Too Much Information   /   Spring 2015   /    Essays

Putin, Ukraine, and the Question of Realism

John M. Owen IV and William Inboden

Separatists in Donetsk in 2014 hold up maps of the proposed confederation of Novorossiya (in pink); Sazonchik Konstantin/ITAR-TASS Photo/Corbis.

Not content with annexing Crimea last spring, Russia continues to engage in what one journalist aptly called the “slow-motion dismemberment of Ukraine.”11xJoshua Keating, “The Slow-Motion Dismemberment of Ukraine Continues,” Slate, October 29, 2014; Ethnic Russian separatists and their Moscow patrons talk of a “Novorossiya,” borrowing the imperial tsarist designation for the region they seek to control. For his part, Russian president Vladimir Putin talks peace while using force and intimidation to undermine the government in Kiev and perhaps to hive off additional territory for Novorossiya. President Putin paints his nation’s actions as a justifiable response to the popular uprising that deposed Ukraine’s Moscow-friendly president Viktor Yanukovych in February of last year. Putin describes the coup leaders and Ukraine’s new government as a band of fascists hostile to eastern Ukraine’s ethnic Russians and backed by the European Union and the United States in their effort to diminish Russia’s influence in its immediate neighborhood.

Although it has met with sanctions and other gestures of Western disapproval, Putin’s barely covert conquest (which the US government steadfastly refuses to call an invasion) plays well among his own people, and it will likely provide the Russian president with sufficient leverage to keep Ukraine from entering the EU or NATO. More ominously, it suggests how Putin may continue to behave in Russia’s near abroad, consolidating Moscow’s influence by creating further “frozen conflicts” in Russian ethnic enclaves such as those in Moldova and Georgia or by more brazenly undermining neighboring governments and seizing their territory.

A New Cold War?

For many in the West, the troubling events in Ukraine have raised the specter of a new cold war. A more apt and even more unsettling parallel comes from 1938. In that year, ethnic Germans in the Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia, stirred up by Nazi agitators, called for unification with Germany. With the acquiescence of Britain and France, Germany annexed the Sudetenland (having already absorbed Austria earlier in the year). The story ended, of course, as badly as any ever has: In March 1939, Adolf Hitler took the rest of Czechoslovakia, and in September invaded Poland. The move against Poland triggered the Second World War, the most destructive armed conflict in human history, a catastrophe far worse than the one Britain and France had sought to avert by appeasing Germany.

The similarities between 1938 and 2014 are not lost on Europeans today, particularly those in countries that once were part of the Soviet Union or were its satellites in Central and Eastern Europe. Reaction from Western Europe and North America was more cautious, but the alarm is unmistakable.

Many Russians also compare the Ukraine crisis to the events of the late 1930s—but from a diametrically opposed point of view. For them, it is western Ukrainians, backed, as it happens, by the German-dominated EU, who are “fascists,” while ethnic Russians are “victims.” It was the pro-Westerners, these Russians contend, who carried out the coup against Ukraine’s democratically elected president. Russia has been invaded from the west several times over the centuries, most recently by Nazi Germany in 1941. For many Russians, events in Ukraine show that the West is once again endangering the homeland.

In the 1930s, academic experts tried to explain why things like the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia were taking place—and, more generally, why the international system so carefully constructed after the catastrophic Great War (1914–1918) was unraveling. Among the most influential was Edward Hallett Carr, Woodrow Wilson Professor of International Affairs at the University of Aberystwyth, in Wales.

In July 1939, Carr published The Twenty Years’ Crisis, 1919−1939, a masterful political analysis in which he tried to make sense of the failure of Europe to achieve a lasting peace after the Great War.22x E.H. Carr, The Twenty Years’ Crisis, 1919−1939: An Introduction to the Study of International Relations (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001). First published 1939. Woodrow Wilson Professor he may have been, but Carr held no brief for the late American president’s idealism or his grand project for world order. For Carr, it was precisely that project—the League of Nations, free trade, the outlawing of war, the illusions of collective security, and the naive assertions of a new universal morality—that was propelling the world toward another great war.

