Answering Putin’s game of chicken tit for tat: Game theory and Russia’s war in Ukraine

By Jürgen Dieringer

Can war ever be rational? Tanks are no toys, and war is not a game like chess or strategy, people die and suffer, as we see these days in Ukraine. Rational choice and game theory, though, can explain to a certain extent the “rationality” behind the decision of a political leader to negotiate, bargain, or fire the guns. In an all-or-nothing game, the Russian president wants to play the game of chicken and see who backs off first. The Western tit for tat response seems to be an appropriate answer. But short- and mid-term, it may secure the status quo ante at best.

The status quo ante: Causes of war

Causes of war can be manifold, and several academic disciplines compete about causal explanations. Biological theories search the gens, and psychologists try to look into brains. Social sciences produce various explanations, stretching from class structure (Marxism) to nationalism. We want to approach explanations for the course of Russia’s war against Ukraine from a different angle: Rational choice and game theory, especially the game of chicken and tit for tat.

Nations – or states – usually fight wars for a purpose. The aggressor will only accept negotiations about refraining from military action if a bargain gives him at least as much as he expects from war. The method of choice before taking military action is coercive diplomacy: “Satisfy my demands or else”; hand over Donbas and install a friendly regime, or we do it our way. Some may call it to blackmail.

But even if we assume that there is a rational reason behind threatening with or going to war, those reasons are by no means uniform. Following Fearon (1995) we can at least identify four categories:

1. War from commitment problems

This is the time-inconsistency problem. Actors have difficulties making credible promises because actors’ preferences change over time. Some would sub-summon the current war in Ukraine under this heading, referring to alleged promises about not enlarging NATO eastward. From this angle, it is all the mistake of the West, as Russia’s security concerns were not respected, how the offensive realist John Mearsheimer put it. But how could a politician ever make a promise like that? He cannot make such a commitment if he subscribes to a rule-based international order that contains the sovereignty of states to decide about their foreign-policy preferences and choices.

(…) in 1997, Bill Clinton consistently refused Boris Yeltsin’s offer of a ‘gentlemen’s agreement’ that no former Soviet Republics would enter NATO: “I can’t make commitments on behalf of NATO, and I’m not going to be in the position myself of vetoing NATO expansion with respect to any country, much less letting you or anyone else do so…NATO operates by consensus.” Source NATO: NATO-Russia relations – The facts

What counts is what is in the treaties. Putin may read it differently, and his selective perception and wishful thinking led him to ignore that. So, for Putin, the argument goes like this: as I cannot trust your words, I rely on myself to take what I think is mine.

2. Bargaining over goods that are a source of future bargaining power

This is about strategically essential pieces of territory and weapon control programs. States will be reluctant to make concessions if the adversary, who is made stronger by the deal, might press for more concessions or benefits in the future. A threatened state may choose to fight today rather than to face a timeline where it is getting weaker over time. Applied to our case: Putin has to act now before Ukraine is allowed into NATO, which would weaken Russia’s relative position towards the West. One could also read it the other way around: Allowing Russia to occupy territories (Transnistria in Moldova, South-Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia, and the Crimea and Donetsk and Luhansk separatist areas) shows that the West shouldn’t have appeased Putin, now he seems to be in a better position.

3. Preventive war: A response to changing distribution of power

How is preventive war different from a preemptive strike? A preemptive strike is an attack that happens prior to a planned assault of the enemy, and the threat is real and imminent. Israel, for example, declared the 6-day-war of 1967 against an Arab coalition as preemptive, suggesting an immediate threat from the other side. Preventive wars are not based upon an immediate threat but a reaction to mid-term changes in power distribution that go against the striker. Japan’s assault on Pearl Harbor is a classic example. Another one is the US-led war against Iraq under George W. Bush and Tony Blair, where the (alleged) strive of Saddam Hussein for weapons of mass destruction might have shifted the power balance in the region. Whatever you may read about Putin’s “preemptive strike against Ukraine” is either a mistake by the publicist mixing up the terms or Russian propaganda. There was no immediate threat from Ukraine toward Russia. The Russian invasion of Ukraine can be read only as a preventive war, a reaction to a change in the balance of power (NATO eastern enlargement). The difference is immense. Preventive war is an aggressive act not backed by international law – it is illegal. Preemptive strikes are still controversial, but can be classified as an act of self-defense. Had Ukraine launched an assault on Russian troops while building up in January and February 2022, this would classify as a preemptive strike. The threat was there, as we recognize retrospectively.

