The New Observer International affairs Crying in the wilderness

Crying in the wilderness

John Mearsheimer is one of the few people in the West (I mean figures from academia, politics or the think-tank world) who has a cogent and thought out analysis of the Ukraine war. He, with amazing courage and steadfastness, comes on programme after programme and expounds (and develops) his view. In this clip he is debating with Carl Bild, former Swedish politician and a annoying and disturbing Nordic sounding woman.

This conversation typifies the problem. Carl Bild and the disturbing Nordic looking woman present the liberal (and especially Baltic) discourse. Opposing this is Mearsheimer with his scholarly analysis.

Just time for a few extracts and comments:

At 8.15 and following Bild tries the well-worn line that wants us to believe that no one was talking about Ukraine and NATO and so this is no justification for the Russian action. E.g. “since then [2008] there has not been a single serious discussion about NATO membership”. This is entirely false. Bild is an experienced diplomat; he can’t not know this is false. For example, as Mearsheimer points out, there is the 2021 Ukraine-US Strategic Charter which loudly reaffirmed US commitment to putting Ukraine in NATO. We can add; in the same document, it is reaffirmed that Crimea belonged to Ukraine. So Putin’s pre-war justification that he is trying to pre-empt the situation of provocateurs in Ukraine starting a NATO-Russia war over Crimea is clearly rational. (One can, of course, argue that had Russia not annexed Crimea then this problem would not arise – but, as Mearsheimer would probably argue, this isn’t the point. In 2021 Crimea was effectively part of Russia and thus the 2021 Strategic Partnership Charter was an obvious red flag).

At 8.51 and following Bild says that “Ukraine wanted to have a free trade agreement with the European Union… the Ukrainians were knocking on the EU door… Putin forced Yanukovych with the most brutal means to go back on that… that caused the people of Ukraine to go to Maidan… we want to be part of this… they wanted to go the same way… Ukraine is a democracy… they have elections… to go West… I think Putin sees a successful democratic Ukraine as a threat not to Russia but to the sort of Russia he represents.. a threat to his Russian regime”

A couple of comments. The main point perhaps is in this speech there is nothing, zero, about those people in Ukraine who did, and do, not want to join the EU in emulation of Poland. There are millions of these people, more so in the East of Ukraine. The deposed President Yanukovych got more support in the East of Ukraine. It is, surely, obvious that if you only reference one faction in a divided country and only allow their views to the count, that there is going to be a problem?

Putin may well have leant heavily on Yanukovych to drop the EU Association Agreement; but, Yanukovych was the elected President (referencing Bild) and was entitled to make that decision. Putin may well have put Yanukovych under pressure, but the offer of discounted gas and a huge loan is a legitimate diplomatic tactic – and “brutal” only in that sense. Richard Sakwa, another independent voice on this conflict, argues in his book Frontline Ukraine, that Putin had attempted to have a tri-part discussion about Ukraine and the EU but was rebuffed:

Since the establishment of the EaP, Putin had repeatedly advanced various formats for trilateral discussion between Moscow, the EU and the respective partnership countries. Various plans had been proposed to modernise Ukraine’s gas transit network and to manage the trade issues that would arise from signing the DCFTA. Such ideas were repeatedly rebuffed, with for example Barroso being quoted by news agencies as late as 29 November 2013 as saying: ‘Russia’s inclusion in the talks on setting up an Association Agreement between the EU and Ukraine is wholly unacceptable.’ [1]

It is clear from Bild’s comments that he believes in the model that in Russia there are millions of people groaning under a dictatorship all yearning to be like Poland and even (he cites his own country as the prime example of democracy) like Sweden. This was not true for Ukraine – to make it true, Bild has to wipe out the millions of people in Ukraine who had a different vision, in which, while independent of Russia, they still maintained ties to Russia. It is even less true of Russia. The majority of Russians are not yearning for Swedish style democracy. The majority of Russians are, broadly speaking, happy with some kind of “managed democracy”. This is Peter Kenez, (Professor at the University of California):

The same polls [during Putin’s second term] show that the great majority of Russians do not believe that they live in a democratic country, and they are not much bothered by this. “If everything is going well,” they see no need for an opposition. [2]

While members of a Western-oriented and liberal section of the population, concentrated mostly in Moscow and St. Petersburg, dislike the autocratic form of government under which they are compelled to live, the majority of the Russian people do not feel that the state plays too great a role in their lives. [2]

We may conclude that no more than perhaps a tenth of the population supports a genuinely liberal project, that is, one fundamentally compatible with Western values. [2]

The narrative attack line that what the Kremlin was really worried about was Ukraine becoming a successful liberal democracy like Poland and saw this as a threat to their “regime” assumes that there is a strict divide between the “regime” and the people in Russia. This is not the case; most Russians are quite happy with the somewhat less than democratic system they have. The argument is not completely without merit; were Ukraine to have joined the EU and (it had a very long way to go) have overtaken Russia in wealth and liberalism then there could, arguably, be some kind of domino effect. One can hypothesise,, along these lines, making any number of assumptions (including that Russia did not develop as fast as Ukraine and at some point Ukraine overtakes Russia, that Ukraine dealt with its corruption problem, that democracy could actually be established in Ukraine and so on). But this is a very condescending and hubristic line. In fact it is almost a romantic argument. It assumes that our system is so wonderful that sooner of later everyone will come to it. It denies Russia “its own path to development” and it simply denies Russia the right to have had strategic security concerns like anyone else, and to have had any valid concerns about Donbas in the present. In fact Carl Bild here expresses the dangerous “liberal delusion” that Mearsheimer so effectively criticises in his book “Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities“.


  1. Sakwa, Richard. Frontline Ukraine: Crisis in the Borderlands (p. 76). Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition.
  2. Kenez, Peter. A History of the Soviet Union from the Beginning to its Legacy (p. 307). Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.