How the War in Ukraine Supports Realism
In focusing on Russian and American actions, realists are missing an important part of the story that supports their paradigm!
As I noted here at Drezner’s World last month, realism has encountered some difficulties in explaining the events in Ukraine. Many realists have focused on the causes of the war and assigning the lion’s share of the blame to NATO expansion. More recently there has been some concern voiced about the risks of accidental escalation, or — and I love this bank shot — the prospect that U.S. foreign policy works really well and there is a return to hubris among U.S. policymakers.
The hard-working staff here at Drezner’s World has zero desire to wade into these debates. I’ll leave it at: realists are not entirely wrong about NATO expansion but they ain’t entirely right either. Russia’s invasion is a multi-causal story.
What strikes me as far more interesting — and far less discussed in realist circles — is that Ukraine’s resilience is a striking data point in favor of realism: namely, that the Russian threat has led to some serious Ukrainian statebuilding.
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An essential tenet of realism is that because the international system is defined by anarchy, states must rely on self-help to survive and secure themselves from external threats. At the extreme, the hazards of anarchy forces states that cannot adapt into extinction. Realists therefore predict that external threats are a key driver for statebuilding. Charles Tilly is not a realist, but realists definitely embrace his aphorism of “the state makes war and war makes the state.”
One of the empirical puzzles that emerged after Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and incursion into the Donbas was whether Ukraine would engage in real statebuilding when faced with such a serious external threat. It was a valid question to ask: I lived in Ukraine in the 1990s, and would describe the state back then as at best shambolic and at worst corrupt. Ukraine’s saving grace was that it was never as repressive as Russia; its curse was that its government seemed less organized than Putin’s Russia.
2014 was an obvious wake-up call to Ukraine about Russian intentions. Would the response be effective statebuilding? Western analysts had their doubts. In 2015 Keith Darden argued against providing lethal aid to Ukraine by noting that the state was close to failing:
The most serious threats to Ukraine’s security are not found on the battlefield. Ukraine’s currency is collapsing. The country is approaching default, and they cannot hope to pay their bills (or their soldiers) without foreign assistance. If Ukraine does not reform — and it is almost too late — Russia and the separatists they are backing will not need any more military victories. They will just have to hold tight while Ukraine collapses on its own.
Writing in the Monkey Cage, Louis-Alexandre Berg and Andrew Radin noted that Ukrainian institutions began to improve from their decrepit state following the regime change in 2014. Even then, however, corruption in Ukraine’s defense sector was rampant. Indeed, even Ukrainians had their doubts — this was the core theme of Volodymyr Zelensky’s political satire Man of the People
Eight years later, the statebuilding project has accelerated dramatically, particularly in the military sphere. Real anti-corruption efforts took place in Ukraine’s defense production, with Volodymyr Zelensky appointing a reformer to clean up the state-owned defense monopoly Ukroboronprom. Berg and Radin explain: “Zelensky had few ties to Ukraine's oligarchic networks, and the country made progress on critical changes related to defense procurement. A new 2020 defense law addressed long-standing issues by increasing transparency and competition in defense procurement.” No doubt, NATO security assistance helped in this area as well, creating a much more modern force that has demonstrated greater competency and tactical improvisation on the battlefield than Russia forces.
One factor that has worked in tandem with Ukrainian statebuilding has been the rise of a civic brand of nationalism divorced from ethnicity or language. Indeed, the election of Zelensky, a Russian Jew, epitomizes this transformation. It explains why Russian forces were not in fact welcomed with open arms when they invaded Ukraine.
About five years ago, I was concerned about Ukraine’s seeming inability to improve its state institutions in the wake of a severe external security threat. The failure of a middle power like Ukraine to adapt to the rigors of anarchy would have presented a challenge to a basic realist tenet. That Ukraine has been revealed to be a more competent state than previously thought represents a powerful data point for realism. I hope the paradigm embraces that robust empirical support.