The ‘Realists’ Misjudged Ukraine

The paradox at the heart of foreign policy realism, is that the same, all-powerful West which is capable of overthrowing governments with the flip of a switch is incapable of confronting Russian hard power.


On May 31, 1989, President George H.W. Bush delivered a speech in Mainz, West Germany entitled “A Europe Whole and Free.” Bush envisioned a continent composed of democratic states shorn of the Cold War division that had scarred Europe for over 40 years. Seven months later, the Berlin Wall collapsed, sparking the downfall of communist dictatorships across Central and Eastern Europe and the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Over the past 25 years, “a Europe whole, free and at peace,” has been the mantra of statesmen on both sides of the Atlantic. Whenever they gathered at transatlantic security conferences, swanky state dinners, or World War II commemoration events, this lofty phrase would be uttered. By the turn of the new millennium, a continent marked by horrific bloodshed, war and genocide had finally become the envy of the world, a relative paradise of social democracy, stability and peace. Or so it seemed.

With the Crimean Peninsula under Russian military occupation, and the prospect of a full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine likely, the West’s post-Cold War assumptions lie in tatters. Europe, we had come to believe, was no longer a foreign policy “problem.” Far from it, the continent had become a security “exporter,” contributing peacekeeping forces around the world. In April of 2013, the last American tank left Germany, where a quarter of a million soldiers and hundreds of nuclear-tipped Pershing missiles were once stationed. Sure, the crisis of the Eurozone threatened the notion of a single European currency, but it was a problem that could be managed with smart economic stewardship. Europe, we thought, was a place where national borders were finally set in stone and conventional war was simply inconceivable.

The problem was that Russia did not see things this way. Gone are the days when a Russian president could speak of a “Greater Europe” of which his own nation would be an integral part, “a Europe in which no single state will be able to impose its will on any other.” This was a remarkable thing for a Russian leader to say, given Moscow’s history of subjugating its neighbors. But then the post-Soviet economic chaos over which Boris Yeltsin, who uttered those optimistic words in 1997, presided, contributed to the rise of Vladimir Putin, the former KGB colonel who continues to see the world through the dark lenses of the Cold War.

2014 will now forever be bound with the years 1956 and 1968, when the Soviet Union invaded Hungary and Czechoslovakia, respectively. Then, as now, Russia used phony pretexts to violate other nations’ sovereignty. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union justified its sackings of Budapest and Prague by claiming to rescue socialism from “counterrevolutionary” forces. Today, Russia intervenes to “protect” Russian minorities from “fascist” elements in Kiev. In all these episodes, Moscow was confronted with popular, democratic revolutions against its domination.

The Russian invasions of the past and present share another similarity: defenders in the West. Whereas Soviet imperialism could only rely upon the support of orthodox communists (and not even then could Moscow depend on all of its adherents to follow the party line; the invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia instilling a fatal disillusionment with the Soviet project among many Western communists), today’s apologists for Russian imperialism span the political spectrum. These foreign policy “realists,” identifiable by their abjuring a role for morality in American foreign policy and the necessity of US global leadership, locate the real imperialists in Washington and Brussels, not Moscow. For years, they have been proven embarrassingly wrong about Russia and its intentions, and in the unprovoked and illegal invasion of Ukraine, their failure of analysis is now laid bare for the world to witness.

The most noxious of these figures is New York University professor and Nation magazine contributor Stephen Cohen. His recent opus, “Distorting Russia,” will go down in history as one of the most slavish defenses of Putinism. “Mainstream American press coverage of Russia,” Cohen writes, has been “shamefully unprofessional and politically inflammatory.” Western readers, he complains, have been subject to a “relentless demonization of Putin, with little regard for facts.” Putin—a man who presides over a rubber stamp parliament, subjects his political opponents to show trials, dispatches riot police to beat peaceful protestors, and has restricted freedom of speech and association by banning pro-gay language and demonstrations—is unfairly portrayed as an “autocrat,” Cohen says (scare quotes original).

On the contrary, the Russian president is something of a hero. Cohen lauds Putin for granting amnesty to 1,000 prisoners in December, failing to note that some of those individuals—most famously members of the punk band Pussy Riot and opposition leader Mikhail Khodorkovsky—would never have been jailed in a democratic country with an independent judiciary. Cohen cites Putin’s 65 percent approval rating as evidence of his legitimacy, as if such a metric is a valid indicator in a country where every major media outlet is state-run and political opposition invites harassment and physical abuse. Rather than isolate Putin and stand with these beleaguered Russian democrats, Cohen asks, “Should not Obama himself have gone to [the] Sochi [Olympics]—either out of gratitude to Putin, or to stand with Russia’s leader against international terrorists who have struck both of our countries?”

