Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts The Realist Case for Ukraine
The Realist Case for Ukraine

The Realist Case for Ukraine

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. 

Fears of Escalation 

The most serious realist objection to continuing US support for Ukraine centers on the prospect that the conflict will escalate—either vertically (i.e., involving the use of more powerful weapons, including weapons of mass destruction) or horizontally (i.e., beyond Ukraine and into NATO member territory). Moscow has deliberately cultivated these fears: at the start of the invasion, Putin warned that countries attempting to interfere with the invasion of Ukraine would face “consequences … such as you have never seen in your entire history,” and in September Putin noted that the United States had created a precedent for nuclear use with its bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, hinting that Russia would be justified in resorting to nuclear use if it failed to achieve its objectives through conventional means. Threats of horizontal escalation have meanwhile been directed at Russian neighbors such as Moldova and Kazakhstan that have had the temerity to criticize the invasion of Ukraine or suggest they might seek to deepen alignment with the West in response. Many respected Western observers, including former White House staffer Fiona Hill, Harvard professor Graham Allison, and CIA director William Burns have warned that Putin’s nuclear threats should be taken seriously.

Taking them seriously does not, however, require discarding the core realist insight that states and leaders are motivated by self-interest—above all, an interest in survival. Russian nuclear doctrine is clear on the circumstances under which Moscow would use nuclear weapons: after an attack on Russia using weapons of mass destruction, or in response to a conventional attack when “the very existence of the state is in jeopardy.” Two caveats apply, however. First, doctrinal statements may not be dispositive, especially in a personalistic regime during periods of high stress, and second, Russia’s claimed annexation of Crimea and four oblasts of eastern Ukraine creates ambiguity around the question of where Moscow would draw the line regarding the “existence of the state.”

Russian behavior nevertheless remains consistent with the realist belief that states act in accordance with their self-interest and are subject to rational cost-benefit calculations. After Russian commentators floated the possibility of tactical nuclear use against Ukrainian forces last fall, strong, credible warnings from the United States (communicated among others by Burns and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan)—along with messages from key Russian partners China and India—prompted Putin to publicly denounce an intention to use nuclear weapons. Meanwhile, Ukrainian strikes against Crimea and the four oblasts Russia claims have continued. And despite some observers’ worries about Putin’s mental state, Russian nuclear signaling has remained consistent, with the logic described by Olga Oliker in 2016 as “less a lowering of the threshold than a reminder that escalation is possible and that Russia must therefore be taken seriously” despite its myriad failings. 

As Nigel Gould-Davies wisely notes, “escalation is a choice, not a tripwire—one an adversary can deter by credibly conveying the costs this would incur.” The lesson realists should take from these developments is not that escalation is impossible, but that the old logic of deterrence, which allowed the United States and the Soviet Union to navigate the Cold War without resorting to nuclear conflict, still applies.

A realist strategy on the West’s part would assume that Putin remains a rational actor (within the bounds of his own ideology) and seek to shape Russia’s decision-making calculus—much as it did by aiding the Afghan mujahideen against the Soviets in the 1980s. That means embracing the logic of containment (a realist strategy par excellence) to deter expansion of the conflict to Moldova or Kazakhstan, while continuing to strengthen the Ukrainian military—ideally, to the extent that Putin or a successor is forced to withdraw Russian troops from Ukraine’s entire territory—but certainly such that Kyiv is able to negotiate a favorable peace from a position of strength.

At the same time, the Biden administration’s caution in avoiding calls for regime change in Moscow or efforts to expand the war to Russian territory are wise. The goal should be to convince the Russian leadership (whether Putin or a successor) that success in Ukraine is impossible—not to provoke a “color revolution” in Moscow or Russia’s “de-colonization.” As during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, the United States should be prepared for negotiations, even as it seeks Russia’s defeat inside Ukraine proper.

After the War: European Security and the ‘Russian Question’ 

A second realist concern centers on the construction of a new security architecture for Europe and Eurasia at the end of the war. Some realist thinkers point to concern that a defeated Russia will reject any attempt to build a postwar order, much as Germany’s enduring opposition to the Versailles Treaty paved the way for the rise of Nazism and the outbreak of World War II.

According to Michael O’Hanlon and Melanie W. Sisson, “no one is in a mood now to be kind to Russia, but an overly harsh peace deal that leaves Russia ruined would not serve our own long-term interests.” Or, as Kissinger writes:

“The preferred outcome for some is a Russia rendered impotent by the war. I disagree. For all its propensity to violence, Russia has made decisive contributions to the global equilibrium and to the balance of power for over half a millennium. Its historical role should not be degraded.”

