Understanding Russia’s war in Ukraine

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Wednesday, March 16, 2022

In the early morning hours of Thursday, Feb. 24, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a “special military operation” in neighboring Ukraine. This invasion has become the most serious and devastating conflict in Europe since World War II, leading to the death of civilians and causing millions to flee the violence.

Professor of History Steven Sabol, an expert in Russian history and Soviet and Post-Soviet nationalities policy, explains what led to this conflict and what may come next for the two countries. 

There is a history of discord between Russia and Ukraine, especially during Vladimir Putin’s presidency. Can you explain that conflict? 

steven sabolThis is actually a rather simple question with a very complex answer. For many Russians, Ukraine’s territory is the foundation of Russian history, dating back to Kievan Rus in the ninth and 10th centuries. Moreover, they consider Ukraine the frontier of the Russian state. In addition, many Russians in the post-Soviet era consider Ukraine an artificially constructed state, cobbled together by Soviet national delimitation policies in the 1920s. As such, it calls into question its legitimacy as a nation-state.  

When the Soviet Union collapsed in late 1991, many Russians insisted that the boundaries be redrawn to reflect the demographic reality (i.e., the large number of Russians living in eastern Ukraine) and that the territory where they live be incorporated in the Russian Federation. In 1994, as Ukraine agreed to surrender its nuclear weapons, Russia agreed to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Many Russians, including Putin, regard this agreement as one unilaterally imposed on a weakened Russia by the U.S. They regard it as an aberration and an unfair agreement. Putin seems to be the political manifestation of these grievances.  

In addition, beginning in the late 1990s, despite Russian opposition, NATO began to incorporate former Warsaw Pact countries, moving the collective security institution eastward. While many Europeans and Americans regard NATO’s expansion as benign, intended strictly to preserve peace and collective security, many Russians consider it an aggressive and unnecessary act, a provocative expansion, and a violation of earlier agreements.

There were news reports for weeks that Putin was planning to invade Ukraine. Why could this conflict not be stopped? 

Let’s start with when we actually believe this conflict started. I would argue that this is merely an expansion and intensification of the conflict that started in 2014. The troop buildup began long before the public paid attention in fall 2021, but many, myself included, considered it merely a negotiation ploy designed to permit recognition of Russia’s territorial incorporation of Crimea and other Ukrainian provinces into the Russian Federation. Moreover, it seemed an opportunistic moment, a chance to further divide NATO, the U.S. and Europe following the withdrawal of troops in Afghanistan. Europe is addicted to Russian energy resources (oil and natural gas), and any opposition to Russian machinations in Ukraine could expose policy and economic divisions in Europe and with the U.S. related to energy and NATO.  Russia, many believed — myself included again — sought to exploit these fractures. Few believed that Russia would undertake an invasion on this scale.  

The question of why it could not be stopped is a great one. It is difficult to know when Putin decided upon this course; his demands were designed, or so it seemed, to be rejected by NATO and the U.S. Once rejected, Russia could claim diplomacy failed and the West was hostile to Russia’s national interests. If that was the case, stopping it was impossible. I don’t subscribe to the notion that imposing all of the most punitive sanctions before the invasion would have deterred Russia, largely because it’s counterfactual and we will never know.  I do believe that imposing the sanctions before the invasion would have been, again, rhetorical justification for Russia, simply because the decision, regardless of diplomacy or sanction threats, was made and everything else was meaningless. Putin decided upon this course; little to no internal opposition seemingly exists in Russia at present, certainly no counsel that might dissuade Putin.  

Can you explain why the U.S., European allies or NATO have not stepped in with troops to assist Ukraine? 

As a practical measure, I do not believe there is any appetite for any sort of military intervention in the U.S. or among NATO members, certainly not after 20 years in Afghanistan. Moreover, while it might seem a solution to the conflict now, NATO or U.S. military intervention would be a clear escalation that could have dire consequences. Keeping the conflict conventional provides a greater chance for resolution, although horrific for the Ukrainian people, and keeps it relatively contained. If NATO forces, for example, move into Ukraine from Poland, that provides a justification in Russia’s mind for an attack on Poland to prevent its use as a staging ground for NATO. Maintaining a relatively neutral, defensive posture prevents an expansion and escalation. Any NATO response must be, in my opinion, very measured, even if provoked.

Do you believe it is possible for a negotiation to be reached between the two countries? What do you think would be required for either side or both sides to agree to this? 

I always believe that a resolution can be reached, but it won’t be through peaceful negotiations.  The moment Russia invaded, “peaceful” was no longer part of the calculus. As long as the Ukrainian people resist and continue to receive substantial outside support, Ukraine has no incentive to stop as long as Russian troops remain in any sort of occupation. As long as Russian troops remain in Ukraine, Russia has no incentive to withdraw. The demands, at this stage, that each side will make to settle the conflict seem to be anathema to a negotiated resolution. This suggests that the end of the conflict is potentially months away from resolution.  

