The Russia-Ukraine Conflict
A satellite photo from Jan. 19, 2022, shows Russian military vehicles parked eight miles north of the Russian/Ukraine border. (Satellite image ©2022 Maxar Technologies.)
As tensions rise, a Carolina expert explains the global importance of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, why the U.S. is involved and how the situation may play out.
If Russia invades Ukraine, it will be “the most consequential thing that has happened in the world since World War II,” President Biden has said.
What brought the two countries to this critical point? Why is Ukraine important to global politics? What can be done to avoid war?
The Well turned to Graeme Robertson, a UNC-Chapel Hill professor of political science, for background on the countries’ relationship since Ukraine gained independence in 1991 after the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics dissolved. Robertson researches and publishes on dissent and protest in Russia and Ukraine and is The Graduate School’s Harold J. Glass USAF Faculty Mentor/Graduate Fellow Distinguished Term Professor. He directs Carolina’s Center for Slavic, Eurasian and East European Studies.
How did the Russia-Ukraine conflict begin?
The conflict’s roots go back to negotiations between [then President Mikhail] Gorbachev and George H.W. Bush around the end of the Soviet Union. A polite fiction was established in which the U.S. downplayed any possible expansion of NATO beyond the countries already in NATO. In particular, the U.S. didn’t make a big deal about bringing unified Germany and other former Warsaw Pact countries into NATO. The Soviets chose to interpret this as a promise not to expand NATO, though there is no evidence that any promises were actually made, verbally or otherwise. It suited both sides to pretend that we were all going to live happily ever after, something that many people genuinely believed, even though it submerged the big issues of European security for a while.
Over the past 30 years, many countries on Russia’s periphery have wanted to become members of NATO and the European Union in order to extricate themselves from Moscow’s sphere of influence. They have wanted integration into the West for a variety of reasons. Some countries have a long or recent history of conflict with Russia and see themselves as culturally and politically part of the West. In other cases, economic or political factors played a bigger role and support for integration with Europe is more transactional.
So, the EU and even more so, NATO, have crept farther and farther east. The Baltic States, which were once part of the former Soviet Union, are in NATO, but also the East European states of Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Romania, Bulgaria and Montenegro, with North Macedonia as the most recent member.
Why did Russia take years to reach this point and what brought it to a head?
Some countries that were in the Soviet Union but are now independent — most notably Georgia and then after a revolution in 2014, Ukraine — joined the countries that want to be part of NATO. The Russians were slow to oppose this expansion of Western influence, in part because in the 1990s they were basically broke and focused on holding their country together and in part because they miscalculated somewhat. At first the Russians saw EU expansion and NATO expansion as qualitatively different. They thought of the EU as a purely economic exercise and didn’t realize that it was a political project that went hand in hand with NATO membership. If you join the EU, you’re lost to Russia as a market, but also as a sphere of political influence. They woke up to that early in the Putin administration and, at least since a famous speech by President Putin in Munich in 2007, have vigorously opposed the expansion of all of the Western institutions.
A key turning point came in 2008. In April of that year, NATO supported both Georgia and Ukraine’s application to begin the process of joining the organization. However, by summer the plans were in ruins. In an effort to reintegrate territories it had lost during civil war and the breakup of the Soviet Union, Georgia invaded South Ossetia, a Russian protectorate in northern Georgia. The Russians pushed them out and then advanced almost to the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, then went home. In doing so, they effectively demonstrated to NATO countries that expansion to Georgia isn’t safe. We’ve continued to support Georgia militarily but any question of Georgia formally joining Western institutions has essentially been off the table. This is basically the same pattern that’s happening in Ukraine.
The Ukrainian version is a long story, but essentially in 2014 there was a revolution in Kiev. Then president of Ukraine Viktor Yanukovych was, like most presidents of Ukraine, highly corrupt. He was also trying to navigate a political path between Moscow and the EU. Under Russian pressure, Yanukovych was forced to choose sides and essentially abandoned plans to join an EU trade agreement, which ultimately provoked a revolution in Ukraine.
