Neo-realism and the Ukraine crisis

Explore the Ukraine crisis through the lens of neo-realism in International Relations. Delve into Mearsheimer's perspective, critiques, and the dilemma of policy versus theory.

This post is by Dr Haro Karkour, Online Tutor for Queen Mary Online's MA in International Relations and MSc in International Public Policy. Haro's research focuses on International Relations (IR) Theory.

For students who are aiming to study International Relations as a discipline, realism, particularly its later strand, neo-realism, is a dominant theory that they would encounter. No theoretical engagement with neo-realism is complete, however, without looking at contemporary events to which the theory is applicable.

An important event today is the Ukraine crisis. What does neo-realism say about the Ukraine crisis? And what does the Ukraine crisis say about neo-realism? 

Understanding Neo-Realism in International Relations

First, let us start with what neo-realism says about the Ukraine crisis. To answer this question, there is no need to look further than the work of the most prominent neo-realist scholar alive today, Professor John Mearsheimer.

According to Mearsheimer, and neo-realist theory more generally, international politics is a dangerous place. Because there is no world government to protect states, there is no 911 to dial when a state is under attack. All states, but particularly great powers, thus seek hegemony. Hegemony means to amass enough material power so that not a single state, nor a combination of states, can threaten their security.

As world hegemony is impossible for any state to achieve, Mearsheimer reasons, great powers seek regional hegemony. In other words, they seek to be in a position that no other state, or combination of states, can threaten their security in their own region. 

Neo-Realism's perspective on the Ukraine crisis

Mearsheimer applies his theory to the Ukraine crisis as follows. Russia, Mearsheimer argues, is a great power with legitimate security interests in its own region. NATO expansion to the East, along with its wars in the Balkans, posed a threat to Russian regional hegemony and thus security.

‘Moscow’ Mearsheimer therefore later concludes in Foreign Affairs, ‘did not invade Ukraine to conquer it and make it part of a Greater Russia. It was principally concerned with preventing Ukraine from becoming a Western bulwark on the Russian border’. In particular, ‘Putin and his advisers were especially concerned about Ukraine eventually joining NATO’. 

Challenges to Mearsheimer's interpretation

Given his stance, commentators critiqued John Mearsheimer’s rationalisation of Russian imperialism. For instance, the claim that Russia is only engaging in a defensive war has been critiqued by scholars, such as Felix Roesch. Putin’s war, according to Roesch, is a war of imperialism. What does the Ukraine crisis therefore say about neo-realism and its relationship with imperialism?  

The utility of Neo-Realism despite policy differences

The most important revelation of the Ukraine crisis, as far as neo-realism as a theory is concerned, is that the theory uses ‘great power politics’ and imperialism interchangeably, or, rather, the former as a euphemism for the latter. This issue became clear in Mearsheimer’s interview with the New Yorker. Isaac Chotiner, the interviewer, challenged Mearsheimer that granting Russia the right to decide for Ukraine its aspiration to be part of Europe amounts to ‘some sort of imperialism’.

Mearsheimer responded: ‘it’s not imperialism: this is great-power politics’. Missing from the equation of great power politics are the wishes of the smaller powers, the victims of imperial aggression. As Roesch wrote in response to Mearsheimer, ‘That it might have been in the interest of smaller Eastern European states to seek admission into NATO and/or the European Union and invest in economic cooperation elsewhere does not occur to Mearsheimer’. 

The dilemma of Neo-Realism: Policy and theory

To sympathetic readers of neo-realism, the theory can be detached from Mearsheimer’s problematic policy prescription in Ukraine. Mearsheimer’s colleague Paul Poast, for example, argued that one may disagree with the neo-realist policy prescription but acknowledge the utility of the theory. ‘Realism’s critics’ Poast wrote, ‘should not throw out the baby with the bath water.

The invective directed at realism misses an important distinction: realism is both an analytical school of thought and a policy position … In explaining the war in Ukraine, realism, like any theoretical framework, is neither good nor bad. But even when its prescriptions can seem unsound, it retains value as a prism through which analysts can understand the motivations and actions of states in an inevitably complex world’. 


Policy prescription however is central to Mearsheimer’s justification for the need of theory in the first place. Mearsheimer’s earlier critique of other IR theories in The tragedy of Great Power Politics, for instance, castigates their little policy value due to their theoretical errors and / or vagueness.

The same criticism applies to Mearsheimer: in conflating imperialism with great power politics, neo-realism today is unable to answer the question as to whether Putin’s war is for imperial ambition or security.

Whether, that is, the goal of hegemony is security or whether hegemony is simply an end in itself. It does not help that Mearsheimer’s examples, prior to the Ukraine crisis, drew on the history of nineteenth century British and American imperialism to make the case for hegemony. 

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Topics: MA international relations

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