THR Web Features   /   March 18, 2015

Putin, Ukraine, and the Question of Realism

One year ago today, Russia annexed Crimea as part of what has become an ongoing war in eastern Ukraine. Writing in our spring issue, John Owen and William Inboden observe:

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.

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.

Owen and Inboden go on to explore the arguments of certain Western scholars who treat Putin's aggressions as a reasonable and realistic exercise of national self-interest:

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 [Edward Hallett] 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.

Read the full article here.

John M. Owen IV is Ambassador Henry J. Taylor and Mrs. Marion R. Taylor Professor of Politics at the University of Virginia and Faculty Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture. William Inboden is Associate Professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and Executive Director of the Clements Center for History, Strategy, and Statecraft and Distinguished Scholar at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law, all at the University of Texas-Austin.