Russia/Ukraine Conflict Explained Using Realism Theory of International Relations. Are Russia and The US Destined For War?

Realism theory of international relations is one of international relations theories that help in understanding how international systems work, as well as how countries engage with one another and how they view the world. International relations theories are usually used by diplomats and international relations experts to formulate the direction that governments ought to take regarding international political concerns or issues. However, anyone can use them to understand why their countries behave the way they do. As such, by studying main international relations theories, concerned stakeholders can better comprehend motivations and goals dictating policy decisions globally.

The three major international relations theories are realism, liberalism, and constructivism. However, this paper will concentrate on Realism theory. Realism is a major school of thought in international relations theory positing that all countries perpetually work to increase their power, and nations that manage to horde power most efficiently will thrive because those nations can easily eclipse the achievements of countries that are less powerful. As per the theory, interstate politics is a permanent bargaining game over the distribution of power, thus it describes world politics as a state of war, and a struggle for power because the nature of humanity or the structure of international order allows wars to occur. Thus, realism theory is generally pessimistic about the prospects for eliminating conflict and war.

Additionally, the theory maintains that the first priority of a nation should be self-preservation and that perpetually gaining power must always be a social, economic, and political imperative. Further, the nature of realism infers that seeking a moral high ground is an objective that governments cannot achieve at all times and that deceit and violence can be very effective tools for promoting national interests. As such, with the defense of a nation being the highest priority, policies agreed upon through international organizations can be ignored, albeit to some extent, while foreign policy that is intended to improve a country’s global stature is enforced. In tandem, realism theory posits that states coexist in a context of international anarchy, which refers to the absence of a centralized authority to protect states from one another, each state has to survive on its own. Thus, states are by definition self-help agents. The theory assumes that within the hierarchy of international relations issues, national security tops the list. For them, military and related political issues dominate world politics.

Realists can be categorized into three groups based on their view of the vital causes of conflicts between nations. Classical realists maintain it results from human nature; neorealists accredit it to the anarchic state system; while neoclassical realists maintain it results from both, in combination with domestic politics. Although realism is a very diverse body of thought as can be shown by its varying branches, it is unified by the view that global politics is always and necessarily a zone of conflict among states in pursuit of power.

Let us use Realism Theory to Understand Russia’s Annexation of Crimea

In 2013, the President of Ukraine, Yanukovich, declined to sign a trade and cooperation agreement with the EU. This led to huge and violent demonstrations in the country. Consequently, Yanukovich was removed from office in February 2014 where an interim government took over, which Russia did not recognize. Thereafter, troops appeared in Crimea and took control of key government and military buildings and other facilities of strategic importance. A classical realist would present this example of Russia’s actions towards Ukraine as the former taking the chance to step in and push through with its influence, as a result of instability in Ukraine.

Further on, in March 2014, a referendum was held asking the Crimea population if they wanted to remain part of Ukraine or join Russia. The Supreme Council of Crimea claimed that the referendum was as a result of not recognizing the interim government in Kiev as legitimate. The referendum, which was supported by Russia passed and Crimea’s Supreme Council declared Crimea as independent from Ukraine which later officially became part of Russia. Vladimir Putin, President of Russia, justified his country’s actions in Crimea as Russia’s moral duty to look after Russian communities living outside Russian territories and to respect the will of Crimea to re-join the motherland. The way Russia views the events after Yanukovich removal from office is that Kiev violated an agreement in which Russia recognized an independent Ukraine as long as it did not pursue anti-Russian policy and did not align itself with the West. Russia felt threatened if Ukraine was to go ahead and sign a free trade agreement with the EU which would enhance the slow integration of Ukraine into Europe’s economic and military spaces, NATO.

As per the prevailing understanding in the West, Russian aggression was the cause of the entire crisis in Ukraine. As the prevailing wisdom goes, Putin annexed Crimea as one step to fulfilling the Russian desire of re-establishing a Soviet-like empire. The western understanding continues to claim that the removal of Yanukovych as the president just provided a pretext for Russia’s decision to seize part of Ukraine where the end goal would be to later annex the whole of Ukraine. However, the short-sighted USA decision to expand NATO eastwards and other policies aiming to isolate Russia, and EU policies trying to create a “sphere of influence” in Eastern Europe, are to be blamed for what transpired in Europe.

By thinking like a realist and understanding a little bit of history, the Ukraine crisis appears different than the western version of events dictates. Western version blames Putin for the entire crisis, but realists know that major powers have always been sensitive about what happens at their borders (their backyard), and will often be defensive when other powers start interfering near their borders. Such concerns were what the Monroe Doctrine was safeguarding against. Moreover, in the case of Ukraine, the US and its allies have been expanding NATO Eastwards, violating promises made to Soviet leaders, and not taking into account repeated warnings from Russia. Moreover, the failure of Obama’s administration to think like realists made it to be blindsided when Russia annexed Crimea thereby derailing US and EU policies. The response by Putin was not legal, legitimate, or admirable, but it was not surprising to a realist either. To a realist, it is also not surprising that what transpired in Ukraine alarmed Europeans and made NATO brace its defenses in East of Europe.

