“I have spent my life talking to people who run countries,” Tucker interjects to his vis-à-vis, who asked why he refrained from challenging Russian President Vladimir Putin during an interview. “Various countries,” he adds, “and I have concluded the following: every leader kills people… Some kill more than others. Leadership requires killing people.”

On February 12, 2024, four days after Tucker Carlson’s interview with Putin, Russian authorities announced the death of imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny, attributing it to a detached blood clot.

All this occurred at the end of the second year of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, an event that starkly divided perceptions between those aligned with the right side of history and those clearly in the wrong. At least, this is how we, Westerners or those inclined towards the West, tend to look at it, en général.

These same perceptions were also reflected in the latest US aid package debates, notably in Biden’s praise for bipartisan efforts to “answer history’s call” and his urging the Senate to approve it quickly, as well as in numerous appeals to the moral obligation to do so by pundits and politicians.

The two positions, “the realist” and “the moralist” stances, have shaped the dynamics of the debates surrounding the Ukrainian question from the outset of the war. Should the West push Ukraine into negotiations? Should Ukraine embrace the courage of the white flag, as recently suggested by Pope Francis? Is the West obligated to support Ukraine until the end? If so, what constitutes “the end”? Perhaps a hesitant peace would be the better option. You can see reflections of the realist and moralist positions in these questions.

From the moralist perspective, the symbolic line is drawn between us, the good, liberal folks—not necessarily liberal democrats, but also those who recognize the significance of international law, the UN charter, and a people’s entitlement to self-determination, enough to feel moral repugnance when these principles are violated—and them, the bad, authoritarian people—not necessarily the direct supporters of tyrants, but also those who find the logic of autocrats, like Putin, understandable, sometimes referred to as Putinverstehers.

For the realist, however, this intellectual and affective watershed never begins with Erdogan, Putin, or Xi themselves, nor with direct apologies of occupations, repressions, or breaches of international law. Usually, it kicks off with well-considered, scholarly analysis, rational and sound, echoing the kind often articulated by John Mearsheimer and his “realist” school. States pursue power, resources, and security. The ones who get more of them can enforce their decisions on others.

Transitioning from academia to the arena of public debates, with its hunger for strong opinions and controversial stances, this ivory tower reasoning devolves into Tucker Carlson’s killer leadership lessons and international politics arguments, suggesting that strength is superior to weakness from Thrasymachus in Plato’s Republic to Machiavelli in the Medici’s Florence. No one aspires to be weak, of course. “The weak get beaten.” That’s a classic realist statement. Putin uttered it back in 2004.

It is understandable why this realist reasoning receives backlash from the liberal public, of a distinctly moral nature. However, the proliferation of statements emphasizing moral obligations, like the one to support Ukraine, as articulated by NATO General Secretary Jens Stoltenberg, doesn’t appear to sway those inclined towards the realist perspective.

Debates in Germany offer a paradigmatic illustration, with Annalena Baerbock, Federal Minister for Foreign Affairs of Germany, emerging as a prominent advocate for the moral stance. Not only did she attribute a lack of “moral compass” to Putin, as though he had ever claimed to have one, but her overall position prompted criticism from prominent German philosopher Jürgen Habermas. In a text titled “War and Indignation,” Habermas, a liberal philosopher of the old guard (Habermas was 92 at the time of publication), began to resemble a true realist, vehemently opposing the “moral blackmail” allegedly mobilized by the “Ukraine coalition.”

These broadly outlined liberal and realist positions, enriched with moral connotations of good and evil, appear to operate within distinct frameworks that are fundamentally incommensurable: they seem to lack a shared foundation.

Thus, the truly critical question at hand would be: if we are unwilling to give up the liberal standpoint, does this entail the abandonment of realism in any form? Is there an incommensurability between realism and moralism at all? Or do we have here one of those ideological effects presenting pretty similar positions as opposing, even antagonistic ones?

One way of formulating the current, seemingly insuperable divide is by saying that realism does not rely on any preexisting principles, while the liberal standpoint is that of pure principles (remember Baerbock’s regulative “compass”), oblivious to the shifting realities on the ground. Things are not as simple as that, however. Realism is a position that erases its own standing as a position, one that endorses veiled principles, including the primacy and ultimacy of brute force. (Yes, the argument is in the brick, if one is hit over the head with it, but what follows from such treatment—the threats it poses, the consequences envisioned via the use of brute force, etc.—by far exceeds the brick itself.) The liberal standpoint, for its part, is deeply involved in political and historical realities, whether affirming the existing international order, where often enough the unequal relations of power expressed in sheer military strength are simply veiled, or taking as a model for emulation certain countries deemed “normal,” as it happened in the pro-Western circles in the in the late-Soviet period and in its immediate post-Soviet aftermath.

