No International Relations Theory Justifies Calls for an Early Peace in the Russo-Ukrainian War
None of the major International Relations schools of thought can logically justify an end to the Russo-Ukrainian War that includes even a partial Russian occupation, writes Veronica Anghel.
The Russo-Ukrainian War presents NATO and the Global West with a new set of challenges that impact its goals in the realm of human security as stated in the new Strategic Concept. To achieve these goals, it benefits NATO to respond in such a way that it maintains an equilibrium among these targets. That equilibrium requires both a general call for peace and safeguarding of all human lives as well as responding to an attacked sovereign democracy’s call for support and defending directly threatened Eastern European allies. This puts NATO in a dilemma. Under which logic can Ukraine’s decision to continue fighting or NATO’s decision to support Ukraine’s war effort be considered detrimental to the economic, political or security interests of the Global West? In other words, what worldview can justify Western-led calls for peace before a complete withdrawal of Russian forces? This article applies the most important International Relations (IR) analytical filters to analyze whether the decision to negotiate for an unjust peace is defensible according to the internal logic of these theories. It concludes that none of the major IR schools of thought can justify Western support for an end to the Russo-Ukrainian War that includes even a partial Russian occupation. This clarification is important as calls for an expedited peace are growing in number with unclear effects on Ukraine’s struggle for freedom and global security more broadly.
Over a year and a half since Russia attacked Ukraine on February 24, 2022, there is no indication that the Ukrainians have any intention to negotiate, compromise or adapt to the demands of the invading force. The Ukrainian armed forces keep fighting for the country’s national sovereignty and territorial integrity with resolve. They also benefit from the large support of society and from the backing of a largely united political elite. According to recent polls, 95 % of Ukrainians who still live in Ukraine see their country’s future as rather promising. Meanwhile, 82 % believe that Ukraine will win the war, and 74 % define that victory as Ukraine maintaining all territories from within its internationally recognized borders, as defined in 1991 (International Republican Institute Polls).
At this point in time, it should be apparent to all observers and decision makers that the Ukrainians are geared to win the war. They will do what they see fit, for as long as they want to and can, and to the best of their military and political abilities to deliver a victory that includes territorial integration. This also implies a determined refusal of any negotiations; Ukrainians do not want to build their opponent a golden bridge to retreat across. In his 10 point peace plan, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy sees Ukrainian territorial integrity as non-negotiable.
At the same time, Russia is relentless in its determination to terrorize Ukraine and destabilize the country. So far, President Vladimir Putin has made no indication of wanting to suspend his imperialist war agenda that sees the total erasure of Ukraine as an independent country. He is not giving up on military action to achieve that goal. Quite the contrary. He has pursued an arms purchase deal with North Korea, strengthened Russia’s military relationship with China, and forged a “full-scale defense partnership” with Iran.
In this context, questions arise about what NATO and the broader Global West should do. To be clear, it is evident that neither the Global West nor the Global East can dictate Ukraine's course of action. That imperialist Western perspective, mostly harbored by the realists, has repeatedly been proven wrong for not considering the agency of those they labeled as small countries. However, what the Western nations can influence is the environment surrounding Ukraine, which can either be supportive or hostile in relation to the goals of the invaded country. Those Western decisions will be influenced by how they perceive their own interests in the resolution of the war. In this matter, the worldviews of decision-makers and their advisers influence what they consider to be in the liberal West’s best interest.
Here, I apply the most important International Relations analytical filters to question which of them might be able to justify a hurried peace: realism, liberal institutionalism, constructivism, Marxism, and feminism. I conclude that none of the major IR schools of thought can justify an end to the Russo-Ukrainian War that includes even a partial Russian occupation.
Peace, Just and Unjust
The initial phase of this analysis involves identifying the goals that Ukraine and the Global West have set for themselves in response to Russia's full-scale invasion.
Ukraine's determination to see a total withdrawal of Russian forces from its territory and secure a just peace was sanctioned in a United Nations General Assembly resolution by all UN member countries except for Russia, Belarus, North Korea, Eritrea, Mali, Nicaragua and Syria. China, India and South Africa were among the 32 countries that abstained from voting on the resolution. That text supports the Ukrainians’ view of how victory looks. The resolution
"3. Calls upon Member States and international organizations to redouble support for diplomatic efforts to achieve a comprehensive, just and lasting peace in Ukraine, consistent with the Charter;
4. Reaffirms its commitment to the sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity of Ukraine within its internationally recognized borders, extending to its territorial waters;
5. Reiterates its demand that the Russian Federation immediately, completely and unconditionally withdraw all of its military forces from the territory of Ukraine within its internationally recognized borders, and calls for a cessation of hostilities;" (UNGA, 2023)
The United Nations General Assembly resolution provides a clear vision of what the conclusion of the war should resemble for both Ukraine and the Global West. However, right from the start of the invasion, there have been public calls for Ukraine to consider a negotiated end to the conflict rather than solely pursuing a defensive war and a just peace. For instance, French President Emmanuel Macron's remarks about avoiding the humiliation of Russia to prepare for future diplomatic negotiations emerged several months after the invasion began.
