Russia, Ukraine and the ‘surrealism of realism’


Before the war in Ukraine, respected Russia experts have long claimed that Russia had already become a “post-imperial” state and stressed that they saw no grounds for adversarial relations between the West and Russia. How wrong they were, notes analyst Lilia Shevtsova.*

We should listen to the Ukrainian-American historian and writer Alexander J. Motyl, who describes a phenomenon that he calls the “surrealism of realism,” she writes for The American Interest:

One of the biggest flaws of adherents of this approach, according to Motyl, is the “ignorance about Ukraine” which is “wide and deep, affecting virtually every aspect of American—and more generally Western—intellectual life….” The Russo-Ukrainian war “confronted realists with an explanatory and policy task for which they were wholly unprepared. Few could read Russian; my guess is that none know Ukrainian,” says Motyl. As a demonstration of the experts’ failures, he quotes Henry Kissinger and Stephen Cohen, but the list of embarrassing comments on Ukraine would certainly be a long one. I agree with Motyl that ignorance and lack of knowledge (and lack of readiness to learn and understand!) offers at least a partial explanation for the fact that the pragmatists as a rule swallow the official Russian line. The key problem is that their analytical exercises still influence both Western and Kremlin policies. In the first case, it provokes desire the follow the familiar path of acquiescence; in the second, it disorients Moscow as to the nature of the West.


*Shevtsova, a non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, delivered the National Endowment for Democracy’s 2014 Lipset Lecture on Russia’s Political System: The Drama of Decay.

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