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Unrealistic Realism on Ukraine

Moral relativism, and its equally dubious corollary of moral equivalence, too often mars contemporary Realists’ conceptions of political realities.

· 12 min read
Unrealistic Realism on Ukraine
Kyiv, Ukraine, June 13 2023. Photo by Jade Koroliuk on Unsplash

General (ret.) Jack Keane recently expressed his worry that, from the start, the Biden administration has quietly favoured “some kind of negotiated deal to stop the war [in Ukraine] as soon as possible.” That, Keane surmises, may be either because certain members of the administration close to the president, like National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, don’t believe Ukraine can win, or because they fear the consequences of Russia’s defeat (which would also explain US foot-dragging in its provision of weapons to the Ukrainians).

If this is the Biden administration’s attitude, it would reflect the growing chorus of foreign-policy experts urging Kyiv to the negotiating table with Moscow as soon as possible. Take Richard Haass and Charles Kupchan (hereafter H-K). Both are or have been professors of international affairs at prestigious American universities; foreign-policy grandees who have held senior positions in government. When they speak, others listen.

In April, H-K co-authored an influential essay for Foreign Affairs titled “The West Needs a New Strategy in Ukraine: A Plan for Getting from the Battlefield to the Negotiating Table,” in which they argue that Ukraine must soon enter into peace negotiations with Russia. What sets their essay apart from earlier and later pieces advancing essentially the same position is its hopeful tone.

H-K hold out the promise of victory for Ukraine, while purporting to show that this outcome is consistent with a hard-headed assessment of the “realities” necessitating a more diplomatic strategy. This strong note of optimism makes H-K’s strategic proposal more persuasive—even to Ukrainians—than basically the same proposal as framed by others. H-K write:

The West needs an approach [to assisting Ukraine] that recognizes these realities without sacrificing its principles. The best path forward is a sequenced two-pronged strategy aimed at first bolstering Ukraine’s military capability and then, when the fighting season winds down late this year, ushering Moscow and Kyiv from the battlefield to the negotiating table.

Yet that rhetorical blend of hopeful and sensible is deceptive. To those who aren’t beguiled by this aspect of their rhetoric, H-K are only marginally less defeatist than others pushing for peace talks, and just as cynical.

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