Russian ‘realism’ is winning now, but will fail in the end

August 28, 2014

Russian President Putin speaks to the media after talks with Ukrainian President Poroshenko in Minsk, Belarus

The world is no longer divided by communism vs. capitalism. But it’s still divided by ideologies that have their clearest expression in the policies of Russia and the United States. That division contrasts liberal and realist views of the world.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s realist stance has won ground. No country will help Ukraine get Crimea back, which Russia annexed in March. There’s no invitation pending for Ukraine to join the European Union – the more so since the new president of the European Commission, Jean Claude Juncker, has ruled out any applications for membership for at least five years. And NATO will not rush to admit a nation that it would be pledged to defend from armed incursion.

Yet Putin’s future problems are likely to be more of a headache than Ukraine’s gradual drift toward the West. The downside of the realist position is that it pays little or no mind to the autonomy of citizens.

John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago writes in the current issue of Foreign Affairs that liberals now dominate foreign policy in the West. They believe that “the end of the Cold War had fundamentally transformed international politics and that a new, post-national order had replaced the realist logic that used to govern Europe.” In this vision, “geopolitics no longer mattered and … an all-inclusive liberal order could maintain peace.”

Mearsheimer, a realist among idealists, says Russia takes a more sensible – realist — position: All great states have large interests, he writes, and international politics is, as always, about projecting power in seeking to accommodate these interests when they conflict.

There’s no doubt that the liberal view of the world has many problems. In fact, we are witnessing one right now: the fallout from over-estimating the liberating possibilities of the Arab Spring. Western leaders were caught up in what sociologist Daniel Ritter called  “the iron cage of liberalism.” President Barack Obama exemplified the point in his comments on the demonstrations in Cairo’s Tahrir Square in 2011. “The people of Egypt have rights that are universal,” he proclaimed. “That includes the right to peaceful assembly and association, the right to free speech, and the ability to determine their own destiny.”

But Obama was doing more than just restating liberal freedoms. He was also ditching a long-term U.S. ally, the autocratic President Hosni Mubarak, who had long abided by a treaty with Israel and whose military the United States helped to fund and whom the demonstrations were instrumental in removing.

Now almost everywhere, the promises of liberation born in the Arab Spring have reinvigorated authoritarianism – in Egypt, where the military reasserted control, but also in the region’s real and simmering civil wars where proxies for radical Islamists and authoritarians do battle. It’s perfectly reasonable for a realist to contend that the liberals’ embrace of the upsurge of populist anger in the Middle East and its call for Western freedoms was the result of a naïve misreading of the real forces at play in Arab societies.

But the realists have their own iron cage — and its bars are thicker. The realists’ realist is Putin. Earlier this week, he met with his Ukrainian counterpart, Petro Poroshenko, to discuss the crisis in eastern Ukraine. He presented his now familiar enigmatic visage to the world even as videos of captured Russian soldiers and reports that Russia had inserted troops into at least one insurgent-controlled area, undercut his undying claim that Russia has nothing to do with the pro-Russian separatist movement in eastern Ukraine.

It is a moment of apparent strength, but will not help him in the longer term

It is one thing to sneer at the West’s naivety in the Middle East, but it’s quite another to be blind to popular forces that, in Ukraine, increasingly look west to Europe and increasingly see in Russia a threat.

Putin viewed the demonstrations in Kiev that swept a corrupt president from power as wholly caused by Western money and plotting. For him, citizens’ uprisings are always due to “outside influences.” His underestimation of what citizens united can do will rebound on him. More and more are citizens conscious of rights that should be theirs; more and more are they linked to global flows of information, and more and more are they aware of the costs of corrupt authoritarian rule. Putin squared off against protest demonstrations in 2011 and 2012 and neutralized them by discrediting and imprisoning their leaders.

But that was then. The Russian economy isn’t growing, the hypernationalist propaganda will pale and the fact that Russian actions have “lost” Ukraine because they have alienated most of its people will hit home. Russia will confront a new reality: of citizens who want rights guaranteed by the state and truth from their media. It’s not naïve to believe this will happen: it’s realist.


PHOTO: Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks to the media after talks with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in Minsk, Belarus August 27, 2014. REUTERS/Alexander Zemlianichenko/Pool


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A nation like Russia where lifespans and living standards lag Europe by 20 years – and where 65% of GDP (or more) goes to military spending – is being paranoid and delusional – not realistic – no matter how much territory the failed system can steal from its weaker neighbors.

Putin learned nothing from the Cold War – and still considers the USSR to be an ideal somehow stolen away by outside forces. Realists don’t try to recapture the past at the expense of the present (and the future).

Posted by DonD1977 | Report as abusive

I only hope that Russia will ban Reuters and other American (or Nazi, both are same things) “news agencies” from operating in the country. Nazis can keep their propaganda and their opinions to themselves and to their brainwashed populace.

