A realist’s view on the Russo-Ukrainian war – part I
The current conflict in Ukraine is often defined in the West as Putin’s war. The journalists and representatives of the state who find their mouthpieces among the corporate and state-run media go into long diatribes analysing the psychology of Putin, citing isolation due to Covid, or that he is terminally ill and how this has impacted on his decision making.
Yet there are no riddles concerning Putin and all this rhetoric abounding his mental health is mere obfuscation. The very same media who now play at psychology have for the best part of two decades repeatedly made reference to the paradigm through which Putin sees security and world events, namely through a “realist” lens.
A core perspective of this view is that states can only be dependent upon themselves for their own survival and as such they are required to maximise their own strength. Closely interlinked with this stance is the concept of the security dilemma: a conundrum that has existed ever since man refrained from a nomadic hunter gatherer form of existence to a settled agricultural being. Those who dwelt around the fields they tilled had their entire livelihoods bound up in that geographical position. Yet while the villages and hamlets that evolved were adept at sustaining life, they also offered rich pickings to those groups who were less fortunate. This made the village dwellers suspicious of those who appeared on the outer limits of their homestead. In order to protect themselves they would naturally turn to arms, but by arming themselves they also generated suspicion in other groups who in turn felt a need to protect themselves.
It leads to a mindset in which one side is never sure if the best form of defence is attack: should we strike now while we have an advantage? Are we in a position conducive to peace? From these humble beginnings we understand how arms races occur and why security is a fundamental issue in international relations. In international relations practitioners are constantly having to judge their strength and their security against those that lie beyond their confines. In the Western hemisphere this led the USA to establish its Monroe doctrine, a doctrine which insisted that if any other power entered the western hemisphere, it would be considered an act of war. The prime example here is of course the Cuban missile crises.
For the Russians their security concerns are informed by the Mongolian hordes that raped and pillaged their way through Russia in the 12th century, the Napoleonic wars, the Crimean war, the interference of Western powers in the Russian civil war that followed the 1917 Bolshevik revolution and of course the Nazi invasion of the second world war, a war in which Ukraine became centre stage for Operation Barbarossa.
Today as in the past the crisis in the Ukraine is ostensibly one in which Russia is being forced to respond to multiple security dilemmas.
NATO expansion: the primary dilemma
There is a well-documented history concerning Russian fears around NATO expansionism. These fears were expressed long before the arrival of Putin and were voiced by Russians such as Gorbachev, Yeltsin or the liberal Gaidar, but also by extremely prominent US experts such as George Kennan, the former US ambassador to the Soviet Union Jack Matlock, Henry Kissinger, John Mearsheimer among many others.
Added context to these fears also explain why when the Soviets agreed to remove the 300,000 troops that had been based in East Germany: it was done with the understanding that there would be not expansion of NATO “one inch to the East”. Much has been made of this assertion in recent years with much of the West including the NATO General Secretary denying that such an agreement had ever taken place. Yet there are minutes that bare witness to these discussions. The West rightly claims there was no treaty between any of the NATO states and the Russian Federation, however that does not absolve the West either morally or legally from complying with their arrangements, then international law is not comprised of treaty law alone. By the dictates of precedent and customary law, the Russian complaint is extremely solid.
Yet there is a lot more detail that helps explain the Russian position. For example, the EU and its twin NATO are not only expanding contrary to the agreement outlined above, but this expansionism comes with a concomitant containment policy which is clearly aimed against Russia and is expressed in a vast array of literature which implies some form of intent. Here it is worth considering that Russia herself had expressed an interest to join both the EU and NATO, but was rejected. True, there was some minor cooperation on the periphery of these institutions such as the NATO-Russia council, yet Russia’s voice was summarily rejected on all major issues where there was a divergence of opinion.
At first there appears to be some confusion in the Russian security state as NATO encroached upon its borders. The Russians, having rejected Communism and having adopted a liberal constitution (drafted together with US experts), failed to comprehend why they were not only being isolated internationally, but also why the US dominated military alliance was now pushing up against their boarders. After all Liberalism is supposed to ensure peace by the establishment of shared institutions and economic interdependence and here Russia was being isolated. From Moscow’s point of view, it is reasonable to question why, therefore if we are now friends are you bringing your army to or boarder? Can the very act hence be deemed as anything other than hostile? At this point realist theories pertaining to geopolitical thought were reintroduced by Dugin, the notorious Eurasianist philosopher. It was his revival of Halford McKinder’s foundational writing on the subject that gave explanation to Russia’s plight. In 1997 the Democratic Senator Joe Biden concisely admitted that NATO’s eastward expansion would provoke a strong reaction in Moscow, claiming that it was designed to keep them (the Russians) out.
The above factors all indicate why Russia has become NATO-phobic: the psychological underpinnings of this phobia are innate to human across all cultures and time. Putin laid down Russia’s red lines in his security speeches before and after the Bucharest summit of 2008 during which NATO membership was promised to both Georgia and Ukraine in the future. Yet these arguments are not considered pertinent in the West, where it is argued that Ukraine at the time of the invasion was light years away from actual membership.
Again, people seem to be obfuscated by the concept of a legal framework. Yet realism is not a theory dictated by abstract legal concepts, it works on the basis of facts and realities on the ground and while Ukraine may not have been a de jure NATO state, it certainly was de facto. The USA had been generously funding the Ukrainian army since 1991. There are NATO, soldiers, advisers and trainers all over the country. Even the former Ukrainian president Poroshenko referred to the training base at Yurivka, recently hit by a Russian attack, as a NATO training facility.
