looked like a total liability and unable to add to the efforts of any other country that might have needed defending. NATO isn’t a charity.

    I think we have balanced it out pretty well. We provided the intel that confirmed Russia would invade even if it claims otherwise. We have helped facilitate sanctions and are offering monetary and weapons assistance. We continue to provide good intel too.


  68. Gravatar of Tacticus Tacticus
    3. March 2022 at 11:49

    @ Michael Sandifer: Anyone stating NATO should enact a No Fly Zone over Ukraine or that we should make Ukraine a casus belli between us and Putin?

    @ Spencer Bradley Hall: As a European, the American response to the Ukrainian issue has made me MORE optimistic regarding the US, not less. Stick to your monetary raving, please.

  69. Gravatar of MIchael Sandifer MIchael Sandifer
    3. March 2022 at 12:39


    Well, I suppose I could take the same attitude and say that those who oppose direct NATO military intervention are cavalier about thousands upon thousands of Ukrainian deaths, but would that be intelligent?

  70. Gravatar of MIchael Sandifer MIchael Sandifer
    3. March 2022 at 12:43

    Christian List,

    I opposed NATO expansion. Merkel was right.

    Now that we’ve expanded it, there’s no going back, and now that we’re in this mess with Russia, we have to help Ukraine. The only question is how much to help Ukraine, and at what cost. Obviously, I’d like to see NATO more directly involved, to the degree it makes sense.

  71. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    3. March 2022 at 13:31

    Art, I completely agree that if Putin is replaced with a pro-western government then we should do all we can to help Russia.

    TGGP, Thanks for the link. To be clear, I did not predict that Putin would do an all out invasion (although I view his 2014 actions as a limited invasion), what I did predict is that Putin was a very dangerous person who might do something like this.

    mbka, I see why it’s a big deal to Europeans. Ukraine is a big country, more populous than Canada, and it’s in Europe. This has to be shocking to Europeans, almost like the German/Soviet invasion of Poland in 1939.

    Ken, Yes, I saw a number of people referring to that video, so I figured I needed to take a look.

  72. Gravatar of Christian List Christian List
    3. March 2022 at 13:39

    My knowledge of the CCP is limited. There is no NATO there either. We would need something like NATO first. Preferably NATO itself, just extended to China. The CCP seems to me to be extremely aggressive regarding Taiwan. They have built up an extremely threatening environment that is so extreme that nobody really dares to change anything positive for Taiwan. So I only know that it would work with Putin, because Putin has already said several times (partly involuntarily) that he respects NATO immensely.

    Spencer Bradley Hall is a troll. Don’t go so much into his one-liner. There is nothing to find. The opposite seems to be true. The vast majority of Europeans seem very much in agreement with Biden’s gutless policies.

    Putin and Lavrov casually threaten nuclear Armageddon and no one even listens.


    your optimism and sugarcoating is honorable, but it’s just not true. The press is bringing this up big time. Biden even talked about these fears before Putin even invaded. Biden even ruled out rescue missions for Americans because it would lead to nuclear WW3, according to his absurd logic. Why would you even say something like that in such a situation? Nobody even asked him. It’s so senile, it’s so stupid, it’s an all-in invitation for Putin.

    Scholz was in Israel 1-2 days ago and he said three times that NATO will never intervene. Again: no one even asked him. What are these guys thinking? This is so incredible stupid.

    The Western rhetoric is an absolute and unnecessary disaster. We are conceding strong positions without any need. The Russians are trapped in Ukraine with their pants down. They can’t even deal with the Ukrainians properly. They would be defeated in 2-5 days by a serious Western liberation army. Putin would go for a truce immediately because he has proven that he is a miserable coward at the bottom of his heart. That’s why he always threatens so much. Small dogs always bark the loudest.

    All the territories west of the Dnieper would be ours and maybe even much more. But no, Ukraine is simply given away to Putin. Thousands of Ukrainians die for nothing. Like with Obama and Syria, the Western world simply watches.