As for Ukraine, Cohen believes Russia is protecting a set of legitimate interests in that formerly sovereign nation and the West is engaging in imperialist meddling. To engage in such sophistry, he has to portray the criminal former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych—who ordered the murder, in broad daylight, of dozens of his own citizens—as a decent ruler. In January, without any public hearing or parliamentary debate, the Ukrainian legislature adopted, and Yanukovych signed, a set of 10 laws that collectively smothered freedom of speech, press and association, a draft of regulations that led Yale University professor and Ukraine expert Timothy Snyder to conclude that, “On paper, Ukraine is now a dictatorship.” Cohen furiously defended Yanukovych, writing that, “In fact, the ‘paper’ legislation he’s referring to hardly constituted dictatorship, and in any event was soon repealed.” Like Putin releasing the prisoners he should never have jailed, Cohen wants us to give credit to a dictator for (temporarily, and only to save his own skin) undoing a trapping of dictatorship. The dictator giveth, and the dictator taketh away.

For the realists, the seeds of today’s antagonism between Russia and the West are found not in Putin’s KGB mentality, but in the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to include former members of the Soviet-era Warsaw Pact. For the past 25 years, they have been warning that NATO is an outdated alliance with no purpose other than to “antagonize” a Russia that wants nothing more than peace and which deserves to have “spheres of privileged interests,” to use Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s phrase, in the lands it occupied for over four decades. Responsibility for today’s crisis, Cohen writes, can be laid at the feet of “provocative US policies,” namely NATO enlargement, a process that stalled, perhaps irreversibly, in 2008, when the body, caving to Russian pressure, voted against Membership Action Plans (MAP) for Georgia and Ukraine. Both of these nations, incidentally, are now home to Russian occupation forces.

For anyone paying the remotest bit of attention to Russia since Putin took office, the events of the past week should not have come as a surprise. Five years after he came to power in 2000, Putin remarked that the collapse of the Soviet Union “was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” Slowly but surely, he has gone about attempting to right that tragedy, the invasion of Ukraine—which, he remarked to George W. Bush in 2008, is not a real state—being the latest gambit. Demonstrating his utter credulousness about Putin’s intentions, Cohen scoffed last month that, “Without any verified evidence, [Snyder] warns of a Putin-backed ‘armed intervention’ in Ukraine after the Olympics.” Oops.

Russia and the West do indeed have competing interests in the post-Soviet space. The problem with the realists is that they fail to see the moral, tactical and legal disparities that exist between the aims and methods of East and West. When Brussels and Washington propose EU and NATO membership, they are offering association in alliances of liberal, democratic states, achieved through a democratic, consensual process. Russia, meanwhile, cajoles, blackmails and threatens its former vassals into “joining” its newfangled “Eurasian Union,” whose similarity to the Soviet Union of yore Putin barely conceals. The right of sovereign countries to choose the alliances they wish is one Russia respects only if they choose to ally themselves with Russia. Should these countries try to join Western institutions then there will be hell to pay.

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Despite all this, Cohen complains of a “Cold War double standard” in the ways we describe Western and Russian approaches to the former Soviet space. The West’s “trade leverage” to persuade Ukraine is treated benignly, Cohen writes, while Putin’s use of “similar carrots” is portrayed as nefarious. A crucial difference, however, is that when a country turns down a Western diplomatic package, as Ukraine did at the November Vilnius Summit (thus sparking the massive protests in Kiev that ultimately overthrew Yanukovych), the EU does not invade.

It should not come as a surprise why countries like Poland, the Czech Republic and other former Warsaw Pact nations that lived under the heel of Russian domination for so long might want to join the NATO alliance, which, according to its charter, is purely defensive. NATO has no designs on Russian territory and never has. But in the fervid and paranoid minds of the men running the Kremlin (and, apparently, in that of Stephen Cohen and other opponents of NATO expansion), the alliance’s defensive nature is irrelevant. If Russia were a healthy, liberal, pluralistic society at peace with itself and its neighbors, it would have nothing to fear from America, the EU, or NATO. Indeed, as crazy as it may sound today, in the 1990s, some Russian and Western leaders spoke optimistically of Moscow joining the latter two institutions. But these hopes of a European Russia were dashed when Putin came to power.

