Can the Russian invasion of Ukraine be linked to the realist concept of the Security Dilemma?

The Russian Invasion of Ukraine is a unlawful act.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine on the 24th February 2022 was an egregious breach of international law. It has resulted in a humanitarian crisis in Europe not seen since World War Two and has already taken the lives of countless innocent civilians. In addition, it has raised tensions in Europe to a level not seen since the Cold War. The Western and Russian narratives of why the war started are predictably different. In terms of studying A-Level Politics, it is a chance to consider whether or not the realist principle of the security dilemma played a role in the outbreak of the war, or if this was at most a pre-text for an action that President Putin wanted to take anyway.

What happened to NATO after the collapse of the Soviet Union?

NATO stands for the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. It was established in 1949 as a collective self-defence organisation to oppose the threat of the USSR. Following any act of armed aggression against a member state, NATO will consider triggering Article 5 of the NATO Treaty. If activated, this sees that act of aggression against the member state as an act of aggression against NATO as a whole. Article 5 has only been triggered once, in 2001 following the 9/11 attacks. Subsequently, a NATO coalition entered Afghanistan to remove the Taliban. In response to its creation in 1949 the USSR created the Warsaw Pact in 1955.

NATO and the Warsaw Pact

Throughout the Cold War, these two adversarial groups were effective in providing a
deterrence against direct aggressive action, with both sides instead fighting via proxy in wars like that in Vietnam. NATO was also effective as a mechanism for maintaining US influence in mainland Europe and avoiding a retreat into isolationism following the Second World War.

The Berlin Wall fell in 1989.

However, after the fall of Berlin Wall in 1989 and the collapse of the Warsaw Pact in 1992, NATO had to be introspective over its future meaning. The sole reason for its foundation had been removed and it now had to find a new role in a post-soviet era. What happened in this period is an area of contention in Western and Russian narratives.

The Russian narrative is clear that following the collapse of the Soviet Union NATO leaders pledged that, in order to maintain stable relations with Russia, they would not look to integrate the former Soviet states into NATO. They point to declassified documents like the minutes of a meeting between Soviet Leader Mikael Gorbachev in 1990 and the US Secretary of State James Baker who indicated that the US would not seek to expand NATO ‘one inch eastwards’:

Baker: I want to ask you a question, and you need not answer it right now. Supposing unification takes place, what would you prefer: a united Germany outside of NATO, absolutely independent and without American troops; or a united Germany keeping its connections with NATO, but with the guarantee that NATO’s jurisprudence or troops will not spread east of the present boundary?

Gorbachev: We will think everything over. We intend to discuss all these questions in depth at the leadership level. It goes without saying that a broadening of the NATO zone is not acceptable.

Baker: We agree with that.

Minutes from a meeting between Mikael Gorbachev and James Baker – February 9th 1990

However, western politicians fiercely dispute this. They point out that the context of this meeting was very specific to that of German unification and that Baker was not speaking on behalf of NATO. This was a merely a meeting, it was not a binding treaty and indeed there are no treaties that preclude the eastward expansion of NATO. In addition, a treaty of September 1990 that followed the Baker meeting only applied to organisational matters relating to Germany. However, other meetings, like those between Russian Leaders and NATO in Brussels in 1990 led the Russians to believe that NATO would not expand eastwards:

“Woerner [NATO Secretary-General] stressed that the NATO Council and he are against the expansion of NATO”

A Russian memorandum of a 1991 meeting in Brussels

Subsequently, NATO did expand eastwards to a very significant degree:

The expansion of NATO

The Russian perception, therefore, grew that NATO had betrayed undertakings not to expand NATO eastwards. However, it should be noted that Boris Yeltsin assented to Poland joining NATO in a meeting with Polish leader Lech Walsea in 1993. In 1997, six years later, the Russian Foreign Minister raised Baker’s broken promise with the US. The western response is that all states that have joined NATO since 1990 have done so as a result of their own democratic decisions and in response to considerations of their own security.

