Wars are often a result of emotions rather than of reason. Many wars could have been avoided, if all circumstances around them would have been carefully studied and prudent decisions would have been made.
Even if the discipline of international relations is now more than 100 years old and was originally created to prevent wars, its principles are unknown to most policy-makers, who behave as though it were nonexistent.
From a realist point of view, the current war in Ukraine is unnecessary and could be avoided, and if it has already started, it should be immediately stopped.
Political realism emphasizes the importance of power and the persistence of the struggle for power in politics. As the classical realist Hans Morgenthau wrote, the typical aim of a state’s foreign policy is either “to keep power, to increase power or to demonstrate power.” This leads to policies of status quo, imperialism or prestige.
The status quo is a conservative policy by a state that is primarily interested in maintaining its security and not in expansion and changing the distribution of power in its favor. Imperialism is an offensive policy by a state that aims to acquire a dominant position and seeks a favorable change in power status through the reversing of existing power relations. Prestige is a foreign policy of a state that seeks to demonstrate the power it has, either for the purpose of keeping or increasing it. However, the main problem is with correctly distinguishing these policies.
Since subjective perceptions play a large role in our assessment of the foreign policy of a state, we can make a mistake in distinguishing a policy of the status quo from a policy of imperialism, and this could have tragic consequences. An example is the Munich Agreement of 1938, when Germany’s territorial claims against Czechoslovakia were initially wrongly interpreted as a status quo policy.
How should we then interpret Russia’s current policy, which has led it to invade Ukraine?
The Russian-Ukrainian conflict can be explained as a result of Russia’s intention to maintain the current balance of power in the region. With the prospect of a further expansion of NATO to Ukraine, which would change the distribution of power to its disadvantage, Russia, a regional power, after issuing several warnings, decided to improve its power position by annexing Crimea in 2014, and in 2022 by entering into war.
Political realists focus on the powers of nation-states and see the possibility of preserving peace and security in maintaining the balance of power. In their view, any violation of it – if it could not be otherwise corrected, for example, by alliances or armaments – can lead to territorial adjustments and to war.
The war in Ukraine thus represents a typical case of an attempt by a state to correct the regional distribution of power in the face of a threat. It should then be rightly interpreted as a status quo policy. And yet, it was widely condemned as an act of aggression and expression of the old Russian imperialism, endangering other counties in Eastern Europe, and Russian leader Vladimir Putin has been accused of irrational behavior.
CLASSICAL POLITICAL realists concentrate on international politics and devote less attention to the analysis of the internal policies of countries, but in the case of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, such an analysis is important to fully understand the root causes of the current war.
In 2014 a political shift occurred in Ukraine which has brought to politics right-wing nationalism and extremism. The extreme Right exists as a marginal element in many societies, and so it was in Ukraine. But since the Euromaidan revolution, ultranationalist views and organizations, such as Svoboda, National Corpus and Right Sector, have gained significant force, and they have become increasingly active, often using violence against those who would oppose their views. They would be able to largely terrorize Ukrainian public life; and their activities, including political assassinations and murder of pro-Russian activists, would be largely unpunished by the authorities and little covered by the press in the West.
These ultranationalists challenge Ukraine’s democratic institutions and discredit law enforcement agencies. They have established volunteer militias, particularly the Azov battalion, which have been integrated into the country’s defense structures. They have been able to penetrate the ranks of the Ukrainian police and military.
For example, a former neo-Nazi activist, Vadym Troyan of Patriot of Ukraine, received a high-ranking position in Ukraine’s national police in March 2016, and Andriy Biletsky, the head of the Azov battalion, was promoted to lieutenant-colonel.
These far-right groups derive their traditions from the Organization of the Ukrainian Nationalists, which initially cooperated with Nazi Germany during the World War II, contributing to the genocide of over 800,000 Ukrainian Jews, and was responsible for the ethnic cleansing of over 100,000 Poles. The public legitimization of nationalist symbolism and traditions has provided right-wing nationalism and extremism with a largely benevolent media reception.
