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HomeGlobal Perspective & Critical ResearchPlayful Offensive Ideas: Structural Realism, Classical Realism and Putin's War on Ukraine

Playful Offensive Ideas: Structural Realism, Classical Realism and Putin’s War on Ukraine

Author: Harald Edinger

Affiliation: The School of Politics and International Relations (SPIRe) at University College Dublin

Organization/Publisher: International Affairs

Date/Place: November 02, 2022/ UK

Type of Literature: Journal Article 

Number of Pages: 21 


Keywords: Structural Realism, Classical Realism, Ukraine, Russia



John Mearsheimer’s analysis of the causes of Russia’s war against Ukraine has sparked a wide debate among academia and policymakers, particularly after he was accused of assigning blame for the war solely to the West. Structural realism, in particular, received scathing criticism for allegedly attempting to justify Russia’s invasion. This controversy has raised numerous questions regarding the tenets of structural realism advocated by Mearsheimer and other proponents. This article aims to clarify Mearsheimer’s argument by contextualizing it within the broader framework of realism, including its offensive and defensive aspects.

The first section of the article provides an explanation of Mearsheimer’s analysis of Ukraine’s war and its relevance to offensive and defensive structural realism. Initially, the author highlights that John Mearsheimer has consistently maintained the view that the West bears significant responsibility for the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. Mearsheimer argues that, similar to the 2014 crisis, there are “deep causes” and “pressing reasons” behind the war. These include factors related to Russia’s national and modified perspective, as well as Ukraine’s domestic policies, which undoubtedly contribute to the crisis.

Delving into the root causes of the crisis, Mearsheimer emphasizes NATO’s eastward expansion and its role in provoking Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine. He contends that not only did the United States and its European allies fail to provide sufficient security assurances to Ukraine, but they also misled the country by repeatedly promising NATO membership without any genuine intention to fulfill that commitment. Mearsheimer further suggests that Ukraine retaining its nuclear deterrent could have ensured long-term European security. Similarly, Stephen Walt shares a similar viewpoint, with both theorists concurring that the crisis could have been avoided if the West had pursued different actions.

Harald Edinger presents an argument that challenges Mearsheimer’s analysis of the Ukrainian crisis, pointing out discrepancies in his offensive factual reasoning. The article aims to illustrate the distinctions and overlaps between defensive and offensive structural realism. While Kenneth Waltz and John Mearsheimer agree that states are primarily driven by security considerations due to the anarchical international system, they disagree on how to achieve security. Furthermore, Waltz views international politics as primarily influenced by the actions of great powers and suggests that structural realism can be applicable to smaller powers as well. Mearsheimer shares this perspective but emphasizes the importance of global and regional dominance. These nuances may explain why Mearsheimer’s realism gains more traction among foreign and security policy analysts compared to Waltz.

From this viewpoint, the author asserts that countries to the east and southeast aligned themselves with offensive realism and swiftly joined NATO because they recognize that Russia will strive to regain its territorial dominance once it regains its strength. Based on offensive realism, it would have been possible to prevent the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the attack in early 2022 if NATO had expanded earlier to provide security guarantees for Ukraine. The author argues that even if we consider the counter-scenario that “if NATO had not expanded, Russia would not have captured Crimea, and Ukraine would be safer today,” it would not rule out the possibility of Russia attacking Georgia or Ukraine.

Regarding the concept of “urgent reasons,” the writer believes it plays a significant role in supporting Mearsheimer’s argument regarding what prompted Putin to take drastic measures in the region. These urgent reasons include Putin’s authoritarianism, Russian nationalism, Putin’s refusal to recognize the Ukrainian state, the presence of fascist groups in Ukraine, Putin’s concerns about the “consolidation of democracy” agenda, and fear of regime change. Additionally, the writer suggests that Zelensky’s actions, which Mearsheimer believes provoked Russian aggression, are questionable.

The second section of the article aims to deconstruct key components of the theory of structural realism relating to power differences and rational interests. It addresses the conflicting and unified political conclusions and recommendations put forth by structural realists. For instance, while Mearsheimer argued that the United States provoked Russian aggression by disregarding power politics, Stephen Sistanovic asserts that American and European leaders had no alternative to the decisions they made regarding the European regime since the end of the Cold War, even if it meant alienating Russia. Similarly, he believed that Russia had no choice but to respond in kind.

