The Duck of Minerva

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Crimea is not a Realist story

April 10, 2014

[Note:  This is a guest post by Jarrod Hayes, assistant professor of international relations at the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs at the Georgia Institute of Technology.  His first book, Constructing National Relations: US Relations with India and China was published by Cambridge University Press in 2013.]

Jeffrey Stacey has already discussed the issue in Crimea with alacrity, as have his interlocutors in the comments section.  My agenda here is to argue that what is going on in Crimea is not a story about which Realist theory in international relations has much to say.  My specific foil here (probably at some professional peril) is John Mearsheimer.  Mearsheimer is perhaps most known for his forceful support of Realist IR theory (there is that Israel thing too), specifically a variant called offensive realism.  According to that theory, great powers are constantly predatory, seeking to boost their power (military capability and economic capability that boosts military capability) whenever benefits exceed the costs.  It is a materialist and rationalist approach to international security, grounded in a logic of power and appealing in its simplicity.  And Mearsheimer has not been shy about commenting on the crisis in Crimea, arguing that Ukraine should have kept its nuclear weapons after the end of the Cold War and that Russia’s annexation of Crimea makes perfect sense as the actions of an insecure state seeking to prevent immediate neighbors from falling into the orbit of the West.

The story is an appealing one, and on the surface it looks compelling.  Russia certainly unilaterally deployed military forces to control the Crimean peninsula in convention of international law and after a ‘referendum’ boasting a Soviet era yes vote (with a precise 95.7% tally).  Russia could take Crimea, and did so.  But scratch the surface, and the realist story starts to lose its gloss.  Why take Crimea?  Realism holds it should boost Russian power in some way.  Certainly the Russian navel base there looks like a convincing reason.  But there is little reason to believe that Russia would be cut off from its installations even if Ukraine signed an association agreement with the EU (as it has now done).  Not only would it be of dubious legality to cut the Russians off (argument the logic of power rejects), it would be almost impossible from a force disposition aspect (more in keeping with the logic of power).  At least in the medium term, the situation now from a base access standpoint is little different than it was before the annexation (although the Russians apparently gets some talented dolphins).  Even if access were threatened at some point in the future, Russia has plenty of access to the Black Sea.  Thus, Crimea is not necessary for Russia to maintain its Black Sea fleet, and may even be detrimental because of poor geography (Crimea is physically separated from Russia by the Strait of Kerch).

Neither does Crimea boost Russian economic capability.  Something like 70% of Crimea’s annual operating budget of $1.2 billion came from Kiev, a transfer that now belongs to Moscow.  Crimea’s economy is primarily agriculture and tourism, neither of which are a significant gap in the greater Russian economy.  While the peninsula does have some carbon-based resources, notably natural gas, it is peripheral to network of gas lines that serve as a major node in the network transferring Russian gas to Europe.  Thus, controlling Crimea does not address Russia’s reliance on Ukraine for gas transfers to Europe.

So, Russia does not get much from acquiring Crimea.  What are the costs?  They appear pretty significant.  Ukraine has signed the Association agreement with the EU, apparently moving further from Russia’s geopolitical orbit. Russian president Vladimir Putin risks renewing an East-West conflict with the United States.  The Russian economy confronts the possibility of recession as some $100 billion has been withdrawn by overseas investors.  In the longer term, Russia’s effort to redraw the borders of Ukraine threatens its access to the European energy market, a relationship that is crucial for Russia’s energy export-based economic model.  NATO’s mission has at least partially been renewed, particularly from the perspective of its newest members in Eastern Europe.  The so-called reset in relations between the US and Russia appears dead, although to be fair it was on life support before events in Crimea.  Thus, we can characterize Russia’s annexation of Ukraine as one bearing high international costs and vanishingly small benefits.  Hardly what realist theory predicts.  True, in his New York times op-ed, Mearsheimer takes a longer term perspective, arguing that the US had backed Russia into a corner through NATO expansion, and specifically cites the 2008 declaration by NATO that states Ukraine and Georgia will become members of NATO.  Yet, with the exception of small Croatia and Albania in 2009, NATO membership has remained fixed since 2004 and no effort was made in the six years since the Budapest Declaration to integrate either Georgia or Ukraine.  Indeed, neither country has a Membership Action Plan (MAP).  So, if NATO expansion into Eastern Europe had backed Russia into a corner, Putin puzzlingly did not do anything about it for ten years.

So, how to make sense of Crimea?  Trying to understand what is happening in Putin’s head is a fraught exercise.  Is he an emotional figure as some argue?  I do not have an answer for that.  Rather, I suggest looking at how Putin built support for his policy at home in Russia.  That does not tell us why Putin acted as he did, but it does help us get a sense as to the political structures within which Putin operated that enabled him to pursue Crimea’s annexation.  At the core, analysts need to understand how the Russian public made sense of Crimea and Russia’s relationship to that peninsula as well as the broader world.  One way of thinking about this to look at the way that Putin played on a shared emotional resonance in Russia, invoking a sense of Russian identity and post-Cold War victimization to justify annexation.  Also at play is a shared imagination that Crimea is a primordial element of Russian territory, which is by extension an element of Russian identity.  The emotional aspect of territoriality is difficult to overstate.  Just as the ability to visualize territory had a profound effect on the construction of sovereignty, intersubjectively shared emotional connections to the geographic identity of the state play an important role in how societies understand policy (Jonathan Haidt argues that emotions are a mental elephant upon which human cognition sits as a rider, seeking to steer but ultimately at the mercy of the elephant).  Putin was able to infuse his moves in Crimea with emotional and identity content, which in turn shaped how Russians made sense of Crimea and Russian military moves in the province.  This suggests that comparisons to Hitler’s Germany may be inapt, because it would be much more difficult for Putin to draw on intersubjectively shared emotional connections to justify an invasion of Italy (for example).  Conversely, it also suggests that states with large Russian speaking populations do have reason to be concerned, because clearly the Russian public shares a set of intersubjective, emotional understandings of the world that may enable further aggression by the Russian state.

Clearly this post does not definitely explain events in Crimea, but it does set out an idea of how analysts might go about understanding what happened in Crimea and develop a framework for understanding the limits of Russian policy.  More definitive, however, is my argument that materialist and rationalist approaches to international relations like realism, despite their intuitive appeal, provide limited traction in this case.


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Jon Western has spent the last fifteen years teaching IR in liberal arts colleges at Mount Holyoke College and the Five Colleges in western Massachusetts. He has an eclectic range of intellectual interests but often writes on international security, U.S. foreign policy, military intervention, and human rights. He occasionally shares his thoughts about professional life in liberal arts colleges. In his spare time he coaches middle school soccer, mentors the local high school robotics team, skis, and sails.