With Russia, Vernacular Realism Trumps Political Realism
BY ANDREI BABITSKY
As Europe faces the possibility of a big war, the continental political class has divided into two camps. The first is represented by the likes of Emmanuel Macron and Olaf Scholz, people willing to talk to Vladimir Putin and perhaps grant him something in exchange for peace. There was even talk of helping the Kremlin save face.
The fiercest member of the second camp, Poland’s president Andrzej Duda, seems indignant to the point of anger when it comes to appeasing Russia. “Did anyone talk to Adolf Hitler like this during the Second World War?” he asked rhetorically in an interview with the German newspaper Das Bild.
The rift within the EU is clearly visible, and all the more so because Ukrainians themselves bear down on the difference. But both positions have one very important thing in common. They both could be described as realist.
There are some important pillars of the realist tradition in foreign affairs. First, relations between countries are a Hobbesian war of all against all. Each country stands for itself: might makes right. It’s hard to change that. There’s no place for ethical considerations in the world of international relations, and even if you have values, you don’t use them as a negotiating point.
Second, the most important goal of foreign affairs is security, not prosperity or cooperation. Cooperation may be commendable and beneficial, but it is still a luxury, easily sacrificed for the sake of security. Judging from the extent of sanctions imposed on Russia, almost all European politicians, including Macron and Duda, believe that. In fact, after a war begins, realism becomes somewhat more fashionable. After all, international cooperation has already failed.
Third, one of the most important reasons for waging wars is preemption. Realists believe that every country has a sacred right to be afraid of its neighbors, and that this sanctioned paranoia has to be respected. Both Pope Francis and President Duda seem to rely on the principle, though they summon it for different purposes. The former has sought to justify the invasion (the war was “somehow either provoked or not prevented”), whereas the latter tries to inspire the resistance (“Maybe the German economy doesn't believe that the Russian army could celebrate a big victory in Berlin and occupy a part of Germany again. We in Poland know it’s possible.”)
Finally, realists usually are of the opinion that the interests of a country are at least partly objective and knowable from outside the country, that they are relatively constant over time and across the political spectrum, and that the government of a country may change but its foreign policy will keep going along the same or similar lines. Replace Putin with someone else, but historical forces would continue shaping Russian foreign policy along the same lines.
The presidents of France and Poland are not realists in all their dealings; the existence of the EU itself required quite a bit of idealism to come about. But toward Russia they are realists. All the important actors in Europe are realists, yet they propose totally different ways of dealing with the war. Poland stands out in this respect. It is much more eager than other European countries both to accept Ukrainian refugees and to support the Ukrainian army. It is much more alarmed by what might happen should Putin be appeased, and much more willing to support Kyiv in all matters. Poland is also much less divided when it comes to helping its neighbors. Whence the difference?
Enter Vernacular Realism
On the night of August 23, 1939, a young man attended “a particularly gay party,” presided over by the son of the Portuguese minister in Warsaw. The party ended late, and after he returned home he barely had time to close his eyes before a policeman started hammering on the front door. That is how Jan Karski, the Polish resistance hero and the man who told the world about the Holocaust, received his mobilization order. The first chapter of his autobiographical book, Story of a Secret State, is aptly titled “Defeat,” because when he joined his regiment, the war had already been lost, and together with his fellow soldiers he was ordered to retreat eastward. On September 18, they met the Red Army.
The Soviet officers told them to surrender their arms. “The reaction to this speech was utter, paralyzed silence,” remembers Karski. He continues:
The spell was broken by the sound of a single sob from somewhere down front. For a second I thought it was a hallucination. Then it was repeated, a rasping, desperate sobbing that seemed to tear the throat from which it issued. It increased in violence, became racked and choking, then caught itself, changed into shrill, hysterical speech:
“Brothers, this is the fourth partition of Poland. May God have mercy on me.”
The sound of the revolver shot that followed spread dismay and confusion everywhere.… It was a noncommissioned officer who had committed suicide. He had put the bullet through his brain and had died instantly.
