The Continuing Relevance of the Realist Discourse in Contemporary Times: A Succinct Case study of the Ukrainian Crisis

In the last few decades, the exponential boom that has been witnessed in interconnected global trade and commerce had solidified the idea of gradual liberal world order. The “End of History” (Fukuyama, 1992) and the triumph of a liberal order have been overfed by the Western liberals. That narrative, however, always possessed a hollow base, which is being laid bare more and more in our contemporary times. The Ukrainian crisis of 2022 has shattered that myth of a prevailing “liberal world order” and once again testified that we are still living in a realist world order, no matter the amount of interdependence or interconnectedness. 

As many International Relations scholars would concur, Realism would be the best lens through which the Ukrainian crisis can be analyzed. Among the variants of Realism, Offensive Realism would serve that purpose best. The very starting base of all variants of Realist Theory, including offensive realism – anarchy (the absence of an overarching central power to keep the states in check), has led to the unchallenged invasion of Russia on Ukraine. Given the anarchical situation of the international system, there is no one to stop Russia. The end of the Cold War and the eventual dissolution of the bipolar power USSR shifted the entire balance of power in Europe. Amidst the rare upsurge of a “unipolar” order, the West took the fallacious step of downplaying Russia’s “offensive capabilities”. This was manifested in the rapid eastward expansion of the US-led NATO. 

The fear of anarchy and as a consequence of being structurally embedded in a self-help system prompts states to constantly monitor the distribution of power among them and to constantly seek out opportunities to ramp up their stake in world power. The states thus seek to alter the balance of power, to their own advantage, by amassing auxiliary supplements of power at the cost of other rival power, even if such exercises run the risk of triggering or upsetting the rival power. These additional supplements of power can be in the form of military, economic or diplomatic – whatever the situation demands. The Zero-Sum Game, a fundamental element in the realist lexicon remains in operation here. The need always is to gain more and dominate. “Great powers” thus remain aggressive.  The Russian invasion of Ukraine is also very much enmeshed with the idea of the Zero-Sum Game. Russia strived to harness the major share in global power and change the balance of power in Europe, to its own advantage, Russia thus went ahead with a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, even at the risk of triggering its Western European neighbours and their NATO allies. The risk was big, but apparently, their anticipation of “gain” was bigger. 

States always “anticipate danger”. They fear each other. As one of the primary goals of any state is survival and in absence of any central authority, states always have to constantly scrutinize tactics for their survival. This can be arms buildup, preparation for war, or even alignment with military blocs or alliances, to gain some amount of leverage with bigger power – a trend noted with many less powerful states. The deeper the fear, the more acute the security competition gets, increasing the likelihood of war. An intimidated state will adopt any ventures to safeguard its security and interests, and in the process, it might just adopt risky policies, that can boomerang back. A case in point of this argument is Ukraine itselfWary of the presence of a big power like Russia in its neighbourhood, and with little offensive means to counter, Ukraine’s relationship with the West and Western-led alliances, was getting warmer, in an attempt to buy some strategic leverage. This also points out the eagerness on part of Ukraine to join military alliances like NATO, to provide it with much-needed security in case of a Russian invasion. The bizarrely dull responses from these alliances amidst the Russian invasion, again testify to the offensive realist conviction that alliances are nothing but temporary marriages of convenience, lacking the power to initiate any major change in the international system.

As the offensive realist literature indicates, states remain very vigilant about “calculated aggression”, and even when risks loom large, their offensive behaviour depends on their contemporary offensive capabilities. Faced with a powerful opponent, states generally shun away the idea of engaging in a direct offensive and will be more eager to hold on to the existing distribution of power. They wait for the opportunity for the balance of power to be revised in their favour. States engage in pragmatic calculations about the costs of offense to be incurred and whether it favours their expected outcome. And only when the benefits exceed the risks, they may engage in a direct offensive. Thus, despite the presence of a looming threat of Ukraine’s steady assimilation with the Euro-Atlantic system since the decade of the 2000s, Russia sat tight, as the risks of offense outweighed the benefit and the unipolarity of the international system was much stronger than what it is today. Another argument that the offensive realists pose, in their debate about “calculated aggression” is the general “offensive demanour” of a “great power”. Offensive realists argue, that a “great power” always has this tendency of deploying offensive capabilities and tactics when the right incentives are in place.