What this divide is really symptomatic of is the shabby state of international law and of the organizations, such as the United Nations, meant to ensure it. When effective means of enforcement are absent, when the UN charter is treated as no more than a nice ideal to aspire toward, then there are only two options left, which are precisely those providing the polar opposites of today’s debate on Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine: either one declares oneself an adherent of universal moral principles, lacking any actual validity, or one professes to be a worshiper of brute force, bereft of any normative or juridical underpinnings. Both options are unacceptable; both are “worse.” To paraphrase Kant, the realist law of the strongest is morally blind, while the idealist moral position is effectively toothless. Jurisprudence and politics worthy of the name navigate the space between these extremes. They may not reconcile the two poles once and for all, but at the bare minimum they do provide singular solutions to the impasse.

Ultimately, however, the realist standpoint is self-undermining; it is simply unsustainable over long periods of time. When the law of the strongest prevails, there is no absolute certainty that someone else would not grow in strength enough to subjugate the masters of today. This is true at the individual level (just look at the paranoia of Putin and other dictators, who have torn the fragile fabric of social trust so drastically that they cannot trust anyone not to kill them) and at the level of entire countries. The arms race has its origins in this realization, but it has no inherent end, aside from the fact that the means of destruction, which have been already amassed, are sufficient to destroy the entire planet several times over. Of course, weapons of mass destruction are unevenly distributed among countries, which is what makes the threat of their use meaningful. In the case of Ukraine, the memorandum of giving up nuclear weapons, which it signed after gaining independence from the Soviet Union, exacerbated its power imbalance with Russia. Nonetheless, since a key condition of the memorandum were security guarantees granted to Ukraine by the US, France, Germany, and—yes!—the Russian Federation, then the withdrawal of such guarantees in the country’s full-scale invasion by one of the guarantors should mean the reversion (or the denunciation) of the memorandum in its entirety. Here, Slavoj Žižek is entirely right when he demands that Ukraine be provided with nuclear weapons (instead of those it gave up in the early 1990s) as a powerful deterrent of Russia’s onslaught.

In addition to this, the proponents of the realist position forget, or conveniently obfuscate, the fact that brute force is never sufficient, even on its own terms. Not only does it connote sovereign control over life and death—be it at the scale of individual dissidents and opposition figures, of a country’s population, or of people from an invaded country—but it also implies control over truth. Putin’s repressive state machinery uses a vast prison and penal colony complex, which more and more resembles the old Soviet Gulag, to enforce its version of truth, where the terrestrial, maritime, and air warfare waged against Ukraine is not a war but a “special military operation,” where Russia is not an invader, where the Russian political leadership which has initiated the war is supposedly doing so to put an end to war. While fabricating fake news on an industrial scale at “troll farms,” the official Russian media and the courts censor actual reports from the neighborhoods and buildings their army persistently bombs in Ukraine. But, just as “revolution in one country” is sorely insufficient, as we have learned from Leon Trotsky, so “truth in one country” is quite lame, despite the acclamation of a “special Russian truth” by Putin’s ideologue, Alexander Dugin. That is why, recently, the Russian judicial system has begun issuing sentences against and arrest warrants of foreign journalists and leaders of other countries (including Estonia), who are not, in any way, under the Russian jurisdiction. At stake is a battle over “truth as such,” shamelessly waged under the cover of a purely realist stance of the greatest force.

Absurd as it sounds, the latter development (i.e., Russian authorities considering anyone in the world as falling under their own legal jurisdiction) is a corollary to the utterly deranged statements of the Russian propaganda (backed up by Putin himself) to the effect that the borders of the Russian state do not come to an end anywhere. It is worth highlighting that a perfectly consistent realist position leads to insanity.

In the minimal sense, the Russians themselves no longer know what the borders of their state are, for various reasons: because the illegally annexed parts of Ukrainian regions do not correspond to the entirety of these regions now inscribed in the Russian constitution; because the constitution, where these borders are detailed, as well as the international law, which grants recognition to the state within certain borders, no longer mean anything and are treated as mere formalities; because the situation on the front remains fluid, with previously occupied territories liberated by Ukrainian armed forces, and vice versa… In the maximal sense of the insanity of a borderless state, its existence is formally the same as its non-existence, despite all the affirmations of the indispensability of Russia to the world made by Putin and his cronies. The professed allegiance of Putin’s regime to a “multipolar world” is practically betrayed by the vision of a borderless state, nourished by an inebriation with brute force vis-à-vis Ukraine, whatever remains of the Russian opposition, and the country’s docile populace. This contradiction is due to the uneven quanta of forces between whatever falls within the area of Russia’s imperial ambition and the areas outside it. It reveals the essentially relative nature of the realist position, incapable of serving as a guide for any serious conduct of politics.