The demands for an “exit ramp,” an “off-ramp,” or a “golden bridge” essentially suggest that external parties are encouraging Ukraine to explore negotiation options that may deviate from the principles of a “just peace.” This perspective implies a shift from the question of “how to make President Putin retreat” to “how to facilitate President Zelenskyy's participation in negotiations.” Various world leaders, including Pope Francis, Chinese President Xi Jinping, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and European figures like Hungary's Viktor Orban and Slovakia's Robert Fico, have expressed support for the desirability of diplomatic talks aimed at an immediate armistice, compared to the continuation of the war, in which Ukraine presently has the military momentum.
Scholars and public intellectuals are also discussing the need for negotiations to happen sooner rather than later. As they engage in these conversations, we can assume that their view of the war is influenced by their theoretical persuasions. Charlie Kupchan, John Mearsheimer, Thomas Graham, Rajan Menon, Michael O’Hanlon, Anatol Lieven, Stephen Walt and others make the realist case for a Ukraine peace deal that wouldn’t necessarily meet Ukraine’s or the Global West’s stated goal of a “just peace.” They usually push back against the views of liberal institutionalists who posit that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a fundamental violation of international law and that it eliminated the moral and practical scope for a diplomatic compromise. Among them, Joseph Nye warned early on that “the promise of a short war is perilously seductive.” Other international liberals, Anne Applebaum and Nataliya Gumenyuk among them, continue to make the case for the total liberation of Ukraine, as do Michael McFaul and Ivo Daalder. Arguably, John G. Ikenberry could perhaps bridge a gap between liberals and constructivists thinkers as the latter would see a difference in the belief system, identity, norms and values between the West and the world that Russia envisages.
The left is more divided. Jurgen Habermas advises for more caution in the formulation of the goal that Ukraine “must not lose” this war. Noam Chomsky warns against a return to Cold War fears of total destruction over too much support given to Ukraine. On the other hand, Slavoj Zizek argues that pacifism is the wrong response in this war. Feminists call for greater involvement of women’s voices in NATO’s planning as well as more solidarity with the oppressed and attacked. This is not necessarily a call to anti-militarism at this juncture of the war.
This article seeks to consider the reasons why different theoretical perspectives or sets of beliefs about geopolitics lead to different suggestions for conflict resolution in Ukraine. In making this inquiry, I take into account the characteristics of the conflict on the ground towards the end of 2023, a year and a half into the war. This point is important as the way Ukraine’s own decisions evolve through the war can change this perspective.
How do International Relations scholars view war?
Different schools of thought within International Relations theory harbor different views on the relation between war and peace. In line with their assumptions, each one recommends different actions to be taken by states, citizens, and/or organizations to preserve or achieve peace. At times, war is theorized as a necessary occasional step to achieve longer periods of peace and stability (realism and its many subcategories). Others regard war as an avoidable disruption from a continuous pursuit of a peaceful international status quo (liberals, constructivists). Increasingly, scholars do not make such stark differences between being-at-war and being-at-peace, and find utility in going beyond these categories to frame human security as a universal goal of any human action (critical security studies, leftist/Marxist thought, some feminist IR theories). In this latter theoretical universe, the main challenge is to nevertheless find an internally consistent solution for dealing with ongoing warfare.
NATO is currently met with the dilemma of dealing with a traditional war at its border, while becoming increasingly invested in adopting human security concerns and feminist views of its goals. The Russo-Ukrainian War presents NATO with a new set of challenges that impact its goals in the realm of human security and its “Women, Peace and Security” agenda as stated in the new Strategic Concept adopted in June 2022. On the one hand, it benefits NATO’s call for peace and safeguarding human lives. On the other hand, NATO needs to respond to an attacked sovereign democracy’s call for help and commit to the security of its threatened Eastern European members.
Under what conditions can or should Ukraine be influenced to compromise on its own national goals for the sake of common human security?
Realists see war as a natural and inevitable part of International Relations due to the competition for power and resources among states. Waging war is justified to ensure your state’s survival. Peace, on the other hand, can only be achieved through a balance of power among states. That balance of power might require the triggering of military action. The implication here is that in this theoretical universe, Ukraine has to wage war against Russia because its survival was challenged by the neighboring state. For Ukraine, it would not be in its interest to give up on its own survival. Russia has repeatedly contested Ukraine’s right to sovereignty. In realist terms, Ukraine has every incentive to keep fighting.