Early on in this revolution, Russia moved in and annexed the peninsula of Crimea, the home to an important Russian naval base in Sevastopol. It’s a place of long-standing Russian military tradition and their only major access to a warm water port. Frankly, there was no way they were going to let that fall into the hands of NATO, so they shocked everybody, the West in particular, by quickly and effectively taking over both the base and the rest of Crimea.
Pro-Russian uprisings against the revolution quickly followed in a couple of major cities in Eastern Ukraine. The Ukrainian government, which was caught completely flat-footed because it was so corrupt and had allowed money meant for defense spending to be stolen, didn’t have much of an army. It turned to private militias funded by Ukrainian oligarchs to launch an offensive in eastern Ukraine to take back the territories. Once that campaign got underway, the Russians moved in to support the rebels in eastern Ukraine. This has basically been the situation on the ground for the last eight years.
What’s happened since fighting between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian groups in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions began in 2014?
Tragically, there’s been a low-level war in Ukraine going on since then in which at least 14,000 people have been killed.
The Europeans have tried to negotiate a settlement. Ukraine elected a new president in 2019 on a mandate of ending the war, reflecting fatigue with the conflict on the part of many Ukrainians. But the talks have gone nowhere, with Russia showing no real desire to reach a lasting agreement, or even to implement the existing partial deals that have been struck. Russia’s reluctance to negotiate and solve the problem is due to the fact that the conflict so far has given them much of what they wanted. As with Georgia, integration of the remainder of Ukraine into NATO is effectively off the political agenda for the foreseeable future.
Nevertheless, Russia remains deeply unhappy with Western expansion into countries that they consider necessary for their security. Putin claimed that Russia is provoking a crisis now because of a need to rebuild the political architecture in Western Europe so that the U.S. can’t put nuclear weapons in neighboring countries and mass forces on Russia’s borders. All of that is true, in the sense that, from the Russian perspective, Western expansion has weakened their strategic position significantly. At the same time, for various reasons, almost all the agreements that the West has with the Russians over nuclear weapons and over the location of conventional arms in Europe have been abandoned either by the Russians or by the West or by both. Now, we’re in a situation where not much is left of Cold War-era security or even post-Cold War-era security infrastructure to help maintain peace in Europe.
So the troop build-up is one of many maneuvers that the Russians can make to obtain the outcome they want?
Yes. The Russians see this as a game. They’ve been losing, and now it’s time to change the dynamic, get a new agreement whereby NATO agrees not to expand anymore and to make new agreements about conventional forces and nuclear weapons in Europe and a new security infrastructure.
From a Russian perspective, it’s not the only way to defend Russia, of course. Theoretically, Russia could become a democracy, become our ally and join the EU. But that possibility is fanciful and certainly impossible under the current Russian regime. If you rule out the possibility of Russia suddenly joining the West and its institutions, then their security concerns are understandable. I wouldn’t necessarily say legitimate, but I would say understandable. On the other hand, the U.S. can say, ‘Ukraine and Georgia are independent countries. If they want to be on our team, they should be able to decide that.
Do leaders of those countries have the final say in negotiations with Russia?
That’s been the U.S. position. The whole structure of international law is built around sovereign states and the idea that countries get to choose their own alliances. So this position is perfectly legitimate. I always tell my students that you can have two competing and incompatible positions, both of which are reasonable on their own terms. The Russians have reasonable security concerns and Ukraine should be allowed to decide its own future. That’s why this is so problematic and so thorny, because how do you square that circle?
The old-school way or 19th-century way to square that circle was to ignore Ukraine and have the Great Powers make a deal over their heads. That’s not how it is supposed to be done today. Ukraine has to be at the table. That’s why you hear President Biden and his administration saying constantly that there will be no discussions without Ukraine.
Is that actually happening now?
Well, at the end of the day, yes and no. Secretary of State [Antony] Blinken has met bilaterally with [Russian Foreign Minister Sergey] Lavrov. Did the U.S. consult with the Ukrainians first? Yes, of course. The Europeans? Yes, of course. But on the day of this key meeting, none of these other people were in the room, which in itself is interesting and important.
