Ukraine/Russia: Realist Vs. Idealist
by Elliot Benjamin, Ph.D. May, 2022
In Frank Visser’s most recent essay about Ukraine/Russia , he addressed the controversy between what has been referred to as “realist” and “idealist,” which he described as follows:
“This second line of reasoning is usually called “realist,” and contrasted with more “idealist” forms of reasoning that point to the intentions or mental health of state leaders, their ideologies or the wishes and desires of whole populations. Regardless if we agree with Putin or his ideology, the [realist] argument goes, we have to accept he is Europe’s neighbor, and — like it or not — we have to take his position into account, if not to accommodate to his wishes. By not doing so we might not only irritate an unpredictable and nuclear arms bearing dictator, but threaten world destruction in World War III.”
To put it succinctly, the idealist line of reasoning supports “the military support of Ukraine and the sanctioning of Russia” .
Continuing in my attempt at a Ukraine/Russia balanced perspective , I wonder if the realist and idealist perspectives need to be mutually exclusive. Visser described a point by point rebuttal of acclaimed political philosopher Noam Chomsky’s promotion of the realist perspective, the rebuttal given by several Ukrainian academics . The whole issue is certainly a can of worms, and it is not my intention in this essay to agree or not to agree with either Chomsky or the Ukrainian academics in regard to Putin’s goals in Ukraine, the effects of NATO expansion on Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine, what is true about the neo-nazi element in Ukraine, Russia’s war crimes in Ukraine, the previous criminal and murderous international actions of the West and the United States, etc. . Rather, what I want to focus on in this essay is how real the threat of nuclear war and World War III is,
and if it is possible to resolve the realist and idealist perspectives.
The Nuclear War/World War III Dilemma
Along these lines, Visser gave a hint that he may be somewhat on the fence about the realist and idealist perspectives :
“One can argue that there can be legitimate discussion about the wisdom of sending more and ever-heavier arms to Ukraine so it can continue its fight with the invader.”
In regard to Jeff Meyerhoff’s advocacy of the realist position, Visser stated “I haven’t reached a conclusion about this myself but will definitely take his arguments into account” .
However, Visser certainly made it clear that he has concerns about the realist perspective, and that he especially disagrees with the Putin-favorable realist perspective described in a number of Integral World essays by Joseph Dillard . And in regard to the nuclear war/World War III dilemma, Visser said the following:
“Chomsky (and his comrades) also always argue that the only way to avoid nuclear war is to yield to Russia’s demands. While these may have sounded reasonable at the start of this conflict (a neutral Ukraine, a special status of the Donbas “republics,” and so on), given the stated denazification goals, there is no doubt that the full scare annihilation of Ukraine is the end goal. Also, it would strengthen the conviction of other nuclear powers that playing the nuclear card definitely pays off when they show an interest in neighboring countries.”
I don’t know if it is possible to resolve the realist and idealist perspectives, but let me take a stab at it. Basically what I think is that yes it is a very real danger that if Putin feels like he is backed into a corner then he could decide to unleash “tactical” nuclear bombs in Ukraine and that this could have the consequential effects of a wider nuclear war and ultimately World War III. My fears about this are consistent with my belief that Putin at this point is not acting “rationally,” which is consistent with part of the idealist perspective as described above by Visser. I also agree with Visser and the idealist perspective that Putin’s ultimate goals are the complete subjugation of Ukraine, and that giving into Putin out of nuclear war fears would have the effect of giving more power to countries that are acting as “bullies.” Of course it is Ukraine’s decision to continue to fight against Russian aggression in spite of enormous widespread death and destruction in Ukraine . But in spite of the tremendous courage and skill that the Ukrainians have demonstrated in their military actions against Russia these past 3 months, I don’t think the war would still be going on if it were not for all the military assistance that the United States and the West have given to Ukraine. This had led a number of international spokespeople, inclusive of Emanuel Macron, the President of France, and former United States security advisor Henry Kissinger, to advocate some kind of agreement where Ukraine agrees to give up some of their land to Russia, which is very much consistent with Chomsky and the realist perspective , . However, Macron at the same time conveyed that he was in favor of continuing to supply arms to Ukraine , and here is where perhaps there is at least a possibility of resolution between the realist and idealist perspectives, which would certainly be consistent with the integral perspective.
Ukraine understandably does not want to give up any of their land to Russia or appease Putin in order to stop the war . For Ukraine, they may very well choose to die rather than give up their freedom, and they may even choose to let a nuclear war happen rather than give up their freedom. But this is where I must part company with Ukraine. It is one thing to decide to sacrifice yourself for your freedom, but another thing to decide to sacrifice the survival of the whole planet, which is how I view the event of a nuclear war/World War III. Supplying military arms to Ukraine has certainly weakened Putin, and walking the tightrope of focusing on defensive rather than offensive military arms, and refusing to maintain a no-fly zone, are policies that I am in agreement with. But what I am not in agreement with is the lack of concerted efforts by the United States and much of the West to focus much more on diplomatic peace efforts than they have been doing. This is where I am in agreement with Chomsky and the realist perspective. As horrific as Putin’s actions in Ukraine have been, as I have previously written about , , I think that we need to make a concerted effort to negotiate with Putin to avoid the nuclear war/World War III debacle, and to put pressure on Ukraine to engage in these negotiations as well, to continue to receive military arms from the United States and the West . We have strengthened Ukraine’s military resistance against Russia and I think this would have a significant effect in weakening how much Russia is able to gain through diplomatic peace negotiations. But something has to give here, and this is what Chomsky, Kissinger, and Macron are talking about. There’s no easy answer, but I must agree with the realist perspective that Russia is not going to end the war unless they have something to show for it. And once again, my perspective here is to avoid nuclear war/World War III.
