Putin’s Policy in Ukraine Justified by Historical Background And the International Relations Theory of Realism

Over the course of 2014, Russian president, Vladimir Putin, has been criticized by the west for his aggressive actions in Ukraine. I have even heard comparisons between Putin and Josef Stalin. On the other hand, most Russians I have talked to support his actions in Ukraine, and believe that Putin has facilitated the nation’s rise back to prominence. While I certainly would not classify the man as a benevolent savior, I refuse to accept him to be the modern equivalent of a psychopathic murderer. My arguments justifying Putin’s actions, in no way show my support for his policy in the Ukraine. However, I believe that there is another side to the story, which American journalists fail to express. I believe that some of Putin’s aggressive actions in Ukraine can be justified by historical context and the theory of realism.

In order to fully understand Russia’s aggressive policy in Ukraine it is imperative to look at the history leading up to 2014. Russia has a long history of invasions into its western border. These invasions are particularly devastating for two reasons. For one, Russia is bordered on the west with the strong military powers of Europe, who have been embraced in a power struggle for the continent for centuries. In addition, the vast majority of Russia’s population is located near the western border, along with the nations two most important cities, which have both been the capitol of the nation over the past centuries, St. Petersburg and Moscow. Over the past three centuries the invasions from the west have been overwhelmingly destructive.

In 1707 Charles XII of Sweden attacked Russia from the west. At first the invasion was fairly successful, though the tide turned when winter hit. Suffering from cold and starvation the Swedish forces were eventually ousted. Many thousands of Russians died in battle, as well as thousands more from the elements. Though the Swedes didn’t make it very far, this was simply the first and least harmful of three invasions of the country into its western border in the next two hundred fifty years.

In 1812 Napoleon launched a massive invasion on Russia from the west. Initially the French forces were successful, driving deep into the country, capturing Moscow. However, harsh weather, along with the lack of preparation on the part of the French spelled their eventual defeat, and the beginning of the end of Napoleon’s domination in Europe. Though the French were defeated, Russia paid a steep cost. The total military deaths were over 200,000, and the capital city of Moscow was burned to the ground. (Bogdanovich, 492-503)

In 1941 Hitler launched the greatest military invasion in history on the Soviet Union from the west, Operation Barbarossa. The total invading force totaled over three million men, and took Stalin completely by surprise. The invasion was initially successful, with Nazi forces driving all the way to St. Petersburg and Moscow in the north, and Stalingrad in the south. Winter again came to Russia’s aid, weakening the Nazi forces. The tides turned in Stalingrad with a resounding Soviet victory, initiating a long counteroffensive that resulted in the fall of Berlin in 1945. The Soviets, however, paid an enormous price with civilian and military deaths being estimated up to 50,000,000. (Hosking, 242) This inexplicable cost in lives resulted in aggressive actions by Stalin in the years following WWII.

After the travesty of World War II, the Soviet Union formed the Warsaw pack, in order to establish a buffer zone from the west. In response, the rest of the Allies, led by the United States, formed NATO, creating a Balance of Power in Europe. Russia had suffered three invasions from the west in the last quarter millennium, each more devastating than the one before it. At the conclusion of WWII, the Soviet Union attacked Germany from the east, through Eastern Europe, while the other allies came from the west. The victorious armies met at the German capital city of Berlin. At the conclusion of the war, the Soviets occupied Eastern Europe all the way up to Berlin. They agreed to hold open elections in these annexed countries soon, a promise that was not kept. The western allies formed NATO, with the inclusion of West Germany in 1954. In response, the Soviets formed the Warsaw pact, composed of the annexed nations. The Soviets kept control of these nations for a few reasons. Primarily, Russia’s long history of devastating invasions form the west, made Stalin compelled to establish a buffer zone composed of Eastern European nations, in order to prevent further such attacks. Secondarily, when the western powers added Germany to NATO only five years after the war, the Soviets felt obligated to even the Balance of Power. The Balance of Power is a concept of Realism described by Hans J. Morgenthau. He describes it as states trying to maintain an “equilibrium” of power, so one side cannot dominate the other. (Morgenthau,183) Thus the Soviets felt threatened by the combined power of NATO, especially by the inclusion of Germany, and responded by the creation of the Warsaw Pact.

The fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, disrupted the Balance of Power, and led to the hegemony of NATO. During the 1980’s, the Soviet Union was led by the open – minded, Michael Gorbachev, who gradually allowed the annexed countries to gain independence. This spelled the downfall of the Soviet Union and the fall of Communism. The western powers agreed not to abuse Russia’s weakness during their time of transition to capitalism. (Ruhle) The Russians interpreted this as a promise from the west not to expand NATO’s influence into former Warsaw Pact nations. Under the first Russian president, Boris Yeltsin, Russia went through a period of extreme economic instability, and was virtually powerless on the stage of international politics. During this period, the former Warsaw Pact countries pushed to join NATO, in order to increase their security. Russia powerless, most of these former allies have been excepted into NATO, upsetting the global balance of power that was present during the Cold War. Despite the fact that there was no written or binding agreement between Russia an NATO pertaining to their expansion into former Soviet territories, the Russians regarded this expansion as a broken promise by the western powers. (Ruhle)

