A Realist Perspective: Russia and Ukraine

The current war between Russia and Ukraine can be traced back to 2014 and upon closer inspection, well before the turn of the 21st century. February’s invasion of Ukraine under the direction of Russian President Vladimir Putin launched Eastern Europe into the forefront of the geopolitical stage. Leaders around the world are forced to walk a fine line and continuously shuffle their support between Ukraine’s independence and recognizing the desires and motivations driving the aggressive Russian campaign westward. Scholars John Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt have studied and support a Realist perspective in the modern geopolitical context, which will be applied to the conflict unfolding over in Ukraine.

Realism in politics attempt to resolve crises and international conflicts by implementing countermeasures that protect their borders and general “sphere of influence” in neighboring countries. Ukraine and Russia have an extremely intertwined, complex history that dates back hundreds of years, to the Nordic Viking conquerors and Kyvian Rus during the medieval ages before eventually merging with the Slavic people. Ukraine has struggled to maintain its independence for centuries but did finally manage to obtain full sovereignty following the collapse of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) in 1991. However, it took but a couple of years before the Clinton administration began to expand the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and its member states. This liberal concept of “enlargement” was very popular 25 years ago and remains a fundamental ideal embedded in Western democracies. However, it directly clashes with the Realist perspective preferred by Putin, who has been outspoken against European Union (EU) expansion and NATO enlargement since rising to power in 1999.

Ukraine does not have a strong economy and has had rampant corruption resulting in oligarchs and other misallocated funds throughout its tumultuous 30-year stretch of independence. Other countries have a vested interest in the territory for its location but none feel stronger than Russia.

Putin does not want Western democracies to absorb Ukraine via NATO or through the EU for several reasons. First, he views it as a matter of national security and defense. Consider China supplying one of the United States’ neighboring countries such as Mexico or Canada, funding and arming them via a multi-country pact chock full of foreign adversaries. This would cause alarm, just as it did during the Bay of Pigs Missile Crisis under the Kennedy administration. Soviets allegedly sending arms to Cuba and lining its beaches with ballistics nearly resulted in World War III.

Second, Ukraine has Pro-Russian separatist areas, which Putin has already used as a guise to initiate the invasion in an effort to reunite the former Soviet Union territories. Luhansk and Duhansk along Ukraine’s eastern border in the Donbas were the primary areas of focus but the Russian war effort has since expanded itself into cities as far west as Kiev and Kharkiv and as far south as Mariupol. Crimea was a pretext to this calculated aggression from Putin, who is increasingly paranoid about Russia losing its sphere of influence, which will snowball into a national security matter for the Kremlin.

The third and final reason Putin’s opposed to the enlargement ideology behind Western global expansion is the strong nationalism that motivates him to be ambitious in an effort to preserve and maintain the culture, values, and customs of an imperial Russia for years to come. It’s important to note that Kiev was one of the three great cities in the former Russian Empire of the 19th century alongside Moscow and Petersburg. Putin believes in the archaic concept of international law, which is largely ignored but similar in some aspects to the Realist perspective.

Defending borders and alarming at the encroachment of foreign countries is the exact same practice mirrored by the United States. To be the world’s most powerful country, a Realist perspective is necessary to form successful military defense strategies. Yet, the enlargement of NATO and increasingly inflammatory rhetoric from the U.S. and other Western European nations is only stoking the flames in Moscow. Despite all of the coverage surrounding the aggressive actions taken by Putin and the Russian military into Ukraine, there are ongoing talks between Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelensky and Putin to reach a cease-fire agreement and stop the artillery shelling and siege of Ukrainian cities.

New allegations of Russians losing smaller cities and running out of fuel and food have begun to circulate as well. It seems that Putin may have underestimated the strength of Ukraine’s military battalions and their will to fight for their sovereignty. NATO funding to neighboring countries such as Poland also bolsters Ukraine’s confidence as the underdog in this fight.

As Realist scholar and Professor of International Relations at Harvard University Stephen Walt suggests, the United States needs to address the rebuild of a sovereign Ukraine but diminish its focus and outsource its defense to the EU and other NATO militaries. They receive plenty of funding and have bigger populations and stronger economies, especially after the mass withdrawal of Western corporations and banks from Russia over the past month. Yes, it’s the duty and responsibility of the United States to deliver its promises to NATO, but Ukraine is not a member of this Treaty. Thus far, President Zelensky and President Biden have both acknowledged the lack of practicality surrounding the adoption of Ukraine into NATO and the EU. This should help appease Russia’s demands to prevent further enlargement and quell perceived threats of national security, de-escalating the potential for nuclear war.

While this sounds plausible, the effort will need to be gradual and incorporate Russia into a new type of pact or “security order” alongside NATO and the EU, while recognizing Ukrainian sovereignty, enhancing European economic stability, and most importantly, preventing China from using its increasingly powerful influence to support an isolated and desperate Putin. Russia is in a distinctly lower-tier than the U.S. and China on the world stage. Its economy is fragile, now more than ever, and its population is small and aging. The two most dominant forces in geopolitics right now are undoubtedly China and the United States. Realist scholars argue that dismissing this notion and opting to invest in a centuries old conflict in Eastern Europe will weaken the U.S. and strengthen China as the world’s preeminent superpower in the coming years.

Abandoning enlargement strategies and including Russia in an alternative rebuild of the European economy will be a challenge but the current path is much more dangerous and divisive. By heeding this warning, listening to the demands of sovereignty for Ukraine, the eventual economic recovery of Russia, and avoiding further bloodshed and turmoil, the world can dramatically lower its chances of enduring a hot thermonuclear war in the 21st century.

[Photo by Frankie Fouganthin, via Wikimedia]

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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