I certainly had to stretch myself when I learned that Chomsky actually praised Donald Trump for being one of the only “statesmen” who was advocating for peace rather than continued and escalated war in Ukraine/Russia . But I must agree with Chomsky that at this point, anyone advocating for a focus on peace and diplomatic negotiations should be taken seriously, and this is in spite of all my extensive writings about the disastrous consequences and ramifications of Donald Trump as President of the United States . Furthermore, I must admit that in contrast to my initial Integral World essays on President Joe Biden , I have growing serious concerns about the consequences of Biden’s rhetoric and international policies. Some of my concerns, such as the way Biden chaotically pulled our troops out of Afghanistan, I have previously described, but more recently I am alarmed by Biden’s warning to China that he would consider military actions in regard to China invading Tawan, which is not the first time Biden has issued such a warning to China . I view this as reckless rhetoric that I am afraid will have the effect of motivating China to become more supportive of Russia than they have thus far been . I can’t think of much worse of a nightmare than Russia and China teaming up in a World War III nuclear holocaust.
In conclusion, I want to clarify that I am not advocating to just give up on Ukraine and negotiate with Putin, giving him whatever he wants to end the war. Rather, I am advocating that we should continue to give military arms to Ukraine to fight Russia in the way that we have been doing, walking the tightrope to not escalate the horrible situation into a far worse one that ends up in nuclear war/World War III. But at the same time, I think that we should be focusing much more on diplomatic peace negotiations than we have been doing, and this is where perhaps a resolution of the realist and idealist perspectives can be undertaken, which is very consistent with the integral perspective.
Notes and References
1) See Frank Visser (2022), Subjugation or Sovereignty? That’s the Question for Ukraine. www.integralworld.net/visser222.html; and see Visser’s references for relevant articles from Dillard, Meyerhoff, and Ivakhiv.
2) See Elliot Benjamin (2022), Russia/Ukraine: My Attempt at at Balanced Perspective. www.integralworld.net/benjamin133.html
3) For my perspectives on a number of Ukraine/Russia issues, see my essay in  and my previous two essays: Ukraine, Russia, and Peace: A Response to Dillard Through the Perspective of Vanden Heuvel. www.integralworld.net/benjamin131.html, and Appreciating The United States in the context of Russia. www.integralworld.net/benjamin132.html
4) See Daniel Twining (2022), What Ukrainians Think About the War with Russia. https://www.wsj.com/articles/what-ukrainians-think-about-the-war-russia-putin-invasion-zelensky-victory-results-approval-rating-11651868038; and The New Voice of Ukraine (2022), Poll Shows Over 80% of Ukrainians Are Not Prepared to Make Territorial Concessions to achieve Peace. https://www.yahoo.com/video/poll-shows-over-80-ukrainians-135900333.html
5) See Chomsky’s perspective as described in the references in , , and , and see The New Voice of Ukraine (2022), Macron Suggested Ukraine Give Up Some of its Sovereignty to Allow Putin to Save Face, Says Zelensky. https://www.yahoo.com/video/macron-suggested-ukraine-sovereignty-allow-154400551.html; and Holly Ellyatt (2022), “Kissinger Still Lives in the 20th Century”: Ukraine Hits Back at Suggestion It Should Cede Land to Russia. https://www.trendyvoice.in/kissinger-still-lives-in-the-20th-century-ukraine-hits-back-at-suggestion-it-should-cede-land-to-russia/
6) Zelensky has steadfastly refused to make any land concessions to Russia to achieve peace. See NDTV (2022), Stop Playing with Russia, End War: Ukraine’s Zelensky to West. https://www.ndtv.com/world-news/russia-ukraine-war-volodymyr-zelensky-stop-playing-with-russia-end-war-ukraines-zelensky-to-west-3013562
7) See Pia Krishnankutty (2022), Under Fire for Praising Trump’s Ukraine Stance, Noam Chomsky Says US Ex-President “Not the Issue.” https://theprint.in/world/under-fire-for-praising-trumps-ukraine-stance-noam-chomsky-says-us-ex-president-not-the-issue/951672/; and Lauren Frias (2022), Trump Said Russia and Ukraine Should “Figure Out” a Solution “Now — Not Later — When Everyone Will be DEAD!” https://www.businessinsider.com/trump-said-russia-and-ukraine-should-figure-out-a-solution-2022-4
8) See a number of my essays about Trump on the Integral World website at www.integralworld.net
For an argument in support of Chomsky’s perspective on Russia and Ukraine, see Daily Beast (2022), Noam Chomsky Is Right, the U.S. Should Work to Negotiate an End to the War in Ukraine.
9) See a number of my essays about Biden on the Integral World website at www.integralworld.net;
For Biden’s statement about defending Taiwan if attacked by China, and the response from China, see Erin Hale (2022), Biden Says US Would Defend Taiwan If Attached by China. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2022/5/23/biden-says-us-would-defend-taiwan-if-attacked-by-china; Kevin Liptak, Donald Judd, and Nectar Gan (2022), Biden Says US Would Respond “Militarily” if China Attacked Taiwan, But White House Insists There’s No Policy Change. https://www.cnn.com/2022/05/23/politics/biden-taiwan-china-japan-intl-hnk/index.html; and Paul D. Shinkman (2021), China Outraged at Biden’s Military Pledge for Taiwan — Despite White House Walkback. https://www.usnews.com/news/world-report/articles/2021-10-22/china-outraged-at-bidens-military-pledge-for-taiwan-despite-white-house-walkback