4. By mistake: Wars from Incomplete Information

War by mistakes can happen when states have poor information, central pieces of information are missing, or if they demand too much from the other side under a mistaken belief. That may confuse the perception of offensive and defensive motives of the other side. Technical issues are also possible, e.g., a surveillance unit showing a nuclear attack like during the 1983 Soviet nuclear false alarm incident. We have been there during the Cold War. It required the cold-blooded reaction of a Soviet Officer to clear the confusion.

Putin’s war in Ukraine is a mixture of all that. The alleged promises of not enlarging NATO seem to be conspiracy theory, but even if promises may have been given, what Gorbachev denies, they cannot be sustained. Closer to the real reason for the war is that Putin saw the window of opportunity closing and his bargaining power shrinking. A preventive war resulted from that. Incomplete information led to the war taking a different direction than Putin might have anticipated.

Rational decisions and war

The possible causes of war show that structural and personal constraints make up the rationality of a decision. Misperceptions and misjudgments are inseparable parts of individual rationality and have to be calculated. We have to remind this when talking about rational decisions of actors with respect to war.

Rationality can be defined as the effective use of means to achieve ends. Those means must be selected based on a cost-benefit calculation and are determined by several factors. Glaser (2010) defines three sets of determinants for action in IR: The state’s motives, specifically whether it is motivated by security concerns or “greed”; material variables, which determine a state’s military capabilities; information variables: what does an actor know about his adversary’s motives.

From this background, the calculation starts, initiating a set of actions and reactions. In the case of Russia’s war in Ukraine, the motives are relatively straightforward: Ukraine wants to defend the country, Russia wants to occupy Ukraine and integrate it into the “Russian sphere”. Unclear is only the form and scope of this “integration”. At the beginning of the conflict, the material variables favored Russia, but the imbalance got moderated during the conflict due to Western military supply and intelligence aid. Regarding information, Russia has more of an internal problem, as communication between military forces and the political leadership seems to be suffering from self-censorship, and decisions are made in a groupthink environment.

If Russian action is based on security concerns, information deficits on the Russian side and a closing gap in military capability should lead to adapting the Russian strategy. However, we can expect downsizing on the scope of the campaign (what to occupy) and the quality of occupation regarding legal status (integral part of Russia, independent state, autonomous region within Ukraine). If the Russian campaign is based on greed, we will have to accept that escalation of the war is a probable continuation, and maybe we have to search for better theories to explain it.

Are you a chicken or not: What are promising strategies for Russia and the West?

Which strategies should we apply when two actors are about to clash. For example, it may take the form of a game of chicken (a mathematical simulation of conflict and cooperation within game theory), a run where both sides can win only at the cost of the other. The stakes are incredibly high as both sides can lose everything.

Hollywood projected the chicken run to the movie screen in the film "Rebel without a cause" (1955), starring James Dean.
James Dean in “Rebel without a cause” (1955)

In such a game of chicken, the calculation of the credibility of your opponent’s threat is central, and you yourself might want to cover your intentions and mislead the opponent. Convincing your opponent that you are insane (e.g. threat of Armageddon) may be a valuable strategy, a rational choice. Putin maybe plays a game of chicken in the conflict with Ukraine, aiming at an ABBA-outcome: the winner takes it all, the loser has to fall.