Nor is a purely moral perspective a sound candidate for the source of political motivations. Eventually, “good” and “evil” are, as Nietzsche already observed in the nineteenth century, theological terms that still bear the stamp of their origin.

But the issue here is not solely the underlying theological logic without the supporting rhetorical and argumentative framework. Realists do have some valid points. For morality to serve as a sound foundation for political negotiations and collective decision-making, it needs to voice its arguments in a broader context, encompassing the social environment, personal beliefs, and a wide array of cultural truisms that are generally unchallenged by the majority of the populace. This brings us back to the methods of establishing this broader context, on the international scene, circling back to… well, power politics.

We must also consider another point against adopting a purely moral stance in politics, which is encapsulated in the expression often attributed to Arthur Koestler: “If power corrupts, the reverse is also true; persecution corrupts the victims, though perhaps in subtler and more tragic ways.” As a result, it is crucial to address the power derived from a morally superior position, particularly that of the victim, and recognize its potential for abuse, as is the case with any form of power. Critics may not be entirely correct in characterizing Ukraine’s position as “moral blackmail,” but the concern about the increasing utilization of “moral blackmail” in international politics is indeed justified.

Seeing the problems with both realist and moralistic positions, it’s not surprising that when taken to their extremes, they often yield similar judgments. A moralist may contend that Ukraine must be supported no matter what because the situation represents an existential struggle, with one side clearly the victim. Conversely, a realist might argue that the West must take decisive action to halt the war immediately and adequately satisfy Russian claims, driven by the same understanding of the situation as an existential struggle.

The conclusions drawn from these two opposing positions are not just similar because each side aims to rhetorically fortify itself as the sole realist and morally just stance to be upheld no matter what. They also converge due to their shared ideological framework, akin to musical variations on a single theme.

The common issue, the blind spot of this ideological framework, lies in its failure to recognize what we could term the productive process that has brought the current international status quo, violated by the Russian invasion to Ukraine, to life. It is also worth noting that the moralist and realist positions, as they exist today, have emerged largely as products of this post-World War II situation.

Both moralist and realist positions lead to distancing their adherents from political engagement. Haven’t we seen enough examples of moralists refusing to engage with those holding realist stances, labeling them as beyond salvation? Similarly, haven’t we seen enough of the fatalistic and nihilistic approaches, pretending to possess a kind of final knowledge of how things really are, and simply stating: “This is not your struggle. Everything is predetermined. Surrender”?

More importantly, as a productive practice, political engagement does not imply a strictly theoretical dichotomy between “real” operations (those of power) and “moral” operations (those of ethics). This divide becomes apparent one step later when we contrast the demand and positive significance of the positions outlined in an institution or a document with their incomplete realization.

To quote Jürgen Habermas again, this is what he calls a “normative gradient,” highlighting the difference between what is prescribed (demanded) and what is truly accomplished (realized). The gap between the two forms the core drama and dynamics of modern democratic politics because democratic actors are driven to engage in a continuous process of implementing rights that are yet to be realized but already hold positive significance.

Such a theoretical framework offers us a path to navigate between the Scylla of the moralist and the Charybdis of the realist positions.

An invasion of a sovereign state, such as Ukraine, by another state (in this case, Russia) should be denounced not because it is evil. We do not need to refer to any concept of evil here, as it will force us into endless and messy theoretical debates, precluding political action. Nor should we refrain from meaningful political engagement due to our realism—that is, our belief in the brute force and the justified actions of those who possess more guns. The invasion should be denounced because it violates the basic tenets of international law.

The invasion is carried out against the whole generative and productive logic behind the institutions and norms sustaining international law. Russia not only challenged Ukraine’s sovereignty but also undermined the very logic underpinning international institutions, flawed though they may be. Putin and his cronies are, in fact, openly admitting that this is the overarching goal of the war. The existing institutions could have been used by Russia to address this “Habermasian gap,” particularly in situations where Russia perceived an historical injustice. Doing so, of course, would require adherence to fundamental principles: good will, dialogue, and avoidance of armed conflict.

Just because Russia undermined challenged international law doesn’t render international institutions irrelevant or defunct. Following this course would only aid Russians in their backlash against democratic politics.  Without hesitation, the horrors of war—bombings of hospitals and civilian infrastructure, sieges of cities, and even kidnappings and forcible removal of children to another country, amounting to genocide—must be condemned. Nonetheless, employing purely moral or emotional logic is counterproductive, as it undermines Western institutions just as much as Tucker Carlson’s and Putin’s brand of realism. Such a move is often symptomatic of one’s own unconscious projections that obscure more than they shed light on what is happening “on the ground,” on the motivations of the enemy, and the overall context in which enemy actions unfold