History still ongoing as Isms collide in Ukraine

While sanctions against Russia are being intensified, the Library team is observing an almost theological international relations debate taking place on the hows, whats and whys of the Ukraine conflict.

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There seems to be little debate that the Russian response to the regime change in Kiev in February took the West by surprise. This surprise, argues John Mearsheimer in the most recent issue of Foreign Affairs, is the result of a fundamental difference in world view between the West and Putin’s Russia.

Liberalism vs. Realism

According to Mearsheimer, Putin was effectively forced into intervention in Ukraine by the West’s eastward expansion of both NATO and the EU, and the West’s social engineering efforts in Ukraine.

While Russia saw the enemy approaching the gates, the West optimistically followed the views of Francis Fukuyama’s ‘The End of History?’ which in 1989 announced the triumph of Western style liberalism over any competing philosophy.

Despite repeated signals from the Kremlin, the West pursued its course of encroaching ever closer to Russia, in the belief that the ‘old’ system of geopolitics no longer applied, according to Mearsheimer. Ukraine was simply the straw that broke the camel’s back, again.

The conflict then, is a clash between the fundamentally different world-views of realism and liberalism. The former holds that the nation state is the key actor in international relations, and nation states will always act in their own interest if it is within their power. With proponents of the latter, international organisations as the UN and the EU hold more sway. They see a world where the ideals of liberal democracy and cooperation will ultimately win out.


Chatham House published a different angle, courtesy of Keir Giles, who argues that in fact, what we are witnessing is Russian expansionism, rather than a Russian push-back to Western expansionism. This view is shared by Nicu Popescu of EUISS.

The ceasefire in Ukraine represents a tactical success for Moscow in consolidating control over the eastern regions, says Giles. Putin is now closer to maintaining indirect control over the future course of Ukrainian foreign policy.

Meanwhile, George Friedman at Stratfor – a realist if ever there was one – adds the complication of the conflict in Syria/Iraq. US strategy in both Europe and MENA has long revolved around trying to attain a balance of powers, so that it can achieve maximum detachment while maintaining its own interests. Currently, the administration is stretched out between two major conflicts it’s trying to manage, and if a third would arise, it wouldn’t be able to cope.


Friedman argues for the creation of a ‘Black Sea Strategy’, revolving around the body of water that could be seen as of vital interest to both of the current conflicts, hemming in Russia on one side, and forming a crucial link if Jihadism were to migrate to Georgia or Azerbaijan. Interestingly, he envisions a crucial role for Romania in this, and advocates helping the country to build up a strong navy. Importantly Romania is, as a Black Sea nation, not limited by the Montreux Convention regarding the regime of the Straits, Friedman points out, making it a pivotal player.

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