In combination with Ukraine, the West may most probably not enter into a game of chicken going for the full success (winning the war and removing Putin) but use a tit for tat strategy of equivalent retaliation (in biology known as reciprocal altruism). Overall, this is a very successful strategy in games. You start friendly and cooperative when opening up the game. In the second round you imitate the response of your opponent. Is he friendly, you are friendly, is he aggressive, you are aggressive. The backside: this strategy can probably lead only to a status-quo ante retreat, not to a victory over your opponent, as you are refraining from aggressive action if your opponent does. So he can stop it at any time, you can´t – just like in the war between Russia and Ukraine.

From chicken to retaliation: How does the game advance?

Here we have to check the utility for both sides. Let’s assume that status-quo has the utility of 0, improvement the utility of 1, being worse off die utility -1. There are two possible strategies: Appeasement and (counter)aggression (based on tit for tat) on the side of the challenged, aggression and backing-off on the aggressor’s side. Disclaimer: the model has, of course, many shortcomings (see the video below). It suggests that there is an isolated game going on. In fact, the opponents play repeated games, where Russia strives for territorial gains repeatedly (Georgia, Crimea). Appeasement may lower costs at the moment for the West but produce repeated high costs if Russia uses the same strategy continuously. Stopping Putin here and now may be “cheaper” than accepting feedback loops. A video from TLDR news EU deals with the choices of Russia and the West before the war broke out.

I tackle the situation after the first two weeks of the campaign. Russia made fast advances, but the situation is set up before the prospective tipping point, where Ukraine can retard but not stop Russian advances and is unable to start counter-advances (Situation 1). The second situation (Situation 2) evolves behind the tipping point, where Ukraine starts to regain control and pushes Russian troops back.

Situation 1: Situation at the beginning of the war

West and Ukraine AppeasementWest and Ukraine
Counter tit-for-tat
Utility –1; losing Donbas and CrimeaUtility 0; returning to status-quo ante, Russian de-facto control over territoriesUtility +1; gaining Donbas and CrimeaUtility 0; returning to status-quo ante, Russian de-facto control over territories

In this setting, Russia might take home a victory; the worst outcome is the status quo ante. For the West/Ukraine, the status quo ante is the best they can achieve.

Situation 2: Situation based on successful Ukrainian counter-action

West and Ukraine
West and Ukraine
Utility +1; regaining control over Donbas and CrimeaUtility 0; returning to status-quo ante, Russian de-facto control over territoriesUtility -1: losing control over Donbas and maybe CrimeaUtility 0; returning to status-quo ante, Russian de-facto control over territories

In this setting, the West/Ukraine might take home a victory; the worst outcome for the West/Ukraine is the status quo ante. For Russia, the status quo ante is the best result the country can achieve.

Russia might have missed the point where negotiations could have secured a high utility. The right time for collecting the gains was between the last pre-war phase and the first weeks of the campaign when the readiness of the West to help Ukraine out militarily was still an open question, and Kiev might even have accepted to talk about territory (utility for Russia +1 to 0). Russia advancing further and engaging in war crimes made the appeasement strategy for the West unplayable. Having to move on to Situation 2 reduces the utility for Russia to somewhere between 0 and -1 (maybe close to 0). The danger for Putin now is that escalation will further lower the utility. A rational strategy would be to start negotiating asap. While waiting, the West and Ukraine will most probably strengthen their negotiation position, but collateral costs are high.

A look into the future: Can there be a compromise?

I doubt there may be a final solution to the conflict short- and mid-term, at least without a prior regime change in Russia. But a ceasefire, freezing the conflict, may be possible. My doubts about the possibility of a substantial agreement (peace treaty) settle upon what theory and history taught us.

Robert Putnam developed a theory of negotiation called “two-level games” (Putnam 1988). He sets up a negotiation situation in which he distinguishes between the national and international levels. At the international level, bargaining takes place. The same people who are bargaining there have to make sure that they come to an agreement with the “enemy” and strike a deal that creates acceptance at home, a deal that can be ratified in the national context. The precondition for success is a utility not lower than “0”, as lower scores will undermine the power base of the political leader(s). The win-sets of both sides, that is, the ability to strike a deal on an international level and implement it at home, must overlap for a negotiated solution.

