In the small hours of a frigid morning seven months ago, Russia launched its surprise invasion of Ukraine. The shockwaves of Russian shelling didn’t terminate in Kyiv. Far away, ensconced in the Yale bubble, we were shocked too. Students connected online. We attended Ukraine House at Yale’s independence rallies. We donated. Over time, our thoughts gradually returned to the day-to-day of college life. But how can one ignore the ongoing murder of innocents and looming threat of nuclear escalation? So we did not forget Ukraine. Our decision to remember has manifested in a free online history course, the expansion of our Ukrainian language program, and Yale’s institutional aid initiatives. 

Have these efforts changed the course of the war? Perhaps not. But this activism taught us to behave as citizens of the world, who fight for all people’s right to self-determination. The dream of a world without war or coercion is what lit up inside me as I entered Sudler Hall to attend the YPU’s Ukraine debate last month. All 200 seats were packed and students were lying in the aisles. The mood was equal parts inquisitive and electric: what was to blame for such violence, such evil? 

Enter the speaker, professor John Mearshimer. “Don’t believe everything you read,” he told us. He meant, “there’s no need to be inquisitive.” We were told the conflict was simple, a cut and dry problem of power politics: Putin was forced to invade Ukraine due to NATO’s intrusion into Russia’s sphere of influence. 

This narrative operates on Mr. Mearshimer’s theory of “offensive realism”: in a dog-eat-dog world, states act reasonably to prioritize their self-preservation. The beauty of this theory won Mr. Mearsheimer an audience of millions; yet, perversely, it also justifies every aggressor’s use of arms. The veneer of logic over offensive realism is precisely its greatest oversight: examining history easily dissuades us of Putin’s “reasonability.” Thinking through Mr. Mearshimer’s arguments, however, offers the opportunity to train ourselves to reject misunderstandings of history and the evils they can justify. 

The first question to unpack is whether NATO sought to include Ukraine in a plot to “contain” Russia. Certainly, Putin is more isolated than ever: Sweden and Finland will soon enter NATO. Member nations bordering Russia are clambering for military assistance should the scope of Russian expansion enlarge. Yet this upsurge in support for NATO roots from fear. These nations fear that soon they too might be at the receiving end of Putin’s familiar playbook: misinformation, economic pressure, and funding of separatists, which had previously torn apart Georgia and Moldova

If Russia feels outplayed by popular revolutions against the various puppet leaders it installed around Eastern Europe, it has only itself to blame. Post-Cold War NATO expansion certainly helped export US economic and cultural influence; more materially, the alliance served as an island of stability amidst the wave of state collapse and ethnic conflict wracking Yugoslavia, Albania and Chechnya. NATO expansion symbolized a wide-eyed hope that healing and unity could supplant the iron curtain. In those years, even Russia was invited

So what changed? Blame the insecure Russian dictator, who lorded over the Soviet break-away republics to score political points at home. NATO has disavowed stationing nukes on Russia’s borderland. It withheld combat troops from the region until Russia seized Crimea. Mearshimer calls NATO’s 2008 Bucharest Summit, which proposed Ukraine and Georgia’s “eventual membership,” the step that crossed Putin’s red line. This is a gross oversimplification. 

NATO is open to all nations by the “open door policy.” New members can only be admitted by unanimous agreement, typically after applying for a Membership Action Plan (MAP), which ensures applicants meet the alliance’s economic, political, and military standards. Bucharest offered no “map” or timeline for Ukraine and Georgia’s membership. Germany and France privately argued that such a move risked incensing Putin and painted Ukrainian democracy as corrupt and immature. Mearshimer cites these claims, yet forgets these voices won the day in 2008 while failing to appease Putin. Even today, Ukraine fights alone on the battleground. While the West has been willing to provide aid and arms to Ukraine, NATO membership remains off the table

Why did Russia invade Ukraine? Not in response to an outside threat, but to satisfy Putin’s imperialist urges. Realism cannot explain the war over Ukraine, because the Russian state operates under the fantasies of a single strongman. Putin styles himself as a modern Tsar; to justify such a narrative, he has fought to re-establish an ultra-conservative cultural hegemony in Eastern Europe that liberalism threatens. The many embarrassments of the Russian army are a result of the vacuity of Putin’s battle cry, not of a Western power projection into the region. 

Demagogues thrive by drilling in narratives about their opponents, and they often fall after tricking themselves into believing these very fables. Putin’s political mandate is a fairy tale of strength and orthodoxy starting back in medieval Europe. In his self-authored fanfiction, “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians,” Putin renames Ukraine “little Russia” (malorossiya), calls its existence a historical accident and denies its independence. But Russia’s no-holds-barred approach to the conflict is a sign Putin has written himself into a corner. The self-appointed “protector of the faith” describes his enemies as “little Russian” snowflakes without a “real state.” To justify his dictatorial aspirations, he must deliver victory on the battlefield. 

Sans defeat in Ukraine and at home, Putin’s Tsarist persona impels him to wage endless expansionary war. Yet, Putin can never win. Ukranians will never bow to Russian colonization. Russian citizens will see through the pseudo-history that justifies Putin’s callous warmongering. Yalies should recognize Putin as an imperialist and work to see him permanently retired. 

EDWARD KUPERMAN is a junior in Silliman College. He is a second-generation Ukrainian immigrant and friend of the Ukraine House at Yale. Contact him at