    Millions and millions of people are being driven out of their country. This is so stupid. The West is once again behaving gutless and inhumane. Only this time it’s even so much worse, because this time we know for sure that the Russian army is a huge joke and we know for sure that Ukraine is not lead by religious extremists. But there aren’t any courageous politicians in the Western world anymore. There are no more ideas. Where is someone like FDR or Churchill? Are you kidding me?

    Maybe the politicians are a reflection of the population. Populations are virtually always against wars of aggression. Even in 1939, the vast majority of Germans did not want war. So this is really nothing special at all. What has changed nearly completely though is the willingness to sacrifice.

    Consider that in the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s, thousands of volunteers from the West set out. From Hemingway to Capa. This time we have a few smart volunteers too, but Stoltenberg went all the way to Poland and managed to stop these volunteers. As if a Hemingway and a Capa, would ever have let themselves be stopped by a bureaucratic ass like Stoltenberg. Are you kidding me.

    Don’t give me that theory about people respecting liberal values more today. We have no certain proof for that. What we are experiencing is pure “Gratismut”, as it is called in German. It literally means “cost-free courage”. In other words: Pure moral posturing. “Courage” yes, but only as long it is close to being completely cost-free. This is nothing to do with courage at all.

    We don’t know what will happen if courage really means relevant sacrifices. I read a lot of reader comments in German media: people seem to be way more worried about their energy supply and WW3 than about the Ukrainians.

    Consider also the extreme hypocrisies. People und politicians talk about sanctions as if they were something special. But it is obvious that one does not trade with mass murderers and war criminals such as Putin, especially not during an ongoing war against your own values. Not to mention that it is almost a complete lie: the really essential trade with natural gas and oil continues unchanged, from both sides.

    I could go on writing like this forever. Just think of Kuwait and Korea, where we had liberation armies within a relatively short period of time.

    Now it is not even discussed (!), but immediately suppressed with bogus arguments, that are extremely similar to the arguments from Putin’s troll factories. According to these arguments intervention means nuclear war. This is being said usually by the exact same people and “experts” who told me just 10 days ago that Putin would never ever invade Ukraine.

    There are a few positive signs, for example, some countries in Africa that voted against China’s position in the UN, even though these countries are very dependent on China. That is really courageous. But really, there aren’t many other courageous signs. We could do so much more and we have to — but we don’t. That’s the sad truth.

  73. Gravatar of perplexed perplexed
    3. March 2022 at 18:47

    It looks like everybody left the topic, so this is just for ssumner.

    I did not expect this armchair psychology of a fascist country’s dictator with a dose of self-righteous preaching and some “international law” from a libertarian economist.

    How I understood, the Mearsheimer’s lecture was a warning that really matters this dictator’s perception of the “reality”. No more nor less.

    And the reality is that considering this dictator’s perception and his repeated warnings “don’t corner a rat”, the outcome of the policies of the US administrations became inevitable – the new rivers of blood, this time Ukrainian.

    After seen what happened to Kaddafi this monster will go all the way, and what is the end game now, when another gamble to “promote freedom and democracy” failed?

    I just hope that before reaching to the tactical nukes he will try something less drastic more asymmetrical, like bringing down some IT systems, in this case I will count us extremely lucky, or with less luck but still before the nukes he might reach out to his allies in Lebanon. Can you imagine the results?

    I have a little interest in Russia, Ukraine, Estonia or other countries. My kids and grandkids are living in Upper Midwest, New Jersey and Arizona.

    I reacted extremely badly when I saw the drowned Kurdish boy and I know exactly who is responsible for it, even if my opinion is not the same as yours.

    Unfortunately, the killings of young Ukrainian boys 18 years of age with corrupt and incompetent generals in charge just started, and as always in the civil war – both sides are speaking practically the same language – will become extremely brutal.

    The city of Kharkiv is on it’s way to become first a Sarajevo, then a new Aleppo and all this for what – to be self-righteous?

