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GUIDE: Understanding Russia's invasion of Ukraine

Russia Ukraine War
Posted at 5:36 PM, Mar 01, 2022
and last updated 2022-03-01 18:36:26-05

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Russia invaded Ukraine in Feburary, launching a bloody war against the second-largest country in Europe.

To better understand what has driven Russian President Vladimir Putin to launch the largest and most troubling military action on the continent since World War II, KSHB 41 News asked two William Jewell College political science professors — Dr. Alan Holiman, department chair, and Dr. Gary Armstrong — for context, understanding and insight.

Using excerpts from those interviews, here is an explainer to help answer common questions surrounding the Russian invasion:

What is Putin’s primary objective in Ukraine?

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukraine regained its independence after 70 years of de facto Russian rule, but that hasn’t stopped Russian meddling in Ukrainian political affairs since 1991.

With a growing appetite for inclusion in the European Union, a political and economic alliance, and possibly even NATO — the world’s largest military alliance, which arose from the ashes of World War II — Ukraine has become increasingly “westernized” in Putin’s view, embracing a constitutional republic system of governance and strengthening its economic ties with western European nations.

What does Putin hope to achieve in Ukraine?

HOLIMAN: “Regime change. He wants a different form of government in Ukraine that will be subservient to the wishes of the Russian Federation. That's it in a nutshell. How do you get there? That's a complicated process, and he's chosen violence.”

ARMSTRONG: “I would say let’s start this way: Putin is an authoritarian dictator. A successful, democratic Ukraine is a massive problem for him. Then, if that Ukraine joins NATO, it’s an even worse problem. Putin has got it into his head that NATO is an existential threat to Russia and it is an existential threat to his regime. He started interpreting some things a year ago that were leading him to the conclusion again that Ukraine was going to try again to get into NATO, and he was determined to head it off.”

Is regime change the sole objective?

The Soviet Union comprised 15 nations, but many believe Putin’s primary interest is in the hegemony of the Slavic countries — most notably Russia, Belarus and Ukraine.

It’s unlikely he wants, nor could, restore the Soviet Union, but he likely wants to maintain political control over the traditional Slavic powers.

Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus, the self-proclaimed “last dictator” in Europe, relies on Russia to remain in power, but Ukraine has been drifting away from Russia politically and economically.

How far is Putin willing to go to rein in Ukraine — from which Russia forcibly annexed Crimea, a peninsula in southern Ukraine in the Black Sea in 2014?

ARMSTRONG: “He may have minimum objectives and he may have maximum objectives, and he's going to be trying to figure out just what he can get away with. His minimum objective is clearly — I think — going to be to annex Luhansk and Donetsk, these two rebellious provinces. He probably also wants a land bridge to Crimea, which is going to mean more annexation. In the medium, he may seize or blockade Odessa to cripple Ukraine.

“I think his maximum objective is regime change in Kyiv, and I don't know how he thinks he can do that. It's a complicated thing. He may be hoping for a coup, rather than a full military assault on the city of 3 million people. Think bigger than Kansas City. I don't think his maximum objective is occupation and annexation of all of Ukraine. That's a huge country, 45 million people and he's got 150,000 troops. That doesn't add up to me.”

Does Putin want to restore the former Soviet Union?

There has been speculation Putin — who previously invaded another former Soviet republic, Georgia, in 2008 — may want to restore the Soviet Union, but that seems unlikely, certainly in the near-term. Russia stopped short of occupying Georgia and instead has maintained control over pro-separatist regions of the country for the last 14 years.

Additionally, the Baltic states — Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia — were admitted to NATO along with Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia in 2004, which raises the specter of a continent-wide war.

Other former Soviet countries — Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan — have no desire to return to Russian rule.

ARMSTRONG: “I don’t think he wants to restore the Soviet Union. There are many areas that have too many Muslims for him to do that. There are people who think he’s interested in Moldova. What do I know? It doesn't make sense to me. This is a guy who believes in the Slavic People's Union. So that's why Belarus, that's why Ukraine is important to him. That's why Moldova, which is not Slavic, is probably not important. I think that's the way we ought to be thinking about him. In the former Soviet space, he wants to be top dog and he doesn't want any military, national security, foreign policy decisions taken over his veto. But that's not the same thing as trying to control it and create a new empire.”

