How the Ukraine war vindicates realism

Opinion by Andrew Latham, The Hill, 9/15/22


In recent days, Ukraine won a stunning victory in the Kharkiv region. In the face of a well-organized Ukrainian offensive, routed Russian forces have been defeated in detail, not only fleeing the battlefield but ditching valuable weapons and badly needed munitions and supplies in their panicked rush to safety.

But if some are now claiming that this sudden reversal of battlefield fortunes has fatally discredited the Russian military, others are claiming that it has similarly discredited the international relations theory known as realism. Indeed, doubling down on a trend that has been building since the war began, some scholarspundits and twitterati are now claiming that the analyses of realists like John Mearsheimer have been so consistently wrong that the whole approach should now, once and for all, be consigned to the dustbin of history.

But is this really the case? Indeed, has anything that has happened in the run up to or following the Russian invasion of Ukraine in any way undercut, diminished or discredited the core claims of realist theory?

My answer, based on a quarter-century teaching international relations theory to U.S. college students and my close observation of the events surrounding the Ukraine war, is a resounding, unambiguous and resolute no.

First things first. What is realism?

At the risk of oversimplifying a very rich and diverse tradition of thought, it is a theory of international relations that assumes that states, in an “anarchic” world in which there is no supranational government to adjudicate disputes or protect the weak, must take steps to ensure their own survival. With all states under pressure to act in this way, realists argue, the international realm is thus always and necessarily a field of conflict and competition. It is a realm where, as Thucydides put it long ago, “the strong do what they will; the weak suffer what they must.”

These being the basic assumptions of realism, what does the theory predict?

To start, it assumes that all states will seek to maximize first their security and then their power. Assuming that states are at least minimally rational actors, they will do whatever they can to avoid extinction. Second, in such a competitive and anarchic world, vulnerable small powers will seek the protection of strong allies. Third, even powerful states, fearful that they might fall prey to other “great powers,” will take steps to maximize their security, often by asserting a sphere of influence, which involves either excluding those other great powers from encroaching on their borders or preventing their weaker neighbors from drifting into the spheres of hostile great powers.

Fourth, realism predicts that if one great power feels that a country within its sphere is drifting into the orbit of another great power, it will use whatever resources are at its disposal, ultimately including military force, to prevent that from happening. Fifth, realism predicts that, in this scenario, if the invaded country does not immediately succumb to the invader, other great powers – which necessarily have a vested interest in seeing any potential competitor weakened so that it can’t threaten them – will support it to bleed the invading power and degrade its power over the long run.

And finally, realism predicts that such wars will continue until one of the combatants prevails (satisfies its minimal security needs) or both sides are exhausted and find themselves in a “mutually hurting stalemate.”

Now, does any of this sound familiar? Is it ringing any bells?

From beginning to end, what has happened in the case of the Russo-Ukrainian war is exactly what realism would, and many realists did, predict. Russia came to believe that Ukraine was drifting out of its sphere of influence and ever more fully into the Western orbit. When no viable diplomatic solution to the problem could be found, Moscow then launched an invasion intended to keep the West, in the form of NATO and the European Union, from further encroaching on its borders.

When Kyiv successfully resisted Moscow’s opening offensive and the Russian invasion stalled, the United States and its European allies provided just enough military assistance to deny Russia a victory and to, as U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, put it “see Russia weakened.” And the war has continued to this point because neither of the two combatants has yet been defeated and both still believe victory is just around the corner.

Finally, it is worth saying a few words about what realism does not predict.

First, it neither assumes nor predicts that political leaders will act with perfect rationality. The argument, rather, is that good political leaders will act in ways that are consistent with the systemic pressures acting on their country. But it recognizes that irrational leaders, of those facing even more powerful domestic political pressures, can and do make catastrophically irrational decisions. 

Second, realism does not assume or predict that wars are an aberration in world politics. Indeed, quite the opposite. The assumption is that the international realm is unavoidably, if lamentably, one of tragedy. War has always been with us and always will. That is not to endorse or glorify war. Nor is it to excuse the evil associated with war. Realism is not a theory of morality and is largely silent on such issues.

Finally, realism is not a theory of war. It is silent with respect to the course and conduct of battlefield operations. And it most certainly does not pretend to be able to tell us how wars should be fought or how they will end.

All this being the case, I am at a loss as to how the course of this war is in any way an indictment of realism. Indeed, quite the opposite. I see it as the latest in a long line of vindications of a theory that has stood the test of time. One might hope that it were the last such vindication, but that would be contrary to the whole spirit or realism.

Andrew Latham is a professor of international relations at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minn., and a non-resident fellow at Defense Priorities in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter @aalatham.

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