Russophobia or Measured Opposition?

Stephen Cohen and IR legend, John Mearsheimer recently did a fascinating Vice video purporting to debunk and challenge purportedly widespread opposition to Russia and Russian interference. I wanted to add my thoughts and respond to their arguments. While the premise of the video is purposefully inflammatory and cheeky (granted as Josh Zakharov put it, “Mearsheimer has made a career out of being spicy,”) their arguments are reasonable and sound—they merit debating. Despite the fact that Mearsheimer and Cohen are right on their broad foreign policy points, they fundamentally misunderstand and mischaracterize the domestic opposition to Russia in the status quo.


Mearsheimer & Cohen’s Argument

1) Critical Assumption: Russian foreign policy is best understood through the lens of offensive realism (more or less). Consequently, states seek to dominate and attain regional hegemony in order to ensure security. Thus, so-called Russian “aggression” in Crimea is actually driven by a sympathetic self-preservation. If Russia formed an alliance with or annexed Mexico and Canada, we would be threatened and we would expect the President to respond aggressively to those threats. In my opinion, a better example is the clear historical parallel to the Cuban Missile Crisis. Soviets (*cough* Russians) park missiles right next to us. We were, and would be scared—and reasonably so. Thus, the United States’ and EU’s attempts to court Ukraine and integrate it into the West was seen as really threatening.

3) Prevailing view in 2010: integrating Ukraine (militarily, diplomatically, ideationally, and economically) into the West is a major foreign policy goal of the United States and its Western Allies—through EU, via the Associative Agreement, and through NATO…you render Russia a weak regional actor. It may have ‘weakened’ Russia but it emboldened it. Weak regional actors lose out on the world stage and that comes with political consequences at home. Narrative of Putin defending Russia against the threatening West and United States is very good for maintaining the political support needed for a quasi-authoritarian/super-presidential regime.

4) The annex of Crimea secure Sevastopol and naval access to the Black Sea (plus affirms and plays into the narrative that Crimea was essentially Russian…plus ethnic Russians angry at the Kievan government which has been antagonistic to them, their language and their heritage will be open to Russian control/annexation). Moreover, Russian funded insurgency in the Donbas (Donetsk and Luhansk) provides a new buffer between the West and Russia and weakens the Ukrainian state. Also, support for the Maidan is seen as destabilizing and threatening to Russia’s internal order, promoting dissent and political chaos. It certainly threatens the prevailing regime in Russia.

The argument hinges on how you understand and perceive Russia, on which narrative you subscribe to. Is Russia a) a threatened and vulnerable state that feels perpetually threatened by the West, the encroachment of NATO (bringing in the Baltic states, threatening sovereignty and Article 2(4) in Bosnia/Kosovo) or   b) a revanchist power trying to reclaim its imperial status that is inherently aggressive and expansionist?

Initial Perspective:

I honestly agree with and will grant Cohen and Mearsheimer their view of Russia (that of (a) above, because its fits the empirical reality more closely.

  • Russia has remained deeply suspicious of NATO. Moscow has always viewed NATO expansion as a step against Russia and a betrayal of the terms of the end of the cold war. Putin literally says exactly this in a speech to the Russian Foreign Service Corps.

    NATO made specific membership commitment to Georgia and Ukraine and worked with them to devise a path to membership and the Russian-Georgian War heightened this suspicion.

  • Russia’s believes that U.S. promotion of democracy and liberal values in post-Soviet states is a deliberate strategy to undermine the Russian Federation’s political structure.

The Euromaidan and “Color Revolutions” are seen as an existential threats, not just to themselves but also to the nations that border them. However, the Russian foreign policy establishment believes that “no major power walks alone.” In the aftermath of the Russian-Georgian war, Russia declared its neighboring states a zone of Russia’s privileged interests. It sees these surrounding states as potential regional allies, quasi-imperial subjects, but most importantly, critical to Russia’s security.

  • Putin announced to the Foreign Ministry personnel in July 2014 that “the events in Ukraine are the concentrated expression of the policy of containing Russia.”

    Eurasian integration was intended to provide Russia with an added measure of security against perceived Western encroachment, as well as a political move to enhance Russia’s standing. Ukraine was the most important target of the integration policy. Finally, a publicized telephone call between two U.S. officials during that time period, evaluating potential composition of Ukrainian government, fueled Russian suspicions and confirmed this world view.