NATO also has every interest to keep supporting Ukraine. NATO’s Eastern flank has been directly threatened by Russia, while Russia portrays NATO as its main existential threat. Resuming a balance of power in the global order under conditions imposed by Russia can only mean Ukraine giving up on its survival, while the West gives up on its long-term security. A Russian occupation of Ukraine represents the perfect opposite of NATO’s security interests. Moreover, a failure to support Ukraine in a confrontation with Russia would only weaken NATO’s position in relation to China.
According to NATO’s New Strategic Concept of June 2022, human security features high on its agenda. The war Russia has started against a sovereign nation lowers human safety globally. A fragile peace that temporarily ends the war does not guarantee a change of strategy for Russia. In that case, it can only be internally consistent for a realist that has NATO’s interests at heart to witness Russia’s defeat in Ukraine, according to the description in the UN resolution.
Liberalism suggests that war is not an inevitable outcome, and states have the option to cooperate and establish international institutions to promote peace. In such a scenario, it becomes rational to seek the conditions necessary for a fair and enduring peace. Lowering the risk of conflict involves strengthening democratic institutions, fostering economic interdependence, and promoting free trade. The underlying idea is that, within this theoretical framework, Ukraine and Russia are not compelled to resort to war; instead, they could opt for deep economic interdependence, engage in free trade, and commit to the framework of international institutions. This theory also contends that investing in the democratization process reduces the likelihood of armed conflict.
However, this diplomatic outcome is not feasible when dealing with a belligerent nation like Russia. Despite their prior extensive economic cooperation, Ukraine and Russia had already fallen out. Starting with the Orange Revolution of 2003–2004, continuing through the Maidan Uprising (2013) and into the Revolution of Dignity (2014), which led to the overthrow of the Russian-influenced government, the Ukrainian people expressed their desire for a democratic, European future, divorced from their authoritarian past. While Ukraine was undergoing democratization efforts, Russia was not; in fact, its regime worsened.Putin's attack on February 24, 2022, further deteriorated the situation.
In principle, liberal internationalists should advocate for a ceasefire under the jurisdiction of international authorities. The challenge arises from the fact that Russia and Ukraine do not recognize the authority of the same international institutions. Ukraine seeks a return to its internationally recognized borders, which Russia refuses to acknowledge. There are no indications of this situation changing under President Putin's control. Ukraine no longer desires strong economic ties with Russia, and Russia is not interested in democratization. Consequently, according to liberal internationalists, every possible effort should be made to halt the war. However, the current circumstances on the ground suggest that rushing into negotiations at this point would result in Ukraine falling under Russian authoritarianism, which would set a troubling precedent for similar aggressions worldwide. This would diminish the global supply of democracy and undermine the legitimacy of the international liberal order, making it appear less worth defending.
Hence, for a liberal institutionalist, there is no misalignment between the goals of the Western world and Ukraine; safeguarding the international liberal order aligns with ensuring Ukraine's defense and the establishment of a just and lasting peace. Requesting a compromise at this stage of the conflict is not a rational course of action for a liberal.
Constructivists emphasizes the importance of social norms, identity building and ideas in shaping International Relations. Unlike realists and liberals, they would argue that it is not only material factors that determine war and peace, but also the beliefs and identities of states and the individuals inhabiting them. Constructivists believe that by changing the ideas and norms that underlie state behavior, it is possible to reduce the likelihood of war and promote peaceful conflict resolution in the international system. The implication here is that by adhering to greater principals of human security, UN peacekeeping operations, and international justice initiatives, states could find common grounds of identity building and open lines of communication that would remove the conditions for war. Currently, Ukraine and Russia are not compatible in their shared identity and nation-building projects. They would not be able to find a common ground while Russia does not recognize Ukraine as a separate collective identity, but one that needs to be erased. Russian ideologues claim that Ukrainians are part of an Ancient Russian World that precludes them from having a Ukrainian nationalist discourse and separate rhetoric of nationhood.
In this constructivist theoretical universe, it does not follow for Ukraine to give up on its peace- and democracy-oriented nation-building project and become a part of a greater authoritarian Russia. That decision would legitimatize the creation and spread of global norms that do not prioritize peace but instead allow individual countries to use military force at will. Similarly, it is not in the interest of the democracies that form NATO to remain passive to the spread of alternative norms of conduct that point away from building norms that emphasize peacekeeping. As Richard Lebow argues, “(…) if Russia is forced back to its military starting line, and Putin ultimately removed from power because of his abject defeat, NATO enlarged and strengthened, and China more cautious because of all these developments, international norms and institutions will have been strengthened.”
