States, and the interests of states as defined by state establishments, are central to every variety of realism in international affairs. A concentration on state interests allows the leader or analyst to distinguish between what another country’s establishment sees as its secondary and vital interests — in other words, those interests on which it will be willing to compromise, and those on which it will never compromise, and for which in the last resort it is prepared to fight.
Understanding how another state’s establishment sees its country’s vital interests requires intense study, leading to empathy — something that the great realist thinker Hans Morgenthau declared to be a fundamental ethical duty of the statesman. This does not necessarily mean sympathy, either with the interests themselves or with how they are defended. It does, however, mean that a statesman possessing this capacity for empathy will only challenge the vital interests of another state, and thereby risk war, if they are confident of two things: first, that to do so is truly essential, politically and morally; and second, that this challenge has a reasonable probability of achieving its goal.
Realist ethics find their clearest expression in Max Weber’s distinction (in Politics as a Vocation) between an ethic of conviction or sentiment (Gesinnungsethik) and one of responsibility for consequences (Verantwortungsethik). Weber stated that the first might be appropriate to a private individual (like the sincere pacifist), but a public official or elected representative has a duty to consider the wider results of their actions: first and foremost for their own country, but also—as great realists like Morgenthau and Reinhold Niebuhr taught—for international peace and the general interest of humanity.
Realist considerations give us important insights with regard to Russia and Ukraine. Every U.S. official with a deep understanding of Russia (like former ambassadors George F. Kennan, Jack F. Matlock Jr., Thomas
Pickering, and William J. Burns), and every intelligent U.S. realist (like John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt), has understood that, for the Russian establishment, preventing Ukraine from joining a hostile military alliance is a vital interest for which it might be prepared to go to war. Linked to this are two other issues of vital importance to Russia: holding onto the Russian naval base at Sevastopol and maintaining a key role for the Russian language in Ukraine.
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