In trying to understand the grave, current political times the world finds itself in regards to the totally amoral Russian invasion of Ukraine, I often think back to what I had learnt in my International Relations classes as part of my Politics degree that I studied many years ago. One theory of international relations that I have always referred to for my understanding of global politics is the theory of realism.
Put simply, realism assumes that states behave like humans and are motivated by self-interest. This self-interest is usually in terms of state security, political power and economic resources among many other factors. The theory assumes that leaders of states live in a world of insecurity and are constantly second-guessing what their rivals might do in order to bolster their own position and get ahead of their competition.
This attitude of suspicion and paranoia sows an atmosphere of distrust amongst rival states where they assume the worst in each other. In the case of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, this is exacerbated by the fact that Russia is a nuclear power; it has one of the largest and most powerful militaries in the world; it has its own share of powerful allies including China; and it along with China are permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, meaning they have a veto on matters the UN Security Council considers, which Russia used as of writing as recently as 25th February 2022 to block the adoption of a resolution relating to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
The economic impact of the Russian invasion of Ukraine also cannot be understated, not just in its supply of energy to European countries, but also in its leading role in the Eurasian Economic Union, which effectively acts as a Eurasian version of the EU in that it has its own single market, common economic policies and trade agreements with other states. It is only whenever you read in detail just how ingrained Russia’s influence in the world is, you realise just how dependent many states around the world are on it in the same way many Western countries are dependent on the United States. This dependency is not just in state security, but also extends into the economy, political relations and even in terms of sociocultural relations.
As executive power in Russia is concentrated in one man who ultimately makes the key political decisions, the President of Russia Vladimir Putin, his psychology is important to understand to explain how the Russian state behaves. I believe Putin’s psychology is dominated by the principles of Machiavellianism. These principles dictate that one is better to be feared than loved; that at times, one may need to take unpopular decisions to preserve one’s rule and increase their power and security; saying one thing in public adhering to the rules to disguise one’s true intent and doing another thing privately breaking the rules to advance one’s ulterior motive; manipulating others to achieve one’s own goals regardless of morality, virtue and obligation to others; showing deference to societal institutions such as the state’s culture, military and religion to consolidate one’s rule. Putin is very much a textbook example of a Machiavellian ruler.
While I have no idea where the Russian invasion of Ukraine will end up nor its implications for the world and the redrawing of its power relations, I do know the theory of realism has its flaws. It is based on a conspiratorial view on human nature – that humans are always out to get one another when in reality, that sometimes isn’t always the case. Realism assumes that the state is the main player when in reality, especially in today’s world, non-state actors also play an important role too. Realism supposes that all states act rationally when in reality, emotion also influences decisions. There are also humans who see the mutual benefit of altruism and co-operation with others against those who primarily use military power to achieve political objectives. These humans may seek to collectively punish aggressors, as they recognise that all sides incur losses in any use of military power and that it unnecessarily upsets the world order whenever diplomatic solutions could have been reached.
Like most people around the world, we can only hope justice will prevail in the current situation. The scenes of suffering and conflict in Ukraine are very upsetting. Though, I have been encouraged by the huge amount of international support that Ukraine has received and I hope continues to receive in its time of need against an aggressor state. Some humans can be capable of vile deeds, but many others are also capable of kindness, generosity and charity. Let us hope that international concern for the universal need of human dignity for one another overrides the injustice of what is happening.
Michael Palmer holds a degree in Politics from Ulster University and is interested in political ideology, the politics of popular culture and wrote a dissertation on unionism/loyalism.