The narrative of betrayal is clearly one that Vladimir Putin has aimed to harness:

“What is unclear here? Are we putting missiles next to the United States’ borders? No, it is the United States that has come to us with their missiles, they are already on our doorstep.”

“The course of negotiations is not important to us, the result is important… ‘Not one inch to the East,’ they told us in the 90s. So what? They cheated, just brazenly tricked us! Five waves of NATO expansion and now already, please, the systems are appearing in Romania and Poland.”

Vladimir Putin

Why are Russian concerns about its security timeless?

Tim Marshall’s excellent book, Prisoners of Geography spends a chapter on Russia.

Despite its journey from Tsarist autocracy to Communist Dictatorship to Republic (albeit an illiberal one), Russia’s security concerns have remained remarkably constant. Russia, perhaps more than any other European State, is strategically – in the words of Tim Marshall – a prisoner of its own geography.

However, this is not to suggest invading Russia is easy. Napoleon (1812) and Hitler (1941) are both cases to point to that it is not. Invading armies face long-supply lines, cold winters and the infamous Rasputitsa, a period when the snow creates a quagmire of mud that makes travel and military operations difficult. But these advantages bear fruit only when much Russian blood has already been spilt and armies have penetrated deep into its territory. Russian strategic thinkers have therefore long recognised its inherent weaknesses:

  • Russia has few warm-water ports

Ports are essential for ensuring supplies and the ease of trade. Russia has few options, despite its long border. Most of its ports freeze during winter and are therefore inoperable. This means it does not have consistent commercial or military access to international waters and this is a significant strategic limitation. It is also one of the reasons why Crimea is so strategically valuable to Russia.

  • It has a large eastern border which can easily be transgressed

Russia’s European plains are expansive. They allow for the cultivation of grain that is the backbone of Russian agriculture. However, they can do this well because they are so flat and therefore do not provide a significant geographical obstacle to an invading army. In 1941, it took Hitler’s Army under three months to advance to the vicinity of Moscow.

  • Its best defensive line is far behind its most populated areas

Russia’s biggest defensive obstacle, the Ural Mountains, is thousands of miles from Russia’s eastern border and offers no significant strategic protection.

Throughout the Cold War many of these strategic limits were tempered by the buffer-zone that was provided by the Warsaw Pact states. Any invasion of the Soviet Union would only be able to commence when, and if, NATO had forced its way through East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Romania and the Baltic States. They would also be fighting through more of a geographic bottleneck than they would be on the border of Russia itself and there would be many more defensive options for the Russian military. However, following the collapse of Communism not only had those buffer states gone, but NATO was now on the border with Russia. The old strategic considerations were very much back in force. Indeed, whilst far from an ideological supporter of Communism, Vladimir Putin laments the strategic impact its collapse has had on Russia:

“It was a disintegration of historical Russia under the name of the Soviet Union…We turned into a completely different country. And what had been build up over 1,000 years was largely lost”

Vladimir Putin – 2021

” First and foremost it is worth acknowledging that the demise of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century,…As for the Russian people, it became a genuine tragedy. Tens of millions of our fellow citizens and countrymen found themselves beyond the fringes of Russian territory.”

Vladimir Putin – 2005

It should be noted that the fact of these fears does not they are rational fears. NATO since 1992 has no conceivable reason for invade Russia. However, when considering the security dilemma, it is perception that is as important as reality.

What is the background to Ukraine-Russian relations since 1992?

Ukraine was part of the USSR from 1922 but became an independent state in 1992 with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Ukraine’s relations with Russia remained relatively strong after independence. For example, Ukraine worked proactively to return Soviet nuclear missiles to Russia. In addition, it agreed to divide the Black Sea Fleet and allow Russian use of Crimean naval bases until 2014. They also signed a ‘Treaty of Friendship’ in 1997 in which both states agreed to respect the territorial integrity of the other.

