Realism rests on an extremely bold claim that all states always pursue their own interests and struggle for power. Although the realist simplistic understanding of international affairs might be tempting because of its straightforwardness and clarity at the first sight, I have always had a hard time seeing the complex global political reality through realist lenses. It is mainly due to three key assumptions on which realism relies, and which can never be empirically proved to be true. First of all, realists hold states to be rational actors. Secondly, rationality of states is understood as being embodied in states maximizing their self-interests and minimizing their loss. Thirdly, all states are assumed to have some military capacity, and those with most military might and economic clout are decisive.
In the interviewOn International Relations, Theory, and Practice: A Special Interview With Professor Stephen Walt, Professor Stephen Walt stated that “the conflict in Ukraine is an obvious example” of the comeback of realism as a strain of thought in contemporary world politics. In contrast, this article argues that due to realism’s ignorance towards several fundamentally important factors in the Russo-Ukrainian conflict, it is extremely irrelevant to the current state of the conflict.
Realists see the Russo-Ukrainian war as a matter between the two states, while they are
ignorant towards the domestic socio-economic
and political developments within the countries which have catalyzed the
conflict. On one hand, Putin has been dismantling democratic institutions and
civil liberties ever since coming to power in 1999. Taking the full control of
the media and economy, centralizing enormous power in Putin’s own hands, as
well as reviving the neo-imperial agenda led to a radical rejection of
democratic ethos in Russia.
While in Russia, these changes were being largely embraced by majority population, domestic affairs in Ukraine took a completely different direction. Thanks to the Ukrainian 2004 endeavour today known as the Orange Revolution, Yanukovych’s attempt to seize power illegally was reversed. In the Euromaidan events of 2013-14, millions of Ukrainians demanded people power, and succeeded when in late February, Yanukovych fled the country. Both Ukrainian uprisings were the product of domestic factors, and not of the Western powers, as some realists would argue. In realist interpretations of the ongoing war, these domestic developments are downplayed due to being seemingly irrelevant, however these events played fundamental role in the conflict, and ignoring them leads to misinterpretation of the significance of the war.
Besides ignorance towards domestic affairs, realist tend to focus solely on interests, and leaving out important factors such as ideology, and culture. To be more specific,Putin’s neo-imperial ideology, his open determination to rebuild the great Russia, his belief that all Russian speakers are Russians who deserve the Russian state’s protection, and his open opinion that Ukraine is an artificial state with no right to exist appear to be a part of his pursuit of authoritarianism and empire and his adoption of a hegemonic policy toward Russia’s near abroad. As Putin’s high popularity ratings suggest, his ideology can possibly be a product of Russian political culture, and realists mistakenly do not see this as a factor contributing to the conflict with Ukraine.
The realist fundamental assumption that all states, and their elites act rationally, has been also called into question in the context of the Russo-Ukrainian conflict. Although Putin appears to be obsessed with pursuing Russian self-interest, it is very unclear how annexing Crimea and destroying a part of the Donbas region made the country stronger. Additionally, there was a complete absence of Yanukovych’s effort to pursue the self-interest of Ukraine. Behaviour of the elites of Russia and Ukraine has not been rational at all, but realists choose not to see this fact.
To summarize, this article argues that the Russo-Ukrainian conflict is far from being the example of realism being relevant in the 21st century. The realist thought ignores fundamental factors such as domestic developments, and culture and ideology. The assumption that states always act rationally and in their self-interest is also heavily undermined when one looks more closely on events that took place in Russia and Ukraine.