How does Putin justify the invasion?

Putin claims, without evidence, that Ukraine’s government has been infiltrated by neo-Nazi elements that have waged genocide against ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine.

While there are racist, nationalist factions within Ukraine, it’s not substantially different than the U.S., where neo-Nazis and white nationalists marched in a rally that turned deadly five years ago in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Putin espouses a irredentist view of Ukraine, considering Crimea and eastern Ukraine — among other regions in the former Soviet Union — to remain ostensibly part of the Russian Federation.

ARMSTRONG: “If you have a chance, you can read his essay from July last summer — 7,000 words. So, think of a president writing a 20-page college paper. That's what he did. And he has extraordinary, inaccurate, unproven claims in that document that is at the Kremlin website, supposedly was given to all Russian troops. He says, for example, that a group of Ukrainian fascists burned alive 40 Russians in the city of Odessa. It's not true. Something happened, but it's not at all when he says. They have been pushing this button that the Ukrainian government are fascists and Nazis for at least a year.”

Quite the contrary, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is Jewish, lost family members in the Holocaust and had relatives who fought the Nazis as part of the Soviet Army.

HOLIMAN: “The Ukrainian government was elected in a popular election — a free, fair, competitive election. Are there neo-Nazi groups in Ukraine? Yes, there are. ... You have wingnuts in every country. They are not in any danger of coming to power in Ukraine. They are a minority. Most Ukrainians, when they go out and vote for people who are trying to offer a sensible way forward for the country, because most Ukrainians are just like most Americans. They want to get up. They want to go to a job. If they're lucky, they want a job with some meaning. They want to earn a living. They want to put a roof over their heads. They want to pair bond. They want to have children, want to raise their children and see their children do better than they did. That's exactly what most Ukrainians want. I think that's exactly what most people want when you get down to it.”

What is Putin’s real fear?

If Ukraine drifts farther from Russian influence, especially as a nation with comparatively greater freedom and prosperity, Putin fears what it may mean for his regime.

HOLIMAN: “I think he views a prosperous Ukraine — organized along democratic principles, integrated into European political and economic structures, where power changes hands regularly through competitive elections at the ballot box, where people are relatively free, where people are comparatively prosperous — I believe he views that as a direct threat to his own internal regime. ... If their economy’s prosperous, if their kids have hope, if they just have a better standard of living — they're right next door, they’re fellow Slavs, they look a lot like us — ‘Hey, why can't we have that?’ Those are questions he would prefer not to be raised, and it's as simple as that. He views NATO as a threat.”

How likely are sanctions to work?

Short answer — they’ll hurt, but sanctions alone aren’t going to bring Putin to his knees and force him to reconsider the invasion of Ukraine.

ARMSTRONG: “The sanctions that were announced (Feb. 24) are significant and they're going to hurt, but I don't think they're going to be decisive. I think what Americans need to know about sanctions is that sanctions can succeed. Think of, for example, our sanctions against Iran that helped drive them to the nuclear deal. But sanctions can also fail. We've had sanctions on Castro's Cuba forever. We've had sanctions on Putin since Crimea. When do they work? They hardly ever work against a great power. In fact, I would say there is no case of successful sanctions against a great power succeeding on their own. The second thing is they work when they are part of a big group of tools and instruments that can get things focused. And there's some really important argument that they're most likely to work when they're also harnessed to a diplomatic deal that is coming or being made — think like the Iran nuclear deal. That doesn't seem very likely in this case.”

Are sanctions just an ethical path for NATO powers?

Putin will feel the pressure of sanctions, but it’s the Russian people who will bear the brunt of economic collapse under the weight of mounting sanctions. Already, the ruble has collapsed and Russia faces the specter of spiraling inflation.