Victor Yanukovych was removed in 2014.

However, at the start of the 21st century, Ukraine began to look more westwards – towards the EU and NATO, and Ukraine was openly critical of Russian policies. For example, during the Russo-Georgian War in 2008 Ukraine was very open in its support for Georgia. In addition, in 2008 Ukraine formally began a bid to join NATO, something that had the support of the US. Relations between Ukraine and the EU grew which caused further tension with Russia. Relations turned again upon the election to the Ukrainian presidency of the Pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovych. However, his impeachment in 2014 on allegations of corruption was not seen as a democratic exercise, but as a western-led political coup.

Putin annexed Crimea in 2014.

Following the removal of Yanukovych there were pro-Russian demonstrations in the ethnically Russian regions of Ukraine. Paramilitary groups, supported by Russia, began activity in those areas. In Crimea, Russia used the political crisis to send in troops. In March, Russia declared in March (following an unmonitored and widely lambasted referendum) that Crimea was part of Russian sovereign territory. Ukraine thus became embroiled in a continuous war against Russian backed paramilitaries in Eastern Ukraine.

Tensions between Russia and the West grew as a result of Russia’s actions. It was removed from the G8, which subsequently became the G7, and the Russian action was internationally condemned. However, despite significant sanctions, they were nowhere near as strong as those in 2022. Russia possessed too much hard power in the form of its energy supply to Europe for western states to take severe action. With hindsight, this may have been a significant mistake and may have felt to Putin like appeasement, emboldening him during the 2021/22 crisis.

The Minsk Accords did not have the desired impact.

The west did attempt to broker deals between Ukraine and Russia. The Minsk Accords aimed to see a diplomatic solution to disputes between the two sides:

Minsk I – This treaty signed was in September 2014 and agreed to a ceasefire in Eastern Ukraine and Russia agreed to withdraw any paramilitary forces from Ukraine. It also agreed to international monitoring of the Ukrainian-Russian Border and the devolution of powers to Donestk and Luhansnk. However, the agreement did not last and both sides accused the other of breaking it. The agreement had little practical effect.

Minsk II – This treaty signed in February 2015 and pushed forward by Germany and France. It again called for a ceasefire and attempted to create a buffer zone between the two sides. As agreed, devolution and elections were held in Luhansk and Donestk. However, despite the agreement, hostilities continued.

An effective state of war therefore continued in Ukraine.

In 2019 the Constitution of Ukraine was amended to explicitly state that it was on a course to join the EU and NATO. In July, Volodomyr Zelenskyy was elected President and relations worsened further. Whilst the political dialogue became more tense, military action grew. Towards the end of 2021 Russia began a significant build-up of military assets on the border with Ukraine and began conducting large-scale military exercises with its ally Belarus. In February 2022, Ukraine believed it had intelligence that Russia would launch a full-scale invasion of Ukraine and on the 24th February 2022 Russia did so.

What is the realist concept of the Security Dilemma?

The Arms Race before 1914 is an example of the security dilemma.

The Security Dilemma is a realist concept in international relations. It says that when one state takes measure to increase its security, it forces its neighbours and adversaries to do the same. Fundamentally, this links to the realist conception of human nature. Realists believe that the basic nature of global politics is anarchical – there is a lack of order. States therefore need to assert their own power in order to guarantee their on security. The reason that other states have to react to the military build-up of another state is they cannot know whether the intentions of its neighbour are offensive or defensive in nature. The dilemma inextricably leads to further tension which may, in time, end up escalating into conflict. Importantly in the context of Ukraine, when considering the Security Dilemma, the perception is what is important rather than the reality of any strategic situation.

Why might the Russia-Ukraine War be an example of the Security Dilemma?

Russia says that it does not see the war with Ukraine simply as a war between two states, Instead, they present it as part of a wider geo-political struggle between Russia and NATO in which Ukraine’s position is key.