The article presents another criticism related to the narrow focus of structural realism on a limited set of variables at the international system level. It highlights how structural factual interpretations emphasize the causal importance of great powers and NATO while underestimating the role of other actors, particularly influential member states within the EU, whose motivations vary in terms of security and economic interests. For instance, the author touches on the significant role played by the EU in the early stages of the 2014 crisis through the extension of the partnership agreement to Ukraine, as well as the involvement of Germany and France in drafting the Minsk Agreements. In this context, the author argues that structural factual analysis should consider the series of circumstances that have weakened Russia’s competitors, such as the hasty U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and Brexit, which have affected Europe’s collective security arrangement and led to fundamental changes in its political landscape.

Furthermore, the article attempts to evaluate the rational interests behind Putin’s objectives in invading Ukraine. It questions whether his means are appropriate for achieving his goals, and even questions the sensibility of his goals themselves. If we assume the former, most realists justify Putin’s conduct as inevitable, given his deteriorating geopolitical stance towards NATO and the perceived comparative power advantage of the Russian military. However, they question the effectiveness of his means. The author argues that predicting the costs and risks associated with a specific course of action in advance is challenging. The success of Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 does not guarantee similar outcomes in the current invasion. Hence, making such an assessment becomes difficult.

If we consider the latter assumption, it may still be inaccurate. It would require classifying Putin’s decisions as either “gains” or “losses,” which is a complex process. Different perspectives need to be taken into account when attempting such an assessment. While some may view the annexation of Crimea through exploiting political turmoil in Ukraine as a “win,” this ignores the viewpoint of Russian elites who consider Crimea as part of Russia. From this perspective, Crimea and Ukraine represent a “loss” for Putin. Thus, the fear of losses may be a stronger motivating factor for the Russian President than the prospect of gains.

The author cites Stephen Walt’s argument that relying solely on structural realism cannot guarantee an accurate understanding of the causes of the Russian war in Ukraine. Structural realism tends to portray states as rational actors calculating their interests and seeking opportunities to improve their relative position. However, determining the rationality of Putin’s objectives in Ukraine is currently impossible and may remain so.

The final sections of the article delve into the emotions of anger and fear in an effort to gain a clearer understanding of Russian foreign policy actions. Regarding anger stemming from the denial of stature, the article refers to literature on Russian aspirations for recognition and how it can provide important insights for dealing with Russia in the future. The author cautions Western decision-makers against ignoring Russia’s aspirations, as doing so could escalate conflicts. For instance, Ukraine is a key factor in Russia’s regional power dynamics. When Ukraine fails to meet Russia’s expectations or attempts to assert independence, it may provoke an angry reaction from Russia.

Regarding feelings of fear, the writer suggests that Jervis’s psychological model and Mearsheimer’s offensive realism can help us understand psychological mechanisms like fear that influence Russian perceptions of threats. These perceptions can potentially lead to regional conflicts, arms races, or even superpower wars. The article highlights three central reasons that explain Russian perceptions of threat. Firstly, there is the fear of NATO expansion, which Russia views as a Cold War relic and a symbol of Western triumph and Russian defeat. Secondly, there is the fear of Western cultural influences, economic pressure, and political penetration, seen by the Russian leadership as a “cultural threat.” Additionally, socialization and cultural foundations within Russian society may contribute to a constant sense of fear among Putin and the Russian leadership.

Finally, when examining the root causes of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a range of variables within the realism paradigm, particularly structuralism, come into play, including geopolitics, local authority conflicts, ideology, personal motivations, and more. The writer cautions against solely blaming the West for Ukraine’s tragedy, as Russia’s attempt to reassert itself as a dominant regional power was to be expected. Nonetheless, the article acknowledges the simplicity and internal consistency demonstrated by Mearsheimer’s explanation of the crisis. His ability to highlight weaknesses and contradictions in the foreign and security policies of the United States and its European allies could ultimately help strengthen the Western position. Therefore, the article suggests that engaging in realistic thinking is necessary given its enduring impact on policy-making, particularly in Russia.

By: Ryma Meddah, MA in IR and International Law



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