Source: Radio Free Europe

Nahl Ishtiaq and Attaullah

The Ukraine crisis has brought to the fore an age-old debate on the theory of realism. It attempts to assess as to whether the theory provides any meaningful conceptual or analytical framework to understand events in the international system, or should it be viewed as a disposition that offers little value in that regard. With reference to the Ukraine crisis, two sets of explanations are important. The first seeks to explain how this invasion was inevitable; this explanation has roots in the realist school. The second explains how this was not a given; this has roots in the liberal-institutional peace school. 

The Pro-Realism Camp : U.S. Caused the Russian Invasion  

This camp insists that the West, especially the U.S, is responsible for the Ukraine crisis. John Mearsheimer is one of its proponents. It argues that the West, by pushing Ukraine towards the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), caused insecurity and unease in Russia. Also, it is argued that the West betrayed Russia by not keeping its promise of not expanding NATO eastward after Soviet Union’s disintegration. It is debatable as to whether the latter insistence holds any weight. For example, Mark Kramer argues that, during the negotiations of the reunification of Germany, there were definitely commitments made on what NATO’s role in eastern Germany would be but no pledges or assurances were given to anybody vis-à-vis its expansion. He argues that NATO’s expansion was not even a consideration then; it became a consideration only after Germany had been reunified and Soviet Union broken up.

On the contrary, Joshua Shifrinson argues that a pledge indeed was made. He says there was no written agreement, but U.S. officials did repeatedly offer the Soviets verbal non-expansion assurances. He also goes on to say that the U.S. pursued a bifurcated strategy where on the face it told the Soviets that NATO would not expand but deep down aspired to project U.S. influence in Eastern Europe, which was possible through expanding it. Others have argued that both the U.S. and Russia are right to an extent and that is the problem. Mary Sarotte argues that, in order to understand the origin of Russian resentment about German reunification’s negotiations in 1990, it is essential to consider not just U.S.-Soviet contacts but also those with the West Germans. According to her, Mikhail Gorbachev did not act upon U.S. Secretary of State James Baker’s speculation, but upon Helmut Kohl’s. Further, she says not only did Gorbachev fail to press the U.S. to give it in writing that it would not only not expand NATO to Warsaw Pact countries but also will not challenge U.S. contradictory positions. Thus, this camp sees the Ukraine crisis through a great-power politics lens and holds U.S.-Russia rivalry responsible for it.

The critics of this argument posit that it ignores an important aspect: Ukrainian agency. That it is not as simple as what the U.S. and Russia want but is about what the Ukrainians want. They essentially argue that today’s world is not necessarily being run by the rules of balance of power, or hegemonic power but those of international norms and institutions. In that sense, it could be argued that Ukraine’s wish to seek NATO’s membership could be out of its wish to join the European Union ( EU) for economic and social reasons.  Thus, to argue that the U.S. or Europe pushed Ukraine for NATO membership while undermining Ukraine’s own legitimate aspirations to seek NATO membership would be unfair.

The Middle Camp: Putin’s Irrationality Caused the Invasion

This camp argues that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s nihilism and paranoia caused the Russian invasion of Ukraine. It asserts that this invasion was not inevitable because of realist predictions about how states behave in such (real or perceived) security-competitive environments. Instead, it goes on to challenge the very premise of realism that assumes rationality of every actor in the international system that act in pursuit of either of these three goals: (1) interest advancement; (2) power maximization; (3) security enhancement. For instance, the first would hold true if Russia invaded for resource gains ,or for securing trade routes; the second, if it did for status and prestige purposes; and the third and more urgent, if it feared for its security. To the contrary, it asserts that Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine is irrational. Consequently, it argues that Putin acted irrationally while disregarding cost-benefit considerations, and that this would have been prevented if there were institutions and mechanisms to keep his power in check.

There are at least two issues with these assertions. One, rationality is subjective, it is entirely possible what is rational from one perspective is irrational from another, especially when the actor cites security fear and or invokes self-defense. In this case then, Russian action could be irrational from the West’s perspective but rational and necessary from the Russian one. To be clear, to argue Russia’s rationality and necessity is not to argue its legality or morality but its factuality, which would always be disputed. Besides, it assumes that autocracies are inherently likelier to take such actions than democracies. However, it is a not a given that in democracies opposition and institutions will always be able to constrain a leader’s decisions.

Irrationality, High Costs, and Unrealistic Aims

The irrationality argument, based on the assumption of high costs ,as well as unrealistic aims pursued in terms of maintaining control over a restive population, presents a different picture when deconstructed properly. So far, Putin has meticulously deterred direct NATO/U.S. military involvement in the crisis. As a result, the EU and the U.S. have relied on non-military means of retaliation, principally economic and diplomatic. Economic retaliation is thought to be as consequential as military retaliation in today’s complex interdependent world. In this instance, sanctions might prove ineffective and even counterproductive in the long run. Sanctions do not only impact Russia but also Europe. What’s more, the world is becoming increasingly reliant on natural gas, something which gives Russia an advantage. Thus, Russian estrangement will prove costly for Europe with its acute energy needs. Moreover, the alternative to Russia, Iran, is no good option either. In fact, one of the main contentions between the U.S. and Europe in negotiations over the Iran nuclear deal has been this very issue. Qatar and Kuwait, the other exporters, will not meet European demands in full. Trade sanctions, on the other hand, will prove ineffective because there is no mechanism to ensure its implementation after Russia’s ouster from the international banking system. Further, it could allow Russia to speed up de-dollarization by conducting trade with countries in local currencies. 

Second, as for turning Russia into a pariah state, it seems a little far-fetched. The overwhelming disapproval and condemnation of Russia by 141 states in the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) will only be meaningful if it translates into concrete actions outside the U.N. Interestingly, the 32 states that chose not to vote at all, or abstained from voting, thus giving tacit support to Russia include Brazil, China, India, Pakistan, and the United Arab Emirates, to name a few, that exercise a fair degree of influence and control in their respective regions.

Autocracies vs. Democracies: Revisiting the Debate

Autocracies are not any more or less prone to wars than democracies. Despite institutions and mechanisms in place to constrain executive powers in democracies, there is still no guarantee that they will always work. Thus, ultimately, a leader, even in a constrained democratic setup, is just as likely to act unilaterally and irrationally as his autocratic counterpart with no ostensible constraints would do. As a matter of fact, the 2003 U.S. actions in Iraq were carried out by President Bush despite overwhelming opposition by the American Senate and public. The U.S. went into Iraq based on a letter that it claimed was received from opposition groups in Iraq that sought urgent humanitarian help from the U.S. against oppression by Saddam. Just two days before going into Ukraine, Russia released a similar letter that it claimed it received from separatist groups in the Donbas region asking for Russia’s help, to save it from Ukrainian forces. The U.S. also used the weapons of mass destruction’s bogey, to strengthen its case. Russia, too, has sent nuclear-laden messages during the ongoing crisis . Thus it appears that Putin, an autocrat, seems to be doing with Ukraine not much different from what Bush, a democrat, did with Iraq. Nonetheless, an important critique on American-led liberal order is that it perpetuates the same state realism under the cloak of liberalism.

Nahl Ishtiaq is a former Fellow of the Center for Security, Strategy and Policy Research’s Nuclear Scholars Initiative, and Attaullah is an independent researcher.