ARMSTRONG: “Economic sanctions that are designed to be comprehensive and hurt the people are really problematic. It's in part because, Russian civil society, we want to be strong so that eventually it may have a role in creating a constitutional democratic Russia. We don't want to weaken it, and that's one of the lessons we learned from Iraq. Our sanctions against Iraq creamed the Iraqi middle class. They made when the moment came to get rid of Saddam everything harder, because they made the middle class much weaker. But the other thing that’s important is that you cannot assume that we can drive the Russian people to desperation and they will overthrow Putin. That seems to be an assumption sometimes behind comprehensive, really powerful, indiscriminate sanctions. The idea that the people are going to rise up and overthrow a dictator is really problematic — unless that dictator loses on the battlefield or unless things start getting really complicated in the military situation, then things can be different. So, my sense is that the bigger the economic sanctions, the more indiscriminate, the more unjustified, they're probably going to complicate your goals.”

Can Ukraine successfully fend off the Russian invasion and avoid regime change?

Historically, a military defeat is disastrous for an authoritarian regime, so Putin will have to find a way to win — or a path to at least claim victory — in Ukraine or risk mounting opposition at home.

The longer Ukraine successfully fights off the Russian advance and Zelenskyy maintains a functioning government, the more pressure will mount on Putin.

ARMSTRONG: “What could really change things would be massive popular protests in Ukraine, even in what we may wind up calling occupied Ukraine. I have a feeling that seeing hundreds of thousands, millions of Ukrainians on the street — once the weather warms up, once we're in March, April and May — could be profoundly demoralizing to Russian troops. OK, if you’ve got that with sanctions, then you could get a different dynamic. But lastly, we have to accept that the stronger the sanctions are, if they really started, for example, to grind the Russian economy to powder then Putin is going to get desperate and he's going to escalate.”

Part of that calculation will be who the Russian people blame for the economic damage wrought by sanctions, some of which were put in place when Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 but which became much more expansive and potentially damaging in the last week.

HOLIMAN: “I think the danger would be that Russian people would be more united against the Russian government for pursuing this war. Especially if it lasts a long time, especially if it is much more destructive, especially if the Ukrainians defend themselves effectively and better and lots of Russian boys started coming home in body bags. That will produce a lot of national cohesion. Most Russians do not want war with Ukraine. They don't. I mean, you can look at the opinion polls most and good ones. Reliable ones in Russia. They don't want this. The Russian economy's not been growing. The sanctions are taking their toll. Russians have seen declining living standards for at least the last six years, so new sanctions are just going to make this even harder. And Putin is not as popular as he used to be. I know the opinion polls often show that he has high levels of support, but then again, high levels of support compared to what alternative. The polls don't often list an alternative, so Putin himself has politics to manage. This can turn out very badly for the Russian public and that can destabilize his own regime. He has some objectives that he wants to achieve and he needs to achieve them as soon as possible. Inflicting costs on him and delay in achieving his objectives is one of the best ways to help Ukraine preserve its sovereignty and independence.”

What are the chances Putin would attack a NATO member?

It seems unlikely for now, but only Putin knows how far he’s willing to go — and even he may not know how far that is at the moment. But President Biden drew a bright line in his initial speech after the Ukrainian invasion.

ARMSTRONG: “Right now, we're being really clear: If Russia messes with NATO, it means war — and we're going to win it. And I think Putin at the end of the day will respect that. He's got lots of big ambitions, but getting into a massive war with the United States and NATO, he’s not there. By the way, we could all be wrong. The easiest way to be wrong on this is to be weak in the current crisis. ... If we intervene in Ukraine with our Air Force or with our Army, Putin will attack them and he may launch a cyber or nuclear attack in the United States. We need to accept that that's a really serious red line with Russia. But I want to emphasize again, our government from the beginning has said we are not going to put forces into Ukraine. We can send weapons, we can share intelligence, but we are not going to fight for Ukraine. The Ukrainians say, ‘Just give us the tools. We'll try to fight ourselves,’ so we're not going to fight for Ukraine, but we can help Ukraine fight.”

How close was or is Ukraine to joining NATO?