In my opinion, the win-sets of Russia and Ukraine do not overlap at a central point: territory. Not securing any territorial gains and not removing the Ukrainian government would corrupt the story Putin told in his war propaganda. Even if Ukraine has lost control over it long ago (Crimea, Donbas), giving up territory is not acceptable to the Ukrainian general public. The Ukrainian president Zelensky already announced that any peace deal with Russia would be subject to a Ukrainian referendum. Therefore, a rational decision for accepting an agreement would calculate the probability of implementing it at home, and there it may get stuck. There are many examples of such a failure: US President Wilson was not able to get US participation in the League of Nations ratified after World War I; the French Parliament refused to ratify the European Defense Community in 1952; the Colombian peace agreement between President Santos and the FARC got shredded by an unsuccessful referendum in 2016, to name but a few. A deal that balances the utility at “0” for both sides and entering a frozen conflict is a likable outcome but by far not the only one imaginable.


Fearon, J. (1995). Rationalist explanations for war. International Organization, 49(3), 379-414.Glaser, C. L. (2010). Rational theory of international politics. Princeton University Press.

Putnam, R. D. (1988). Diplomacy and domestic politics: the logic of two-level games. International organization, 42(3), 427-460.

Putnam, R. D. (2019). Two-level games: The impact of domestic politics on transatlantic bargaining. In America and Europe in an Era of Change (pp. 69-83). Routledge.

The author

Dr. Jürgen Dieringer is a Brussels-based political analyst. He is an Adjunct Professor at the Brussels School of Governance and Honorary Professor of Andrássy University Budapest. He has published widely on European Integration and East- and Central Europe.

Is the war in Ukraine really the fault of the West?

By Jürgen Dieringer

Yeltzin and Clinton

Between conspiracy and academic rigor

A curious amalgam of Russian trolls, conspiracy theoreticians and extremist politicians, but also some serious academic scholars and diplomats uphold the argument that the war in Ukraine is the consequence of western post-Cold War politics. Even former German Chancellor (and friend of Putin) Gerhard Schröder argues like this. Obviously, they all depart from different angles, and their “methodology” for coming to their statements differs extremely. So what is behind such arguments? While statements based on conspiracy theory have to be rejected from the outset, the argument in academia deserves a thorough check.

Mearsheimer, the oracle of offensive realism

Realists agree on some paradigmatic assumptions: anarchy in the international environment creates a security dilemma. The principal actors in international relations are states, and in the absence of a higher authority, they can rely only on self-help, because the future behavior of countries is unpredictable. In an ideal case, a balance of power establishes an equilibrium of great powers. If a country acts out of the system’s constraints, it gets punished and may be relegated to a lower position. The “system” is defined as the relationship between anarchy and capabilities.

But even realists disagree on one significant consequence of the security dilemma. Defensive realists like Kenneth Waltz argue that states react with defensive measures in case of a disturbed balance of power. Offensive realists like John Mearsheimer say that the reaction will be offensive, as he explains in his recent book “the tragedy of Great Power Politics”.

Click on cover to see content of the book

Mearsheimer, professor of the University of Chicago, builds upon an article of former US diplomat George Kennan in the New York Times in 1997, who rejected NATO enlargement outright – even by countries like Poland or Hungary. George F. Kennan was the father of the US containment policy (1947) that aimed at retarding and containing the spread of communist ideology and territorial expansion of the Soviet bloc.

“The view, bluntly stated, is that expanding NATO would be the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-cold-war era.” (George Kennan, New York Times, February 5, 1997).

As a consequence of NATO enlargement, Kennan expected nationalistic, anti-Western, and militaristic tendencies in Russia to grow, with an adverse effect on the stabilization of Russian democracy and the danger to provoke a new Cold War.

Mearsheimer himself was very explicit on Russia and Ukraine. That was long before Putin invaded Ukraine full scale but after the Russian occupation of Crimea.