    What is the final cost/benefit analysis of provoking the Russian Hitler?

    Did I mentioned that the Mearsheimer’s lecture has a prequel?

  74. Gravatar of Michael Sandifer Michael Sandifer
    3. March 2022 at 19:09

    On the one hand, nuclear escalation in response to direct NATO intervention seems extremely unlikely to me. On the other hand, I’m not an expert, and I’ve yet to see an expert who is supporting direct combat between NATO and Russia. So, just from a meta perspective, I would say not to listen to me.

    Putin does seem trapped, so it’s not inconceivable that he could strike out in ways that may surprise. That said, while total military defeat would make his situation worse, I think, he’s already potentially being pushed to the brink by the collapse of the Russian economy and the escalating costs of the invasion.

  75. Gravatar of mbka mbka
    3. March 2022 at 20:20


    not sure what you are referring to, I could have written much of your comment. Still I stand by my silver lining: Western values seem to be more alive than previously thought, just as the Ukraininan resistance. And despite current Western caution to intervene militarily, I would not be surprised if I learned rhat they’re feverishly programming 2000 cruise missiles as we speak. If what we see today holds true with the deliberate shelling of a nuclear power plant, I could easily see some form of fig leaf for a Western “Nuclear power plant protection force” being deployed, why, because it’s a European security issue, and that force will naturally need an umbrella for protection from the air … etc etc. Just look at the lightning quick 100 billion for the German Army. A lot has changes in a few days and not every public statement is the whole truth.

  76. Gravatar of Christian List Christian List
    4. March 2022 at 00:51


    I was refering to your statement: “Putin and Lavrov casually threaten nuclear Armageddon and no one even listens.” And I said why this is not true at all in my opinion.

    The Western world is committing pretty much exactly the same mistakes as in Syria and as during Corona. Again, it has taken measures off the table without any real need for it. Why would you even do that, this is just stupid. Putin has de facto been told that he can do whatever he wants in Ukraine.

    There is no long-term plan at all either. There are no contingency plans as well. What are they doing if Putin is really crazy? What are they doing if he uses nuclear weapons? What are they doing if he attacks nuclear power plants? Not even red lines have been declared this time. Instead, they have declared without any need over and over again what they won’t do. That they will never intervene. This is just sheer stupidity.

    Not to mention that they’re giving away any initiative. The windows of opportunity in conflicts are often short and they can fluctuate extremely. The current situation would have been a perfect window of opportunity for the Western world, but it is not being seized. This can easily pay off terribly in the future. The Western world has learned not much from 1939, when the windows of opportunity changed extremely within a few weeks. Counting on sheer luck is not a strategy.

  77. Gravatar of Christian List Christian List
    4. March 2022 at 01:05


    And I was saying that you are way too optimistic in my opinion. Most of the reactions we have seen so far are self-evident minimums. Biden is particularly shocking, he hasn’t really changed his policy at all. Putin has obviously done a turnaround, at least from the Western point of view, but then Western politics has to respond to that.

    Scholz made a u-turn, for German standards okay, in fact it was just a minimum really, but Biden didn’t really change anything at all! Biden is just doing same old, same old. You need to be creative in such a situation, do something new, do something surprising, take the initiative. This is not happening at all.

  78. Gravatar of mbka mbka
    4. March 2022 at 01:51


    agree to some extent on these last 2 posts of yours, in that the narrative right now is extremely favorable to the West and they may be slow in using it. Personally I was very happy to at least see unity in confronting Putin. Also, the world not immediately backing down upon Russian nuclear threats. But yes, the opportunity is far greater and may not be fully used.

  79. Gravatar of Christian List Christian List
    4. March 2022 at 07:28


    What makes you think that the West is not responding to nuclear threats? Unfortunately, it is extremely responsive, and that is the problem. That is also the reason why they do not intervene from NATO territory. They won’t even let Ukrainian pilots take off. This is madness. The West is once again cutting itself off, committing suicide out of fear of death.