Carr argued that those who tried to apply moral principles to international politics were utopians, self-serving and self-deceiving ones at that. The truth, he contended, was that the victors of 1918—Great Britain, France, and America—were imposing their morality on the world, and that the effect was to entrench their power and to maintain the weakness of the excluded and dissatisfied states—not only vanquished Germany but Japan, the Soviet Union, and Italy. The message of interwar European realists was stark: When a liberal democrat talks of morality, hold on to your wallet, or your revolver. Carr’s argument resembled that of his German contemporary Carl Schmitt. “When a state fights its political enemy in the name of humanity,” Schmitt wrote in 1932, “it is not a war for the sake of humanity, but a war wherein a particular state seeks to usurp a universal concept [to use it] against its military opponent.”33x Carl Schmitt, The Concept of the Political, trans. George Schwab (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 54. First published 1927 as Der Begriff des Politischen.

It was natural, then, that the targets of liberal imperialism would be resentful and push back. It was natural, too, that the liberal great powers would interpret that resistance as atavistic and dangerous. Carr called on the Western powers to be realists and recognize that they, as much as Germany, were amassing power and that Germany, as much as they, had legitimate claims.

The West Made Him Do It

Now, as then, many academic analysts are scolding the Western liberal powers for provoking an allegedly bad state—Russia, this time—with their self-deceiving utopianism. John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago, perhaps the leading academic realist in international relations, published a bracing article last autumn in Foreign Affairs, “Why the Ukraine Crisis Is the West’s Fault.” The subtitle, for those who might not have known where Mearsheimer was coming from, made it emphatically clear: “The Liberal Delusions That Provoked Putin.”44x John J. Mearsheimer, “Why the Ukraine Crisis Is the West’s Fault: The Liberal Delusions That Provoked Putin,” Foreign Affairs Volume 93, No. 5 (September/October 2014): 77−89. Mearsheimer charged the West, and particularly the United States, with pushing Russia so far that it had to fight back. In his account, Western provocations began in the mid-1990s with NATO’s bombing of ethnic Serb artillery in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The Serbs were historically aligned with their fellow Orthodox Slavs, the Russians. In 1999, NATO began accepting new members from the former Soviet empire, beginning with Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary. In 2004, Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania all joined NATO. In 2008, alliance officials publicly entertained the idea of Ukraine and another former Soviet republic, Georgia, joining.

North Americans and Europeans tend to see the expansion of NATO as an expansion of collective security and a consolidation of the club of liberal democratic, rational, economically open states. What’s not to like, we ask. But Russians, or at least the ruling elite in the Kremlin, see the world situation in realist terms—as a struggle for power that they are losing. To them, NATO is really a kind of empire expanding toward Russia’s western border. “Putin’s actions should be easy to comprehend,” Mearsheimer writes. “A huge expanse of flat land that Napoleonic France, imperial Germany, and Nazi Germany all crossed to strike at Russia itself, Ukraine serves as a buffer state of enormous strategic importance to Russia.”55x Ibid., 81.

Mearsheimer’s description of Ukraine echoes that of his occasional coauthor, Harvard professor Stephen Walt. On July 17, shortly after the initial news reports about the downing of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 by a Russian-made missile fired by Russian-backed rebels over eastern Ukraine, Walt wrote on his Twitter account that “Airliner tragedy in #Ukraine shows US & EU erred by not pushing to keep Ukr. as neutral buffer state, not potential EU/NATO member.” (Four days later, Walt confessed on his blog that “trying to cram a nuanced view on the tragedy in Ukraine into 140 characters was a mistake.”66x Stephen M. Walt, “The Perils of an Itchy Trigger Finger,” Foreign Policy, July 21, 2014;

A buffer state? If international politics were merely a real-life version of the board game Risk, that term might be apt. But for Ukraine’s forty-five million citizens—who inhabit the largest country in Europe by landmass and survived genocide, forced famine, multiple invasions, and other unspeakable atrocities at the hands of Stalin and Hitler—a characterization of their country as a mere “buffer state” will almost certainly sound like an insult. That these same people recently placed faith in the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, signed by the United States and Russia and guaranteeing Ukraine’s territorial integrity in exchange for relinquishment of its nuclear arsenal, makes the characterization sound even more offensive.