When I first read this passage a few years ago, I couldn’t stop thinking about the suicidal officer. Even if he was not particularly young (he was noncommissioned), he probably had spent most of his life in independent Poland. He might have read the books about the three divisions of his country, but what could have made him commit suicide within a few seconds of hearing the gloomy news? Without a second thought? It was as though he saw what was coming better than any intellectual or politician. What he had was not book knowledge, it was vernacular knowledge.
I have come to call it “vernacular realism.” You don’t need to read Thucydides or Hobbes, you don’t need to learn history or study Russian geopolitical interests to know that, given a chance, Russia will invade Poland. Catherine the Great invaded Poland in 1772. Then she did it again, in 1793. And again, in 1795. Nicholas I did not relinquish Poland when he had the chance, after the November Uprising in 1831. Alexander II crushed the 1863 January Uprising. Lenin tried to invade Poland in 1918. Stalin did so in 1939—as the officer in Karski’s account already knew. Russia will do it again, as any person in Poland, Ukraine, or even Russia will gladly avouch. If you were brought up in a Slavic country, you learned it right after you learned how to tell a poisonous mushroom from an edible one. It is vernacular knowledge in the region. Most mushrooms are edible if you boil them properly, and Russia will invade. That’s just the way it is and always has been.
Vernacular knowledge is not limited to the fact that Russia will invade. It also teaches us that the Russian government is so good at lying to the outer world, to its own people, and even to itself that there is no point in talking to it.
Emmanuel Macron spent countless hours trying to understand Putin, to no avail. Judging from his recent trip to Kyiv and his remarks there, he started suspecting that the vernacular realists were right all along. Here’s the paradox: the French president does something virtuous and wise, keeps communication channels open, and uses all diplomatic means to end the war, but the people he is trying to help only become irritated. That’s because of the vernacular knowledge.
To sum up the differences, both species of realism proceed from the assumption that the ambitions of Russia predate the Russian government. But for political realists, the reason for this is some respectable geopolitical interest. For vernacular realists, it’s just a long-standing tradition and a way for Russia to solve internal problems, under whatever pretexts and post hoc justifications it can muster at the time.
Both schools hold that Russian wars are not ethical enterprises, but the neighbors take this premise to its conclusion: in order to win, Putin is willing to do absolutely anything, including lying to partners, breaking treaties, and committing any conceivable crime. Political realists believe that establishing a mutually beneficial relationship can help broker peace. Folk knowledge holds that is not the case, and that achieving prosperity has always lagged behind enforcing territorial grandeur on Russia’s to-do list. Finally, both camps agree that protecting the country’s borders is a preeminent value for any Russian government, but they disagree on what Russia considers to be its borders.
For centuries, the best political minds tried to imagine what Russia would do next, and most of them failed in this task. Churchill and Roosevelt failed, Obama and Merkel failed, and Lloyd George and Clemenceau failed. But any Pole, Ukrainian, Lithuanian, or Georgian could guess Russia’s next step correctly. And they would need to have knowledge neither of “reality” nor of the ideals of the current Kremlin incumbents, as reality is of little relevance and ideals are surprisingly constant over time. But Russia will try to invade, and if need to be, will lie its way into it.
I am not much of a realist myself. I think that ideals play a role in international politics, that progress and peace are achievable by means of cooperation, that in theory, Russia does not have to be a threat to its neighbors, and one day it will cease to be that. But idealism is poorly adapted to times of war, and even less so to the times of such cynical wars. Idealism is lost for words now.
If I must stick to some kind of political realism, let it not be the sophisticated bookish inductions of political realists. Let it rather be the hard-won, neighborly vernacular knowledge of the people who have their skin in that history. And it is great to see that after a couple of months of trying to save Putin’s face, European politicians have come closer to acquiring vernacular knowledge.
The opinions expressed in this article are those solely of the authors and do not reflect the views of the Kennan Institute.
About the Author
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