Whilst Putin’s actions have been illegal and this is beyond doubt, Ukraine’s neutrality (at the least) towards NATO is absolutely central to this version of Russian strategic thinking. Indeed, this is part of a wider concern about NATO encirclement that Russia has been contending with since 2008.

NATO has a rapid response force of 4,000

Since Ukraine announced its intention to join NATO, Russia has been increasingly belligerent. In 2008, it went to war in Georgia (another NATO contender) and recognised two Georgian regions as independent states. In 2014, with the annexation of Crimea, NATO was truly reawakened to its threat. For the first time since 1992 it was undoubtedly the case that its main concern was the same as its founding principle – the threat of Russia. It thus began expanding its capabilities in Eastern Europe, including creating a Rapid Response Force of 40,000 troops in the Baltic States. Meanwhile, Russia began military flights into NATO airspace and tested missiles that were prohibited under the 1987 INF Treaty. In summary, both sides were increasing their military capabilities because of the fear and fact that the other was doing the same.

Russian ships have entered the English Channel as tensions have risen.

This process of belligerence and counter-belligerence continued largely unabated. However, because of the growing threat, the discussions over Ukraine joining NATO appeared to become even more substantial – again increasing tension in the ever increasing rabbit hole of suspicion. Between March and June 2021 NATO held its largest exercises since the end of the Cold War. These took place primarily in the ex-Warsaw Pact states. This heightened tension further and Russia suspended its communication links with NATO. In November 2021 Putin called any NATO presence in Ukraine a red-line’ and sought assurances Ukraine would not be invited to in NATO. However, the response was not what he wanted.

Thus whilst Putin’s justification for his ‘special military operation’ was to protect ethnic Russians, the real reason may have been the strategic imperative he saw in subduing the threat of Ukraine joining NATO once and for all.

Therefore, events in Ukraine may serve as a case study for the security dilemma. The tension and suspicion between NATO and Russia has increased since 2008, with both sides driven by suspicion of the other and in an attempt to guarantee their own security.

Why might the Security Dilemma be dismissed as a reason for the invasion?

Putin has never accepted the sovereignty of Ukraine.

The notion of the security dilemma suggests that the rise in tension was inevitable and the escalation into war was simply a consequence of that rise in tension. However, there are alternative explanations that likely hold more weight. Many Russian nationalists have never recognised the sovereignty of Ukraine and believe it is part of a greater Russian homeland. Commentators may point to the previous military expeditions that Putin has embarked on indicating a similar theme – an attempt to recover the lands previous under Russian dominance: the Chechen War (1999-200) and the war with Georgia (2008) being two examples. However, Ukraine has a special place in the hearts of those Russian thinkers who favour a revanchist policy. Notably, since Putin became President stances on NATO have hardened. Indeed, in the early 1990s Russian President Boris Yeltsin has indicated that he was keen to join NATO. There a number of reasons why Ukraine has a primacy in terms of strategic importance. Firstly, there is the emotional importance of Ukraine in the psyche of nationalist Russians (a camp Putin undoubtedly falls into). Russian nationalists do not accept Ukraine as a sovereign state but instead see it as a natural part of a greater Russian state. The ties go back to the ninth century when Kyiv, not Moscow, was the capital of the state of Rus. At the outbreak of the invasion, around 17% of the 44 million people in Ukraine were ethnic Russians. Secondly, Ukraine was also an important economic part of the USSR and would become an important economic asset to Russia if conquered. Ukraine is the world’s fifth largest exporter of grain and the largest exporter of sunflower oil. Ukraine also has significant potential growth in the gas and oil industries, with the Black Sea currently underdeveloped. In addition, Ukraine has a wealth of minerals that can be mined, including Lithium, an essential resource in modern technologies. A national address by Putin on February 21st, three days before the invasion focused heavily on the theme of cultural fraternity, rather than the threat of NATO:

“I would like to emphasise again that Ukraine is not just a neighbouring country for us. It is an inalienable part of our own history, culture and spiritual space. These are our comrades, those dearest to us – not only colleagues, friends and people who once served together, but also relatives, people bound by blood, by family ties.