Mearsheimer and Walt are not alone in thinking of Ukraine in such terms. Writing last autumn in The Nation, Stephen Cohen, a professor emeritus at New York University and Princeton, offered a syllabus of “fallacies” concerning Ukraine. For example: “There exists a ‘Ukrainian people’ who yearn to escape centuries of Russian influence and join the West.” The fact, Cohen writes, is this: “As every informed person knows, Ukraine is a country long divided by ethnic, linguistic, religious, cultural, economic, and political differences—particularly its western and eastern regions, but not only those.” Cohen’s historical narrative is similar to that of Mearsheimer and Walt: The West has been the aggressor, the vilified Putin purely reactive, and if Ukraine does not like the way it is being treated, why, it should not live next to Russia.77x Stephen F. Cohen, “Patriotic Heresy vs. the New Cold War,” The Nation, September 15, 2014;

It may seem a below-the-belt punch to compare Mearsheimer, Cohen, Walt, and others with Carr and Schmitt. After all, Schmitt later joined the Nazi Party and Carr exhibited a singularly poor sense of geopolitical timing: Less than two months after his book was published urging Western leaders to accommodate Germany, Hitler invaded Poland and started World War II.88x Thus did Carr publish a revised edition in 1946. For a careful treatment of the differences between the 1939 and 1946 editions of The Twenty Years’ Crisis, see Michael Cox’s preface to the 2001 Palgrave-Macmillan edition. It should go without saying that today’s academic realists are in no way latter-day apologists for Nazi-style aggression and obviously bear no responsibility for the appeasement of Germany or Italy in the 1930s. The point of the comparison is not to impute guilt by intellectual association. Indeed, Schmitt and Carr captured a partial but inescapable truth about international politics: Power struggles are inseparable from the pursuit of justice, peace, and prosperity, and the distribution of power itself is often a zero-sum game. When Yanukovych was ousted, the transition was not about ideals alone. Power changed hands. Just so, the transition has given the EU and United States more influence over Ukraine, and hence more power, at the expense of Russian influence and control.

What is more, Carr was correct in asserting that liberals often ignore or deny any relationship between power and the spread of law, free trade, self-determination, or democracy. Most historians of the interwar period agree that the winners of World War I ought to have been more accommodating of Germany in the 1920s. Likewise, today’s realists are correct in saying that the EU and the United States need to recognize that Russia has legitimate security concerns on its western borders.

The Role of Ideas

The point of comparing the academic realists of the 1930s with those of 2014 is, rather, to show that the thinking of both groups suffers from the same error: reducing international politics to nothing but a power struggle. Use of the term realism is significant here. For Carr, realists are the ones who see things as they are; ideas about justice or welfare are really just contrivances of self-interest, signifying nothing. Utopians are those who mistakenly think that justice and welfare are more than words covering self-interest. Power is real, and all else is illusion.

Such reductionism has dual ramifications, both of which lead academic realists astray. (It merits noting that most academic realists can be distinguished from policy realists such as Henry Kissinger, Brent Scowcroft, and Robert Gates, all of whom have urged a strong response to Putin’s aggression.) First, academic realists do not fully appreciate that for real political actors, liberal and otherwise, ideas about freedom, justice, and prosperity are more than words, and that those ideas affect their actions. The fact that ideas have consequences does not mean that we can have universal peace and harmony. People, groups, and countries disagree about ideas, often violently. Western Ukrainians want a Ukraine that is liberal and democratic. That is why they seek a closer relationship with the EU and want to distance themselves from Russia (or at least Putin’s Russia). Some eastern Ukrainians have a very different vision for their country, and view Russia as its great benefactor and the EU as Russia’s nemesis. Moreover, these contrasting beliefs and perceptions are often tied to material interests. Ukrainians supporting closer ties to the West do so as much in the belief that democratic capitalism leads to greater economic growth and prosperity, and that the American-led security system might benefit their nation, as they do because of any lofty dreams of ordered liberty. And the ethnic Russians of eastern Ukraine take a diametrically opposed view: Russia is their economic partner and political model, now and for the future.

In assessing Russia’s motives, academic realists again tend to ignore the role of ideas. Mearsheimer, Walt, Cohen, and other realists portray Putin as the cool rationalist, dispassionate and non-ideological, while they excoriate Western leaders as hysterical crusaders. But Putin and most powerful elites in Russia are hardly free of ideology. They are authoritarian nationalists, anti-liberal and anti-democratic. That helps explain why they regard the expansion of the EU and NATO as threatening. A Ukraine that joins the EU does not threaten Russia per se. Rather, it threatens the current regime in Russia and the vision of Russia and its “rightful” sphere of influence held by Putin and his sycophantic inner circle.