It seems as if Ukraine was warming up to the idea of joining the EU or NATO, but it’s unlikely — and perhaps even would have been impossible — that it would have been admitted in the near-term. That changed with Russia’s invasion, which prompted Zelenskyy to formally apply for EU membership. The NATO issue is far more complex.

ARMSTRONG: “In my view, we cannot take Ukraine into NATO, we could not take Ukraine into NATO, and we're not going to be able to do it in the future. It doesn't meet our key criteria. The most important thing is when you think about it, you can't take a country into NATO when you don't agree on the map where it is. Because the whole point of NATO is that we're agreeing if your territory is ever attacked, we're with you, we're going to work to back you up. Well, our government's position is that Russia has to withdraw from Crimea. We've been stuck there. Every other government that joined NATO had to settle its border disputes in order to join NATO. Now, that's clearly a problem, because it gave Russia a possible veto over Ukraine. But it means we can't take Ukraine in. We're all saying they have the moral right to join, but then you listen and almost every leader, including President Biden, has said that actually joining NATO is not a table anytime soon. That did not stop Putin, who said you’ve got to give me binding, permanent guarantees they will never join NATO or I'll do this. And we said we're not going to give you those binding guarantees, and he did it anyway.”

Such guarantees may not have placated Putin anyway, but it provided the pretext for saber-rattling in the ramp up for invasion.

HOLIMAN: “NATO is not the reason for what he's doing. Ukraine is not about to become a member of NATO. In fact, most Ukrainians did not even want Ukraine to be part of NATO until recent events. So he has provoked a lot of the change. He feared NATO, but there was no member action plan for Ukraine. And remember that most major members of the alliance weren’t on with bringing Ukraine into NATO. Ukraine is not at all about to join NATO right now, so that's not what he really fears. What he really fears is losing control of Ukraine from the Russian political sphere of influence. That's what he fears.”

Why should someone in the U.S care?

Kyiv is nearly 5,500 miles from Kansas City, but we live in an increasingly global world — culturally, economically and politically. The U.S. helped create the constructs that had brought about the longest period of largely unbroken peace in Europe.

With that now shattered, continued escalation of Putin’s war in Ukraine brings the U.S. closer to direct involvement, which could become especially perilous given the nuclear powers involved.

HOLIMAN: “It's important because Putin is trying to use force to take control of a democratic country that is a member of the United Nations that poses absolutely no military threat to the Russian Federation. And he wants to take control of it, simply because he fears that it will slip out of Russia's sphere of influence. That's what he fears and that he can get away with this that will threaten the security structure that the United States has built and that has kept the peace largely in Europe since 1949. The stakes are really big.”

It also informs the global future you want.

ARMSTRONG: “This is an unjustified war. It’s a war of aggression. It's a kind of thing that we don't want our grandkids’ world to have. That's why this thing matters. It doesn't mean that, because we call it an unjustified war of aggression, Putin is gonna stop. But we need to be really clear to ourselves about why this matters and what's at stake.”

Many people in the U.S. fear the prospect of nuclear war, how concerning is that?

Putin put Russian nuclear forces on high alert Sunday, a move that signaled his willingness to escalate or at least taunt world leaders with the idea of nuclear war. But the reality is that both sides still have ways to escalate the war long before the use of nuclear weapons and the U.S. ought to begin preparing for that.

ARMSTRONG: “The danger zone is four to six months from now. If things are getting really bad in Ukraine for Putin — he's got massive protests, his army is demoralized and sanctions are really hurting — then there's going to be a danger zone when he's going to think about escalating. That could be cyber. That's why our government has been warning everybody. We've got to get on the ball about cyber defense. Every company in Kansas City, every school district in Kansas City, every hospital in Kansas City has got to get control of their devices and make sure that all the software updates have been downloaded. It turns out, in any complicated organization, that's hard. But our government is warning us, we've got to get on the ball, we've seen this kind of stuff before and we've got to get all of those things updated. Chief operating officers, everybody has got to get on the ball and figure out how do we get this stuff. We've got a couple of months to get it.”