In the world of Cohen and the other realists, it is “Washington’s 20-year winner-take-all approach to post-Soviet Russia” that has brought us to the present impasse. He describes NATO expansion in martial terms, writing of “the West’s ongoing, US-led march toward post-Soviet Russia, which began in the 1990s with NATO’s eastward expansion and continued with US-funded NGO political activities inside Russia,” civil society organizations, gay rights groups, and democracy promotion programs described as if they were the equivalent of CIA political assassination plots. Indeed, while Russia’s open meddling in the politics of its neighbors goes unmentioned by Cohen, he condemns anything the US and its Western allies do to promote democracy in the former Soviet Union. Commenting on a leaked telephone conversation between US Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and the American Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt, in which the two diplomats hashed out scenarios for the creation of a coalition government to replace the faltering Yanukovych regime, Cohen says that, “the essential revelation was that high-level US officials were plotting to ‘midwife’ a new, anti-Russian Ukrainian government by ousting or neutralizing its democratically elected president—that is, a coup.”

Washington’s alleged engineering coup d’etats has become an oft-repeated accusation of realist critics of robust American involvement overseas. “Is it the job of the American ambassador to act as a local potentate, choosing who does, and does not, get to serve in a coalition government?” Jacob Heilbrunn asked in The National Interest, the premier realist journal. In that same publication, David Rieff observed that Nuland was behaving like “a British resident agent in one of the princely states of India during the Raj” who “conspired with the US ambassador to Kiev to overthrow the current president of Ukraine.”

For many realists, American “restraint” now means not just withdrawing America’s overseas troop presence and drastically cutting the defense budget, but curtailing diplomacy itself.

This indictment of American meddling was also echoed by uber-realist Stephen Walt, a professor at Harvard. “Amazing thing re #Ukraine: US & EU colluded to help oust corrupt but pro-Russ leader, yet expected Moscow to do nothing about it,” he tweeted the other day. According to Walt, who in a single tweet distilled a week’s worth of Kremlin propaganda, it was not hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians braving the harsh Kiev winter and rooftop snipers who deserve credit for overthrowing Yanukovych, but rather their US and EU puppet-masters. (This paranoid and illiterate analysis of the situation in Ukraine, by the author of The Israel Lobby, is of a piece with his theories of a Jewish cabal controlling American politics).

Herein lies a paradox at the heart of foreign policy realism: that same, all-powerful US and EU octopus which is capable of overthrowing governments with the flip of a switch is somehow incapable of confronting Russian hard power. Any attempt at repelling Moscow’s aggression is quickly derided as “warmongering,” with requisite references to the mistakes of Iraq thrown in for good measure. Perhaps we should stop calling these people “realists.” “Isolationist” seems more apt.

Another irony is that foreign policy realism—which purports to seek stability and the maintenance of the status quo—has given free reign to a revanchist Russian regime seeking to re-establish the Soviet Empire, international law be damned. As he did in Georgia, Putin is using force to redraw Europe’s boundaries in violation of every international agreement, treaty and understanding signed since the collapse of the Soviet Union, from the 1990 Charter of Paris to the 1994 Budapest Memorandum which specifically ensures Ukraine’s territorial integrity. Putin’s revisionism goes even further back; he’s seeking nothing less than to upend the Peace of Westphalia, the set of 17th century peace treaties that form the very basis of contemporary realist international political theory in their prescription of national sovereignty and non-intervention.

So averse are they to recognizing the role that ideology plays in foreign affairs that many realists have shorn themselves of moral clarity. Last week, MSNBC host and Nation contributor Chris Hayes admitted that,

As someone who follows the news and who doesn't know a ton about Ukraine, I'll admit, I'm confused about what I think should happen, even which side I'm on... And I think that's a natural, and in many cases even laudable, instinct.

In spite of this professed ignorance, Hayes mocked Senator John McCain for his propensity to see “good guys” and “bad guys” in every international situation and his faulting Obama for the “unforgivable sin of not seeing everything in black and white as he does.” Then, regurgitating Kremlin propaganda portraying the entirety of Yanukovych’s opposition as “fascist” (as it does any and all opponents of Russian meddling in the former Soviet Union), Hayes attacked McCain for attending a rally in Kiev with a bevy of Ukrainian opposition activists, one of whom is the leader of a far-right party.

This is the same Chris Hayes who, after the death of Osama bin Laden, called upon the nation to forgo use of the term “bad guys” in describing mass-murdering Islamist terrorists; it was, he said, an “insidious” phrase. And it is the same Chris Hayes who admitted to feeling “uncomfortable” calling American soldiers killed in action “heroes,” lest it indicate support for wars he considers unjust.

Hayes had the gumption to admit that he knows next to nothing on Ukraine, but he ought to have spared his audience lectures about America’s role in the world. For those of us who do know something about Ukraine, and the grave implications that Russia’s invasion of it poses to “a Europe whole, free and at peace,” it’s not at all difficult to “choose sides.”