Another central western argument that explains “Putin’s war” in Ukraine is his apparent desire to re-establish the Soviet Union. A speech dating back to 2005 is the crux of this claim, during this speech Putin mentions that the biggest geopolitical disaster of the 20th century was the collapse of the Soviet Union. The use of the term geopolitical seems unfortunate, yet the speech makes clear that Putin is referring to the human tragedy and complete social collapse that happened when the USSR collapsed in 1991. At no point is there a focus on security competition or grand strategy, the true substance of geopolitical debate. The argument that Putin is motivated to revive the USSR appears entirely weak when we notice that it is only states that the West is seeking to transfer into the Western orbit with which Putin has tensions (Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine). Why does he not simply invade a weak, but incredibly resource rich country like Turkmenistan? There is no suggestion that he seeks to attack Kirgizstan or Tajikistan. One would assume that even Kazakhstan given its large territory would be an easy scalp for the Russian army. One that would certainly cause less friction with the West. Clearly there is something wrong with the narrative.
Again, there is a long-established record of Russia accepting neutral states in its near abroad, these include countries such as Azerbaijan or Uzbekistan. This realisation affirms that NATO is genuinely seen as a threat. Indeed, Putin personally appealed for a neutral Ukraine in 2014, suggesting that the Ukraine could have trade arrangements with both the EU and the Eurasian Union. Once more Russia pragmatism was rejected and fatally so.
Yet there exists further context to Russia’s threat perception vis à vis NATO. Then expansion not only excluded Russia, but took place in a highly ideological charged environment in which the West appears to have been seeking the universal application of liberal values, values that express a different modus vivendi from much of the rest of the world. Ultimately it was a value set that irrespective of its eponymous name was anything but tolerant of other systems. This epoch is also one marked by Western backed colour revolutions in Russia’s southern rime, but also by conflicts in Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan and elsewhere. The perception that the US was seeking regime change even in Russia itself was given sway in 2012 when Hillary Clinton appeared to be calling for the otherthrow of Putin when publicly endorsing the protests at Bolotnaya square that followed his election win in 2012.
In fact the Ukraine in 2014 as it had been a decade earlier was subject to a colour revolution. Here some perspective is needed, then Ukraine upon leaving the USSR was not a natural contender for NATO membership, indeed initially Ukraine even sought a loose union with Russia in the post USSR order, opinion polls on NATO membership indicated little support for the institution. The US however undertook a programme of major social engineering in the country, spending over 5 billion in what Victoria Nuland called “democracy promotion”. Here the US promoted civic society organisations and political activists that were entirely pro-Western. Even NATO got in on the act, seeking to boost its popularity by spending 8 million USD on promotional campaigns, which ironically enough were headed by Viktor Yanukovych.
During the Maidan revolution Western support was clearly visible, not only had Western dignitaries joined the demonstrators on the stage erected on the Maidan, appearing alongside the likes of Yatsenuk, Oleh Tiahnybok and Klitschko, but additionally Nuland and the US ambassador Pyatt were recorded in a conversation that sounded very much as if they were selecting the new government of the Ukraine. And the moment Yanukovych was ousted, the US government conceded its “strong support for the new authorities”.
It’s clear that Russia had plenty of recriminations regarding the expansion of the Transatlantic block. The elites who deny that NATO has any malign intent are perhaps exposed by the very fact that Russia is excluded from the organisation, then examining the grounds for such a decision leads us to conclude that Russia ostracization is by design, a point we addressed above citing Biden. Russia’s exclusion appears predicated on one hand by US fearing it would lose its ability to act freely should Russia have a veto right over policy were they to be admitted into any of the supranational institutions. Not only that, but Russia, given its resources, its technological capabilities, its cheap, but highly educated workforce, in addition to its population, would quickly flourish in an organisation such as the EU. Given the US obsession with its hegemonic and unipolar status it was a prospect that few among the foreign policy blob could countenance. All of the above indicate that the US has scant regard for genuine state sovereignty.
Such ideas are concisely formulated in former US National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzeziński’s book The Grand Chessboard. It’s a book that lays out US grand strategy and the methods by which it is to maintain hegemony. In the book Ukraine plays a central role. Confirming that Dugin’s stance was indeed correct, Brzezinski writes how Ukraine must be removed from the Russian sphere of influence otherwise Russia will come to dominate the Eurasian heartland, for the US tearing Ukraine away from Russia would ensure the latter would not be able to rise substantially again.
Ultimately the conflict in the Ukraine can be whittled down to US perceptions of threats to its own primacy and complete dominance of the world stage. It appears the often touted liberal tenets of peace and unity that are incessantly proclaimed by US leaders are in reality considered no match for real hard power. The US appears not to practice what it preaches. Rather than seeking to integrate Russia into its institutions, to develop a pan European security arrangement the US preferred to ostracise the Russian federation and maximise its power ratio, but in doing so did the West miss an opportunity to form a more peaceful future? Would a rather weak Russia benefiting from mutual cooperation in shared institutions not have been conditioned by the normative effects of those very institutions? It appears the US was not even prepared to take a gamble. The US choose to reject its core purported beliefs, preferring instead a policy of friction and isolation of the Russian Federation. The continued inability to accept a multipolar world can only mean that conflict will become a more pertinent reality in the coming years.