The Surrealism of Realism: Misreading the War in Ukraine

Most general readers following events in Ukraine may not be aware that much of the debate and many of the policy prescriptions among “experts” have been dominated by a school of thought in international relations scholarship known as “realism.” In a nutshell, realists have argued that US policy toward the Russo-Ukrainian conflict should be driven by pragmatic American interests and by the realities of Russia’s regional great-power status—two propositions few would disagree with. Realist arguments become more controversial, however, when they go on to insist that Russia’s behavior toward Ukraine is actually a reasonable response to Western attempts to wrest Ukraine from Russia’s sphere of influence and that the culprit behind the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian war is, thus, the West in general and the United States and NATO in particular.

Realists can be found on the right (Henry Kissinger and Nikolas K. Gvosdev), on the left (Stephen F. Cohen and Michel Chossudovsky), and in the center (John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt). At first glance, it may be most surprising that leftists should have embraced a Realpolitik view of the world. But only at first glance. Recall that Lenin, Stalin, Mao, and a host of other Marxist leaders were no less realist in their conduct of foreign policy than Winston Churchill and Richard Nixon. It is no surprise that many policymakers come into office with grand ideals, discover that the realities of power militate against their easy transformation into policy, come to appreciate that politics is, indeed, the “art of the possible,” and embrace realism as the worldview of the sadder but wiser.

Realism rests on the astonishingly bold claim that all states at all times always pursue their own national interests and struggle for power. Underlying this empirically unprovable tenet are several key assumptions. First, that states are rational actors. Second, that their rationality concerns maximizing material self-interest and minimizing material risk. And third, that all states share pretty much identical rationality “functions” that reasonable individuals, such as realists assume themselves to be, can easily divine and interpret. If states are irrational, or their self-interest is non-material, realism implodes. After all, the power of realism lies precisely in its claims about objective rationality and objective interests. Any concession to subjectivity (such as leaders who assess interests based on their historical memory, political culture, or ideology) opens the door to realism’s theoretical antithesis—“idealism”—and its theoretical nightmare—“constructivism,” which claims that rationalities and interests are “socially constructed” and, hence, fluid, unstable, and anything but objective. A Theory of Everything such as realism can be either right or wrong: there is no gray in between. As a result, if they concede any ground to their idealist and subjectivist competitors, realists can no longer claim possession of the intellectual Rosetta stone that explains everything all the time.

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When it comes to the Russo-Ukraine conflict, the important dichotomy is not between realism and idealism but between the theory of realism and the empirical knowledge generated by Ukraine studies. For many Ukraine specialists, realist commentary on the Russo-Ukrainian war appears to be so utterly and completely divorced from reality as to be surreal. Most Ukraine specialists would probably agree that there are three reasons for realism’s striking irrelevance to the current Ukrainian context.

First, realists may believe that the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian war is a matter between two states, but Ukraine experts, in both Ukraine and the West, know that the war is no less the result of important domestic developments within Ukraine and Russia. Ukraine has been in turmoil since at least 2004, when the Orange Revolution reversed Viktor Yanukovych’s first attempt to seize power illegally. The Revolution in Dignity—a.k.a. the Maidan or Euromaidan—that followed in 2013–14 entailed the “people power” of millions of Ukrainians who, in late February, succeeded in effecting Yanukovych’s flight from Ukraine. As Ukraine experts know, both pro-democracy uprisings were the products of domestic factors and had absolutely nothing to do with Western agendas.

Just as Ukraine underwent these signal changes, so, too, did Russia—but in an opposite direction. Almost immediately after coming to power in 1999, Vladimir Putin began dismantling democratic institutions and civil liberties, seizing control of the media and economy, amassing enormous power (and wealth) in his own hands, reviving a neo-imperial rhetoric and agenda, and instituting a cult of personality centered on his machismo image. Regardless of what one calls the resultant regime, it marked a radical rejection of the inchoate democratic ethos that characterized Russia under President Boris Yeltsin and a bold leap toward authoritarianism, empire building, and possibly even fascism. As Ukraine was rejecting the authoritarianism of Presidents Leonid Kuchma and Viktor Yanukovych, Russia was embracing it under Putin. Realists are entitled to believe these disparate trends are irrelevant to understanding the ongoing war, but Ukraine experts suggest that downplaying or ignoring these developments is foolhardy.