Posted by roobit1970 | Report as abusive

Russia needs Ukraine much more than Ukraine needs Russia.

Posted by Ihor2014 | Report as abusive

So the people of Western Ukraine have the right to self determination, but the people of Eastern Ukraine are simply slaves to evil Russia? That is far too simplistic.

Posted by jim_seattle | Report as abusive

I think Mearsheimer is making the classic “universalisation” mistake, as if the societies and individuals were the same all around the globe. Within the area we now call more or less Russia, similar acts of governance have more often produced the next version of national totalitarism than that of liberalism.
However I’m eagerly waiting to see whether Mearsheimer’s thesis apply to similar circumstances within U.S. albeit the local “Putin” is the (one) faceless plutocracy. For the North American people’s sake – I hope he’s right but for a large part of the world (namely the areas ending -East) I don’t think they apply anytime soon.

Posted by Kehva | Report as abusive

So there is no civil war in Ukraine, with legitimate East/West division? Those people in Eastern Ukraine really don’t prefer Russian civilization, and want to be like the US? Everyone wants to be like the US, or they’re ignorant?

Posted by sarkozyrocks | Report as abusive

He is intoxicated with his own importance. His popularity is soaring and the masses applaud his expansionism and marvel on his how he deceives his foes. That is Putin today and Hitler 1939.No death camps today, but then there was no death camps in 1939. If Putin advances and we settle for the piece of paper of “peace in our time”, his appetite with grow for further conquests and he can laugh at the West. We need quietly to squeeze the head of the snake.

Posted by ThomasOne | Report as abusive

About three years ago Putin said in a speech, “Russia’s future lies in its past.” It doesn’t really matter whether he was talking about the Soviet Union or the Tsars. Both were complete thugs who dominated and abused neighboring countries. The Tsars were the first to seize the Crimea from the Ukraine. Josef Stalin starved 10 million Ukrainians to death to make room for Russians, the same Russians that are now causing all of the problems. We need to recognize that Putin, like his predecessors, is a complete Thug. We need long term economic policies to contain Russia’s aggression while at the same time reducing its ability to make war.

Posted by branchltd | Report as abusive

In the short and medium term, there is most of worl population who does not have the public morals to support a liberal view. Those that believe in Jihad against infidel movements for example. When one deals with populations with very different beliefs one cannot assume they are just like themselves and have the same ideas of what is right or acceptable. That is true even in one nation.

Posted by SamuelReich | Report as abusive

I’m curious who the author thinks the “liberal” foreign policy strawmen he writes about are, since they’re never mentioned by name or any particular policy. The closest I can think of for anyone recently is George W. Bush, who I don’t think anyone would describe as “liberal”. Whatever faults you may find in Obama’s foreign policy, lack of realism is not one of them; if anything, he’s suffered from a shortage of idealism and an unwillingness to reach for any lofty goals.

Posted by RobertHoward | Report as abusive

This story: the world is: “divided by ideologies…”

People are much like ants. They divide themselves into groups, each with its own leader, then they compete and fight with each other.

Anybody remember that classic story of “Gulliver’s Travels”??? Guilliver finds a two groups divided by “ideology”. One group breaks their eggs at the flat end of the egg shell. The other group breaks their eggs at the pointy end of the egg shell.

People just make-up ideologies to justify their atagonism to other groups.

Posted by nose2066 | Report as abusive

Author doesn’t seem to be aware the Brzezinky has been Obama’s foreign policy advisor. He ought to read Brzezinsky’s “The grand Chessboard, American Primacy and its Imperatives” before spouting such lame generalities. He just might realize that Obama’s American Primacy implementation is slightly more subtle than that of the Bush/Cheney gang but its overall objectives really don’t differ that much.

Posted by JPHR | Report as abusive

Russia is not ‘realist’. Putin is a KGB guy who happened to also become a ‘new Russian’ mafioso tycoon after the fall of the USSR… kind of Don Corleone with KGB background. That might help to explain why his behavior is so unpredictable. As former Russian dissident Vladimir Bukovsky said [to the best of my memory], Russia once again shows to the world a great social experiment, for there have been times when a country was led by a military junta, but never by the intelligence apparatus mafia.

Posted by UauS | Report as abusive

Being an old KGB man, Putin thinks in terms of geopolitics. He repines for the good old days when the world respected Russian’s military might, and Russia was at the center of the world stage.

While I believe he cares somewhat for Russian speakers in the Ukraine, his primary motivations are Machiavellian and geopolitical.

Putin wanted the naval bases of Crimea, and he wants a land bridge to the Crimea through the Eastern Ukraine. In addition, he wants to show the Russian people that he is strong, and that Russian is strong and proud. He wants a personal legacy–how about Putin the Great or at least Putin the Terrible?

Posted by MaskOfZero | Report as abusive

The views, and insights of the reactors/commenters showed far analytical and critically better than of this writer! LOL!

Posted by Bantelis | Report as abusive

“Russian ‘realism’ is winning now, but will fail in the end.”

