an existential threat?

John Mearsheimer made the case against Ukraine on a well-attended panel discussion at the American Political Science Association. I don’t agree with those who disapprove of giving him a platform. If he’s wrong, his views should be aired so they can be rebutted, and I think that’s what happened when my Tufts colleague Oxana Shevel and other co-panelists debated him at APSA. If he has any actual insights, we should listen and use them.

I would emphasize a point that probably arose already in the panel discussion (some of which I had to miss). Mearsheimer said repeatedly that Russia faces an “existential threat” in Ukraine and is responding rationally and predictably. When he completed this phrase, it turned out not to mean a threat to Russia’s sovereignty, autonomy, or security within its borders. Mearsheimer meant a threat to Russia’s status as a great power.

I do not doubt that Putin and other Russian nationalists view a successful and European-oriented Ukraine as diminishing Russian global power. But this is the problem: Russia is not actually a great power.

In 2019, before the pandemic and the current full-scale war, Russia ranked right below Canada (population: 38 million) in GDP, and well below each of four European countries (Germany, the UK, France, and Italy). Its medium-term economic prospects were much worse than theirs because Russia is so dependent on fossil fuels. In population, Russia lies right between Bangladesh and Mexico (which has almost as big an economy), but its population has shrunk since 1992.

To be sure, Russia has a large military. In 2019, it ranked fourth in the world in military spending and sixth in the number of military personnel (at least on paper). But it arguably could not afford this expense. The Russian military cost 4.3% of its GDP, versus 3.7% in the USA, which nevertheless spent 11 times as much. That year, the proportion of the population that was enlisted in the military was four times as high in Russia as in the USA (an economic burden). And Russia was probably getting bad value for its military spending because of endemic corruption.

Russia has a vast supply of nuclear weapons, sufficient to end civilization. Nuclear weapons guarantee its security against a foreign invasion, and certainly pose a risk to other countries. Perhaps they are an asset in a conflict like the current one, because the US would be more likely to supply Ukraine with aircraft and long-distance guided missiles absent the nuclear threat. On the other hand, nuclear weapons are difficult to use to support conventional political aims.

It is a dilemma if Russia lacks the underlying basis for being a superpower yet views any events that diminish its great-power status as existential threats. However, the proposed solution of allowing Russia to act like a superpower is not only unjust; it is also unrealistic. Sooner or later, Russia must navigate the difficult road that Britain and France began to travel after 1945, reluctantly and incompletely acknowledging that they could no longer have empires. The USA should also make that transition, but in our case, the imperative is justice rather than necessity, since we actually retain the capacity to project global power.

See also: Russia in the larger history of decolonization; when states are blind

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.