Mearsheimer’s argument: the position of Russia in the balance of powers got distorted by enlarging the Western sphere of influence eastwards. Consequentially, Moscow reacted as Mearsheimer predicted: offensively. Ergo, by disturbing the balance of power, the West provoked Russia to aim at reestablishing the equilibrium.

“Imagine the American outrage if China built an impressive military alliance and tried to include Canada and Mexico.” (John Mearsheimer in Foreign Affairs, p. 83).

This argumentation is coherent only if you are an offensive realist arguing that ambitions of states are offensive in general. Are Mexico and Canada threatened by the US? Is Ukraine threatened by Russia? This is where Mearsheimer’s theory is too simplistic: seen one, seen ’em all. There may be both offensive and defensive ambitions, and it does matter which ambitions prevail.

Ukraine’s reaction to systemic turmoil: Balancing or bandwagoning?

If the distortion of the equilibrium challenges a minor power, the country has two strategies at hand: to balance or to bandwagon. Balancing means the establishment or joining of alliances directed against the challenger of the status quo – with the danger of getting crushed. Bandwagoning means to align with the challenger, satisfying its demands, and giving up on a certain amount of sovereignty. During the post-Cold War decades, Ukraine changed its attitude several times. The present government under Zelensky counterbalances Russian aggression and ambition by aligning with the West. President Yanukovych (in office from 2010-2014) bandwagoned with Russia until he got swept away by the protests on Euromaidan. In our case, one strategy means peace and oppression, the other freedom and war. What a choice! Now we watch the showdown.

Do the realist arguments hold?

At first sight, the reasoning of the realists makes a lot of sense. Don’t they give an appropriate description of what is happening on the ground? At second sight, I have strong reservations, especially in three respects:

  1. Realist approaches neglect domestic and cultural explanations, at least in the neorealist variation of Waltz or Mearsheimer, putting structure before agency. Can we explain the Russian-Ukrainian war independently from Putin, his personality, or the fact that the Russian political system is missing checks and balances? Was there really a security threat (I doubt that there was one in the military sense), or was it more Putin’s view on history and his phantom pain of an empire lost that caused trouble? In his Foreign Affairs article Mearsheimer rejects the idea that Putin is driven by the demise of the Soviet Union and denies that the Russian president wants to conquer Ukraine (Mearsheimer in Foreign Affairs, p. 85). History has proved him wrong – another hint that structural argument and neglecting domestic politics and culture are a mistake.
  2. Neorealism is a “positive” theory, “positive” in an epistemological sense. It tries to explain only what is out there, does not establish a measure – normatively – of what should be out there, for example with respect to a “good” order. In doing so, realists put power over values and sometimes miss to produce advice beyond pure Machiavellianism.
  3. Many theories challenge the basic realist statement that the security dilemma is inescapable. Liberals transform Hobbesian enmity into a regulated competition, a Lockean positive-sum game. Constructivists bring values and culture back in and allow the moderation of the security dilemma based on Kantian friendship. The inevitability of conflict caused by an inescapable security dilemma, as portrayed by realists, gets replaced by opportunities of moderation. Politics is back in.

So, should we follow Mearsheimer’s advice and accept the Russian sphere of influence over Eastern Europe? And where does Eastern Europe end, in the city center of Berlin, the Alexanderplatz? If we subscribe to this reading of the world, we have to neglect the sovereignty of nations to design their destiny. We don’t allow them to say where they want to belong: to the West, the East, EU, NATO, or whatever is out there to moderate anarchy. That means rejecting a rule-based international order where self-determination and human rights are cornerstones of political action. It is just not acceptable that great powers define a country as a “buffer zone” ignoring what the country at stake wants, and which role perception it follows.

“The United States and its allies should abandon their plan to westernize Ukraine and instead aim to make it a neutral buffer between NATO and Russia”.