Perhaps; but idealism cannot provide food, shelter, clothing and many other necessities of life. Please recall the Roman Civil Wars in which Caesar eventually bested Pompey and Mark Antony. Generally speaking; the Roman citizens grew tired of war in Italy and in exchange for peace offered up many of their civil rights and personal comforts.

Can “an all-inclusive liberal order” challenge “realism” in practical terms? Can this same “an all-inclusive liberal order” overcome age-old social beliefs and habits defined within the confines of good/evil behaviors?

The old farmer/villagers use to say “…if wishes were horses, beggars would ride.” Social Progressives and Liberal Academics offer nothing more than stirring speeches or hearty debates which protect, feed, house and clothe no one. The Circus is fun and entertaining, but few can make a living on that road.

To remain practical and survive; Liberal Idealists must take charge of the international/national finance and production of goods/services then redistribute for effect. Why? Because very few will work hard for an set of ideals, but most will struggle in hopes of success as they fill innate desires attached to personal/family gain.

Want proof? Refuse payroll/benefit compensation for all Federal Officials and Employees, elected and hired, for 1 year and see who comes to work? Or terminate all Welfare $$$/Benefits and watch US stability vanish. Or refuse to meet your financial obligations and see if ‘liberal idealism’ will let you enjoy life’s basic needs?

Posted by NPeril | Report as abusive

With a weak U.S. president, Putin and Russia will just get stronger.

Posted by Leatherrope | Report as abusive

All these journalists seem to be on a mission, which is certainly not to present the things as they are. They will not report about the interdictions of the Russian language and televisions, about the instauration of a dictatorial and fascist ruling in Kiev. They will not show the bombing of civilians by the Ukrainian army that are happening every day; they will not show the cities let in ruins, without water and electricity. They will always try to minimize the sustainment of rebels by the local population, the huge number of participation in the referendum for independence, the huge number of people that are refugees at their Russian brothers. They will always try to distort and interpret every single fact, misleadingly translate every Russian declaration, always blame the Russians, incite to war and hatred against them. They will intoxicate the media with the declarations made by Kiev every hour, like Kiev is saying the supreme truth.

Posted by JohnB1234 | Report as abusive

Vlad has bigger nads than Barry will ever have – who just tapped-out for the umpteenth time since he got off the boat

Posted by jackdanielsesq | Report as abusive

Yanukovych was removed from power by a brutal and violent rebellion. Where were the liberal ideas of the west at that time. Yanukovych was elected in a legitimate democratic elections and the demands of the (then) protesters should have been put to test in a democratic election. This was, by the way ,the compromise reached one night before the rebels took over , in negotiations held between the 2 sides ( then government and protesters) with the mediation of the EU. The current policy of the West towards Ukraine smells of hypocrisy and is not legitimate.

Posted by davidkr | Report as abusive

According to branchldt, “The Tsars were the first to seize the Crimea from the Ukraine”. Is he or she crazy or just ignorant? Further, Vladimir Putin defends the vital interests of Russia and the suppressed Russian population of Eastern Ukraine. His actions are absolutely legitimate, and I wish him every success. On the other hand, the so-called current leaders of Ukraine are genuine thugs and plain criminals.

Posted by Denouncer | Report as abusive

Putin will win because no one will stop him. The the entire Ukraine is not worth one drop of American blood.

Posted by WestFlorida | Report as abusive

Putin’s popularity is due to his saying he’s defending Donbass people from town shelling, Pravy Sector activists, not due to his “expansionism”. No one in Russia needs expansionism.

Posted by whtvr | Report as abusive

EVERYTHING fails in the end. The only worthwhile debate is that which explores the quality of the journey.

Posted by TENOFWANDS | Report as abusive

If we (USA) did not possess the “exorbitant privilege” of printing the world reserve currency out of thin air, our nation would be exposed to the “realism” of our bankrupt economy and depleted industrial base. Just one of the many reasons our nation has lost its moral legitimacy to hold any other nation accountable.

“You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” —Jesus Christ

Posted by dwalton | Report as abusive

@WestFlorida: Putin will never win in the long run, because people would still live under pharaohs if dictatorship was a viable form of human society. That’s why the entire Ukraine is fighting for its freedom against Putin’s dictatorship now.

Posted by UauS | Report as abusive

So many extert people! Bravo, no one has never been to Ukraine or even no one so-called journalist has ever visited the place of the combats. Listen to waht OSCE is saying, they are the only presented at the border. All others are zombingly repeating to what obama says.

Posted by russe | Report as abusive

It’s the American Empire that’s failing right now. Going down the toilet of history, the last of the evil Western Empires.

Posted by opiumpoetry | Report as abusive

Not a word about the Neo-Nazi storm troopers who helped to violently overthrow the democratically elected government of the Ukraine. How many Ukraine government ministers come from these fascist elements? Four?

Posted by tokugawa | Report as abusive