    The West is doing way too little and they are in fact responding way too much to Putin’s threats. The West could easily push all the way to the Dnieper. Putin is appeased by giving him the Donbas and Crimea, and in case of an emergency even all of eastern Ukraine. Then the war will be over in 1-2 weeks.

    Selensky might not agree, but then the separation would have to be made without asking the local governments, as was the case with Germany and Korea. The essential thing is that the war would be over.

  80. Gravatar of Christian List Christian List
    4. March 2022 at 09:09

    “In a Q&A session with members of the conservative media, Mr. Trump was asked whether he could show as much courage as Ukraine’s President Zelenskyy.”

    Trump said that you can tell yourself that you are brave, but until you are in such a situation you do not know how you will act.
    –> not the Trump answer one would expect.

    Putin knows quite well why he didn’t attack under Trump. This man is not really predictable for anyone. He can say in the first sentence that he likes Putin a lot. In the second sentence he can say that he would bomb Moscow back into the Stone Age if Putin attacks Ukraine. He is utterly impossible to predict.

  81. Gravatar of anon/portly anon/portly
    4. March 2022 at 09:53

    On the specific question of Mearsheimer, he did an interview (not sure exactly when, but after the start of the war) with Isaac Chotiner:

    It’s amazing. One excerpt:

    Q: You don’t think he has designs on Kyiv?

    A: No, I don’t think he has designs on Kyiv. I think he’s interested in taking at least the Donbass, and maybe some more territory and eastern Ukraine, and, number two, he wants to install in Kyiv a pro-Russian government, a government that is attuned to Moscow’s interests.

    Q: I thought you said that he was not interested in taking Kyiv.

    A: No, he’s interested in taking Kyiv for the purpose of regime change. O.K.?

    Q: As opposed to what?

    A: As opposed to permanently conquering Kyiv.

    Q: It would be a Russian-friendly government that he would presumably have some say over, right?

    A: Yes, exactly. But it’s important to understand that it is fundamentally different from conquering and holding onto Kyiv. Do you understand what I’m saying?

    Q: We could all think of imperial possessions whereby a sort of figurehead was put on the throne, even if the homeland was actually controlling what was going on there, right? We’d still say that those places had been conquered, right?

    A: I have problems with your use of the word “imperial.” I don’t know anybody who talks about this whole problem in terms of imperialism. This is great-power politics, and what the Russians want is a regime in Kyiv that is attuned to Russian interests. It may be ultimately that the Russians would be willing to live with a neutral Ukraine, and that it won’t be necessary for Moscow to have any meaningful control over the government in Kyiv. It may be that they just want a regime that is neutral and not pro-American.

  82. Gravatar of Christian List Christian List
    4. March 2022 at 10:49

    Yeah, what a genius. Mearsheimer’s hair-splitting is downright obscene. Yes, this is what imperial states do when they conquer a country: they set up a fake government, a sham government, a puppet government.

    Maybe Mearsheimer should open a history book now and then: It was called the USSR and its many satellite states.

    Nobody claims that Putin himself wants to move into the presidential palace in Kiev personally, who would have thought that. But the result is the same. Putin controls the puppet government from Moscow. Mearsheimer has no shame at all. What kind of drugs is this guy taking? He is an idiot on stilts.

  83. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    4. March 2022 at 11:22

    perplexed, You said:

    “What is the final cost/benefit analysis of provoking the Russian Hitler?”

    I see why you are perplexed, if you think that the problem with Hitler was that he was “provoked”.

    anon/portly. Thanks for that. Mearsheimer dodges the fact that any pro-Russian government in Kiev would be overthrown in 5 minutes w/o Russian control.

  84. Gravatar of Michael Sandifer Michael Sandifer
    4. March 2022 at 16:26

    I favor even harsher economic sanctions on Russia, but I think it’s fair to ask at what point, if any, do economic sanctions begin to present a greater risks to the West in terms of retaliation than direct military intervention in Ukraine?