The cult of Stepan Bandera, once the OUN leader, is now widespread in Ukraine, and he is considered a national hero. The immediate impact of the far Right was the change of the language law, which occurred in February 2014, immediately after the Euromaidan revolution, and this development can be considered the second most important reason for war in Ukraine.
Following the declaration of the independence of Ukraine in 2001, The Ukrainian language was established as the only official language, while the other languages spoken in the country were guaranteed constitutional protection. Russian, spoken by about 30%-40% of the population, was widely used in business, legal proceedings, science, artistry, and many other spheres of everyday life. The 2012 language law gave the status of regional language to Russian and other minority languages, leading various regions to declare Russian a regional language in their jurisdiction.
However, on February 23, 2014, the Ukrainian parliament voted to repeal this law. In July 2019 it was formally replaced by a new language law that has made the use of Ukrainian compulsory in government, public administration, mass media, schools, hospitals, book publication, scientific, cultural and sporting activities, and economic and social life. While some exemptions were provided, Russian was excluded from these exceptions.
One can see in this changing language policy a nationalist attempt to make Ukraine into a unitary nation-state, having a distinct national culture, at the cost of violating minorities’ linguistic rights. This led to widespread protests across southern and eastern Ukraine, areas where the Russian-speaking population was the majority. The events such as the Crimean status referendum held on March 16, 2014, in which the majority voted for integration of the region into the Russian Federation, and which led to the annexation of Crimea by Russia, and referenda in Donetsk and Luhansk, which constitute the Donbass region, can be considered as direct consequences of the change of the language law.
The ideology of Ukrainian nationalism is then equally important to explain the causes of the current war, as are the strategic considerations related to the distribution of power in the region.
The ideology that “Ukraine must be clean as glass” – the concept of the national superiority that requires the removal of all foreign elements from so-called Ukrainian ethnic territories – resulted in the ethnic cleansing of the Jews and the Poles during World War II by the militant formations of OUN, and today is expressed in the attempt to suppress minority languages.
If there had been no attempt to change the 2012 language law and to impose the Ukrainian language on the Russian-speaking Ukrainians, it is likely that there would have been no war in Donbas and subsequently no current war in Ukraine, and most likely no annexation of Crimea.
THE RUSSIAN-UKRAINIAN conflict is an unnecessary war, which could have been avoided. First, Russia invaded Ukraine to correct the regional distribution of power in the face of the perceived threat of NATO expansion, and this move should be considered a status quo policy, not an imperialist one. Consequently, no further expansion of Russia and no threat to Poland or to the Baltic states should be expected.
Second, it should be acknowledged that Russia is concerned, as Western countries should be, with the rise of right-wing nationalism in modern-day Ukraine, and it went to war to prevent the persecution of Russian-speaking minorities, especially in the Donbas region.
Upon the recognition of these war causes, a ceasefire and a peaceful settlement of the crisis could be achieved.
But the far-right Ukrainian organizations, infused with fanaticism and irrationalism, do not want peace, but victory, even if it is impossible to obtain. Hence, the peaceful solution to the current armed conflict depends on the strong will of the international community to insist that reason and peace should prevail.
Political realism shuns moralizing. Rather than telling us morals, realists talk about interests of states. This does not mean that there is no ethics in contemporary realist thinking. The point that realists make is that we should not engage in wars in the name of abstract moral, legal or ideological principles, but, rather, that we should be able to recognize the vital interests of all sides and to find a common ground, so that we can end any armed conflict as quickly as possible.
It is because the greatest value of all is human lives and saving people from unnecessary suffering. Looking from this ethical perspective, it is a pity to watch the everyday loss of life in Ukraine, regardless of whether it is Ukrainian or Russian life. This is why the Russian-Ukrainian conflict must now end, especially since it can be deadly to all of us, if it escalates further.
The writer is a professor in the Institute of Political Science at the University of Opole and Lady Davis visiting professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is the author of the article “Political Realism in International Relations,” published by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, and has designed two peace proposals: for Korea (published in the China Daily) and for Israel (published in The Jerusalem Post). He is the recipient of the Personality of the Year Poland 2020 Award in Science.