January 25, 2023 –
Editor’s Note: The Russian invasion of Ukraine was the most significant geopolitical event of 2022. Beginning with Dov Zakheim’s comments in the Spring 2022 issue, Orbis authors have discussed the ramifications of the invasion. As we approach the one-year anniversary, Revisiting Orbis will be offering updated commentary from its contributors. Joining Frank Hoffman’s essay is this contribution from Jeffrey Mankoff.
The scope of the Biden administration’s response to the invasion of Ukraine has already exceeded what many observers—not to mention Russia’s leadership—expected. From intelligence sharing with Kyiv ahead of the invasion to the imposition of unprecedented sanctions on the Russian economy to the provision of increasingly capable weaponry to Ukraine’s armed forces, the United States has been critical to the failure of Russia’s “special military operation” to achieve its objectives. Despite US support and Ukrainian valor, the war is now approaching a second year, and several observers in the United States and in Europe have become increasingly alarmed at the consequence of a longer war.
Amid these concerns, some of the most trenchant criticisms of the Biden administration’s Ukraine policy have come from self-described realists. The realist paradigm, widely taught in international relations courses, describes the international system as anarchic, with states ruthlessly pursuing their own interests. It is critical of states and leaders who allow wooly ideological commitments to get in the way of this pursuit of realpolitik. Realism and realists are by nature cautious, wary of grand crusades and cognizant of the fact that problems in international relations are rarely “solved,” but must be managed over time. While these considerations have led many realists to call for greater restraint in aiding Ukraine, a strong realist claim can be made that the United States should continue its forthright support of Ukraine’s effort to drive the Russian occupiers out of its territory.
While Europe has a long tradition of realpolitik, in the United States, realism has always had a stronger presence in the academy than in government. It has enjoyed something of a revival in recent years as a response to the ideological overstretch of the war on terror. Today, self-identified realists—both scholars like Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, and practitioners, notably Henry Kissinger—have warned of the potential risks posed by the administration’s sustained support for Kyiv. Realists have provided an important check on the riskier ideas emanating from supporters of more robust intervention, such as the idea of imposing a no-fly zone over Ukraine in the early stages of the war. Their critique centers on concern over some combination of the potential for US support to escalate the conflict into a direct clash between Moscow and NATO, divert resources from the higher priority “pacing challenge” of China, or spark a wider Russian collapse that makes integrating a defeated Russia into a new European security architecture impossible.
None of these concerns should be dismissed out of hand. Each, however, rests on problematic assumptions. The realist case for aiding Ukraine accepts Mearsheimer’s insight about the tragic structural nature of international politics, particularly the danger of a sustained period of great-power competition with both Russia and China—as well as the continued threat that Vladimir Putin’s Russia poses to peace and stability in Europe. It acknowledges that Ukraine’s resilience and ingenuity provide an opportunity to, as Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin put it “weaken Russia” and reshape the global balance of power in favor of the United States and its allies.
Read the rest at FPRI here -
Jeffrey Mankoff is a Distinguished Research Fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies, Center for Strategic Research at National Defense University. The views expressed are the authors own and do not reflect those of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.