As Russia masses troops on Ukraine’s borders, poised to invade, a chorus of voices urges the democracies to do nothing to deter it. They include, of course, the Trumpist right, whose indifference to Ukraine is of a piece with their worship of Vladimir Putin, but also the pacifist left, who insist there can be no “military solution” to a conflict to which Mr. Putin is at this moment readying a military solution.
But the largest contingent are the self-styled foreign-policy “realists,” who profess to no ideology but only an unblinking view of nations as self-interested actors pursuing their strategic objectives. The realist refrains from moral judgements about the players or their aims: he only describes the game. Is Mr. Putin seeking, if not wholesale absorption of Ukraine into a reconstituted Russian empire, then at least to confine it within its sphere of influence? But of course. That is what great powers do.
And yet it is hard not to detect a note of disapproval in realist analysis – disapproval aimed not at Mr. Putin for threatening to invade a neighbouring country (or rather, after Crimea, to “further” invade), but at the West for provoking him. The West – the United States and the NATO alliance – realist commentators insist, has only itself to blame for the crisis, notably with regard to the reckless policy of expansion NATO adopted following the collapse of the Soviet Union, admitting more than a dozen former Soviet states and members of the Warsaw Pact.
The result, in this telling, was to leave Russia feeling isolated, humiliated, and betrayed. Didn’t the then-U.S. secretary of state, James Baker, in 1990 assure the then-president of the then-Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, that NATO would not expand eastward? And now here we are, with NATO troops already on Russia’s doorstep in the Baltic States, and Ukraine lobbying to join them. Of course Russia was going to react. How would the United States feel – there is always some version of this – if Russia were to station troops in Mexico?
As NATO is the cause of the crisis, so (to the realist) it is up to NATO to resolve it. It should assure Moscow that Ukraine will never be allowed to join NATO, that it will remain suspended between Russia and the West, in perpetuity. In some variants it is even suggested Ukraine should cede parts of its territory, if not to Russia then to Russia’s surrogates. In return for which, Mr. Putin promises to withdraw his troops. Until the next provocation, at least.
To be a realist, as it turns out, is to believe a number of quite fantastic things: that it is not Russia that threatens Ukraine, but Ukraine that threatens Russia; that a defensive alliance of democracies is to be equated with a predatory dictatorship with a history of invading its neighbours; that the presence of NATO troops in Eastern Europe is for the same purpose, and holds the same implications, as the presence of Russian troops in Mexico.
The idea that NATO poses a genuine threat to Russia is only marginally more preposterous than the idea that Russia genuinely feels threatened. And yet it is on this basis that the realists offer up Ukraine, and Ukrainian sovereignty, as a sacrifice to Mr. Putin’s amour-propre – as if Ukrainians themselves had no say in the matter; as if Mr. Putin’s obsession with Ukraine had anything to do with NATO, or NATO expansion; or as if any undertakings Mr. Putin made in return were worth a thing.
The realist also appears to be in thrall to some remarkable historical revisionism. The “promise to Russia” was a promise restricted to a single country that no longer exists, the former East Germany, made to the president of another country that no longer exists – who has stated it has no application beyond that. By contrast, Russia is a signatory not only of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum with Ukraine, in which it promised to respect its independence and territorial integrity, but the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act, in which it consented to the very NATO enlargement it now decries. Indeed, at the time it was envisaged Russia would one day join NATO.
Realists like to think of themselves as the adults in the room. In fact they are the undergraduates. For the undergraduate, and the undergraduate-minded, there is a cold thrill to realism. It is the intoxicating rush of having, as it were, pierced the veil, seen through the illusions that still blind others – including the illusion that we’re the good guys, or that there are such things as good guys.
It resembles, in its hyper-contrarianism, conspiracy theory, and like its cousin the habit of mind on which it depends is not skepticism, but credulousness; not clear-eyed pragmatism, but ideology, of the most doctrinaire kind.
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