How political idealism destroyed Ukraine

The ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine, exacerbated by NATO’s expansion, serves as a prime example of the clash between political realism and idealism. Moscow perceives Kiev as a proxy for NATO, a view grounded in the realist perspective that prioritizes security competition over idealistic notions of sovereign rights. This debate over NATO’s role in the conflict reveals deep-seated disagreements about morality in international relations, where realism is often mistakenly portrayed as immoral due to its focus on power politics. Understanding how political idealism has influenced and ultimately harmed Ukraine is crucial to comprehending the broader geopolitical dynamics at play.

Political realism emphasizes the inevitability of security competition among states. It rejects the idealist effort to transcend power politics, arguing that states must act in accordance with the balance of power to ensure stability and peace. Raymond Aron’s assertion in 1966 captures this sentiment: “The idealist, believing he has broken with power politics exaggerates his crimes.” For realists, morality lies in managing security competition, not in pursuing idealistic goals that undermine stability. In this context, the realist approach to the Ukraine conflict involves recognizing the strategic imperatives of great powers and the limitations of sovereign decision-making in a multipolar world.

The claim that Ukraine has the sovereign right to join any military alliance is an attractive and dangerous idealist argument. It affirms Ukraine’s freedom and sovereignty, appealing to public support. However, it disregards the realist perspective that peace cannot be achieved by expanding military alliances without considering the security interests of other great powers. Ukraine’s decision to invite a rival power, like the United States, onto its territory intensifies the security competition with Russia.

Arguing that Ukraine should join NATO overlooks the reality that peace is derived from recognizing Russian security interests, not from ignoring them. During the Cold War, Europe maintained a belt of neutral states to mitigate security competition between East and West. This historical precedent underscores the importance of recognizing the security concerns of neighboring great powers. The principle that sovereign states can freely join any alliance without provoking strategic anxieties in other powers is a dangerous idealist misconception that ignores the realities of international relations.

A parallel can be drawn with Mexico’s position in the international system. While Mexico enjoys significant freedoms, it cannot join a Chinese-led military alliance or host Chinese military bases without provoking a severe response from the United States. This scenario highlights the realist understanding that states must consider the security concerns of neighboring powers. Similarly, if Scotland were to secede from the UK and join a Russian-led military alliance, the principle of consent would likely be disregarded in favor of security concerns.

These examples illustrate that the idealist argument for Ukraine’s unfettered right to join NATO is not grounded in the practical realities of international politics. Instead, it represents a form of wishful thinking that ignores the strategic imperatives that govern state behavior.

Idealists argue that NATO’s expansionism provoked Russia’s invasion, a claim often condemned as immoral for legitimizing power politics. However, realism contends that acknowledging security competition is not immoral but necessary for peace. The former British ambassador to Russia, Roderic Lyne, warned in 2020 that pushing for NATO membership for Ukraine was a “massive mistake” that could lead to war. Angela Merkel and CIA Director William Burns also warned against drawing Ukraine into NATO, emphasizing the need to consider Russia’s security concerns.

These warnings reflect a realist understanding that peace is maintained through the careful management of power balances and the acknowledgment of strategic interests. By ignoring these warnings, idealists contributed to the escalation of the conflict.

NATO’s offer of future membership to Ukraine shifted the pressure onto Kiev, transforming the NATO-Russia conflict into a Russia-Ukraine conflict. This strategic move disregarded several post-Cold War agreements, such as the Charter of Paris for a New Europe, which aimed to construct a Europe without dividing lines and based on indivisible security. By pushing for NATO expansion and refusing to offer Russia security guarantees, NATO exacerbated the security competition.

The narrative that Ukraine has the sovereign right to join NATO is misleading. Prior to 2014, a majority of Ukrainians did not support NATO membership. This lack of support was recognized as a challenge by NATO, leading to efforts to overcome it through a “democratic revolution” that toppled Ukraine’s democratically elected government in 2014. The leaked Nuland-Pyatt phone call revealed US plans for regime change, including the composition of the post-coup government.

The new Ukrainian government’s decisions, such as repealing the ability to designate Russian as an official language and partnering with the CIA for covert operations against Russia, intensified the conflict. Russia’s response included seizing Crimea and supporting a rebellion in Donbas. NATO’s sabotage of the Minsk peace agreement further escalated tensions, resulting in a dependent Ukrainian proxy used against Russia.

The realist perspective, which warned against NATO expansion, is often labeled as immoral and anti-Ukrainian. However, these warnings aimed to avoid war and preserve peace by acknowledging the realities of security competition. The idealists’ insistence on ignoring these warnings led to a predictable loss of territory, countless deaths, and a devastated nation.

Idealists argue that Ukraine must become a NATO member post-war to ensure protection and prevent future conflicts. However, this stance communicates to Russia that any remaining Ukrainian territory will become a NATO front line, incentivizing Russia to seize as much territory as possible. Realists contend that restoring Ukraine’s neutrality is the only path to peace, despite being denounced by idealists as immoral.

Idealism in international relations often portrays itself as morally superior by advocating for principles like sovereignty and democratic rights. However, in the context of the Ukraine conflict, idealism has proven to be deeply flawed and ultimately destructive. By promoting the idea that Ukraine could freely join NATO without repercussions, idealists ignored the complex realities of power politics. This oversight led to a severe escalation in tensions, culminating in the devastating war we witness today.

The realist critique highlights that true morality in international relations involves recognizing and accommodating the security concerns of all parties involved. By failing to do so, idealism has not only endangered Ukraine but also destabilized the broader region, bringing immense suffering and loss of life.

The conflict between Russia and Ukraine, framed by NATO’s expansion, underscores the clash between realism and idealism in international relations. Realism emphasizes managing security competition to ensure stability and peace, while idealism seeks to transcend power politics. Recognizing Russian security interests and restoring Ukraine’s neutrality may be the only viable solution to ending the conflict and preventing future wars. In the realist view, morality lies not in idealistic aspirations but in pragmatic actions that mitigate security competition and preserve peace.

The tragedy of Ukraine serves as a stark reminder that idealism, when disconnected from the realities of power politics, can lead to disastrous consequences. To avoid repeating such mistakes, policymakers must balance their ideals with a sober assessment of strategic realities, ensuring that efforts to promote peace and stability are grounded in the pragmatic management of international relations.

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