The Marxist school of thought views war as a consequence of the capitalist system that leads to competition for resources and markets. Their argument is that globalization and inequality intensify tensions between rich and poor nations, affecting peace and conflict. Paradoxically, while some of the most prominent Marxists (e.g., Chomsky, Habermas, Ashcar) oppose supporting Ukraine's war efforts, their parent ideology anticipates capitalism's self-destructive tendencies and sees this destructive phase as a catalyst for the revolution. Russia's would-be takeover of Ukraine would worsen inequality on that territory. Moreover, the escalation of the conflict to include the Global West in open combat with Russia would further skew resource distribution towards the military industrial complex, aligning Western societies with the Marxist prediction of inequality accumulation that would undermine capitalism. From this economic standpoint, it would not be logical for Marxists to oppose a phase of destruction that their ideology predicts.
However, Marxists struggle to chart this as a clear path toward eliminating capitalism due to its distant horizon. As a result, those mentioned above stagger outside the original realm of their beliefs, or make their decisions based on other dimensions of Marxist thought, such as human rights.
The school of Marxism that places justice and human rights at the core of this world view is best associated with Ukrainian Marxist intellectuals like Yuliya Yurchenko. According to Yurchenko, ‘”peace at any cost is not just a phoney peace – for Ukrainians it means sanctioning genocide of them in occupied territories, erasure of their collective identity and the diversity of their ‘we-understanding’ by Russia’s annihilation by assimilation. For people of the Russian Federation who oppose Putin it means persecution, torture and even death. The peace demanded is violence.” According to Slavoj Zizek, pacifism is the wrong response in this war: ‘one cannot be a leftist if one does not unequivocally stand behind Ukraine.’
The feminist school of thought is focused on the role of gender in war, conflict, and peace processes. Feminists view the use of military force as a patriarchal and gendered approach to conflict and call for the embracing of alternative approaches to security that promote human security and gender equality. The feminist perspective on the war remarks that women have been marginalized, and are not included in the decision-making or the debate on the war.
Feminists emphasize that the impact of war and conflict is disproportionately felt by women and other historically marginalized groups. While the decision to go to war in Ukraine was made by predominantly male actors, the consequences are disproportionately borne by women and minority communities. If Ukraine were to cease its defensive war, it raises the question: Would Ukrainian women and minorities face less threat to their physical safety and have more opportunities to participate in decision-making under a Russian-controlled regime or in occupied territories?
The answer appears to be no. We have witnessed the extent of physical and psychological harm inflicted by Russian occupiers in Ukraine. Furthermore, there is substantial evidence of Russia's unresolved issues related to domestic violence, entrenched attitudes that perpetuate gender inequality in society, and legal barriers that restrict women's access to certain occupations. Additionally, state-sponsored persecutions against various minority groups in Russian society further underscore an anti-feminist agenda.
While Ukraine's path towards European integration does not guarantee a fully feminist future for the country, the Russian alternative ensures the complete absence of one. Therefore, Ukraine's progress towards European values and aspirations hinges on maintaining control of its government and territory.
A feminist perspective also includes intersectionality as a core value. In this debate, Russian, Western and Global South feminists focused on the issues that the Russo-Ukrainian War would export to the greater world and advocated for peace at any cost to Ukraine’s sovereignty, while Ukrainian and mostly European feminists focused on the need to defend Ukraine against injustice at any cost. A feminist argument is intersectional and decolonized; as a result, according to this world view, the voices of Ukrainian women should take priority in the matter.
Considering the current conditions in Ukraine and global geopolitics, none of the major International Relations schools of thought can rationally justify a resolution to the Russo-Ukraine War that includes even a partial Russian occupation. Ukraine's determination to protect its sovereignty, coupled with the interests of NATO and the Global West, supports continued resistance against Russia's aggression. Neither realism, nor liberal internationalism, Marxism, constructivism, or feminism can justify supporting an outcome other than that of a just peace without losing the coherence of their respective paradigm. This clarification is important as calls for an expedited peace are growing in number with unclear effects on Ukraine’s struggle for freedom and global security more broadly.
 These major paradigms have multiple subfields and nuances. This text will only focus on the parent fields of IR theory and their central views on war and peace. Since even the most refined social science theories have their limitations and there are invariably instances that defy even firmly established patterns, good analysts should seek insights from multiple theories and maintain a healthy dose of skepticism regarding the extent of their explanatory power.
 The voting result for UNGA Resolution A/RES/ES-11/6 of March 2, 2023 was 141 vs 7 with 32 abstentions.
This publication represents the views of the author(s) and not the collective position of the Institute for Human Sciences (IWM) or the “Europe’s Futures” project.