Letter: Realist theory predicted how Putin would behave

Janan Ganesh takes international relations theory to task (“No grand theory can explain the Ukraine crisis”, Opinion, April 13). But when debunking “realism” he makes two classic mistakes.

The first one is to assume that state leaders must adhere to realism for that theory to make any sense. So Ganesh writes: “When Putin himself cites culture and values, a realist must diagnose him with false consciousness . . . ”.

Realism argues that to understand the behaviour of states in international relations it is of little or no import what state leaders (claim to) believe.

Iran behaves towards other states pretty much as the theory would predict, no matter how fanatic its religious leaders may be. And North Korea behaves as it does irrespective of the mental state of its supreme leader. The point is clear: what realism claims to explain is the behaviour of states vis-à-vis each other, and that does not require the individuals leading those states to be believers in the church of realism.

The second is to rebuke realism for not being able to explain a variety of things. With respect to the Ukraine crisis, Ganesh tells us that realism is not able to explain why most of the states imposing sanctions on Russia are democracies; it also can’t explain why Ukrainians wish to join the west. This is true, but these are also things that realism does not try or claim to explain.

Ganesh does leave out one rather obvious observation: realism did predict rather accurately what the reaction of Russia would be if the west continued to ignore Russia’s protestations about its most basic security concerns. These have been put forward since 1990, first by Mikhail Gorbachev, then by Boris Yeltsin, and quite consistently since at least 2007 by Vladimir Putin.

John Mearsheimer, one of the leading American realist theorists, has repeatedly warned since 2014 that Russia would not accept integration of Ukraine into the west and would react with armed force when it would feel that movement towards such integration was rapidly becoming irreversible.

There are plenty of reasons to be highly critical of realism. But its explanation of Russian behaviour towards Ukraine is not one of them.

Henk Overbeek
Professor Emeritus of International Relations, Vrije Universiteit
Amsterdam, Netherlands