Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine last year and, for that matter, its first invasion of its neighbor eight years before are impossible to justify. Russian President Vladimir Putin is trying to convince his public that this war is existential, but with little success. Russia’s existence as a strong, sovereign state is not dependent on its control of Ukraine or even parts of the Donbas or Crimea. That’s why, since Putin implemented a partial mobilization last fall, hundreds of thousands of men have fled Russia rather than march to the sound of the guns, and it’s why he still refuses to declare war and order a full mobilization.
And yet a small band of critics has rallied beneath the banner of realism to argue against continued Western support for Ukraine’s effort to defend itself. “Russia may be waging a war of aggression as a matter of law,” Mario Loyola wrote in a recent essay in The Atlantic, “but as a matter of history and strategy it is moving to forestall a grave deterioration in its strategic position, with stakes that are almost as existential for it as they are for Ukraine.” But actual realism must be grounded in the details of the situations it assesses. And in the case of Ukraine, those facts lead to very different conclusions.