Mearsheimer, Realism, and the Ukraine War

Nicholas Ross Smith, Grant Dawson

Research output: Journal PublicationArticlepeer-review

19 Citations (Scopus)


The usefulness of 'realism' in explaining Russia's decision to invade Ukraine has become a keenly contested debate not only in International Relations but in wider public intellectual discourse since the onset of the war in February 2022. At the centre of this debate is the punditry of John J. Mearsheimer, a prominent offensive realist who is a Professor of International Relations at the University of Chicago. This article argues that although Mearsheimer is indeed a realist, his offensive realism is but one of many different realist theories that can forward an explanation of the Ukraine War. Beyond the apparent hegemony of structural realism (the branch of realism to which Mearsheimer's offensive realism belongs), it is argued that classical and neoclassical realist frameworks can provide more nuanced and, ultimately, convincing arguments as to why Russian President Vladimir Putin decided to invade Ukraine. This is because both classical and neoclassical realism can incorporate insights from non-realist studies-such as the concepts of civilization and ontological security-and combine them into an overarching power politics framework. Although neither classical nor neoclassical realism is flawless in their explanations, they demonstrate that realism does not just have to be about international power structures but can offer multivariate accounts of why a state, like Russia, decided to act, such as invading Ukraine.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)175-200
Number of pages26
JournalAnalyse und Kritik
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 1 Nov 2022


  • Russia
  • Ukraine
  • civilization
  • classical realism
  • neoclassical realism
  • ontological security
  • realism
  • structural realism

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Philosophy


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