    Sure, the sanctions will increasingly degrade the ability of Russia to fight a war over the medium and long-term, but we are potentially backing the Putin regime into a state of desperation that could far exceed that of limited NATO action in Ukraine. We could potentially end the war in Ukraine quickly, at least relatively speaking, with far less damage to Russia’s economy than may occur otherwise, for example.

    But, direct military assaults by NATO could be sufficiently shocking and humiliating to Russia that it lashes out more immediately than it will under crippling sanctions.

    Regimes can be toppled by economic crises, or humiliations on the battlefield. What we’re seeing so far is some combination of the two.

    Also, we must consider how high of an increased risk of nuclear war we’re willing to tolerate given all of our possible actions and anticipated related outcomes, realizing that such calculations are rough, at best. I’m highly skeptical of the idea we can make such calculations with much precision, and given that we may be considering only very highly improbable scenarios, it’s hard to see why the anti-interventionists should be so confident in their calculations. Again, I think MAD, as a deterrent, has possibly been greatly underestimated in its role in limiting war since the end of World War 2.

    Hence, there may be a rational case to be made for direct NATO intervention on the basis of risk management, but it’s not an argument I have the information or expertise to make. Does anyone, really?

  85. Gravatar of anon/portly anon/portly
    5. March 2022 at 09:12

    “Mearsheimer has some truly far-fetched analogies involving the Monroe Doctrine. He claims that the US would never allow foreign powers to get involved in our back yard.”

    Here he is again, with Chotiner:

    M: It’s not imperialism; this is great-power politics. When you’re a country like Ukraine and you live next door to a great power like Russia, you have to pay careful attention to what the Russians think, because if you take a stick and you poke them in the eye, they’re going to retaliate. States in the Western hemisphere understand this full well with regard to the United States.

    C: The Monroe Doctrine, essentially.

    M: Of course. There’s no country in the Western hemisphere that we will allow to invite a distant, great power to bring military forces into that country.

    Mearsheimer says something that is true – when “you live next door to a great power like Russia [or the US], you have to pay careful attention to what [they] think,” but is the point he’s making a good one?

    Even if you grant that if another country went to Canada and Mexico and formed a Nato-like military alliance with them, that in “great power” fashion the US would take steps to prevent that, Mearsheimer omits to point out that the US also acts (or incentivizes) in such a way as to make the whole idea, on the part of Canada and Mexico, *undesirable*, not something of value to them.

    While of course Russia has always made it clear – and is right now making it clear, even for the dumbest of people – that such a military alliance would be *extremely* desirable for Ukraine.

    I guess I’m just quibbling with the use of the term “far-fetched” here. Does “far-fetched” almost mean “totally f***ed up?”

  86. Gravatar of Michael Sandifer Michael Sandifer
    5. March 2022 at 16:34

    Extending on the thoughts above, the more I learn about the new sanctions, and what I’ve seene happen to the ruble since, along with the Moscow Stock Exchange Index two weeks ago, and the RSX ETF this week, among other data, suggests Russia is facing a deep depression and financial crisis.

    I suggested above that a relatively rapid defeat for Putin in the war, even if directly attacked by NATO, could well be less of a threat to his regime than the prospect of such sanctions, especially if suffered for an extended period. It would certainly better for Russian national security.

    Well, now Putin is comparing the sanctions to an “act of war”.

    Also, Putin seems to be wobbling a bit, given the behavior of his government over the past couple of days. I’m starting to think he may soon look for a way out of this, if he hasn’t begun already. After getting over the initial shock of the fiasco in Ukraine and the severity of the sanctions, and after looking at his options, perhaps he’s beginning to understand he has no choice, but to accept the best deal he can get to ease the sanctions, and exit Ukraine as gracefully as possible.