Putin’s regime must not be confused with Russia. In the early 1990s, Russian liberals were much thicker on the ground in the Kremlin, and, far from feeling threatened by the eastward expansion of Western multistate institutions, some welcomed it and hoped that Russia might join organizations such as NATO and the EU as well. “No Russian leader would tolerate a military alliance that was Moscow’s mortal enemy until recently moving into Ukraine,” Mearsheimer writes.99xMearsheimer, “Why the Ukraine Crisis Is the West’s Fault,” 81. But a Russian leader who was a liberal democrat, or even a prudent autocrat, just might. As an objective matter, the area of the much-maligned NATO and EU expansions has in the last decade been the most secure, stable, and prosperous region on Russia’s borders. Compare the Russian west with the instability and radicalism that have beset its southern belt across Central Asia (including Iran and Afghanistan), or its eastern borders with its traditional archrival China and the nuclear-armed gangster state of North Korea, and suddenly Putin’s fear-mongering about Ukraine’s bid for a trade agreement with the EU appears less rational.

A large scholarly literature exists on threat perception in international relations, and much of it argues that ideology plays a role. The Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz—no sentimental liberal—noted that war is “an act of violence intended to compel our opponent to fulfill our will.”1010x Carl von Clausewitz, On War, ed. Anatol Rapaport, trans. J.J. Graham (Harmondsworth, England: Penguin, 1968), 101. Insofar as one country’s will is already compatible with another’s, the reason for war melts away, and with it the fear of war. Nazi Germany in 1938 had reason to fear American power; today’s Federal Republic of Germany does not. A democratic Russia would not fear EU expansion; a kleptocratic Russia has good reason to.

The second problem that comes out of the realists’ reductionism is that they end up confused about whether morality and justice have any place at all in international relations. “The sad truth,” writes Mearsheimer, “is that might often makes right when great-power politics are at play.”1111x Mearsheimer, “Why the Ukraine Crisis Is the West’s Fault,” 87. Mearsheimer, Walt, and Cohen seem to accept that realist maxim when it comes to mighty Russia and vulnerable Ukraine. Yet somehow, when it is the West that is mighty and Russia that is vulnerable, might definitely does not make right. So academic realists must have in mind an implicit morality.

Perhaps the key to understanding how the academic realists analyze the situation is to recognize the values they seek to uphold. Like policy realists past and present—Metternich, Bismarck, Kissinger, and Scowcroft—the academic realists see stability among the great powers as the highest good. But the academics seem extraordinarily risk averse concerning any act that might jeopardize that stability (unless, as we noted earlier, that act is committed by that cool rationalist, Putin).

Is this the only morality available to those who recognize that power pervades international politics? Are stable relations among powerful states always to be maximized, even if that means condoning the absorption of a region of Ukraine (or a region of Czechoslovakia) by one of those mighty states? Not necessarily. An alternative and deeper tradition of realism contains ample consideration of morality and national interest. Beginning in the 1930s and through World War II and the Cold War, adherents to this alternative tradition in the West grappled with how to recognize that all human action is tainted by self-interest while avoiding the paralysis of moral relativism. They understood the reality of power and force as necessary constants in international politics, yet still drew clear moral distinctions between the relative virtue of democratic society and the relative vice of totalitarianism. The intellectual leader of this movement was Reinhold Niebuhr.

Niebuhr’s Christian Realism

A theologian and Protestant minister, Niebuhr was the foremost shaper of the school of thought known as “Christian Realism,” but his influence extended far beyond the sacral walls. Even those such as Carr, with whom Niebuhr differed sharply on the moral responsibility for the outbreak of World War II, were shaped deeply by his thought. As recalled by a colleague, the late international relations scholar Kenneth Thompson, Niebuhr’s “formative influence on thinkers such as Hans J. Morgenthau in the United States and E.H. Carr in Britain was early, direct, and unquestioned. Both Morgenthau in Scientific Man versus Power Politics and Carr in The Twenty Years’ Crisis quoted Niebuhr more than any other thinker.”1212x Kenneth Thompson, “Niebuhr and the Foreign Policy Realists,” in Reinhold Niebuhr Revisited: Engagements With an American Original, ed. Daniel Rice (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009), 139.

