Five speakers, Professor Steven Wilson (POL), Paul Jankowski (HIST), Renanah Joyce (POL), Kerry Chase (POL), and Chandler Rosenberger (IGS) offered their historical, political and sociological insights into the conflict. 

Wilson noted that “the ship has definitely sailed at this point” regarding Russia’s democratic status because it is clear that “Putin is running the show.” As an aging dictator, his invasion of Ukraine is consistent with a desire to leave a legacy, he said. According to Wilson, analysts of Putin’s military buildup on the Ukraine border were expecting military posturing — nothing like full-scale war. However, Wilson said that based on Putin’s past speeches and actions, he has shown a belief that the fall of the Soviet Union was a terrible thing, less because of the fall of communism than because of the geopolitical ramifications of the country’s 15 republics breaking up. He explained that this nostalgia for the Soviet Union, along with Russian myths of Kyiv being the founding city of Russia, were among Putin’s rationales for refusing to recognize Ukraine as a sovereign country and considering the Ukraine invasion as a domestic affair.

Considering the dictatorial politics of Russia, Wilson spoke on the possibility of resolving the invasion by overthrowing Putin. He cautioned on hopes he has seen on social media of such an outcome, arguing that even if Putin were deposed, the state of Russian politics made it likely that one dictator would merely be replaced with another. Wilson discussed the potential groups with the power to overthrow Putin. He said that since rising to power in the 2000 election, Putin has kept prominent Russian oil oligarchs out of politics in exchange for political stability. The invasion and accompanying sanctions have shown that Putin is not holding his bargain, but these oligarchs are still far from the reins of power. A military coup is similarly unlikely, Wilson said, due to a long history of committed subservience shutting down coups throughout the 20th century. He explained that those in power in the military were the most adept at court politics and had little incentive to change the system. “Ironically, the security services are where [Putin has] the least support,” considering Putin’s past as a KGB agent, Wilson said. He noted that despite Western perceptions of Putin as a “4D chess master,” Putin was seen as a mediocre failure in the KGB, getting into politics to get out of a dead end post. 

Jankowski spoke on the numerous historical comparisons that could be drawn from Adolf Hitler’s invasion of Europe in the 1940s. Just as Putin has claimed that the majority ethnic Russian population in Eastern Ukraine is being mistreated, Hitler’s annexation of the Sudetenland was justified by arguments that the majority of the region’s population was ethnically German, Jankowski explained. In the case of Hitler, Jankowski said the rest of Europe accepted his justifications for annexing the Sudetenland in the hopes of avoiding further aggression. Similarly, Putin’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in 2014 was met only with mild condemnation by the West.

Jankowski spoke on the use of sanctions against Russia. He warned that “sanctions that don’t work are worse than no sanctions at all” because they run the risk of forming a “community of the damned.” He said that the League of Nations attempted to impose sanctions on Japan and Italy after their acts of aggression in Ethiopia and China respectively, but with numerous countries not following through, the sanctions only drove the two nations away from the League of Nations and towards an alliance with Germany.

Joyce discussed the possible security responses of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and other foreign powers to the war. “NATO was founded as a bulwark against Soviet aggression,” she said. However, she explained that while NATO is obligated to defend member countries, it is difficult to determine their response to a country like Ukraine. The country is not a member of NATO, but it is close partners with the organization and it has sought NATO membership over recent years. She argued that on one hand, Russia’s invasion represented a dangerous attack on the norms against international conquest. On the other hand, efforts like the U.S. led military coalition to counter Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait were “not going to work in the Ukraine” because of the serious risks coming from a war with Russia. Joyce cited the recent news that Putin had put Russia’s nuclear forces on alert. She explained that this fear of escalation was holding countries back from helping Ukraine establish a no-fly zone because of the implications of foreign pilots shooting Russian planes down.

Instead, Joyce said that European countries have sent aid to Ukraine in the form of weapons and humanitarian supplies. Even Sweden and Switzerland, known for their neutrality, are sending weapons. NATO also gets credit for Ukraine’s success in holding back the Russian army due to past years of investment into training, Joyce explained. She said that Ukraine’s military was known as the “paper army” because they were seen to be better at paperwork than fighting. The other major action, she noted, has been sanctions in the hopes of causing a sufficiently harsh burden on Russia to compel Putin to stop fighting.

Joyce emphasized the necessity for off ramps for Russia in ending the war, asking “How can Russia reverse course and still save face?” After all, she noted that the West could make the war painful through economic sanctions, but Russia still had an overwhelming advantage over Ukraine in terms of material power. She asked what acceptable compromise there was for Russia and Putin, seeing as he is likely to have most of his ambitions stymied. NATO is more prominent than ever with the shift of Germany against Russia. She said that if Russia were to stop the war, the West would need to consider which sanctions to lift. For this consideration, they would need to consider whether their ultimate goal was a weakened, punished Russia or a Russia that is reintegrated with the rest of the world.