    It’ll be interesting to see what shape settlement offers take, if any serious ones are offered. Perhaps a deal that has Putin claiming he killed the Nazis in Ukraine in a police action, and declaring victory on his way out, in the context of some understanding on Ukraine and Georgia not joining NATO any time soon will be struck, if Putin can even get that much.

  87. Gravatar of James R Glass James R Glass
    5. March 2022 at 17:18

    By coincidence just before visiting here I watched a 70 minute presentation by Mearsheimer. He was just awful.

    “At times he seemed to be echoing RT talking points.”

    He sure did. Like: ‘The USA lured the Baltic states into Europe by getting them hooked on capitalism’ You know, like the drug dealer on the corner luring the local kids into trying crack. And he used this image repeatedly.

    Um, when the Eastern Block and Warsaw Pact collapsed, the alternative to capitalism and Europe for the eastern European states was…?

    He also ignored the idea that the desires of the Eastern European countries to join NATO should be even considered — denying the people of Eastern Europe any agency in their own lives. When called out on that he said his version of “Realism” considered only the actions and desires of superpowers, smaller nations don’t count.

    Kotkin really knows Russia, when people ask him about Mearsheimer he politely just rolls his eyes.

    BTW, here’s Kotkin on Ukraine as of yesterday, as sharp as ever:

    “In the long run this is 95% about China.”

  88. Gravatar of Jim Glass Jim Glass
    5. March 2022 at 18:44

    Yikes! Watch Putin talk 20 years ago.

    It’s like watching a Twilight Zone episode!

  89. Gravatar of anon/portly anon/portly
    6. March 2022 at 12:36

    The Kotkin video was interesting. I’ve heard of him but wasn’t aware of his views. I particularly liked this part:

    “….and so we’re left where we are now, where Russian elites need a stake in the international order. And that stake would mean that instead of being incentivized to disrupt and overturn, they would be incentivized to help that international order be stable. But we can’t allow the price for that incentivization, for that stake in the international order, to be the freedom of other countries.”

    He goes on to say he’s been arguing this “since Kindergarten.”

  90. Gravatar of James R Glass James R Glass
    7. March 2022 at 05:08

    China on Ukraine and Russia:

  91. Gravatar of Brian Donohue Brian Donohue
    7. March 2022 at 08:41

    This reads like a John Mearsheimer critique of “market monetarism”, a subject that almost everyone gets wrong. I will say again that within your field of expertise, you are awesome, and outside of it, your takes are flimsy.

    Thoughts on George Bush as a Hitler figure that tried to take over the world?

  92. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    10. March 2022 at 09:24

    Brian, “Thoughts on George Bush as a Hitler figure that tried to take over the world?”

    LOL. And you think I lack expertise in foreign policy!

  93. Gravatar of Clark Johnson Clark Johnson
    13. March 2022 at 18:56

    Scott — Sweden, Ireland etc are neutral by choice — and perhaps not for much longer. Economists might even say they have been free-riders. Ukraine should have chosen neutrality by geopolitical necessity. Even EU membership would be problematic for Ukraine. Your preference is a kind of League of Nations-style “collective security” to which all countries might belong. We know how that worked out with the League of Nations. NATO is a military alliance; East Europe experts have for decades been warning of trouble.
    Nazi Germany was a threat to become a hegemon in Europe, which is why the US finally intervened to stop it. Russia is nasty these days, but no such threat to US security interests — China provides the hegemonic threat these days, and that is where US resources should be directed (obviously, I hope we never have a war with China!)
    In Nov and Dec 2021, Biden and Blinken offered Ukraine enough to provoke Russia, but not enough to defend Ukraine in the aftermath. I am not sure why you resist that conclusion! (Btw, I say this as a Democratic voter.)
    Your comment that Mearsheimer did not forecast a Russian invasion of Ukraine is accurate (at least for that occasion in 2015), but so what? He certainly predicted strong Russian reaction as some point — what he anticipated was much closer to being accurate than have been expectations of most of the last few US administrations.

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