Niebuhr shared with Carr an impatience with the liberal idealism that naively believed international organizations and lofty agreements could prevent conflict. In “Peace and the Liberal Illusion,” an essay he wrote in early 1939 in the wake of Neville Chamberlain’s infamous appeasement of Hitler at Munich, Niebuhr lamented that democracy “rests upon a faith in the essential goodness of man and the possibility of completely rational behavior,” and he excoriated “the liberal culture which is unable to assess the relation of force to reason, to understand the coercive element in all political life.”1313x Reinhold Niebuhr, Christianity and Power Politics (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1940), 84, 89. Such sentiments resonated with Carr’s own frustration with the Wilsonian idealism embodied by the League of Nations and the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928, which were intended to outlaw war.

Had Niebuhr stopped there, Carr and his latter-day disciples would probably be in full-throated agreement with him. But there is perhaps a reason why Carr often cited Niebuhr while Niebuhr rarely cited Carr. In the midst of his Carr-like criticism of democratic idealism, Niebuhr never lapsed into Carr’s moral relativism and near apologia for fascist aggression. Rather, Niebuhr still believed that democracy represented the most realistic and desirable form of government, and that democratic values had a central role to play in shaping international politics. In that same 1939 essay, he wrote that “democracy is a perennial necessity because justice will always require that the power of government be checked as democracy checks it…power must be held under democratic restraints because irresponsible power is always dangerous.” Even as the democratic world faced possible extinction in the face of the Nazi threat, Niebuhr criticized democracy’s susceptibility to naiveté and folly, rather than democracy itself. In concluding “Peace and the Liberal Illusion,” Niebuhr wrote that “it may be that democracy is too intimately bound up with these liberal prejudices to survive their destruction. This is a pity. For if democracy dies it must be born again. There is no way to justice without it.”1414x Ibid., 85−86, 91. The very mention of “justice” might be anathema to contemporary realists, but for Niebuhr it was central to his realism.

Differences Matter

Niebuhr’s realism, like academic realism, understood life as a contest of power and self-interest. But unlike academic realism, which only sees this contest in the international system at the level of the nation-state, the Christian Realism of Niebuhr embraced the belief that power contests and assertions of self-interest occur at every level of life, from individual human relations to community and society to industry and government, extending outward to the international system itself. So, like James Madison, Niebuhr believed democracy to be the most advantageous and most realistic form of government, not because of its exaltation of the individual person but because of its checks and balances on individual self-aggrandizement. For similar reasons, he fiercely opposed tyranny, which concentrated unchecked power in the hands of one person.

Accordingly, Niebuhr believed that there was a profound difference between democracies and non-democracies, and that it was a difference worth fighting for. In 1940, he resigned in exasperation from the Socialist Party of America (his political home for almost two decades) over its neutrality borne of a stance of moral equivalency toward the adversaries in the European conflict. In his seminal essay “An End to Illusions,” announcing his resignation, Niebuhr wrote that “the Socialists have a dogma that this war is a clash of rival imperialisms. Of course, they are right. So is a clash between myself and a gangster a conflict of rival egotisms.” But the difference still mattered, he believed, and mattered in a most fundamental way. He concluded with a call to arms: “If Hitler is defeated, in the end it will be because the crisis has awakened in us the will to preserve a civilization in which justice and freedom are realities, and given us the knowledge that ambiguous methods are required for the ambiguities of history.”1515x Ibid., 168−69, 174−75. Academic realists today rarely if ever invoke value-laden words like civilization and freedom, but for Niebuhr such terms distilled the very essence of the conflict itself, and made clear the need to choose a side and fight.

Even as World War II began to wind down, with the defeat of Nazi Germany in sight, Niebuhr turned his attention east, toward what he perceived to be the growing threat of Soviet communism. As in the case of the conflict with Nazism, Niebuhr was clear-eyed about democracy’s foibles and shortcomings, but he also perceived early and accurately just how malignant Soviet communism could be. In his 1953 essay “Why Is Communism So Evil?,” he identified several factors, including its concentration of power in the hands of one individual, its ideological dogmas, and especially its pretensions to rationality and objectivity. “Thus the evil of communism flows from a combination of political and ‘spiritual’ factors,” he wrote, “which prove that the combination of power and pride is responsible for turning the illusory dreams of yesterday into the present nightmare.”1616x Reinhold Niebuhr, “Why Is Communism So Evil?,” in Christian Realism and Political Problems (London: Faber and Faber, 1958), 42. As in his analysis of Nazism, Niebuhr’s clear moral distinctions between democracy and Soviet communism serve as a reminder that for him, international politics was more than just the friction between great powers. It also involved ideals pitting the relative stability, peace, and liberty of the democracies against the brutality and immorality of the communist bloc. Niebuhr thus eschewed moral equivalency between democracy and tyranny, and fervently urged the former to resist and defeat the latter. In his mind, he was just being realistic.

