Understanding Russia-Ukraine war through international relations theories

Russia-Ukraine war explains the realist concept of how a nation prioritizes its state’s security over others and is ready to go into war even with a powerful country.

Women and children, fleeing from Ukraine, arriving at the border crossing in Medyka, Poland. (Photo: AP/RSS)

Shradha Arjyal Joshi

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Theories and principles are primary guiding tools in understanding how the world works and power lies in the hands of which country, one or many? As the situation unfolds in the world order one single theory can’t exactly predict or claim what has happened or will continue to do so. Let’s dig deep on what international relations theories have to say about tragic events unfolding in Ukraine. As the situation discloses so does the stated theories. They shed change in the hour of crisis at the Ukraine-Russia war. It holds significant geopolitical consequences all around the world, especially in Europe.

The relevance of realism continues to remain at the forefront in International Relations (IR) and politics. Realist theory seems to be one of the most profound tools to understand issues in the international arena. What is realism actually? The core of this principle lies in the concept of prioritizing the state. Realists do believe that the states are the key players who play decisive roles internationally in positioning themselves, rest of whom are subject to secondary. This principle of IR is subjected to their own security, act in accordance with the national interest and at the end struggle for power whilst having little place for morality.

The key concern of security for which the states try to increase their power is a clear concept of realism in today’s world with ongoing war like Russia-Ukraine. War in today’s time occurs to protect one’s own sovereignty and to prevent the rise of military power of other nations.

Hans Morgenthau during the 19th century presented the idea of realism in his book Politics Among Nations which till date is considered as the bible in the realist school of IR and foreign policy. The landmark of Morgenthau’s realist theory that is still relevant in today’s time is the concept of power and power politics. The struggle for power, as he stated, is universal in time and space and is an undeniable part of experiences.

War in today’s time occurs to protect one’s own sovereignty and to prevent the rise of military power of other nations.

The world order was bipolar in the 19th century when Russia and the United States (US) had the status of superpowers. The past decade owns a multi-polar global reality further depicting several violent conflicts and proxy wars and crises. This facet has continued till date.

All realist theories presume that some other powerful state could threaten them in future because great powers are inclined in maintaining national interest and security aggressively. While doing so, they often don’t realize that things might turn out to be tragic and inhumane.

The realist adapts the concept of “security dilemma” as one state tries to make itself more secure while the other remains threatened. The realist scholars like Thucydides, Hans Morgenthau, Kenneth Waltz, and few more have become confined with the bitter nature of states in world politics, further stating that realism could bring in the danger as it starts to suppress others in the name of preserving national security.

Russia and Ukraine have been historically coherent since 1992 in a more byzantine manner. Both of them gained independence after the fall of the Soviet Union. Since then, Russia has always been influential in Ukraine’s domestic and foreign policies. As a powerful state, Russia’s dominance continues over Ukraine as it definitely doesn’t want the latter’s alignment with The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), European Union (EU) and more with the Western world. For a powerful country like Russia, it can’t endure its neighboring states to serve as a potential ground to their military opponent. Ever since 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea,  Ukraine has been a battlefield henceforth further dividing the country into two groups: the Ukrainian nationalist and Russian speaking community. The latter was akin to favoring closer ties with Russia.

Russia’s invasion deals with alliance politics in today’s time. Whilst alliance, if it is of shared interest and mutual cooperation, can help nations to sustain at peace, when it is made for collective defense, it generates threat and instability. This exactly explains why Russia attacked Ukraine to safeguard its national security. Russia was clear on its thought that once Ukraine becomes a member of NATO it would feel the brunt of threat from its Western allies.

The threat of power and alignment with the opponent with aggressive intention gives birth to war-like consequences. War has always been a legitimate form of state activity to protect its national security. Russia’s invasion helps to analyze what determines a legitimate use of force; where actually the nation is heading to; building or rebuilding of leadership unlike those during the era of Soviet Union which reflected Russia taking over the world. It unanimously is no longer acceptable to most of the global society in today’s world. Russia’s leaders are explicitly fearful in accordance with their state’s dominance and power in the international community. To counter this fear of national security, Russia opted for arms and weapons, military backups, alliances, to maintain check and balance against their foes. Every nation in today’s time looks for military advancement further highlighting one’s inimical intention.

Vladimir Putin is no exception in making Russia a great power unlike his predecessors Stalin, Lenin and the Czars. Much of his belief lies in the fact that Russian natives like those in Crimea, Donbas, and elsewhere belong to Russia and should be united in a single state. Ukraine is important to Russia and the rest of the world because of its strategic location followed by economy and trade gain. Till date, even after independence, Russian nationalists don’t accept Ukraine as a separate state. It is facing existential threat whereby Ukrainians against all odds are fighting with a much powerful and sophisticated armed Russia. It simplifies the realist concept of how a nation prioritizes its state’s security over others and is ready to go into war even with a powerful country.

Great powers act in a rational way. For them monitoring the external environment has been a compulsion for survival. Putin’s decision to launch a full scale invasion in Ukraine has destabilized Europe and has impacted food and energy security globally which was worse in the aftermath of the pandemic. With that, in this case of invasion the world is now divided into three groups–those supporting Russia, those who have been keeping solidarity with Ukraine, and some nonaligned nations who have a lesser role to play. The growing power houses like India and China have refused to choose any sides. With greater sanctions imposed on Russian gas and energy, its financial sector is turning fragile and not showing good signs for the future prospects.

A democratic nation like Ukraine has become a victim of Russia’s power play and national security. There seems to be no easy exit from this war. It marks a great deal to Putin’s regime and Ukraine’s survival for existence. The days ahead are hard to predict but it is certain that political incidents like these will continue to reshape Eurasian continent and further trigger the Russian ambition of power.

Shradha Arjyal Joshi is an International Relations and Foreign Policy enthusiast.