Second, focusing as they do on “interests,” realists also prefer not to take ideology, culture, and norms into account, while Ukraine experts do not see how ignoring these matters can possibly enhance understanding of the conflict. Putin’s neo-imperial ideology, his stated determination to make Russia great again, his conviction that all Russian speakers are Russians deserving of the Russian state’s protection, and his belief that Ukraine is an artificial state with no right to exist appear to be part and parcel of his pursuit of authoritarianism and empire and his adoption of a hegemonic policy toward Russia’s “near abroad.” The realist case for ignoring ideology would be stronger if Putin’s ideological message were not so openly rooted in Russia’s cultural heritage. As his high popularity ratings suggest, Putin’s ideology resonates with, and may even be a product of, Russian political culture.

Realism’s disregard of norms also leads it to misunderstand the Revolution in Dignity. That, Ukraine experts will insist, was overwhelmingly about self-respect and self-empowerment. Participants assert that they took part in the mass marches or manned the barricades because they objected to the Yanukovych regime’s daily assaults on their humanity and identity. Economic issues were irrelevant to their struggle. Today as well, most Ukrainians will insist that their struggle against Russia is not about the economic advantages of being associated with the European Union but rather about their right to self-determination, both as individuals and as a people.

Once again, in ignoring ideology, culture, and norms, realism appears to be ignoring the two most important developments within Russia and Ukraine. The former abandoned democratic norms at precisely the time that the latter embraced them. Can these parallel and intersecting movements be considered as irrelevant to the war?

Finally, Ukraine experts are not so sure about the bedrock assumption of the realists that states—or, more precisely, their elites—always act rationally. Yanukovych seemed determined to undermine his own power and did little to promote Ukraine’s state interests. Putin appears obsessed, sometimes bizarrely so, with Russian state interests, but it’s not at all clear just how annexing Crimea made Russia stronger. Nor is it clear how destroying one-third of the Donbas in eastern Ukraine benefited Russia or Putin. Nor, finally, is it clear just how Russia’s interests have been enhanced by the imposition of Western sanctions. If this is rationality, then the term is evidently so broad as to encompass self-destructive behavior.


Another salient factor of realism’s flawed approach to the Russo-Ukrainian war is this: ignorance about Ukraine.

Realists are not the only scholars who have been, or are, ignorant about Ukraine. That ignorance is wide and deep, affecting virtually every aspect of American—and more generally Western—intellectual life. Knowledge about Ukraine has been, and to a large degree still is, confined to a small coterie of specialists, almost none of whom specializes in international relations theory or is committed to the realist worldview.

Until recently, realists had good reason to ignore Ukraine. After Kyiv gave up its nuclear weapons in 1994, Ukraine became at best a second- or third-rate power in the shadow of the significantly larger, richer, and more powerful Russia. Russia was interesting to realists, all the more so as it had nuclear weapons and posed a threat of sorts to the United States. Ukraine was boring—at least until Russia’s invasion of Crimea in March 2014 and the outbreak of war a few months later. As soon as Ukraine became a security issue for Russia, it also became a security issue for realists.

The war confronted realists with an explanatory and policy task for which they were wholly unprepared. Few could read Russian; my guess is that none knows Ukrainian. The number of realists with an adequate understanding of Ukrainian history, politics, culture, and economics could probably be counted on the fingers of one hand—if that. Nonetheless, there was a need to stake out a position concerning its conflict with Russia that affirmed the realist position.

As a result, realists evinced a woefully embarrassing ignorance about elementary facts regarding Ukraine. Consider the following, from Henry Kissinger’s March 5th op-ed in the Washington Post:

The West must understand that, to Russia, Ukraine can never be just a foreign country. Russian history began in what was called Kievan-Rus. The Russian religion spread from there. Ukraine has been part of Russia for centuries, and their histories were intertwined before then. Some of the most important battles for Russian freedom, starting with the Battle of Poltava in 1709, were fought on Ukrainian soil.

Any Ukraine expert could have told Kissinger that Russian history did not begin only in Kyivan (or Kievan) Rus. It began in many places, including Russia itself. The Russian religion did not spread from “what was called Kievan-Rus.” What spread was Orthodox Christianity, and it spread from Constantinople. True, Ukraine “has been part of Russia for centuries,” but it has been no less a part of the Mongol empire, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, the Polish Commonwealth, the Habsburg Empire, and the Ottoman Empire. The Battle of Poltava was fought by two empires, the Swedish and Russian, and had nothing to do with “Russian freedom” or independence.