Careful But Not Quiescent

Vladimir Putin is not Adolf Hitler or Joseph Stalin. His Russia is not Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union. The world of 2015 is vastly different from that of 1938, not least because the West and its liberal democratic institutions, as academic realists emphasize, are much more powerful today. But it will not do to avoid an unpleasant reality: Putin is an authoritarian at home and an aggressor abroad. He has centralized power in the Kremlin to an extent not seen since Stalin. He has something close to control of most levers of power in Russia, including the national legislature, provincial governments, the media, and even industry. Since he came to power in 2000, those who stood in his way, or could someday be in a position to do so, have been exiled, imprisoned, killed, or have simply disappeared.

As regards other countries, Putin has turned Russia, once again, into a bully. Russian forces invaded Georgia in 2008, ostensibly to protect ethnic minorities. He created and sustains a similar “frozen conflict” in Moldova. And not only in relation to eastern Ukraine, Putin speaks of ethnic Russians living abroad as a special responsibility of Russia. Such talk has intimidated a number of former Soviet republics, including Moldova, Georgia, and NATO members Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Former Soviet satellites Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Romania, also NATO members, have understandably sought reassurance from their allies.

These are real countries inhabited by real people who have had quite enough of living under Russian power. What, then, is to be done? To say that the academic realists’ way of dealing with Russia is inadequate, both morally and prudentially, is not to counsel that the West go to war for Ukraine or even invite Ukraine to join NATO. Such are the false choices of fight or flight that academic realists sometimes present. Rather, to begin, we must understand that Russia feels threatened by the eastward expansion of the EU and NATO not because of some immutable law of international relations but because Russia is ruled by an authoritarian, anti-democratic regime. Putin’s self-identity, even his very survival, depends on continually manufacturing international crises, destabilizing his region, and stirring up nativism and paranoia at home. As Mark Galleoti and Andrew Bowen have written in a perceptive analysis of Putin’s authoritarian nationalist ideology:

This is the center of Putin’s imperial vision: The pragmatic political fixer of the 2000s now genuinely believes that Russian culture is both exceptional and threatened and that he is the man to save it. He does not see himself as aggressively expanding an empire so much as defending a civilization against the “chaotic darkness” that will ensue if he allows Russia to be politically encircled abroad and culturally colonized by Western values at home.1717x Mark Galleoti and Andrew Bowen, “Putin’s Empire of the Mind,”, April 21, 2014;

Gripped by this xenophobic ideology, Putin’s Russia does feel threatened, and must be dealt with carefully. We also must recognize that many ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine do identify with Russia more than Ukraine.

Careful does not mean quiescent, however. The United States and its allies should not fall into Putin’s preferred trap of identifying his personal rule with the nation of Russia. Our troubled relationship with Russia should be expanded beyond dealing with Putin to include supporting Russian reformers, especially the beleaguered dissidents and democracy activists who challenge Putin’s heavy-handed rule. Russia must also be deterred from any further territorial seizures or other mischief in Ukraine. It must be strongly and clearly discouraged from any further land grabs elsewhere, whether in Poland, Moldova, the Baltic states, or even the Caucasus. It must pay a real diplomatic and economic price for its aggressions. If it does not, it is not at all clear where this stops.

Political events are always accompanied by, indeed constituted by, competing narratives. It is the business of statecraft to navigate the narratives, most of which are founded upon national interests but may also involve higher principles such as justice, liberty, self-determination, the rule of law, and human rights. It is the business of scholars to study and evaluate both the competing narratives and the competence of the statesmen navigating them, in light of how we believe international politics works. Although scholars’ conclusions may be academic, in the best and worst senses of the word, they are not without impact on the world of affairs. In the age of mass media in particular, the ideas and interpretations of scholars influence not just politicians and statesmen but public opinion on both national and global levels.

Interpretations, then, have consequences. Academic realists, with the best of intentions, are interpreting Russia’s actions in Ukraine as justified and rational. But beneath that interpretation lie unexamined premises, inconsistencies, and, it must be said, a lack of realism about the power of values and democratic aspirations. As concerns Russia today, Niebuhr is a surer guide than Carr. Niebuhr knew that a realism that rewards aggression to preserve stability may end up with even more aggression and even less stability.