Chase talked about the role of the UN in addressing the conflict. He agreed with Joyce that the most obvious way to stop Russia — military force — was an unacceptable and dangerous choice. Instead, he promoted the current following of “Plan B … making the war as painful for Russia as possible,” arguing that the UN had an important role to play in the conflict. He said that the UN is a “really easy target for overinflated expectations,” and that it is important to “recognize that the UN cannot, through naming and shaming, change the actions of a leader with no shame.” He addressed concerns on social media that Russia is presiding over the Security Council and was given the power to veto the Security Council’s resolution condemning the war. Russia’s veto, in fact, does not really matter, Chase argued, because the Security Council has no power to physically stop the invasion. The resolution was instead an effective means at rhetorical condemnation, he said, because in vetoing the resolution, Russia took its place among the world’s “pariah states,” representing the “lone hand of the aggressor nation.” He argued that the UN’s “currency” is international legitimacy. The countries that voted to condemn Russia are now on record as doing so, and so they are given pressure to follow through, Chase said. He speculated that the list of abstaining countries is where Putin will look for aid, so it is important to target the abstaining nations in advance to dissuade them from helping him.

Rosenberger discussed the sociological elements of the war, namely the question of “who is fighting for what” and whose vision of Ukraine would prevail. He argued that Putin’s basis for invasion was “based on a mistake.” In looking through Putin’s speeches, Rosenberger saw Putin revealing the extent of his ambitions in Ukraine and beyond. With Ukraine in particular, Rosenberger said that Putin’s justification for invasion was in righting historical wrongs. He said that Putin’s speeches cite the mythical description of Kyiv as the “mother of all Russia,” along with ethnic and language similarities, in order to claim that Russia was destined to be bound with Ukraine but was always being broken up by a series of eternal enemies. Rosenberger argued that the mistake of this theory is that it ascribes certain characteristics to make a person part of a nation regardless of their own choices. Despite Putin’s theories, there are 44 million people who think of themselves as Ukrainian and reject Putin’s mystical vision. In 1991, 92% of Ukraine approved their independence, and while ideas of Ukraine’s character have ebbed and flowed, there has never been a serious threat to sovereignty, Rosenberger said. He argued that in many ways, Ukraine is defining itself as the opposite of Putin’s Russia. 

Regarding the potential escalation to a wider conflict, Joyce remarked that it is impossible to say anything for sure as there is “simultaneously an overload of information and a deficit of information.” There is a flood of videos and posts on social media about the war, but there is very little verification, as most social media posters have strong motives for shaping the information to suit their agendas. The lack of accurate data and misunderstandings of the relative power of countries are important factors behind conflict escalation, Joyce said. She noted that on the part of the EU and the U.S., they are carefully calibrating their responses to avoid crossing Putin’s red lines. One potential red line is the vigorous resupplying of Ukraine through Poland, a NATO country. Putin targeting the supply chain to Poland would be a dangerous escalation of the conflict, she said. Similarly, she explained that Ukraine would benefit from a better air force, but they are limited by a lack of training on certain high tech aircraft, making the introduction of foreign pilots a tempting but dangerous prospect.

A Russian audience member commented on the common question about protest in Russia, noting that at that time, there had been 7000 arrests under the threat of 15 year sentences. She also asked about Putin’s justification of neo-Nazism. Rosenberger speculated that this argument is about bringing Russia together against a historic enemy. However, he noted that this justification was ironic in that Putin himself has been public about reading neo-Nazi authors.  Rosenberger reiterated the likelihood that Putin has entered an “extreme ideological space.”

From the audience, Prof. Irina Dubinina (RUS) noted that “Putin extracts a small piece of the truth and creates a different reality.” She explained that there is a presence of neo-Nazi groups in Ukraine, along with ethnic and cultural differences between regions in Ukraine, with East Ukraine being the most ethnically Russian. She also argued that Putin’s arguments about NATO expansion could be justified by the 1994 Budapest Memorandum creating security relationships between NATO and Eastern Europe.

Rosenberger responded that although there is a neo-Nazi presence in Ukraine, they are not the aggressors in this situation. He said that with all the justifications and disinformation floating around, it is important to remember that children are dying in Kharkiv for geopolitical ambitions.

Regarding NATO, Chase agreed the relations of the organization with Eastern Europe have been controversial. Nevertheless, he argued that the counterfacts, with U.S. and NATO shunning Ukraine and other Eastern European countries, carried its own risks. For example, he explained that NATO had held back from establishing greater relations with Ukraine because of fears of provoking Russia, resulting in Ukraine having less military power in the face of this invasion. He also noted that the participation of Eastern Europe in NATO raises the question of why Russia has never been considered as a potential NATO member. This oversight has been argued to have a basis in centuries old Orientalism, Chase said.

Regarding the threat of nuclear war, Joyce referenced the stability-instability paradox theory, where nuclear powers do not fight each other directly because of mutually assured destruction. Instead, they fight each other through third states, as is the case with Ukraine.

However, she said that if the situation worsens enough in Ukraine for Russia, such as the war lasting long enough for sanctions to dry up essential military stockpiles, then it is conceivable that Putin would decide to attack Ukraine with tactical nuclear weapons to achieve victory. She argued that this was likely a long term possibility, becoming an issue if the war continues for “months, at minimum.”