Some Realists are Unrealistic About Russia

Realists are Unrealistic
Ukrainian stamp of soldier on Snake Island refusing surrender to the Russian flagship Moskva.

By Justin Kempf

A Tragic Anniversary

One year ago today Russia invaded Ukraine. It’s difficult to adequately describe what has happened. Some call it the War in Ukraine. But this description absolves Russia of its role in starting the conflict. Serhii Plokhy has a new book called The Russo-Ukrainian War. This sounds like a fairer description. However, it sounds a bit too neutral as though there is blame on all sides. It also implies the war takes place on both Russian and Ukrainian territory. In reality, the war has taken place entirely on Ukrainian territory. So, I prefer to call it The Russian Invasion of Ukraine, but I hope to one day call it The Failed Russian Invasion of Ukraine.

Yet with the first year of war coming to a close, I have heard more and more people looking for a way to bring the war to an end. Some have thrown around the idea of a negotiated settlement between Ukraine and Russia. Typically, this approach involves territorial concessions from Ukraine to Russia in exchange for a permanent cessation of hostilities. A few proposals limit those concessions to the Crimea, but a few go so far to accept the Russian annexation of the Donbas.

This week’s edition of The Economist offers the strategic reasons why Ukraine cannot make broad concessions to Russia. It writes, “A rump Ukraine would be impoverished and hard to defend. The east and south of the country are sources of minerals and crops, and centres of industry. Unhindered access to the Black Sea provides safe passage for Ukrainian exports.” Their analysis raises valid concerns about any premature negotiated settlements. Even beyond the moral cause, there are real strategic reasons for Ukraine to extend the war into a second year.

Realism for Ukraine, Idealism for Russia

The bitter irony of the realist approach is its inconsistency. A few self-purported realists have justified Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine as a response to NATO expansion. However, the case they make is not so much about Russian security than about Russian pride. Moreover, many realists also believe the war will not end without some form of material concession for Russia that allows Putin to save face. Here they imply personal dignity is more important to Putin than Russian security interests. The “realists” tacitly accept Russian idealism as its central motivation, however they demand Ukraine to accept the harsh truths of political realism.

When it comes to Ukraine, the “realists” want greater flexibility from Zelensky in his demands to end the war. They think it is unrealistic for him to believe he can retake the Crimea. Moreover, some even think Ukraine should have abandoned the secessionist territories of the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic long ago. These “realists” describe Ukrainian sentiments as idealistic, but view Russian beliefs in a Russikiy mir as a hard reality. The natural response is to say Russian power gives their world view greater weight. However, it does not explain why that worldview continues to take precedence after Russian power was checked and its military reputation (and capacity) greatly diminished.

Russia and the Sunk Cost Fallacy

Some implicitly believe Russia will not end the war without a return on its enormous investment into the war. The logic is Ukraine cannot completely win back its territory, because Russia has spent too much to go home empty handed. Businesses face a similar, but more mundane version of this dilemma so often there is a term for it. It’s called the sunk cost fallacy. Many businesses find they struggle to move on from poor investments due to the time and resources they invested already. But smart managers know past mistakes cannot dictate future behavior. They treat those investments as sunk costs when they move on from them. It’s a realistic approach to business that focuses on future profitability rather than the prior commitments.

Russia faces a sunk cost in its invasion of Ukraine. Putin has scaled back on his original ambitions in Ukraine already. However, like many disillusioned business executives, he believes he can salvage a bad investment. Rather than cut his losses, he continues a war that has limited strategic upside. The best explanations for why Putin continues his war almost exclusively focus on domestic political concerns. Very few focus on the geopolitical advantages from seizing Ukrainian territory. This does not mean there is none. Still, it does imply those advantages have limited importance when weighed against the ongoing costs.

An Honest Realist Analysis

An honest realist analysis views Russian involvement in the war as tenuous at best. The longer the war lasts the more likely it will overtake its other geopolitical priorities. Already Azerbaijani troops have taken advantage in the Nagorno-Karabakh corridor that Russian peacekeepers vowed to protect. Meanwhile, Central Asian countries have shifted their strategic alignment closer to China. Moreover, its reliance on Iranian drones may disrupt its relationships in the Middle East. Recent satellite images show Iran has upgraded its airpower with Russian made fighter jets. So far, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and other Gulf countries remain friendly to Russia, although technically neutral in their position on the war. However, they may flip if they view Russia as enabling Iranian aggression against them.

Even its dependence with China comes with significant geopolitical risks. Tensions has always existed in the relationship between Russia and China. Many date the turmoil to the Mao era, but it really goes back much further. Between 1858 and 1860 the Russian empire seized the Southeast corner of Siberia from the Qing Dynasty through a series of unequal treaties. This is part of what China refers to as the Century of Humiliation. This episode is known as the Amur Annexation. It is not out of the realm of possibility that a resurgent China might demand its territory back from Russia. Moreover, China may not need to attack Russia, but simply apply a similar tactic of unequal treaties to ‘correct historical mistakes.’ It’s not clear how Russia would respond to its only powerful ally if this became a serious Chinese priority.

Some Realists are Unrealistic

While Russia may slog on through this war for quite some time, it’s not due to its inherent geopolitical interests. Rather coherent explanations look to motivations that go beyond realpolitik. They look to Russia’s internal politics or even Putin’s own personal mindset. In other words, realists find they must abandon realist analysis to explain Russia’s motivations. Moreover, they fail to account for the risks Russia faces from an ongoing war. Realpolitik expects Putin to eventually cut his losses and open negotiations with Zelensky. The fact this is unlikely to happen is an indictment of the realist worldview.

Instead, Putin maintains a war that exposes him to untold geopolitical risks and reduces his global influence. His refusal to accept the war as a sunk cost serves as a weight that threatens to sink Russia itself. Eventually the weight of past mistakes becomes too much for any organization to bear. Effective leaders recognize the need to make the decision early so they can limit their exposure. Poor leaders delude themselves into thinking they just need more time. It appears Putin belongs to the latter category. Still, some “realists” find themselves susceptible to the sunk cost fallacy as well. They think Russia cannot simply give up after such an enormous military commitment. But this mindset is a well-known misconception. Some realists are just unrealistic.

About the Author

Justin Kempf manages this blog and hosts the podcast Democracy Paradox. He lives with his family in Carmel, Indiana.

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