Since time immemorial, the people living in the south-west of what has historically been Russian land have called themselves Russians and Orthodox Christians. This was the case before the 17th century, when a portion of this territory re-joined the Russian state, and after… So, I will start with the fact that modern Ukraine was entirely created by Russia or, to be more precise, by Bolshevik, Communist Russia. This process started practically right after the 1917 revolution, and Lenin and his associates did it in a way that was extremely harsh on Russia – by separating, severing what is historically Russian land. Nobody asked the millions of people living there what they thought.”

This indicates that the subjugation of Ukraine for cultural and economic reasons, rather than a threat from NATO, was a significant factor. Thirdly, is the democratic issue. Russia is an illiberal democracy in which power is held by a ruling cartel. Elections are not free and there is significant political corruption. Ukraine is on a journey to become a more liberal democracy, a process that has to happen in order to achieve their stated aim of joining the EU. This is a risk to Russian nationalists who fear internal pressure for reform in Russia. There is therefore much to suggest that the security dilemma is a cover for, not a cause of, the Russian invasion.

What is the view of prominent realist thinkers on the situation in Ukraine?

Some realists strongly believe that the situation in Ukraine can be attributed to the Security Dilemma. One such figure is Stephen Walt. Walt argues that NATO expansion, whilst adding a feeling of security to the states that have joined, undoubtedly made Russia feel more insecure. He notes that whilst NATO is a defensive alliance, this does not preclude the interpretation by Russia that its expansion is not an aggressive act that undermines Russian security. Walt argues that the war currently waging in Ukraine is a result of a miscalculation by Russian President Vladimir Putin and a failure of the US to engage in flexible diplomacy.

Mearsheimer is a Professor at the University of Chicago.

The controversial John Mearsheimer goes even further. In 2015 gave a lecture in which he said that NATO has to take a significant proportion of the blame for Russian actions. The full video can be watched here.

By the time of the full invasion in 2022, his central contention had not changed.

In summary, he highlighted a number of reasons why NATO shouldered most of the culpability. He says that the US pushed forward polices in Ukraine which the Russian Government see as an existential threat.

Mearsheimer believes that Biden and Obama unnecessarily exasperated tensions.

In particular, Mearsheimer notes what he calls the US “obsession” with bringing Ukraine into NATO and moving NATO to the Russian border. He says the Biden administration was unwilling to remove that threat through diplomatic means.

He notes that the western narrative that Putin has an imperialist agenda is politically helpful in the West, but is widely inaccurate and has no impact on his decision to invade Ukraine. Instead, Putin’s focus was wholly on preventing it becoming a NATO state.

He notes that the western narrative that Putin has an imperialist agenda are politically helpful in the West, but is widely inaccurate and has no impact on his decision to invade Ukraine. Instead, his focus was wholly on preventing it becoming a NATO state.

Mearhseimer argues that there has been a long-held ambition to create a ‘bulwark’ against Russia in the form of Ukraine to be done by three things: allowing it to join NATO, growing Ukraine as a western liberal democracy and incorporating Ukraine into NATO. He says that the US knew from various sources that this was a red-line for all Russian politicians, not just Putin. However, he says despite knowing this the US pursued it anyway. He argues this is the second time, following the Georgian War in 2008, in which the US has forced a strategic decision for war on Russia.

He also suggests that the removal of Pro-Russian Leader, Yanukovych, in 2014 was supported by the US and this forced the Russian annexation of Crimea. He says that rather than recognising the risks at this point the US ‘doubled-down’ on its strategy that made Ukraine a de facto member of NATO – including providing hi-tech weaponry to Ukraine.