Such warnings are a useful check on the overheated ambitions of those calling for regime change or “de-colonization”—both objectives likely well beyond the ability of American power to bring about, irrespective of their desirability. At the same time, they ignore one of the most important insights from Kissinger’s earlier work, one that many academic realists are loathe to accept, namely that individual leaders and regime types matters.

In A World Restored his first (and, arguably, best) book, Kissinger contrasted the integration of post-Napoleonic France into the Concert of Europe with the exclusion of Weimar Germany from the European security architecture developed after World War I. According to Kissinger, it was Austrian Chancellor Klemens von Metternich’s insistence that France under the restored Bourbon dynasty have a stake in post-1815 Europe that ensured a century of relative peace among the European Great Powers. Echoing the claim famously made by John Maynard Keynes, Kissinger suggested that the “victor’s peace” imposed on Germany after the November 1918 Armistice all but guaranteed that interwar Germany would be a revanchist power.

Many realists have compared the post-Cold War settlement that Russia now seeks to overturn with the one the Allies crafted in Paris in 1919, and now fear that a defeated Russia would prove similarly truculent and aggressive, rendering a stable postwar order impossible. Yet building any kind of stable order with a Russia that is still ruled by Putin or another figure motivated by grievance against the West and regarding Ukrainian identity and independence as ephemeral is likely impossible.

For all of Metternich’s skill as a practitioner of realpolitik, his “system,” as Kissinger recognized, rested on a shared ideological commitment—to combatting the virus of revolution—and only worked after the restoration of the Bourbon dynasty, which shared the worldview of Metternich and his conservative allies. Similarly, a new European architecture that includes Russia can only work if Russia itself sheds it imperial and autocratic impulses and comes to share the worldview and values of its European neighbors. If transforming Russia is not in the power of the Western allies, therefore, they should settle instead for a more modest ambition—ensuring the failure of Russia’s war in Ukraine, followed by something akin to the containment strategy devised by George Kennan for prosecuting the Cold War. If and when Russia’s inherent contradictions force a reckoning with the legacy of its imperial war, the United States and its allies need to be more creative and forward-leaning than they were in 1990–91 in anchoring Russia to the institutions and norms of the democratic West, but that challenge lies well in the future.

Russia, Ukraine, and the ‘Pacing Challenge’ of China

Beyond concern about Russian revanchism looms the problem of China, which many realists regard as the only serious threat to US interests. If the United States is serious about checking Chinese expansion in Asia, warns the realist scholar-practitioner Elbridge Colby, it “should laser-focus its military on Asia, reducing its level of forces and expenditures in Europe.” This thinking builds on the Biden administration’s characterization of China as the “pacing challenge” facing the United States, compared to the “immediate and persistent” threat posed by Russia. It rests on the assumption that the United States can afford to dramatically scale back its commitments to Ukraine, while making some heroic—and unrealistic—assumptions about the ability of European governments to step up and preserve order in their region on their own. It likewise assumes that what happens in Ukraine and in Europe more broadly has minimal implications for the geopolitical competition in Asia.

In practice though, not only does a favorable outcome to the conflict in Ukraine depend on the United States’ continued investment in the conflict, but the outcome of the war between Russia and Ukraine will have enormous impact on the competition between the United States and China. Notwithstanding the rhetoric around Germany’s Zeitenwende and the shift in public opinion prompted by Russia’s invasion, the reality is that the United States has consistently been out in front of its European allies when it comes to financial assistance and weapons deliveries to Ukraine, as well as sanctions on Russia. A Europe left to its own devices would be less inclined to step into the breach than to seek its own modus vivendi with Moscow—something Russian (and Soviet) leaders have long understood. Both German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron have emphasized the importance of dialogue with Moscow. Scholz’s reluctance to approve the transfer of German-made tanks to Ukraine without cover from Washington reflects how far Europe’s leading powers remain from being able to take responsibility for security in their neighborhood.

Notwithstanding the war in Ukraine, Chinese rhetoric and provocations toward Taiwan are accelerating, and deterring a Chinese invasion is increasingly urgent for the United States. Helping Ukraine win will also have a significant impact on Chinese actions. Focusing on Russia’s defeat would be in keeping with a well-worn realist principle described by the arch realist Carl von Clausewitz: allies care about their own interests above all else, such that “if [a conflict involving an alliance] is not successful, then the ally … tries to get out of it on the cheapest terms possible.” Already, Russia’s military difficulties have raised “questions and concerns” in Beijing; a further diminished Russia would be of even less value as a Chinese partner and complicate efforts at sustaining a coordinated a Sino-Russian challenge.

