Geopolitical realists like John Mearsheimer have long contended that the world’s major powers, mainly the U.S., Russia, and China, each have a defined sphere of influence. These proponents of realpolitik maintain that encroachment into one power’s domain by another is a recipe for conflict and must be steadfastly avoided. This principle is once again being hotly debated in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Mearsheimer has consistently argued that NATO’s eastward expansion towards Russia’s border, which drew into the alliance countries that were previously in Russia’s orbit, needlessly provoked Vladimir Putin. According to Mearsheimer, Ukraine’s attempts to join NATO constituted a last straw for Putin, precipitating Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, and the current war.
By his argument, Mearsheimer implies that Ukrainians have no agency. He talks about NATO’s encouragement of Ukraine to join the alliance, but completely ignores the fact that in reality, a significant majority of Ukrainians have been driving their country’s EU and NATO membership efforts. Those citizens desperately wish to be part of a rules-based system. To Mearsheimer, geography is destiny, and it necessitates Ukraine subordinating its foreign policy interests to those of its powerful neighbor, Russia. This claim warrants serious examination.
I left my native Ghana in the mid-1980s to attend university in the Soviet Union. Just months before my high school graduation, the elected civilian government in Ghana was deposed by Ghanaian military officers. The military junta quickly unleashed a reign of terror. Its armed operatives entered homes and tortured parents in front of their children on the flimsiest of charges, and engaged in a wave of extrajudicial killings. In one case that horrified the nation, three prominent judges, including the most renowned female judge in the country, were assassinated. She was abducted from her home at night in the presence of her husband and children; her charred body was discovered in a nearby forest the next day. The judges were murdered for issuing rulings the junta didn’t like. Life in Ghana then was simply hellish.
In furtherance of their efforts to win hearts and minds around the world during the Cold War, the Soviets offered scholarships to young people from the Third World to attend universities in the Soviet Union. I went there on one of those scholarships.
To their credit, the Soviets made no overt efforts to indoctrinate us once we arrived. In classes, some professors would occasionally highlight some of what they perceived to be virtues of communism vis-à-vis capitalism, but there was nothing coercive about them.
From careful observation of Soviet society during my six-year stay there, I developed an important ability to differentiate a country’s people from its leadership. The Soviet Union was once labeled as an “evil empire,” but there was nothing evil about the thousands of everyday Soviets I met there, be they Ukrainians, Russians, or any other ethnicity. Their humanity and aspirations were no different from those of people I’ve met elsewhere in the world.
In the geopolitical contests that Mearsheimer refers to, major powers vie to sell different ideological products. Largely, those competitions occur at the highest levels of government. The simple truth is that Ukraine and the other nations that border Russia don’t like what their regional power is selling. They are under no obligation to buy that product, and the realists have no business forcing it upon them.
Apple is the most valuable company in the world, with a market capitalization of nearly $3 trillion, because it makes and sells beautiful, easy-to-use and reliable products that a lot of people around the world like to buy. In the same vein, the best way to win friends in the geopolitical realm is through soft power, not the hard type—with guns blazing—that Putin likes to project.
No hegemon is automatically entitled to any regional territory. A sphere of influence must derive from the values championed by the hegemon. The governance system that Russia promotes happens to be one that vast majorities of citizens in that region, including in Russia, do not want to live under. If Putin wants to be revered as a leader of a major power, he should earn that respect.
Anyone who has lived under a brutal dictatorship, as I did briefly in Ghana, will understand why Ukrainians are yearning for the freedoms that would flow from their country’s membership of the EU or NATO. Western nationals don’t have to worry about their drinks being poisoned, as reportedly happened to Alexei Navalny, just because they criticize their leaders. The brutal repression of political opponents by the Kremlin, Russia’s constant threatening behavior towards smaller neighboring countries, and the extreme levels of corruption the regime in Moscow enables wherever its influence reaches, are primarily why countries like Ukraine want to escape Russia’s orbit.
Clearly, the Russian elite itself doesn’t quite like the system it has created. Its members keep most of their assets abroad and send their children to Western private schools. Why then should that system be imposed on other nations’ citizens?
NATO eastward expansion is the perennial bogeyman that the realists hide behind in their sympathy for Putin’s grievances. To a large extent, that is a red herring. If Putin considered NATO encroachment a security threat, what was his fear about the Association Agreement with the EU that Ukraine was close to signing in 2013 before his ally Viktor Yanukovych, the then Ukrainian president, rejected it? Yanukovych himself pointed to pressure from Russia in explaining his refusal to sign the agreement. Among other provisions, the agreement was meant to enhance the trading relationship between Ukraine and the EU, and to ease travel restrictions to continental Europe, something ordinary Ukrainians badly wanted.
The association agreement was an economic arrangement, not military, but Putin was afraid of that one too. He simply doesn’t want anything close to a functional, prosperous country anywhere near his borders to give ordinary Russians any ideas. The risk of his citizens finding out that their lives are not as great as they’ve been led to believe, is the real threat to his regime.
The meddling in other countries’ internal affairs by the West that Putin finds so distasteful is something all major powers, including Russia, do. In the West, leaders account for their international actions via their responses to expressed public opinions. They are routinely driven out of office if their answers are deemed unsatisfactory. Such conduits for protest practically don’t exist in Russia.
To buttress their arguments, Putin and his sympathetic realists accuse NATO of breaking promises it made in the 1990s that the alliance would not expand towards Russia’s borders. They conveniently never mention Russia’s obligations under the Budapest Memorandum. Signed in 1994 by Russia, the U.S., the U.K., Ukraine, and two other post-Soviet nuclear states, the accord led to Ukraine giving up its nuclear weapons in exchange for security assurances. Russia took custody of the arsenal and in return promised to respect Ukraine’s independence and territorial integrity. By annexing Crimea and later invading Ukraine, Russia has clearly violated the terms of the accord. NATO thus isn’t the only party that supposedly breaks its promises.
Putin wants a buffer zone between Russia and NATO. No Ukrainians, to my knowledge, have volunteered to be his human shields. Ukrainian lives and interests cannot be bargained away so cavalierly, as the realists are seemingly doing, in search of some elusive inter-hegemonic harmony.