Over the last eighteen months, Moscow has made scant progress in Ukraine. Despite Russian forces blunting the much-anticipated Ukrainian counteroffensive – and occupying 20% of the country, Kyiv and its partners generally remain defiant. President Zelenskyy, for example, has not tempered his original conditions for peace; Washington recently approved longer-term European plans for supplying Ukraine with F-16s; and earlier this month, the French foreign minister noted that “Russia should not count on [European] weariness.”
Meanwhile, Moscow has incurred substantial costs. Recent estimates place its human toll at 170,000-180,000 wounded – with another 120,000 killed. Materiel losses exceed 12,000 vehicles, including two-thirds of Russia’s modern tank fleet. Military call-ups, coupled with the wartime exodus, have also created an unprecedented labor shortage – that is hampering war production, and limiting already precarious economic growth under Western sanctions. Battlefield underperformance, against a materially-inferior Ukraine, has adverse reputational consequences too.
Realist international relations theory does not forecast brighter days for Moscow: rather, it offers three expectations, supported by 375-years of European history, that suggest Russian aggression will remain self-defeating.
First, realism expects states to balance against aggressors. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine triggered such a response across Europe. At least twenty–one states have announced defense spending increases, pushing the total regional expenditure back to Cold War levels. Thirty-two states (and the EU itself) have also sought to “bleed Russia white,” by collectively providing Ukraine with $163 billion worth of assistance. Finland and Sweden even abandoned their long-cherished neutrality for the safety of NATO.
Second, realism expects states to balance egoistically. Balancing is expensive: for example, Denmark recently cancelled a public holiday to cover its increased defense outlays. Correspondingly, states are inclined to “pass their balancing buck” where possible. For some states though, typically on account of their proximity to the aggressor (like France during the World Wars), buck-passing is perilous – so they must “catch the buck” instead.
Europe is balancing egoistically – according to data from IFW-Kiel, NATO, and SIPRI. Ukraine, the primary buck-catcher, is actively checking the aggressor. Others proximate to Russia (namely, the Baltics, Germany, Moldova, Romania, the Scandinavians, and the Visegrads) are generally exhibiting buck-catching tendencies, while also still buck-passing to Kyiv. Since the invasion, their combined defense spending has increased by 5.14% (versus 0.40% for non-proximate states), and in 2023, their relative defense spending is estimated to be 37% higher – with an average allocation of 2.27% GDP. Moreover, their relative support for Ukraine is also 5.68 times greater than non-proximate states, with an average contribution of 0.71% GDP. Of the non-proximate states, only three – Bulgaria, the Netherlands, and the UK (who are all in the next concentric circle outward from Russia) – are balancing even two-thirds as hard as the average proximate state.
Third, realism views unbalanced aggressors as the paramount threat: correspondingly, it expects buck-passers to balance when buck-catchers falter. During WWI, for example, Britain initially buck-passed – hoping that its allies would fight the aggressors’ armies to a standstill. In mid-1915 though – when events threatened to undermine the Entente, London promptly balanced. Europe has already demonstrated similar tendencies (on a smaller scale) by providing Ukraine with critically-needed arms, like air defense systems and artillery ammunition. Similarly, when concerns about wavering US support emerged earlier this month, the EU promptly reaffirmed its commitment to Ukraine – with an additional €5bn pledge and a statement noting, “One thing is clear: for us Europeans, the war of Russia against Ukraine is an existential threat and we have to react according to that.”
What does this all mean? First, the near-universal preference for checking Russian aggression indicates that the centuries-old European balance-of-power remains in place. Second, the European states have generally selected egoistic balancing strategies – that aim to provide Ukraine with countervailing defensive support, while also increasing their own capabilities. Expect these escalation-averse strategies to continue while Ukraine remains the primary buck-catcher – because they are more cost-effective than directly checking Moscow. Commensurately, do not expect Europe to approve Ukrainian bids for EU/NATO membership, given the increased risks of escalation and entrapment.
Third, Moscow has little rational incentive to escalate – because it lacks sufficient conventional strength to break the European balance. The invasion has already sapped Russian capabilities (to the point that Moscow is reactivating museum tanks), and invasion costs have skyrocketed to 3%–6% of Russian GDP. Conversely, the three leading European powers – Britain, France, and Germany (who each have larger economies than Russia) – only spend a maximum of 2.55% on their entire defense effort. Europe also has greater capacity to increase its balancing effort: its economic growth is unencumbered by sanctions or labor shortages; and import diversification has mitigated the threat of Russian petro-coercion. Moreover, the balance of international support favors Europe: Washington and its non-European allies have contributed $91.15 billion to Ukraine (or about 55% as much as Europe); whereas Beijing provides Moscow with indirect assistance. Despite the recent Congressional funding impasse, the Biden administration still remains firmly committed to aiding Kyiv: on Monday, for example, it gave Ukraine 1.1 million rounds of ammunition confiscated from Iran.
Fourth, Moscow may irrationally favor escalation to gain an advantage, because leaders often hate losing more than they love winning. Here, Winston Churchill would remind, “Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” European history is clear – the balance-of-power meets aggression with countervailing responses; and aggressors merely determine their costs of relearning that lesson.
 In May 2023, the Economist noted that the cost of the Ukraine war was around 5trn rubbles, or 3% of GDP. However, this August, Reuters noted that Russian defense outlays (largely driven by the war) were 5.59trn rubbles for the first six months of 2023 – twice that of the Economist, hence the 6%.