Throughout the crisis in Ukraine Putin has stubbornly refused to remove Russia from the conflict. The crisis began when, in November 2013, Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovych, rejected closer ties with the European union, in favor of a closer relationship with Russia. This decision was unpopular, as protesting escalated, and soon turned violent. As the unrest increased into February 2014, Yanukovych fled the country. By the end of the month, unidentified military personnel began appearing in the Crimea, later identified as Russian. (BBC) In March, a vote is held in the Crimea, whether to remain a part of Ukraine, or to become part of Russia. Crimea chose Russia in a landslide, but the West declared foul play. (BBC) In April, Pro – Russian separatists, likely armed by Russia, began to seize government buildings in Eastern Ukraine. (BBC) In July, Russia begins sending in convoys of “humanitarian aid”, and Russian paratroopers are captured in Ukraine and exchanged for Ukrainian prisoners. (BBC) As the conflict appeared to deescalate in October, with the withdrawal of Russian troops form the Ukrainian border, there have been reports of convoys of Russian troops and equipment entering the nation throughout November. (BBC) Despite economic sanctions from the West, Putin, it seems, refuses to abandon his aggressive policies in Ukraine.

The recent Ukraine Crisis is a result of Russia’s historical intimacy with the nation, the rise of Russian power under Putin, and the theory of realism. Ukraine has always been closely related to Russia throughout its history. In fact the very foundation of Russian culture began in Kiev, which is now the capitol of Ukraine. In the years leading up to the Cold War, Ukraine was a nation divided, with a piece of it always being part of Russia. During the Cold War Ukraine was part of the Warsaw Pact, only becoming a sovereign nation after the fall of the Soviet Union. Ukraine, in the years leading up to 2014, has been Russia’s closest ally, especially under the leadership of Pro – Russian president Yanukovych. (BBC) However, when looking at the situation as a threat to Russian national security, it becomes evident why he maintains such a stubborn stance. Ukraine, which has always been Russia’s close ally, suddenly wants to break ties with the country. Furthermore, Ukraine borders Russia, and their association with the EU would inevitable result in the eventual expansion of NATO into the country. In International Relations theory there are three types of power. Idealists recognize ideas as the main source of power, and liberals view the economy as the main source of power, while realists utilize brute force and view state security as the most vital of national interests. Putin is clearly a realist, as he has rejected the moral idealist reason argument of popular sovereignty, and the economic sanctions from the West. He therefore views the Crisis in Ukraine as a loss despite the acquisition of the Crimea, and he sees the eventual expansion of NATO into the nation as direct threat to Russian security,

“But this account is wrong: the United States and its European allies share most of the responsibility for the crisis. The taproot of the trouble is NATO enlargement, the central element of a larger strategy to move Ukraine out of Russia’s orbit and integrate it into the West. Since the mid-1990s, Russian leaders have adamantly opposed NATO enlargement, and in recent years, they have made it clear that they would not stand by while their strategically important neighbor turned into a Western bastion. For Putin, the illegal overthrow of Ukraine’s democratically elected and pro-Russian president – which he rightly labeled a “coup” – was the final straw.” (Mearsheimer)

This quote was presented by the famed realist Scholar, John Mearsheimer, and sums up Russia’s aggressive stance in Ukraine. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the West took advantage of Russian weakness through NATO expansion, and now that Russia is strong again under Putin, they will not stand for further exploitation.

The United States has vilified Putin’s actions in Ukraine, but I believe that if the US was put in Russia’s position the response would be similar. I believe a simple analogy will shed light on the subject. Lets say, for instance that the Cold War ended, not with the fall of the Soviet Union, but with the fall of NATO and the United States. This turn of events plunged the US into a period of extreme economic turmoil and political weakness. The European powers, in order to increase their security, respond by joining the Warsaw Pact in America’s period of weakness. In recent years the US has managed to regain some of its power under a strong leader. All of a sudden, America’s close ally and neighbor, Canada, decides to overthrow its Pro – American leader, and begins on the path to join the Warsaw Pact. What would America’s response be? One only has to look at America’s response to the Cuban Missile Crisis to see an answer. When Cuba allied itself with the Soviet Union, and began to build missile silos, the US responded with a naval blockade and threats of nuclear intervention. Thus the US would likely respond to the Ukraine Crisis in a similar manner if they were put in Russia’s situation, as they have also proven to value national security above all else.

Historical background and the International Relations Theory of realism justify Putin’s aggressive actions in the Ukraine Crisis. Russia’s history of invasions from the west, along with its historic closeness with Ukraine, explain Putin’s stubborn involvement in the crisis. Furthermore, NATO’s expansion into former Warsaw Pact countries during Russia’s period of weakness, which upset the international balance of power, caused Ukraine’s defection to be viewed as the last straw. Putin views the Ukraine crisis as a direct threat to national security, and as a realist, has thus ignored moral arguments and economic sanctions form the West. Furthermore, the only way the West will be able to remove Russia from Ukraine is through violent intervention, because, as a realist, that is the only kind of power that Putin would respond to. America’s aggressive policy during the Cuban Missile Crisis proves that the US would similarly if put in Russia’s position. It is hard for us to understand Putin’s position, as our borders have not been seriously threatened for over two hundred years, and we have consistently been a hegemon in our hemisphere. Though I in no way agree with Putin’s actions in Ukraine, I do see his reasons behind his aggressive policies. One of the most important lessons one can learn in international relations is to out oneself in the oppositions shoes in order to see their rational behind their actions. I believe that if the United States were to do this, more progress would be made in dealings with Putin as the realist leader of Russia.

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