In addition, realists grasped at prefab analytic approaches to Ukraine. Two examples will convey the point. Ukraine is allegedly “deeply divided” into two irreconcilable and homogeneous blocs: western Ukraine speaks Ukrainian, supports the West, and detests Russia; eastern Ukraine speaks Russian, detests the West, and supports Russia. That there are gradations, shadings, and nuances in these divisions is irrelevant. That “deep divisions” must be politically decisive is also taken for granted.

Another bromide is that Ukraine is “artificial,” consisting of territories and populations that were cobbled together in the course of several decades. Just what makes Ukraine more artificial than France, Italy, Germany, the United States, Russia, or Great Britain remains unarticulated. Just why Ukraine’s ethno-cultural and linguistic diversity should be more of a problem than any other country’s also remains unexplored
in realist accounts.

Stephen F. Cohen nicely illustrates both clichés in a Nation article about “fallacies” concerning Ukraine:

Fallacy No. 2: There exists a nation called “Ukraine” and a “Ukrainian people” who yearn to escape centuries of Russian influence and to join the West.

Fact: As every informed person knows, Ukraine is a country long divided by ethnic, linguistic, religious, cultural, economic and political differences—particularly its western and eastern regions, but not only. When the current crisis began in 2013, Ukraine had one state, but it was not a single people or a united nation. Some of these divisions were made worse after 1991 by corrupt elite, but most of them had developed over centuries.

Unlike realists who come out of international relations, Cohen should know better. He’s a lifelong student of the Soviet Union and Russia; he speaks Russian. Alternatively, it may be his lifelong “Russocentrism” that blinds him to the Ukrainian side of things.

Finally, given their ignorance about Ukraine and inability to read its native texts, and given their susceptibility to bromides as a substitute for knowledge, realists naturally tend to accept the “narratives” of the country they believe matters most in the Russo-Ukrainian conflict—Russia. Thus, realists generally accept at face value Russian claims that NATO is a threat to Russia. Just how a feeble alliance that lost its sense of purpose after the end of the Cold War and that consists of countries that have slashed their defense budgets, cannot imagine going to war anywhere, and would almost certainly never send troops to save Estonia, say, from a Russian takeover could be a threat to anybody is unclear. Faced with that obvious objection, most realists say that, although the alliance may not be objectively threatening, the Russians perceive it differently and their perception is itself a reality.

To illustrate this point, consider John Mearsheimer’s empirically preposterous claims, in a recent issue of Foreign Affairs, about why Ukraine is “the West’s fault” when he says that “the taproot of the trouble is NATO enlargement, the central element of a larger strategy to move Ukraine out of Russia’s orbit and integrate it into the West.” What larger strategy? Western policymakers have certainly been open to Ukraine’s efforts to move westwards, but they have at best been consistently noncommittal about Ukraine’s actually joining any key Western institutions such as the European Union and NATO.

Mearsheimer goes on to claim that “the EU’s expansion eastward and the West’s backing of the pro-democracy movement in Ukraine—beginning with the Orange Revolution in 2004—were critical elements, too.” Ask Ukrainian democrats and they’ll tell you that the West’s “backing” of Ukrainian democracy has been lackadaisical and spotty. Who in the West refused to cooperate with President Kuchma when he turned authoritarian? Who in the West denounced the criminal Yanukovych regime? And who in the West did not succumb to Ukraine fatigue after 2008—precisely the period when Ukrainian democracy most needed Western support?

Mearsheimer doesn’t stop there. “Since the mid-1990s,” he writes, “Russian leaders have adamantly opposed NATO enlargement, and in recent years, they have made it clear that they would not stand by while their strategically important neighbor turned into a Western bastion.” Bastion? Can Mearsheimer be serious? Ally or partner perhaps. But bastion?