As per the realism theory, the US together with its European allies is to be blamed for most of what happened in Ukraine. This is because as any realist would concede, the main cause of what happened in Ukraine is NATO enlargement, which would move the country out of Russia’s orbit of influence thereby integrating it into the West. Additionally, since the mid-1990s, Russia has constantly opposed NATO advancement towards the East, and in the past couple of years, it has made it clear that it would react when and if its strategically important neighbor appears to be moving away from its influence thereby endangering Russia’s interests. In tandem, after the pro-Russian president was overthrown, Putin responded by annexing Crimea, a peninsula Russia feared would host a NATO naval base. This is exactly what realism theory projects would result from such actions that appear to threaten the survival of a state.

Further, the EU has been expanding eastward too with its economic and political policies. In May of 2008, the EU initiated its Eastern Partnership initiative, to promote prosperity in countries including Ukraine thereby integrating them into the union’s economy. To a realist, it was thus unsurprisingly when Russian leaders claimed the plan was hostile to Russia’s interests. Thus, before Yanukovych was overthrown, the Foreign Minister of Russia blamed the EU for trying to create a “sphere of influence” in Eastern Europe. To Russian leaders, EU expansion is concealment for NATO expansion. As such, Putin’s response should not have come as a surprise since the West had been expanding into Russia’s backyard, ignoring repeated warnings, and thereby becoming a threat to Russia’s core strategic interests, a point the Russian made clearly and repeatedly. Consequently, leaders in Europe and the US were blindsided by Crisis in Ukraine because they champion a flawed understanding of international politics. These leaders tend to argue that the logic of realism has little use in this century and that Europe, and in some cases the whole world, can be forced to be whole and free based on liberal principles like democracy, the rule of law, and economic integration. But this view was proved flawed in Ukraine as the crisis proved that realpolitik remains relevant, and U.S and European leaders made a blunder in their efforts to turn Ukraine into a Western puppet on Russia’s border.

Further on, classical realist theory can help explain the crisis in Crimea. Russia’s annexation of Crimea would be viewed by realists as Russia asserting its power and as Russia attempting to increase its power in pursuit of self-interest. As per classical realism, nations have an intrinsic desire to dominate others and Russia’s actions seemed to prove that assertion. This is because Russia got involved in the conflict with Ukraine for the sole reason of bringing Crimea under its wing (sphere of influence) thereby increasing its territorial power in the region. As such, it can rightfully be maintained that actions by Russia aligned with the assumption of realists that major powers aim to increase their economic and military capabilities when the costs of doing so are outweighed by overall benefits. In the case of Crimea, the costs Russia faced were ruining its global reputation since many nations were against actions by Russia, however, Russia benefits by gaining more territorial power thereby expanding its power in the region. With this line of reasoning, even though Russia may suffer economically as a result of foreign investment withdrawal and limited access to the European energy market, the benefits that the country gets from annexing Crimea must outweigh these and such costs. Additionally, Crimea is of significant value for Russia because it is strategically located. For instance, Sevastopol, the main city of the peninsula, has a port giving the Russian fleet direct access to the Black Sea, thus allowing the country’s fleet to maintain its presence in Eurasia.

Moreover, a moral claim of realism is that a nation’s first and foremost interest is the survival of itself and its people. For survival to be assured, a nation requires power over other nations that may seem a threat. Consequently, the nation’s supreme moral obligation is to have/ maintain power relative to nations that would threaten its existence and its people. Russia has viewed the US as a threat, and NATO expansion towards Russia has not helped in changing that view and is thus against Ukraine’s relations with the West. Similarly, Russia’s increasing insecurity might play a role in why the country is working to increase its power over neighboring countries. A realist would argue that the annexation of Crimea by Russia is an attempt to further its interests as a major power in the global community and deter others, such as the US and the EU from going against its interests. Additionally, the realist theory would claim that Putin believes that Western interests are aimed to limit Russia’s influence globally and use their power to extend their global influence. As such, Russia could not risk losing Ukraine to the West with all the strategic advantages that come from having Crimea. Thus, Russia decided to annex Crimea thereby preserving its interests in Ukraine and aiming to maintain power in the region. In tandem, the realist assumption that nations pursue security regardless of the costs may serve as an explanation as to why Russia pursued power outside of its territories.

Furthermore, classical realist theory would also posit that Russia’s annexation of Crimea, is an indication of its overt disregard for Ukraine and its citizens. Russia holds more power compared to Ukraine and hence acts upon its power with no restriction. Machiavelli, a realist theorist, maintains that morality issues take a backseat as far as international relations are concerned. Morality issues may hold significant importance between states with equal power but not among superior Russian power over much less powerful Ukraine. In this case, moral objections are not relevant and this was proved by Russia’s decision and no regard for concerns of Ukraine. As realists would posit, countries can maintain their independence and power only if they are strong enough to scare off an enemy from invading.