By Nick Erickson
Enough has occurred in the week since Russian executed its military attack on Ukraine for experts to note trends on what is happening and what comes next, and George Washington University faculty and alumni offered their observations and analysis of the ongoing military crisis.
Elliott School of International Affairs Dean Alyssa Ayres moderated a discussion with five GW panelists Tuesday that peeled off what is happening in Eastern Europe layer by layer for a large virtual audience. “We've got a faculty and alumni expertise able to cover every dimension of the crisis we are now seeing in Ukraine,” Ayers said.
Miscalculations have been an early theme on both sides of the conflict, said Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies Director Marlene Laruelle. First and foremost, the Russian regime headed by President Vladimir Putin showed it was not afraid to do what many people both abroad and internally didn’t think was imaginable in invading Ukraine, showing its high threshold for both receiving and delivering a mass amount of pain and causalities.
But on the flip side, resistance from Ukraine and its citizens has caught the Russian military operation by surprise. That includes a strong front from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and his willingness defend the country he leads.
“Ukraine has shown unity not only militarily but also its maturity of its political leadership,” said Laruelle, who is also the director of the Illiberalism Studies Program, Central Asia Program and co-director of PONARS-Eurasia. “The Ukrainian society has been really united against the war, creating a contrary effect to what Russia was expecting.”
This resistance has exposed how poorly Russia was prepared logistically, and nations around the world have almost unilaterally backed Ukraine by condemning Putin’s actions and harboring economic sanctions that has plummeted the Russian economy.
This had a profound effect on Russian citizens, and their large protests in the streets of Moscow and St. Petersburg have showed the importance of distinguishing between Putin himself and the rest of Russia, alumnus Kurt Volker, M.A. ’87, said.
Volker, a former special representative for Ukraine negotiations, said these actions playing out in real time for the world to see have clearly shown that Putin is the aggressor and entered Ukraine unprovoked, contrary to what he has given for reasons entering the country. Volker said that, for years, Putin’s actions have pointed toward restoring the old Soviet Union. Russian citizens and people of influence have had to be careful speaking out, Volker said, but there’s been a vocal enough internal opposition.
“I think that Russians see that Putin is not acting rationally,” said Volker, a distinguished fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis and senior international adviser of the BGR Group. “I think the Russian military sees this. I think the intelligence services see this, and I think they may be concerned about what he may do.”
Russian citizens, like the rest of the world, are seeing some atrocious actions unfolding in Ukraine. GW Associate Professor of Political Science and International Affairs Alexander Downes said Russia’s goal was a quick seize of the capital city, Kyiv, and overthrow of Zelensky’s government to install what would basically be a puppet leader to turn against what they perceive to be a pro-Western Ukrainian regime, in addition to being a buffer against NATO.
But because Ukraine is not simply surrendering in an orderly fashion, as they may have hoped, the Russian military has increasingly placed a purposeful target on civilians in a redoubled effort to seize the capital, committing international war crimes in the process.
“Basically, it’s a race between the Russian ability to advance and the Ukrainians ability to regroup and resupply, and a race between Russia winning the war quickly and devastating the Russian economy,” Downes said.
Should Putin ultimately succeed and overtake the Ukrainian government, it couldn’t be any clearer that most Ukrainians would vehemently oppose new leadership. Historically, Downes said, that has meant severe consequences such as civil war, a violent overthrow of the puppet government and poor interstate relations.
“It could be worse afterward than it actually is now,” said Downes, who wondered if the massive resistance takes making a deal off the table for now.
While western Europe, Japan, Australia and the United States and Canada have been united in their condemnation of Russia and support for Ukraine, intervention is tricky. The play so far has been to heavily sanction Russia by limiting its financial system’s access to the international community. The ruble’s value has dropped 30%.
Professor of Economics and International Affairs and Director of the M.A. in the International Economic Policy Program Michael O. Moore said most observers have been impressed with the immediate effectiveness of multilateral sanctions on Russia, but he is skeptical that economic costs currently affecting Russian citizens will be enough to significantly alter Putin’s actions. So far, he said, it doesn’t seem either side is willing to threaten the oil and gas sector, and he has doubts that Europe can pivot quickly enough to a non-Russian energy reliance. However, he believes the disgust by this military action will change how businesses invest in Russia moving forward.
“I don’t think economic sanctions are going to be the way Putin’s actions change,” Moore said. “But this is a regime change, in a certain sense, in that being involved with Russia seems to have fundamentally changed.”
Charles Glaser, professor of Political Science and International Affairs and co-director of the Institute for Security and Conflict Settings, cautioned not to push Putin too far in sanctions, especially since he has threatened radical behavior to those who intervene, though he added that it was hard to envision any nuclear usage by Putin.
“If the cost is too large and too immediate, Putin could actually fear for his own regime,” said Glaser, who thinks it is wise for now that the United States hasn’t put boots on the ground. “He could fear that he himself is actually vulnerable, and that’s when he could act radically and take large risks. We need to try to not undermine him.”
If things ever get to a negotiating table, Glaser said, one of the possibilities could be a promise that Ukraine won’t join NATO, at least for the foreseeable future. While it’d be a violation of principle, Glaser didn’t think it would be a big action concession and could give Putin a face-saving way to get out of the conflict.
It remains unclear how the endgame is reached. Fighting is far from over, especially if Putin continues to dig in his heels. More blood will be shed. But the experts say what is now abundantly clear is that Russia is the aggressor, and Ukrainians will not let this action go quietly.