He continues: “For Putin, the illegal overthrow of Ukraine’s democratically elected and pro-Russian president—which he rightly labeled a ‘coup’—was the final straw. He responded by taking Crimea, a peninsula he feared would host a NATO naval base, and working to destabilize Ukraine until it abandoned its efforts to join the West.” The ignorance in these two sentences is simply astounding. For starters, democratic theory—and especially its Lockean variant, which served as the justification for the American “coup” against the British crown in 1776—easily justifies popular rebellions against dictators. “Coups” are never the handiwork of hundreds of thousands of people, as every political scientist should know: they are the results of secret plots by small cabals, usually based in the military. As any Ukraine expert could tell Mearsheimer, there was no such thing in Ukraine. Most disturbing is the second sentence, which reveals Mearsheimer’s ignorance of elementary facts about NATO. How could NATO establish a base in Crimea when Ukraine is not a member of NATO—and has zero chances of becoming one anytime soon?

Finally, realists engage in the worst kind of evidentiary cherry-picking, citing only those Russian claims that support realism, while ignoring the many others that do not. Most egregious is their misinterpretation of Putin. As the above quotation from Mearsheimer demonstrates, realists insist that Russia’s annexation of Crimea was a defensive reaction to the West’s attempts to transform Ukraine into a bastion. But Putin, in all his explanations of the annexation, has consistently emphasized first, that Crimea is historically Russian; second, that it holds a revered place in Russian memory and culture; and third, that the Russian population in Crimea was under direct threat from the “fascists” who had engineered the “coup” in Kyiv and therefore needed protecting. Indeed, Russia’s Federation Council explicitly authorized on March 1st the use of force in defense of Russians and Russian speakers anywhere. Are Putin’s anti-realist justifications delusional? Is he really a realist, as the realists insist, who doesn’t know it? Or is he, as Ukraine experts would claim, being quite frank about his imperial intentions and aspirations to reestablish Russian glory?

The reason realists feel that they have the authority to pronounce on a country like Ukraine, with which they are only slightly acquainted, lies in their belief that realism holds the answers to all inter-state relations in all places and at all times—from Thucydides to today. As a Theory of Everything, realism doesn’t need to know the unique facts about countries and their people. All it needs to know is what it assumes to be a priori true: that all states are rational actors pursuing their materially defined national interests and no contrary fact about Ukraine or Russia could possibly place that assumption in question.


Not surprisingly, realists and Ukraine experts differ on what Western policy toward Ukraine and Russia should be. And their disagreements are anything but academic. Realists generally reject all appeals to justice, fairness, liberation, and the like and insist that Russia will and should have its way in a struggle that affects its immediate national interests more than it does those of the West. As a result, the West should seek to accommodate Russia and convince Ukraine to accept some form of subservience to its neighbor. As Mearsheimer’s writing partner, Stephen Walt, wrote for Foreign Policy in March:

It’s easy to understand why Ukraine wants to jump in bed with the European Union and NATO; what is not so obvious is why sharing the covers and pillows with Ukraine is something we should want to do. A country with a bankrupt economy, modest natural resources, sharp ethnic divisions, and a notoriously corrupt political system is normally not seen as a major strategic asset.

Furthermore, the fact that US courtship of Ukraine happens to make Russian President Vladimir Putin angry is not a good argument for embracing Kiev either—simply put, Russia is the more important country. And a long-term squabble isn’t in Washington’s or Moscow’s long-term interest.

Such a statement is diametrically opposed to the assumptions of Ukraine experts, who generally emphasize that the roots of the conflict lie in the clash between Russian and Ukrainian regime types, and their history, culture, ideology, and values; that Russia’s regime, imperial ambitions, and ideology pose a threat to the West as much as they threaten Ukraine; and that Russia cannot be accommodated—not because that’s normatively bad, but because doing so would upend the world order and affect the security and survival of the West. Russia can only be stopped, by means of the West’s support of Ukrainian independence, security, and stability—not because that’s the morally right thing to do, but because it’s easier to stop Russia in the Donbas than in Silesia.

The choice for policymakers is simple: Whom should they trust more—area specialists who claim to know their country of interest well or grand theoreticians who believe that their theory is, was, and always will be right? The megalomania of realism should caution policymakers against hewing too closely to a Theory of Everything that rests its boastful claims of omniscience on empirical knowledge of nothing. Theory should inform and enlighten; it should suggest new ways of seeing and understanding. But it can be useful if and only if it is grounded in actual facts. Assumptions about reality cannot trump knowledge of reality.

Alexander J. Motyl is a professor of political science at Rutgers University, Newark. He blogs about Ukraine weekly for World Affairs.

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