When Russia annexed Crimea in March, American policymakers were taken by surprise. They shouldn’t have been, argued the political theorist John J Mearsheimer in a New York Times op-ed. After all: ‘Mr Putin’s behaviour is motivated by the same geopolitical considerations that influence all great powers, including the United States.’
Mearsheimer is one of the leading exponents of offensive realism, the theory that international politics has always been, and will presumably remain, ‘a ruthless and dangerous business’. In the absence of a world government that could protect the weak from the strong, all states seek as much power as possible: there is no better way to ensure their own survival. So says the offensive realist.
There are, of course, other ideas in the marketplace of international relations theory (which might itself explain the general confusion over Russia’s recent activity). Liberal theories, for example, tend to downplay the quest for strategic advantage, focusing instead on such internal characteristics of states as their form of government. But, strange as it might seem, such distinctions do not make much difference on the international stage. Democracies and dictatorships appear similarly jealous of power.
So offensive realism enjoys better empirical support than other theories of international relations. At the same time, it is clear that more is at stake in international politics than naked geopolitical calculus. One limitation common to most realist theories is their assumption that states act as purely rational agents, coldly calculating the course of action that would yield the highest material advantage. In fact, state policy is often influenced by seemingly irrational considerations. No truly rational utility-maximiser could take something such as ‘national honour’ seriously, yet states frequently do.
An injection of evolutionary thinking might help to explain why.
This billboard in Sevastopol says: “Welcome, NATO! This is my city” Source
The background of the billboard is provided by a famous painting by Alexander Deyneka, Defense of Sevastopol, which I have already discussed in a previous blog, Economic Sanctions against “Sacred Values”: Why Sanctions Will Not Deter Russia. The message, then, is that NATO is equated with the German Nazis.
As I wrote in the Aeon article:
In another little-noticed part of his address, Putin evoked the image of NATO establishing a naval base in Sevastopol should Crimea slip out of Russian control. There is a suspicion among Russian policymakers that the real motive of the US in detaching Ukraine from Russia is to expel the Black Sea Fleet from Sevastopol and replace it with a NATO military base. It doesn’t matter whether this is really the US goal; what matters is that the thought of NATO boots on Sevastopol’s hallowed soil is intolerable to many Russians. As Putin remarked: ‘I simply cannot imagine that we would travel to Sevastopol to visit NATO sailors.’