Many are praising President Zelenskyy as a hero of our time, especially given his unlikely background in acting and entertainment. How would you rate his performance leading up to the invasion and now during it? How do you think history will assess him as a leader for his people?

Zelenskyy was, prior to the invasion, in a truly difficult situation. On the one hand, trying to remain calm and defiant, while recognizing the reluctance NATO and U.S. to provoke Russia, was a precarious balancing act. Since the invasion, I have, like so many others, been impressed and inspired by his words and actions. He understood his symbolism to the Ukrainian people and to the world. Truly remarkable. Just shows that heroes come from the unexpected. Courage is not trained. How historians will assess him is very difficult for a historian to answer, frankly. Historians interpret the past based upon a fragmented record, but at the moment, I do think historians will judge Zelenskyy to have been an essential leader in this terrible crisis.  

Does sophisticated media coverage, including the movement by Ukrainian people to document their situations on social media, act as a more powerful player in this situation than in previous conflicts? 

This conflict is, it seems, new in that everyone has a camera with them at all times. The amount of video being broadcast through social media in particular seems unprecedented. UNC Charlotte alumnus and history major, Matt Thacker, has lived in Ukraine for several years. We were in touch shortly before the invasion and as he left. He eventually, and reluctantly, departed Kiev and, as best I can tell, “filmed” much of his odyssey escaping with his wife. Matt is just one of thousands to have done that. Much of this social media documentation is being made public, and it tells a story that traditional media might also tell, but on a broader scale than we’ve ever seen. It has intensified our “views” of what’s happening, broadened the prisms by which we track the course of the conflict. Moreover, President Zelenskyy has proven quite adept at using the media, particularly social media, to appeal for aid. I can’t think of another similar “media” conflict.

What are we not hearing in the news that you think people need to understand about this situation?

This is an interesting question. Most media I’ve seen refer to this conflict as naked aggression, not an altogether inappropriate description. But many Russians do have what they believe are legitimate security concerns that the West and the U.S. simply dismiss or just ignore. Many Russians, though they might disagree with Putin’s tactics or his governance, feel aggrieved and accept, to some degree, Putin’s historical interpretation of events. It’s very difficult, however, to measure those sentiments, and, as such, Western media tends to reflect a myopic view of the past without debating possible reasons for Russian sensibilities that seem diametrically opposed to our own views. This in no way should be seen as justification for Putin’s actions, but it might help to understand what some might perceive as Russians’ inaction or broad opposition initially.     

Some commentators suggest this war will mean “the end of Putin,” regardless of its outcome. Can you comment?

It’s certainly interesting to speculate about this possibility, but it’s truly only the Russians themselves that can effectively make that change and, currently, none in the “inner circle” appear to be willing to make such an uncertain move.  It’s certainly difficult to determine what Russians, living in Russia, think about this conflict; anecdotally, Russians living outside are sincerely mystified by the decision to invade Ukraine. I’m not convinced yet that the results of the conflict will necessarily lead to his “downfall” or removal, though that’s always possible. It likely depends on the conflict’s duration and the economic dislocation for the Russian people.  I’m reminded of the “Mothers’ Protests” during the 1980s Soviet-Afghan War; it helped galvanize public opinion in the Soviet Union against the war and the possibility exists that something similar could occur related to this conflict. That is, however, likely some months away, if not longer.

What do you think Ukraine’s future looks like? A year from now? Five years or 10 years from now? 

In a word, bleak. There will be untold suffering and hardship, devastation and destruction. The costs to rebuild will be more than Ukraine can materially bear. While the Ukrainian spirit will be evident, the means to rebuild and restore Ukraine’s cities and villages, industry, agriculture, economy and infrastructure will take years, if not decades. Ukraine cannot do it alone. Once the conflict ends, Ukraine will survive, but Europe and the U.S. must commit their full support to that process.

What about the Russian people? How are they likely to be affected long-term by these sanctions and other consequences of Putin’s actions? 

As I see it, the Russians themselves are the key to ending this conflict. I have been heartened to see so many taking to the streets to protest. I’ve read that more than 7,000 have already been detained by the authorities. As long as Russians continue their opposition, as limited as it has been, the Russian government will begin to feel that pressure. Once the sanctions fully degrade Russia’s economy, and Russians recognize the deprivations broadly, self-preservation will induce the government to act. The concern is, of course, that it will take months for the effects to be broadly felt throughout a significant segment of the population. Russians can be, respectably, stubborn and defiant in the face of difficult circumstances. It depends upon whom they choose to blame for the situation.

Steven Sabol is a professor of history in the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences at UNC Charlotte. He is the former editor of “Nationalities Papers and First World War Studies,” a recipient of the Arrell M. Gibson Award, and author of “Russian Colonization and the Genesis of Kazak National Consciousness.” His areas of research and expertise include Central Asian and Russian history, World War I, nationalism and national Identity, Soviet and Post-Soviet nationalities policy, imperialism and colonialism and the American West.

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