John Mearsheimer in Foreign Affairs, p. 87

This is 19th Century great power politics, and proposing it is suggesting a backflip into the pre-World War 1 setting, constituting a rupture in modern civilization.

Democracy in Russia: default setting or utopian?

Hence, there are pretty good counter-arguments to the realists’ claims of the stickiness of the security dilemma in international affairs, especially by the paradigmatic challengers of realists: the liberals. Democracies don’t fight wars against each other, at least if they are fully-fledged “quality-democracies”, guaranteeing civil rights beyond basics like free elections. Democratic Peace Theory suggests supporting democracy to sustain peace. Economic Peace Theory suggests interdependence by economic integration through trade, and new institutionalism offers socialization in institutions. Based on these three elements, it is clear what the West should do: promote democracy, foster trade, and push institutionalization. If successful in spreading Western-style governance, security will come along automatically. Wasn’t this what the West was doing so far? What went wrong?

In the year 1991, at the point of departure, when Boris Yeltsin dissolved the Soviet Union, western-style democracy and market economy was the only imaginable model available as a blueprint for reform. People asked for this, and China showcased the “alternative” on Beijing’s Tiananmen square. So, democracy and market economy for everybody.

Putin’s war against Ukraine falsified Francis Fukuyama’s famous hypothesis about “the end of History” at the latest. People found “alternatives” to a Western lifestyle and political order – in classical authoritarian regimes like Turkey or Russia, in ideologies like populism (right-wing movements all over Europe), in faith-based order like political Islam (Afghanistan and others). In some countries, ideologies merged, like populism and Hinduism in India. That means that the western model has to stand competition. And how the West presented itself is not always convincing.

The problem: Western ignorance

To put it plainly: The West lost attractivity. I perceive a certain complacency and immobility in Western thinking and action. The Germans may remember best. The Western “Bonner Republic” was just extended to the East, with the argument: we have the best constitution (Grundgesetz) in the world, no need to introduce a new one. The central justification for pulling the West over the East was a reference to Russia: the window of opportunity for reunification was wide open, with no time for a lengthy discussion. Maybe that was even right, and action was tactically appropriate, but it left mixed feelings in the East. Nowadays, the model “West” does not produce enough attraction anymore. Western magnetism ran out of energy. If coercion via conditionality replaces mimicry, we have a problem. You cannot build a house on quicksand. Unleashed capitalism, fostered and nursed by Thatcherism and Reaganomics of the 1980s, and not altered under the Clinton-Blair-Schröder triumvirate, left its imprint. The neoliberal economic model (shock-therapy and Washington consensus) was the blueprint for transformation in the East, its effects producing imbalances. A more socially constrained capitalism might have produced different outcomes. This way, we lost entire generations, and today they support Putin, who wants to restore the good old days.

What the West has really done

What the West has not done, is to promise that NATO is not going to enlarge, neither during the Gorbachev-Bush nor in the Yeltsin-Clinton time. Gorbachev states clearly:

The topic of ‘NATO expansion’ was not discussed at all, and it wasn’t brought up in those years. I say this with full responsibility. Not a single Eastern European country raised the issue, not even after the Warsaw Pact ceased to exist in 1991. Western leaders didn’t bring it up, either.” Mikhail Gorbachev (Source: NATO).

Declassified documents from the US National Security Council show that President Clinton later did refuse to satisfy President Yeltsin’s demands in this respect.

So, what was done by the West to pull Russia in? Let’s look at the three factors that liberals promote as safeguards for peace: Institutionalisation of inter-state relations, economic interdependence, and democracy.


Russia got partly integrated into Western institutions. Until the war with Ukraine, Russia was a member of the Council of Europe. Moscow still is a member of WTO. G7 became G8, and even NATO established relations with Russia in an institutionalized setting in 1994: the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council (the EAPC consists of all NATO member countries and all countries of the post-Soviet space), and, even denser, the NATO-Russia Council (NRC, established in 2002). The NRC addresses a plenitude of security issues, such as arms control,h defense transparency, or conflicts like in Afghanistan.

