A Realist Analysis of the Russo-Ukraine Crisis

Dr Sreemoyee Sarkar


Faculty of History at National University of Study and Research in Law, Ranchi, Jharkhand.

The present paper attempts to analyse the political development of the Russia-Ukraine crisis from a realist perspective. It attempts to shed light on the politico-economic contours of Russia-Ukraine’s foreign policy imperatives behind the present war and assesses the predicament before the international community and other stakeholders. However, the objective of this essay is not to predict the twist and turns of the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war and its aftermath! War has never been a solution; the international community has repeatedly delegitimised war and armed conflicts.

Political Realism (Wenger and Zimmermann, 2010: 48), as a theory of international relations, emphasises that the state is a unitary and rational actor and focuses on the actions and interactions of states. For the most part, realists study patterns of conflict and cooperation in the context of an anarchical international system. It has been observed that security issues dominate the realist agenda at the expense of other concerns. National interest and objectives, power and the balance of power are critical to the Real Politik paradigm, first identified in the Concert of Europe, 1815. Since World War I, modern states have attempted to counteract the reinstitution of an international system based on the precepts of domestic and foreign policies based on the ruthless pursuit of power and national self-interest. They sought the League of Nations (1920) and, finally United Nations (1945) as an effective formalised version of institutional accords. Hence, political realism envisioned that individual states provide collective security by rendering legal and necessary mutual action against any aggressor (Wenger and Zimmermann, 2010: 10). The post-Cold War period international system delved more into the lessons of history and has been continuously working on the construction of a durable international world order steeped in realist tenets.

Ukraine is an erst-while USSR state – the most populous and industrialised one following the dissolution of the Soviet Union. However, Ukraine is a developing country, ranked 74 on the Human Development Index (HDI Data Centre, 2022), offering a lower-middle-income economy. It is considered to be one of the poorest countries in Europe (Ben, 25 September 2020). Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union (1988 – 1991), a new ‘globalised’ order has evolved along the line of liberal democracy and laissez-faire (Lowe, 2013: 257). Russia assumed USSR’s rights and obligations and became recognised as the continued legal personality of the former in world affairs. Up until 2008, the Russian economy enjoyed ten years of spectacular growth, thanks mainly to high oil prices. GDP increased tenfold, and by 2008, revenues from oil and natural gas were worth one-third of total revenue, i.e., about $200 billion (Lowe, 2013: 663). However, the Financial Crisis of 2008 had a disastrous effect on Russia as the oil price fell rapidly, and so did the oil demand. Fortunately, by the middle of 2009, the slump had bottomed out, and the economy began to grow again. From 2011 onwards, Russia has become the world’s leading oil producer, surpassing Saudi Arabia (OECD, 2022) and becoming the world’s largest producer in 2015 (EIA, 2015). It has also become the second-largest producer of natural gas and the third-largest exporter of steel and aluminium. Russia is also the world’s second-largest producer of armaments, including military aircraft, after the United States and its IT industry has had years of record growth. Today, of the four BRIC nations, Russia is the strongest economically.

Realists believe in the condition of equilibrium among neighbouring states (Wenger and Zimmermann, 2010: 50). Inter-state relations may get influenced by the key decision-makers of the state leadership and their conviction about the non-state players involved and persuasion of the global community.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) formation in 1949 is a highly significant development. Britain, France, Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg, United States, Canada, Portugal, Denmark, Iceland, Italy and Norway discarded the ‘no entangling alliances’ policy and pledged themselves in advance to military action under joint NATO command if any one of them is under any security threat. The development of NATO was essentially a collective security measure against COMECON (1947) and later Warsaw Pact (1955) concerning the Eastern European States under Communist Regime.

After World War II, European leaders realised that only large-scale integration would be an antidote to extreme nationalism. For the next four decades, the world witnessed the development of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) and European Economic Community (EEC), finally culminating in European Union (EU) with France, Italy, Netherlands, Belgium, West Germany, Luxembourg, as its founding members. Apart from creating a single currency EURO and common citizenship rights, the EU looks for political, immigration and judiciary cooperation among states, unified security and foreign policy initiatives.

It is to be noted that with the disintegration of the USSR and Warsaw Pact, NATO lacked an ‘enemy’ in Europe and turned towards Asia-Pacific. NATO successfully adapted to the changed circumstances and security challenges and started extending the invitation to the Eastern European States. On the other hand, the EU turned into collaboration-based improved interoperability, inclusive planning, decision-making and implementation of peace-support and civil society operations at the political level.

Hitherto, over the last thirty years after the disintegration of the USSR, peripheral states of Russia have increasingly applied for NATO membership and EU integration. The erstwhile Warsaw pact states like the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Macedonia, Montenegro, etc., seek the realist objective to eliminate a Russian sphere of influence, gain NATO military support, and greater economic symbiosis within the EU. Ukraine tried to follow the bandwagon. However, the NATO-EU European security structure and the extension of NATO membership and EU integration of the Eastern European states weaken Russia. It could also serve the US unfinished agenda of the Cold War, keeping Russia in check. It should be remembered that Russia and NATO have shared an on and off relationship since 1991, within the North Atlantic Cooperation Council framework. In 1994 Russia joined the Partnership of Peace programme with NATO and consequently signed several vital agreements on security cooperation and economic accords. Hitherto Russia has not joined the EU but signed a declaration with the EU in 1993 aiming for geopolitical stability and strengthening politico-economic relations with the western European political sphere and market.

