Idealists, some masquerading as realists, have been calling for negotiations to end Russia’s war since the beginning of the war. This would benefit Russia, which is currently unable to achieve its war goals militarily. That is why negotiations are also being demanded by the political forces in Germany, which openly represent Russia’s interests.
However, it would be misguided to describe a quick ceasefire, Ukraine’s neutrality and the territorial reorganization as realistic because it is unrealistic that Ukraine can win the war comprehensively. It’s neither realistic in the sense of the colloquial saying, “Now be realistic,” nor in the sense of the realistic school of thought.
Don’t worry, this isn’t going to be a political science seminar. My point is to show that the demand for a negotiated solution to Russia’s war against Ukraine has nothing to do with either of these realisms.
Negotiate with Putin? An idealistic idea in two senses
Rather, this demand is an idealistic idea in two senses: on the one hand, because the question of its solution is approached with unfounded optimism and free from any experience from this war, and on the other hand, because a negotiated solution at this stage of the war idealistic starting point that law can limit the striving for power.
Realists see it differently. No matter how differently they explain international developments, the bottom line is that only power can contain the quest for power. In other words, if a state is striving to expand its territory, to expand its sphere of influence and to subjugate other states, it can only be prevented from doing so if other states that want to prevent this can resist it, i.e. turn against it with power.
This does not rule out the possibility that relations can also be contractually regulated – from arms control to trade. It says, however, that the power abilities are the basis of relationships and thus also of contracts. The treaties alone cannot contain the political and economic ambitions of aggressive states. This applies even more in a war in which one state, Russia, wants to wipe out the other state, Ukraine, wants to make Ukrainian disappear from the face of the earth. Such ambitious goals are not to be constrained by treaties.
Support for Ukraine would plummet if negotiations were to start
But that is exactly what a negotiated solution to the war between Russia and Ukraine is supposed to achieve. It is not the power of Ukraine and its supporters that should limit Russia’s ambitions, but a treaty at the end of negotiations.
The idealistic premise behind this attitude is that law is capable of constraining the pursuit of power. After all, both sides would have to make agreements and – even with the participation of third parties – assume that these agreements will be observed.
However, without a certain degree of contractual compliance, contracts are not only pointless, they are also harmful because they can then work to the advantage of one party through deception. Support for Ukraine, for example, would also drop suddenly if negotiations were to take place. Russia could then break the treaty and Ukraine would be weaker than it is now.
This is well known in Kiev, because Ukraine has already agreed to such an agreement and has had very bad experiences with the premise that law can restrict states’ striving for power.
In the Budapest Memorandum of 1994, Russia, Great Britain and the USA gave Ukraine (and Kazakhstan as well as Belarus) security guarantees for the surrender of the (ex-Soviet) nuclear weapons stationed on their territory. Russia’s security guarantee was worth nothing because Russia later unilaterally declared that the memorandum was no longer valid. The security guarantees from Great Britain and the USA also proved to be inadequate.
Russia’s striving for power cannot be contained by law, only by might
Ukraine relied on a treaty, and later the 1997 Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Partnership between Russia and Ukraine, which guaranteed the inviolability of borders. But these contracts were worth nothing because they were not backed by any means of power. Contracts alone depend on the contract partner’s adherence to the contract – and this can change quickly.
The idealistic assumption that a negotiated solution can bring security at this stage of the war is based on untenable premises. Russia’s striving for power in Europe, today against Ukraine and – if Russia can – later against other states cannot be contained by law, but only by power. These include military deterrence, counter-hybrid warfare capabilities, and economic dominance.
This also includes a mental turning point that will enable the political culture of the EU states to face the new challenges. Security for Ukraine – and thus for EU Europe – will only exist if the appropriate skills are mustered. Relying on collusion with Russia would be an idealistic trap.
Ukraine’s accession to the EU and NATO is the realistic solution in two senses of the word: in terms of the post-war situation and the country’s reconstruction, and in terms of the realistic school of thought that assumes that only power can contain the quest for power. Ukraine’s neutrality and a territorial reorganization in favor of Russia, camouflaged by a treaty, would be the starting point of the next war. Because only power can limit the pursuit of power.