By Dr. Michael Grossman, professor of international affairs and national security
Early morning, February 24, 2022, Russia launched an attack on its neighbor, Ukraine. After months of posturing, military build-ups, threats, and negotiations, the attack came swiftly and continues as of this writing. The attack clearly violated international law and Russian treaty commitments. Where and how it will end is still anyone’s guess.
I will admit, I was one of those who doubted that it would come to this. From developments, it seemed that war was not in the cards. The Kremlin had in the past, used crises to successfully force negotiations, and negotiation efforts seemed to be progressing. The issue of NATO expansion, a critical issue for Russia since the 1990s but dismissed by the U.S. and its Western allies, was being discussed. Although the U.S. and some of its allies were still digging in their heels on new memberships, there were growing voices in the Western press about perhaps officially excluding Ukraine and Georgia from future expansion or, at least, announcing a moratorium. There also appeared to be room for negotiation on military forces in Europe. Further, the French and the Germans seemed to be making headway in bridging the gap between Moscow and the West.
But that all fell apart.
Dr. Michael Grossman
Why? Perhaps it was Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s speech in Munich where he discussed the potential for developing nuclear weapons in Ukraine or a fear of NATO expansion? Perhaps it was France and Germany’s apparent unwillingness to pressure Kyiv to implement the Minsk Accords? Or perhaps, Putin concluded that there was no point in continuing to negotiate? As one member of his security council noted: the West will always find a pretext to sanction Russia regardless of what it does. Or maybe, Putin is just a megalomaniacal autocrat who wants to reestablish the Russian Empire? Honestly, at this point, guessing as to the reason is a fool’s game.
For now, I am left with more questions than answers:
- One of the reasons why I found this action surprising is that this invasion is “out of character” for Putin. For many of us who have studied Russia, and Putin, we find him to be a very cautious foreign policy actor. He tends not to take chances. Syria serves as an example. When the Russians went into that Middle Eastern country, they avoided putting boots on the ground, preferring to use air power or cruise missiles launched from Russian soil. Further, Russia tends to be very reactive in its foreign adventurism. Even with its war in Georgia, it was responding to Georgian actions (although many would argue Moscow goaded Tbilisi into attacking). Similarly, with Crimea, Russia had many opportunities to seize that territory since the fall of the USSR – but they didn’t. It wasn’t until they feared the loss of their base in Sevastopol that they acted. Does this invasion indicate a new, bolder, riskier, Russia? I hope not. The world will become a lot more unstable if that is the case.
- Since the fall of the USSR, Russia has been drifting in and out of love with the West. Each new president comes in proclaiming his plans to integrate with the West. Putin was no different. Let’s remember he was the first foreign leader to call President Bush after the attacks of 9/11. But since that time, Moscow has been steadily drifting further away from the West and closer to China. Has Russia finally decided that its future does not lie with the West, but with China? That too is bad news for the U.S. and the world.
- I also wonder what this means for the power structure within the Kremlin. Historically, Russian politics has been divided between the liberals (who favor more democracy and free market) and conservatives (who range from Russian nationalists to communists to proto-fascists). Putin has sat in the middle, balancing the interests of both groups so neither becomes too powerful. In recent years, the liberals have managed to discredit themselves and the conservatives have gained more power, to the point where Putin’s main challengers are now to the right of him (mostly communists and nationalists). These folks have been arguing that Putin has been too soft on Ukraine and the West, and should be much more belligerent. Does this invasion mean that Putin has finally thrown in his lot with the conservatives? If this is the case, things in Russia are about to get much more oppressive.
Dr. Grossman will be participating in a UMU Experts event on this same topic on Wednesday, March 16 at 6 p.m. in the Newbold Room of the Hoover-Price Campus Center. The event is free and open to the public.