In summary, Mearsheimer argues that Putin was left with no strategic choice but to order military action in Ukraine precisely because of the strategic decisions NATO had taken. Without referencing it directly, Mearsheimer is undoubtedly expounding the concept of the security dilemma.

What is the view of prominent liberal thinkers on the situation in Ukraine?

Nye is famous for his work on Soft Power

Mearsheimer’s view are undoubtedly controversial. He has been criticised for being extremely monocausal in his analysis of the Ukraine situation. Joseph Nye argues that the war in Ukraine is aggression on Putin’s part. He argues that he had always considered Ukraine a ‘phoney state’ and had a desire to cement his personal legacy by going further than he had done in 2014. Nye argues that NATO enlargement, whilst a factor, was a “lesser intermediate cause”, and one of many causes. Unlike Realists, Nye as a liberal does not see war as a natural state and believes the Ukraine War, despite the growing tension, was not inevitable – instead, it was decisions taken unilaterally by Putin that caused it. Similarly, Francis Fukuyama does not place any emphasis on the security dilemma as a cause of the war. He says that Russia’s ‘unprovoked aggression’ has now led to Russia under Putin being seen “not as a state with legitimate grievances about NATO expansion but as a resentful, revanchist country intent on reversing the entire post-1991 European order”. Fukuyama argues that the war in Ukraine is reinstalling the belief in the liberal world order and the importance of international cooperation.

The UNGA made a clear statement against Russian aggression.

Liberals also highlight that Ukraine’s decision to seek to join NATO and the EU was the decision of a free and sovereign nation deciding its own future path and something that the anti-Yanukovych demonstrations in 2014 illustrated. They would also point that whilst NATO has increased spending and deployments since 2014, these have been a proportionate response to a growing threat and to the calls from its Eastern members. They would also highlight that the intervention that NATO made in Ukraine (as non-NATO member) was proportionate and inline with international opinion (in March 2014 UNGA Resolution refused to recognise Crimea as Russian by 100-11).

The Salisbury Poisonings showed Russian willingness to act outside the international rule of law.

Instead, they argue that aggressive Russian actions have exponentially increased tension, with events like the Salisbury poisonings showing Russian willingness to act outside the established international order. In the liberal view Russia has made a choice to escalate, unlike the strategic necessity that realist like Mearsheimer would point to.

Article Summary

The security dilemma is the notion that military and strategic decisions taken by one state enforce similar decisions by other states. However, in turn, this creates suspicion that itself forces more military expenditure. This is a central concept of realism and is one of the things most likely to escalate political disputes into warfare. In Ukraine, a process of increasing tensions since 2008 may be seen as an example of the security dilemma in action as both NATO and Russia has taken actions to create increasing tension over the issue of Ukraine. However, there are alternative explanations that must be considered alongside this. Liberal disagree, arguing that the decision to invade was taken with aggressive, not defensive intentions, and that this decision was entirely avoidable through diplomacy.

Key Terms

NATO – The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. An organisation set up in 1949 to provide collective self-defence for its member against Soviet aggression.

Article 5 – The article of the NATO treaty, which if agreed, allows collective military action to be taken against an aggressor. It has only been agreed once, in 2001 following 9/11.

Warsaw Pact – The Eastern equivalent of NATO which was formed in 1955.

Crimea – A strategically important region of Ukraine which was illegally annexed by Russia in 2014.

Minsk Accords – Two attempts in 2014 and 2015 to attempt to deal with the crisis in Ukraine.

Realist – Alongside liberals, one of the key schools in international relations. Realists believe in the primacy of the state in global politics.

Security Dilemma – A situation in global affairs in which suspicion of the strategic and military actions of another state leads to a reaction in kind which serves to increase overall tension.

USSR – The Union of Soviet Socialist Republic – the state that was the political predecessor of modern Russia but encapsulated a number of other states, including Ukraine

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