As even Russian observers acknowledge, the war in Ukraine is providing a strong fillip for Western unity. That unity, which includes support from US allies in Asia, is among the principal advantages the United States would have in a conflict over Taiwan. And given the consolidation of a Sino-Russian revisionist axis, encapsulated in the signing of a partnership with “no limits” three weeks before the invasion of Ukraine, defeating Russia in Ukraine would undermine Chinese capabilities as well. It could also influence Chinese thinking about the likelihood that an invasion of Taiwan would succeed.

A related realist concern centers on the consequences of a Russian defeat for the strategic competition with China. Kissinger warns that a weakened, chaotic Russia could become a “contested vacuum,” and an arena for geopolitical competition between the remaining great powers, another potential arena for Sino-American confrontation. The consequences of a full-scale Russian collapse would be profound, but the prospect of that kind of collapse remains low, even if Russia is comprehensively defeated in Ukraine. While Putin’s regime may not survive defeat, Russia as a state and a geopolitical actor almost certainly will—though it could be significantly weakened in the process.

A weaker, more chaotic Russia would pose problems for many of its neighbors—not least China. Beijing’s “neighborhood diplomacy” is focused on building economic linkages while preventing the spread of instability across Chinese borders. Investment through the Belt and Road Initiative as well the growing security cooperation with the states of Central Asia are all testament to Beijing’s emphasis on containing threats outside its territory. In an ironic way, greater instability on China’s Eurasian frontier would vindicate the ideas of early advocates for China’s “Eurasian pivot,” who hoped that, by shifting its strategic focus away from maritime East Asia, Beijing could ameliorate tensions with the West. Today, with Sino-American tensions rapidly mounting, the need for Beijing to devote more attention and resources to its border with Russia could at least prolong the timeline for a challenge to the status quo over Taiwan. 

Let’s Get Real(ist)

From a realist perspective, ensuring Russia’s defeat in Ukraine would significantly benefit the United States. Not only would it enhance the security of American allies in Europe (as well as Russia’s vulnerable neighbors), but it would also create a more favorable balance of power as the United States pursues its ongoing strategic competition with China. Should the failure of Russia’s war of aggression spark significant change within Russia, the United States and its allies will have an opportunity to correct some of the mistakes that realists identified in the construction of Europe’s post-Cold War security architecture, which many realists (and Russian scholars) cite as a key factor in the conflict over Ukraine. Even if Russia remains belligerent and aggressive, its failure in Ukraine will leave it weaker, poorer, and more isolated.

In giving aid and succor to Ukraine, the United States should take on board realists’ warnings about the danger of doing too much or taking unnecessary risks. As the founder of academic realism Hans Morgenthau suggested, prudence is the primary realist virtue. The Biden administration’s insistence that US-provided arms not be used for attacks on Russian soil, like its refusal to deploy American troops to Ukraine or enforce a no-fly zone that would require engaging Russian targets, are prudent. Refusing Kyiv’s requests for heavy armor and longer-range artillery that could allow it to mount more effective offensive operations is not. Nor should the United States be coy about seeking Russia’s defeat and the withdrawal of all Russian forces from Ukraine as a war aim.

Kissinger’s career in government notwithstanding, realism has struggled to gain a foothold in American foreign policy because of its sometimes antiseptic, amoral nature. Realists’ belief in the enduring nature of international competition can blind them to the turning points in history, when previously unthinkable possibilities become manifest, just as their calls for dispassionate analysis can obscure the importance of human factors like emotion and ideology. Much of the realist commentary on the war in Ukraine has fallen into this trap. Adherents of the realist tradition should recognize how the war in Ukraine represents an inflection point for Europe and for the global balance of power.

The eleven months since Putin’s ill-considered invasion have brought enormous suffering but have also launched a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reshape international order. That resulting order could be a world “safe for autocracy”—or one that rests on a new consensus about the value of liberal democracy, with a more secure Europe and a United States more advantageously positioned for long-term competition with of China. For realists concerned about managing competition over the longer term, the opportunity to build a more stable, balanced order and compete more effectively with Beijing is one that should be embraced. The first step to that end is ensuring the failure of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities. 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and are not an official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Defense Department, or the United States government.

Image: President of Ukraine

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