The Ukrainian crisis also provides a typical example of a “security dilemma”, a major defining phrase of the international system as per the realist lexicon. The anarchy characterizing the international system ensures the prevalence of security dilemmas. Thus, Ukraine aligning with the West and Western-led alliances, was a means to ensure its security. This triggered a sense of insecurity in its Russian neighbour and threatened the interests of Russia, which ultimately culminated in a full-scale invasion. 

A major point of departure of offensive realism from the other strains of realism is its view on the absolute power maximization of a state, rather than its relative power gain. States that aim for absolute power, are only concerned about their gain and are not bothered by the gains of other states. They will take up any opportunity that guarantees them the amassing of power, even if other states gain more leverage in the process. In tune with this assumption, Russia launched an invasion of Ukraine, keeping in sight only its gains and security concerns. It did not stop to think about the gains that other states might incur in the process. Thus, we see that the West today remains more unified than ever. The relevance of NATO which was in decline got a sudden boost. The division between Turkey and the West is narrowing. The invasion of Ukraine also provided the United States with the opportunity to maintain its troops in Europe, now more than ever, thereby again increasing the limits of its power projection, which saw a decline in the last couple of years. 

As John Mearsheimer notes, the ultimate security guarantee of any power is to rise to the role of a hegemon. He also categorically explains the ideas of a global and a regional hegemon. The US, the regional hegemon in the Western hemisphere remains insufficient to adopt the role of a global hegemon. And as a regional hegemon, the rise of Russia in its vicinity needed to be countered. This would explain the continuous eastward expansion of NATO, despite being aware of the political volatility of such a venture.

The myth of an interconnected and interdependent world has been shattered by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Although the West has been exceptionally fast with economic sanctions on Russia, its futility is proven by the indifference of Russia to the sanctions, even when its economy is crumbling colossally. That still did not prompt Russia to call off the attack. It reiterates the Realist assumption, that strategic and security concerns will remain at the forefront. 

While the Ukrainian crisis is best explained through the lens of realism, (particularly offensive realism), there remain certain questions unsolved. Realism, generally assumes that states are rational actors, capable of making a calculated decision. The Russian invasion of Ukraine is anything but calculated. Putin has grossly miscalculated every aspect. The psychological or bureaucratic dimensions of these decisions find no mention in the realist literature. 

Moreover, the global response against Russia has been unanticipated. The role of norms in the international system that Realists so often ignore has in many cases been found to act as limitations on the behaviour of states. Russia today is being shunned by the global community, as Putin likes to call it – a victim of “cancel culture”; something that is going to cost Russia heavily in the long run. 

The apathy of the Offensive Realist with unit-level variables has also somewhat limited its explanation of the crisis. Failure to grapple with the factors of nationalism, and the right to self-determination of the Ukrainian citizens, can to an extent portray why a powerful state like Russia, is facing an unexpected military crisis in Ukraine. Even though chances are minimal, economic breakdown in Russia or severe internal protest against the invasion, a strangled Russian oligarchy with Western sanctions, and a dismayed Russian political elite, might just cut Putin’s plan short. 

While it’s true that a big chunk of the Russian invasion of Ukraine is better explained through the ideas of realism, the international arena is not a simple black-white domain, sufficient to be explained through binary assumptions. A plethora of unit-level and structural-level variables are at play here, which deserves ample attention not just for studying or understanding the conflict but also for finding out a viable solution to salvage the Ukrainian nation and provide them hope. 

The following work is based on John Mearsheimer’s celebrated piece, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics. (Mearsheimer, 2001)

[Photo by Ministry of Internal Affairs of Ukraine, via Wikimedia Commons]

*Anondeeta Chakraborty has graduated in Political Science from St. Xavier’s College (Autonomous), Kolkata, and currently pursuing an M.A. in Politics with specialization in International Studies from the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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