Koch-funded analyst raises doubts about Russian attacks on Ukrainian civilians
A foreign policy analyst with extensive ties to the non-profit network operated by Charles Koch publicly cast doubt about whether Russian forces are attacking civilians in Ukraine. The analyst, Professor John Mearsheimer, also suggested that, if Russian forces have attacked civilians, such attacks would be justified. While offering excuses for Russia, Mearsheimer appeared to pin the blame for civilian deaths on the actions of the American government.
Mearsheimer's claims — which mirror those from the Russian Defense Ministry — are contradicted by photographic, videographic, and testimonial evidence of what has occurred in Bucha and other areas of Ukraine.
Mearsheimer statements about Ukrainian civilians came during an April 7 discussion hosted by Katrina vanden Heuvel, the publisher of The Nation. Toward the end of the hour-long event Mearsheimer said the following as part of his closing remarks (emphasis added):
You talked about Putin targeting civilians, or the Russians targeting civilians. It’s obviously very hard to tell what’s exactly happened here. But with that caveat in mind, you want to remember that the Americans have been pushing to arm civilians in Ukraine and to tell those civilians to fight against the Russians. So by definition, in lots of the firefights that have taken place and will take place. Russians are going to be fighting against civilians because those civilians are fighting against the Russians. So just remember, this is a very complicated business.
Mearsheimer was responding to French historian Marlene Laruelle who, much earlier in the event, had described the Russian operation as "a full-scale invasion targeting civilians." At no point did Mearsheimer acknowledge that unarmed Ukrainian civilians were being targeted and killed by Russian forces. (You can watch Mearsheimer's comments, and the full event, here.)
Mearsheimer's comments on Ukrainian civilians are consistent with his broader views on the war, blaming the United States while excusing or justifying Russian aggression. Writing in The Economist on March 11, Mearsheimer asserted that "The West, and especially America, is principally responsible for the crisis." A similar article, published by Mearsheimer after the Russian invasion of Crimea in 2014, was promoted on February 28, by the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
In an television appearance on April 14, Mearsheimer said the United States should end assistance to the Ukranians and work to create "some sort of alliance with the Russians." He made a similar argument in a March 1 interview with the New Yorker: "[W]e should be working overtime to create friendly relations with the Russians." In the same interview, Mearsheimer said that it was "not feasible" for the Ukranians "to choose their own political system and to choose their own foreign policy." Instead, Mearsheimer says, Ukraine must "accommodate the Russians."
Mearsheimer has been an outspoken opponent of economic sanctions against Russia, suggesting in a recent interview that economic sanctions against Russia increase the chances of a nuclear war.
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How Charles Koch supports John Mearsheimer
Mearsheimer is supported by Stand Together, the non-profit network run by right-wing billionaire Charles Koch, in numerous ways. Mearsheimer received direct funding from the Koch network for his latest book, The Great Delusion, which was published in 2018. "I want to thank the Charles Koch Foundation for helping to fund my research and book workshop," Mearsheimer writes in the acknowledgements section.
Mearsheimer also currently holds positions at two institutions that receive substantial support from the Koch network. He is a non-resident fellow at the Quincy Institute, which was started with $500,000 donations from both the Charles Koch Institute and the Open Societies Foundation, the non-profit vehicle of liberal billionaire George Soros. Mearsheimer is also on the advisory board of The National Interest, which received a $900,000, two-year grant from the Charles Koch Institute in 2020.
Mearsheimer is featured regularly at Koch network events. In November 2021, he was billed at a Stand Together foreign policy event as one "of the sharpest thinkers in foreign policy." He was a featured speaker at the 2021 John Quincy Adams Society conference, another Stand Together event. Mearsheimer has been speaking at Koch network events since at least 2016.
At an "emergency" conference on Ukraine, held on March 31, 2022, Dan Caldwell, the Vice President for Foreign Policy at Stand Together, reportedly "denounced the fierceness of the ongoing attacks on Mearsheimer."
Caldwell did not respond to a request for comment about what attacks on Mearsheimer he believed were unwarranted. Caldwell and Stand Together also did not respond to inquiries about whether the organizations had any objections to Mearsheimer's recent comments about Ukraine, including Ukrainian civilians.
Mearsheimer's ongoing affiliation with the Koch network raises further questions about the network's positions on Russia and its relationship to Charles Koch's for-profit business, Koch Industries, one of a handful of American companies that continues full operations in Russia.
The overwhelming evidence that Russian forces are committing atrocities against Ukrainian civilians
Mearsheimer's claims belie extensive evidence of Russian atrocities against Ukrainian civilians. On April 4, for example, the New York Times published satellite photographs showing "the bodies of dead civilians lying on the streets of Bucha — some with their hands bound, some with gunshot wounds to the head." The Associated Press "published images of at least six dead men lying together in the rear of an office building, some with hands tied behind their backs." The fact that some of the dead were found with their hands bound is not consistent with the notion that these civilians were killed in battle. A video published April 5 by the New York Times shows a Russian armored vehicle gunning down a civilian in Bucha walking alongside his bicycle.
Jake Sullivan, the White House National Security advisor, said on April 4, that the images from Bucha constitute evidence of "atrocities" and "war crimes."
The issues are not limited to Bucha. On April 4, Amnesty International said it "has gathered evidence of civilians in Ukraine killed by indiscriminate attacks in Kharkiv and Sumy Oblast, documented an airstrike that killed civilians queueing for food in Chernihiv, and gathered evidence from civilians living under siege in Kharkiv, Izium and Mariupol." The group published extensive testimonial and photographic evidence on April 1.
Mearsheimer's views are consistent with those of the Russian Ministry of Defense, which claimed that "not a single local resident has suffered from any violent action" in Bucha. Russia said that the photographs and videos were "another hoax, a staged production and provocation by the Kiev regime for the Western media." Russia claimed that the bodies emerged only after Russian forces left Bucha, a timeline that has been conclusively debunked.
Mearsheimer and the denial of historical atrocities
In 2011, Mearsheimer provided an effusive blurb for a book by Gilad Atzmon, who has questioned the reality of the Holocaust. "Gilad Atzmon has written a fascinating and provocative book on Jewish identity in the modern world… The Wandering Who? Should be widely read by Jews and non-Jews alike," Mearsheimer wrote.
In a 2010 article, Atzmon raised doubts about the Holocaust, saying that people should "ask for some conclusive historical evidence and arguments" rather than "follow a religious narrative that is sustained by political pressure and laws." In the same article, Atzmon asserted that the "Holocaust became the new Western religion… it is the most sinister religion known to man." Neither the content of the book nor Atzmon's prior comments stopped Mearsheimer from endorsing Atzmon's work.
Popular Information asked Mearsheimer if he was aware of Atzmon's questioning of the Holocaust prior to endorsing his book. Mearsheimer did not respond to that inquiry or questions about his recent comments on Ukraine.