Secondly, realists observe that equilibrium among states occurs independently from the will of statesmen, political leadership and their reflection on international affairs and domestic politics. Political decision-makers may use balance-of-power considerations or justify national interest for their respective foreign policy initiatives (Wenger and Zimmermann, 2010: 50). Strong and more prominent states may adopt soft power to bully or control their diplomatic hinterland. Furthermore, powerful state players resort to soft coups to alter unfavourable regimes and establish a favourable regime.

Since the starting of the millennium Eastern Europe has witnessed a series of Colour Revolutions, resulting in an alteration of the existing regime. For example, Bulldozer Revolution in Yugoslavia (2000), Rose Revolution (2003 – 2004) in Georgia and Orange Revolution in Ukraine (2004). Russian President Putin (Consortium News, 6 January 2015, and Parry, Popular Resistance, 14 May 2017) described those popular civil society resistance as ‘soft-coups’. The change of regimes in the bordering states of Russia not only influences the diplomatic exchange of those states but also affects Russian national interest and foreign policy imperatives.

The Orange Revolution of 2004 targeted the rigged presidential election of Viktor Yanukovych for his pro-Russian stance. In the 2010 election, Yanukovych successfully makes it to the presidential office. Yanukovych was known for his initiatives to navigate a political path between Russia and the EU. However, he abandons Ukraine’s plan to join the EU trade agreement. He was blamed for choosing the Russian side and was ousted from his office in 2014, as the Euromaidan protest broke in. Euromaidan resulted in Yanukovych fleeing the country and seeking asylum in Russia.

On the other hand, Russia has already used force in Georgia in 2008, calling it “Peace Enforcement Action”, and recognised the breakaway states of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. In 2014, Russia once against using force and annexed Crimea as retaliation for Euromaidan. At present, in 2022, under Putin’s political leadership, Russia resorts to an aggressive foreign policy of “Special Military Operation” for “Peacekeeping” to take control of the Donbas region, apparently signifying limited military objectives yet culminating in a war between Ukraine and Russia.

This international relations development of Russia follows John Mearsheimer’s (2001: 3) Offensive Realism theory that states are disposed to competition and conflict, as they are self-interested, power-maximising, and fearful of the other states, as this is the best way to survive in the anarchy of the international system. Whereas Kenneth Waltz’s (1979: 103) Defensive Realism theory states that the anarchical structure of the international system encourages states to maintain moderate and reserved policies to attain national security, which suits Ukraine’s present situation. Ukraine President Zelenskyy has asked for EU membership immediately after the Russian attacks. Ukraine has repeatedly sought NATO intervention and international support against its aggressive neighbour. – Russo-Ukraine crisis is a protracted struggle between Russia’s national interest in terms of geopolitical insecurities and Ukraine’s national interest in terms of politico-economic anxieties. Lobell (2010) observed that states harbouring “revisionist intentions with hegemony as their ultimate goal” and states satisfied with the “status quo to signal their benign intent to each other and to identify each other” would ultimately look for some unique ‘systemic activism’ window opportunity to reshape the international system, reflecting their long-term security interests; and here the international players do have a counterbalancing part.

How does the Russo-Ukraine crisis affect the international world order? The EU and the US have posed an economic ban on Russia so far. UN Security Council Vote on Ukraine on 27 February 2022, adopted a Resolution Against Russia, where one forty-one of the one ninety-three member states voted in favour of condemning Russia’s aggressive militarism. The Resolution (News UN, 27 February 2022) “deplores in the strongest terms the aggression by the Russian Federation against Ukraine” and “demands that Russia unconditionally withdraws all its military forces from the territory of Ukraine.” During the conflict, it also condemns “all Violations of International Humanitarian Law and Violations and abuses of Human Rights”. However, no military deployment has been made evident against Russia, and only an economic ban and diplomatic isolation have been imposed. Furthermore, it is interesting to observe that apart from five countries, i.e., Belarus, Eritrea, North Korea, Syria, Russia, voting against the resolution, twelve countries, i.e., Azerbaijan, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Eswatini, Ethiopia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Morocco, Togo, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Venezuela, did not participate in the voting and further thirty-five countries, i.e., Algeria, Angola, Armenia, Bangladesh, Bolivia, Burundi, Central African Republic, China, Congo, Cuba, El Salvador, Equatorial Guinea, India, Iran, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, Madagascar, Mali, Mongolia, Mozambique, Namibia, Nicaragua, Pakistan, Senegal, South Africa, South Sudan, Sri Lanka, Sudan Tajikistan, Tanzania Uganda, Vietnam, Zimbabwe, have abstained from it. – It is to be noted that all these countries, as mentioned earlier, belong to developing economies, developed economies, and some are even states with emerging economies. While twists and turns of the Russo-Ukraine war are unpredictable, the realist objective of the Global South is clearly self-preservation and restraint. Their security dilemma, geostrategic positioning, national convictions about the big players, foreign policy beliefs and perceptions to explain the outbreak of war, and interdependence, clearly favour a multipolar world system.


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