Last week, the Monkey Cage published a post by Alexander Motyl, a Ukrainian specialist at Rutgers-Newark, on the Five fatal flaws in realist analysis of Russia and Ukraine. Motyl claims that: “Realists want to have it both ways — arguing for and against rationality in general and in the Russian context in particular. Consistency can be reestablished, but only if realists finally agree that Putin is or is not rational and stick to one, and only one, interpretation.”
While he identifies some inconsistencies in American realist analysis of the Ukrainian conflict, his purported cure might be more damaging than the supposed disease. I have five particular points here, but in general, I claim that a more balanced perspective reveals that, while realism doesn’t have all of the answers, it is more potent than Motyl admits.
Let’s look at this more closely.
1) Motyl first claims that realist (and Russian) credence to the ‘threat’ of Ukraine joining NATO is unsupported by ‘empirical evidence’. He seems to be using the term polemically. While it is true that NATO had no near-term (<5 years) plans for Ukrainian accession to the alliance, neither realist nor Russian sources have claimed this to be the case. And NATO intentions on the long-term prospects for Ukrainian membership are much more subject to interpretation than Motyl allows. He dismisses out of hand NATO’s 2008 Bucharest statement, stating that “NATO welcomes Ukraine’s and Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations for membership in NATO. We agreed today that these countries will become members of NATO.” While Motyl claims this is indeterminate and ‘intentionally noncommittal’, the phrase seems like prima facae support for Ukrainian membership, and is even less benign in the official Russian translation, which uses the future perfective, indicating an action that is expected to come to pass. The preponderance of evidence holds that NATO was open to Ukrainian membership in the medium-term.
2) Motyl also claims that the idea that NATO presents an ‘objective security threat’ is a ‘paper tiger’ and accuses realists who want to focus on Russia’s perceptions instead of pure material factors as ‘contradicting their own premises’. This is a narrow and unfair characterization both of realism in general and of the diversity within it. Realists have been divided on how to take perception into account, but there is a long distance between realist perception (often focused on beliefs about other states’ intentions or willingness to act militarily) and constructivism’s belief that ‘anarchy is what states make of it.’ Besides, realists don’t believe that an ‘objective security threat’ only occurs when an army is lined up on your border. Robert Jervis has worked on intelligence estimates and offense-defense perception, where there is an element of interpretation even with military power. And Charap and Troitsky have worked out ‘an integration dilemma’ that occurs when a state (like Ukraine) joining an alternative institutional order directly damages your outcomes. Neo-realists focus on changes in ‘the distribution of power’, and geo-politicians are concerned with the uneven effects that geography (human and physical) has on military and economic power. All of these theories rely on ‘perceptions’ in the sense that they take into account factors more difficult to interpret than merely counting tanks. But they are also material: they take immediate sources of national military and economic strength as their lodestars, and they rely on calculated assessments of potential outcomes, taking risk (including the risk of being wrong) into account.
3) Motyl says that realists’ analysis of Russia and Ukraine is wrong because Putin himself emphasizes ‘domestic’ reasons for his actions, like the historical ties of Russia to Ukraine. First of all, Putin consistently (maybe even exclusively) also mentions ‘geopolitical’ reasons for Russian military aggression, mostly concerned with NATO’s slow creep towards Russian borders and Western ‘broken promises’ to Russia. You might dismiss these claims on other grounds, but it’s simply not true that ‘realist reasons’ are neglected. But even absent the facts, it’s hard to see why this should be ‘fatal flaw of realism’ in Motyl’s analysis. He faults realism for not explaining something it hardly ever seeks to explain: domestic political rhetoric. Most realists view political rhetoric as epiphenomenal to international politics, except perhaps where intentions and signaling are concerned. I know of no realist work interested in post hoc political justifications for foreign policy actions.
4) Motyl says that “the assumption that Russia’s interests in Ukraine are greater than those of the West’s can only be justified in constructivist terms.” This is just false. Realists might examine Russia’s economic and demographic stagnation (creating a bias towards action in the near term) or integration dilemmas (economic and military). Almost all realists agree that relative factors count more than absolute ones in international politics, and Russia has a lot more to lose (in terms of investment, trade flows, military capacities, perceived vulnerabilities etc.) in Ukraine than the West does. Even the supposedly ‘constructivist’ factors of history, culture and religion have objective bases – these elements make Ukraine a pliable space for Russia to extend influence, and also contain historical narratives tying Ukraine to Russia’s geopolitical safety (from the 18th through the 20th centuries, Russia has very often engaged threats from the West and South primarily in the broader Ukrainian/Black Sea region). While realism should do more to engage with the impact of ‘soft power’ and historical patterns on calculations of interest, power, and threat, there is no reason why these factors are necessarily excluded from realist thinking.
5) Motyl finally claims that realist arguments against arming Ukraine fail because the obsessive pursuit of Russia’s interests in Ukraine is ‘irrational’ (his characterization of Russia escalating the war). This argument has two big problems. First, realist analyses have not stated that Putin’s potential involvement in Ukraine is unlimited: they simply point out that Western half-measures will not do. They are leaning on a well-developed theory of strategic interaction called ‘escalation dominance‘. Originating in US Cold War nuclear strategy, this theory holds that the key to winning a strategic conflict is enjoying the ability to escalate over your opponent at every rung of the ‘escalation ladder’. Because he cannot win in the end, and because he loses at every stage, the rational opponent will not start the conflict in the first place. Most realists believe Russia enjoys escalation dominance in Ukraine, at least in military affairs.
Second, even if Putin were crazy and irrational, this does not somehow invalidate realism. Realists make claims about what states should do, at least if they seek to maximize their power, safety, or survival in the long term. Indeed, the oldest realists (Carr, Morgenthau, and Niebuhr) wrote precisely in response to what they saw as state irrationality in the form of idealistic foreign policy. Even if Putin’s actions exceed what a perfectly calculating realist might recommend, it does not follow that realism’s utility to policymakers as both an analytical and decisional tool is somehow discredited.
Thus, while my own take on Russia in Ukraine is somewhat more informed by ‘constructivist realism’ and the English School International Society approach, I still believe that International Relations scholars ought to confront the best versions of arguments with which they might disagree, especially on such a pressing matter as the Russian challenge to contemporary World Order. While realism doesn’t have all the answers, its parsimony and theoretical clarity make it a more potent tool than Motyl lets on.