Beyond that, Russia is integrated into several regimes stretching from space cooperation to scientific programs and environmental policies. Still, the speed of integration slowed down. Russia got suspended from G8 long before the current war with Ukraine, and the Council of Europe suspended Russian membership in March 2022.


Economic integration with the West is based on a certain asymmetry. It is predominantly raw materials that make up Russian exports. We speak of a classical rentier economy that does not take care of the future by engaging in the diversification of production. Instead, “Dutch disease” will be a problematic feature of Russian economic development, an economy suffering from one-sidedness. The following graph shows that the Russian integration into the world market could be stronger for a country of that size, and Moscow managed only with Europe to develop a considerable trade regime, and sanctions have been retarding development for more than a decade.

Russian trade


And this is where the real threat lies. Putin is not afraid of NATO’s bombs, and they are no military threat to Russia. But he indeed is scared of the western model, especially of democracy. Democracy and an open society are not threatening Russia, but the stability of Putin’s regime, his grab on power. Other than most realists, I distinguish between Putin and Russia, not assuming that states are unitary actors. Putin’s vision of a restored empire, combined with democratic transparency as a threat to his economic status, seems to have explanatory value. Successful alternatives to Putinism threaten the Russian president. Ukraine could be perceived as the “better Russia”, and Belarussians, Kazaks, and Ukrainians have shown on the streets how vulnerable the power basis of Eastern dictators is. The real threat is Putin’s internal vulnerability, not NATO’s tanks.

Here we can come back to Kennan’s argument, that the Eastern enlargement of NATO challenges democratic development in Russia. What is verified is the decline of Russia’s democracy, as the Bertelsmann Transformation Index shows:

But be aware of the trap: avoid confusing correlation with causality. Democracy is challenged everywhere, in NATO countries as well, in Poland, in Hungary, in Turkey, not to speak of the US under Trump. The path into Putin’s autocracy was not predetermined by NATO’s enlargement, but by internal developments. And, again, this is not what structural realists like Mearsheimer really look at.

Is today’s Russia the product of Putin, or is Putin the product of Russia?

Does every country get the leaders it deserves? On the one hand, it is hardly imaginable that Russia was the same without Putin. His personality and his fallacies put a sign on Russia’s role in the international environment. On the other hand, the structural argument also seems to produce explanatory value. The development of Russia is path-dependent. The triple transformation (of the political system, the economic order, and societal changes) was chaotic, disorderly. It was based on Manchester-like capitalism where oligarchs became extremely rich and significant parts of the population stayed very poor. As a result, “order” was the day’s demand, and who else could provide order better than somebody who grew out of – and was supported by – the only structures still functioning: the KGB? Putin is the product of a strange combination of secret service and banditry that was unleashed in the anarchic situation of the transition. Chaotic situations produce a cry for strong leadership, but society then has to live with this decision and the consequences of somebody who confuses ambition with capabilities.


The Cassandras around Mearsheimer do have a point – but only if you see it from a perspective that relegates a complexly interdependent and rule-based world (in which countries do have the sovereign right to align with whomever they want) to the dustbin of history. If there was a fault by the West – or a shortcoming – then it was the failure to integrate Russia enough into Western structures, helping to establish a role model for the country that creates societal support. The West acted half-heartedly. Interdependence and institutionalization of NATO-Russia relations were short of the critical point of no return. A good lesson for post-Putin relations with Russia and for the stance towards Ukraine during the war. But buying Mearsheimer’s argument and acting according to his suggestions meant marching straight back into the 19th century.


John Mearsheimer: Why the Ukraine Crisis is the West’s Fault: The Liberal Delusions that Provoked Putin, Foreign Affairs 93(5), 77-89.

The Author

Dr. Jürgen Dieringer is a Brussels-based political analyst. He is an Adjunct Professor at the Brussels School of Governance and Honorary Professor of Andrássy University Budapest. He has published widely on European Integration and East- and Central Europe.