Ultimately, current Russian leadership has a realist approach to foreign policy. They see U.S. protestations about the importance of including the Ukrainians and the Europeans as a sham. For them, the key to a deal lies in Washington, not somewhere else.
What effect have sanctions had, and are any meaningful sanctions left?
The U.S. and Europe have had pretty sweeping sanctions against Russia since 2013, both general sanctions and targeted sanctions against individuals.
Current sanctions don’t particularly affect the broad population, except for their long-term effect of reducing Russian economic growth compared to what it might otherwise be in the absence of sanctions. The U.S. and EU strategy is built around using ‘smart’ sanctions, which target individuals and companies that are important to powerful people in the regime. But the Russians are very smart. As soon as smart sanctions are imposed, they put their own ‘dumb’ sanctions on themselves. For example, they banned food imports from Western Europe and the U.S. The public sees the sweeping sanctions that affect everybody, even though the ones that affect people on the street are actually Russian countersanctions, not U.S. sanctions. That strategy of ‘We’re all in this together, guys’ has been very effective.
More generally, if sanctions are going to work, they tend to work quickly because, over time, your economy adapts. For example, banning products such as high-end cheeses from Europe has opened up that space in the market for new or existing Russian products. Some argue that sanctions have actually been good for their agricultural and food-processing industries.
Is there more the West could do in terms of sanctions? The truth is there’s a lot, but it could be very expensive. The question is, is the West willing to pay a high price to prevent Russia invading Ukraine?
Perhaps the most costly thing from the Western perspective is the Nord Stream 2 pipeline that will bring gas from Russia to Western Europe through Germany. Russia has lots of oil. It’s, I think, the second biggest producer in the world currently. Even more than that, it has lots of natural gas. Gas imports are dramatically important, especially for Germany and many Eastern European countries for home heating during the winter. It’s huge for both sides. The U.S. has been pushing Germany to back out of Nord Stream 2, but they’re very reluctant.
The other big option is the SWIFT system, which is a payment processing system used by the global banking network. The West could cut Russian access to this system, though doing so would have its own complications as the SWIFT network is privately owned and run, which would mean basically no electronic transactions with the rest of the world. That would be devastating for the Russian economy, but the U.S. seems reluctant to push the button on that. Some of this is due to fears that Russian banks and companies will find alternatives that would leave the U.S. financial system weaker in the long run. It might also be that the U.S. doesn’t want to play its last card before the end of the game. You always want another card to play.
What are the chances of an invasion?
My sense of Russian politics, having studied it for 30 years, is that they haven’t decided what they will do. I published an op-ed in the Washington Post in December on this, and I think what we argued there is still true — the threat of invasion is powerful. It got the Americans to the table. It got Blinken flying all around Europe. It got everybody talking about options for a new security architecture in central Europe. Biden has talked about a deal on where we place our missiles and where they place their missiles. They’re talking about all the things the Russians have wanted to talk about for years, with no success. The Russians have this card, and now they’ve got everybody dancing to their tune. The moment they play that card, however, it becomes a totally different game. Then it becomes a massive gamble on the Russian military’s capacity to win and hold territory in Ukraine that risks putting Putin’s whole regime on the line.
Say they don’t invade. The Russians can still cause trouble in a tremendous number of ways. Russian cyberattacks have demonstrated their ability to infiltrate our key domestic systems. Plus, Russia has lots of different proxies and friends around the world — in Central Africa, in Syria, in Latin America. For example, one way might be using their friendship with Venezuela to put missiles in Venezuela and change the dynamic on the chess board by moving the game into the American hemisphere. There’s a range of things Russia could do well short of a large-scale invasion of Ukraine that would be problematic for the U.S. Consequently, it’s really important to know that, even if the window for invasion closes over the next few weeks without much happening on the ground, the issue of guaranteeing security in the region is not going away. I may be retired before this goes away.
This article was originally published in The Well.