Further Responses

Even if we grant Cohen and Mearsheimer their basic premise, their understanding of Russia as a state and Putin as a leader, questions remain. First, as the interviewer brought up, there is a moral dimension. Shouldn’t it be the people of Ukraine who decide whether they align with Russia or with the West.

  • Possible rebuttal: that doesn’t remove responsibility from the U.S. or the EU for making the offer in the first place.

  • Rebuttal offered by Cohen and Mearsheimer in video: international political decisions are made by world leaders acting in the interest of the survival of their states, it is not made by the whim of the people, nor should it be.

Except, foreign policy (specifically in the case of the Ukraine Crisis) was made by the people, directly contradicting this claim. Ukrainian politicians were playing (or were at least subject to) a two-level game.When Yanukovych decided to align with Russia and accept their economic package (and reject the AA and DCFTA after indicating that he would accept them), the protests that ejected him from office and ultimately elevated Poroshenko decided Ukraine’s foreign policy. An act which triggered the invasion of Crimea.

  • Another rebuttal (presumably from Mearsheimer): Morality has no place in politics or foreign policy.

Then don’t be so moralizing. Your essential point is that the US made a poor strategic decision and Russia made a reasonable strategic response that the foreign policy establishment should have predicted. But the opposition to Russia is primarily moral. They would probably agree with your fundamental that power and interests drive politics, they would disagree with you as to whether we should take that lying down.

In other words, your descriptive claim is sound, your philosophical one is wanting.

One can also agree that the U.S. is responsible (at least, strategically) for Ukraine and the result of bad foreign policy decision-making…and still bear animus towards Russia (but not necessarily have that be directly reflected in their foreign policy.

  • Rebuttal: but opposition is so wrapped up in claims of interference and the encroachment of an expansionist power! This is dangerous and needs to be stopped.

This is probably only true for a select few members of the Republican Foreign Policy Establishment. Maybe this is your audience, but it paints a disingenuous vision of opposition to Russia. Plus this is an interview with Vice, you really think the people who really disagree with you are watching Vice News every night?

The whole point of this piece and what justifies your appearance is your claim that Russophobia is rampant amongst the people and that this belief could be weaponized to justify strategically unwise conflict against the Russian Federation. Wait a second! I thought the people don’t make foreign policy! Which is it now… You’re (presumably) adopting a systems-level theory of politics to understand international relations and grand strategy, but your participation in this piece and concern for the state of public opinion verges on endorsing a liberal conception of international relations. After all, you (Mearsheimer) did do a similar thing, in The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy.

  • Further rebuttal: though Realism adopts a billiard-ball/black box view of the state in the interests of theoretical parsimony, the notion of ‘domestic politics’ mattering is not in conflict or at odds with fundamental realist premises.

Then why endorse it in one case and not the other?! Decrying the very suggestion that peoples and populations have influence over foreign policy decision making in the first instance and implicitly endorsing it in the second instance is contradictory. At the very least it deserves expanding upon.

  • Further further rebuttal: the type of domestic structure matters. The U.S.’s political system functions dramatically different than the “Pluralism-by-Default” of Ukraine.

See the analysis of the domestic origins of the Ukraine crisis above. (Also, Cohen & Mearsheimer are certainly not making this argument…)

At the end of the day, your understanding of domestic opposition to Russia and Russian interference seems misguided. In my experience, many people may be very passionate about the issue of electoral interference but that passion rarely translates into an endorsement of an aggressive foreign policy abroad. Indeed, many of these #resistors were profoundly shaped by or came of political age during the Iraq War and remain fundamentally opposed to an assertive U.S Foreign Policy. Moreover, there are a plethora of reasons to be principally opposed to Russia without endorsing, say, regime change or war.

You can be angry about 1) Russian electoral interference (strategically, ambivalence and inaction corrodes the fundamental norms of our democracy) 2) General opposition to authoritarianism and injustice 3) Repression of LGBTQ+ peoples and other marginalized communities 4) murdering political opponents and 5) jailing and silencing journalists. 5) enshrining domestic violence as a “cultural tradition.” These are all very valid reasons for being less than happy with Russia and Putin’s regime that are completely separate from Russian foreign policy as traditionally understood.


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