Monday, February 9, 2015

When Realism is Unrealistic

One must always admire the Realists for their confidence* as they boldly state their preferred policy choices without much equivocation.  Me?  I am not uncertain about what the US and Europe should do in the Ukrainian crisis.  I don't see giving arms to Ukraine to materially change the situation on the ground--Russia has plenty more it can throw at Ukraine and Ukraine is not bereft of military hardware.  On the other hand, there is something to be said for increasing the costs.

Anyhow, this post is about the confidence confident men* who call themselves Realists.  John Mearsheimer has an op-ed in today's NYT, pleading that the US should not arm Ukraine.**  I tend to agree that arming Ukraine would not really do that much.  But as others have pointed out, there are some key contradictions such as the supposedly existential threat facing Russia despite its nukes.  I have wondered about the stability-instability paradox--that strategic nuclear deterrence might free up folks to use force at lower levels.  Why is it that this is only an opportunity for Putin and not for the West?

The big policy proposal is what has drawn most of my ire: "the West should seek to make Ukraine a neutral buffer state between Russia and NATO... like Austria during the Cold War."  Yes, Ukraine should be treated like a hunk of the defeated power?  While I agree that NATO expansion to Ukraine was and remains a bad idea, the neutrality of Ukraine happens to partially reside in Ukraine's hands.  The country can choose to lean West and join various partnerships even if it is not invited to join NATO.  After losing a significant hunk to Russia via Crimea and after paying a steep cost in lives and money due to Russia's war in the supposedly separatist regions, it is hard to see how any Ukrainian politician in the future could do anything but lean west.  Neutral?  Only kind of, sort of.  Buffer?  Only if Ukraine is denied agency.  Not only does its domestic politics come into play here, but the day that Great Powers can impose their will like this is mostly gone.  Hence this tweet last night:

"It is essential that Russia help end the fighting in eastern Ukraine and that Kiev regain control over that region."  Sure, sure.  "Help" since this suggests that the separatists have heaps of agency.  Hmm, agency for the separatists but not for the state fighting them?

The truly strange thing about all of this is that it ignores a key reality that I referred to earlier: that alliance dynamics are different in a nuclear world.  Why is Russia so concerned with "buffer" states and a Ukraine that is not in its orbit if Russia's security is assured by its nuclear weapons?  It is not so much a Ukraine in NATO that threatens Putin, but a genuinely democratic Ukraine that is outside of Russia's dominance that seems to be the key.  This all happened after a regime change in Kiev with NATO membership not a realistic possibility anytime in the near to medium future.  Only those with Ukrainian immigrants were yammering for NATO membership (Canada/US).   Ah, there is domestic politics again.  Why should regime change matter to a Realist?  Since it did not portend a sudden inclusion into NATO, its meaning might be something else.  But that would be operating in places that old time Realists know not--domestic politics.

*  Men?  Yes, there are women who consider them realists, but the real Realists have much nostalgia for the old boys clubs of the past.   
** Seems strange that for all of the complaining that Mearsheimer does about being ignored in 2003 during the Iraq invasion debate and how "marginalized" he has been as a result that he would still bother to write op-eds like this.  After all, secret lobbies and lying politicians and all that.


Homer said...

1- This argument that a democratic Ukraine will somehow endanger the Russian political is frequently repeated by American commentators, but I have never heard anyone explaining how exactly would this work. To me it seems that the Russians are very unimpressed with the political systems of their former Soviet countrymen in the Baltics. It's not like the Russians are isolated from the world and don't know how the different political systems work.

However, the possibility of a genuinely democratic Ukraine is similar to the possibility of a genuinely democratic Saudi Arabia. Ukraine is a failing society. They have just elected president a second-generation gangster who has been in government this whole century. The country is moving in the opposite direction: wrong opinions are being criminalized, newspapers burned down, political parties suppressed, TV channels forbidden.

Here is an unpopular opinion for you: Viktor Yanukovych was the most democratic and inclusive president that Ukraine ever had and was overthrown by a coalition of authoritarian political forces.

2 - Regarding you main argument: there is a huge cost in Ukraine not being neutral. Someone has to pay that. Ukraine can choose what it wants, but the cost is there. Russia will try to avoid paying all of it and will try to shift it as much as possible to Ukraine.

SAO said...

How does a Democratic Ukraine threaten Russia? Plenty of Russians are not happy with Putin. Comparisons with Stalin are becoming more frequent. But international Russian's history does not provide encouraging precedents suggesting that the disruption of a Maidan-type protest will result in anything better than Putin. It didn't in Egypt.

Some cynics in Russia have suggested that the war in Ukraine serves as a warning --- protests end in total disaster. (Moscow, at least, is flooded with E. Ukrainians)

SAO said...

That was international history and Russia's history

Anonymous said...

Domestic politics. A valid point. Russia would never allow Ukraine to be positioned as Austria-like neutral state. Because Russians believe that Ukraine, unlike Austria or Finland, is a part of Russia. This belief is a cornerstone of national Russian identity. Any Russian leader suggesting otherwise will be considered a traitor by Russian people. Thus, there is no “realistic” peaceful solution here.