Though Russia’s invasion of Ukraine this year may have come as a surprise to those in the U.S., local professors say Russian President Vladimir Putin’s move makes historical sense.
Four professors at Washington State University Vancouver spoke in a virtual webinar on April 11 as they addressed the war in Ukraine. They offered perspectives from a political science, public affairs and historical stance as they focused on what happened before and after the start of the conflict on Feb. 24.
Hosted jointly by the university and Fort Vancouver Regional Library, the panel was designed to provide a better perspective on what has played into Russia’s invasion.
Professor Anthony Lopez analyzed the “song and dance” of who is to blame for the war, be it Putin’s aggression or NATO’s expansion into former Eastern Bloc countries. Lopez said he has personally taken the middle ground, framing it in light of “historic Russian territorial paranoia” Putin has expressed during his leadership.
Lopez said the timing of the invasion focused on three things: grievance, opportunism and miscalculation.
On grievance, he said Putin has bemoaned the disintegration of the Soviet Union as “the most important strategic plunder of his lifetime.”
“But he’s no communist,” Lopez said. “Vladimir Putin is a nationalist seeking to steer Russia toward renewed great power status.”
Lopez said Putin interpreted democratic revolutions in former Soviet countries as a “well-funded Western plot to unseat him.” He said the Russian president has proven himself to be both calculating but also “risk-acceptant.” He noted Putin was motivated to reverse the mistakes of Russia’s past.
On opportunism, Lopez said relatively recent foreign policy successes like the 2008 war in Georgia, which caught western nations by surprise, the 2014 annexation of Crimea, and the 2015 boost of the Assad regime in Syria appeared to show a lack of response by those Putin considers adversaries.
“In short, the West was weak and divided while Russia was resurgent and riding a wave of foreign policy successes,” Lopez said.
The strike appears to be a miscalculation, Lopez continued, in part due to an assumption that Ukrainians would welcome Russia as liberators, and that the surrender of Kyiv would happen so quickly NATO would be caught off guard.
“This is a miscalculation that, by the way, that Americans should be very familiar with,” Lopez said.
Putin now has to refocus on smaller-scale goals such as the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine, he said. That shift isn’t an outright loss, Lopez said, as he noted Russian warfare is built on attrition.
Public affairs professor Paul Thiers said sanctions on Russia have greatly limited its ability to use the global economic system, export energy and import technology. The sanctions have been imposed by about 63% of world economic power. He said European’s “willingness to sacrifice” economic connections is particularly noteworthy.
Regarding non-NATO-allied countries, Thiers said the Chinese government has made no overt moves to increase its oil purchases from Russia, but there’s been a substantial uptick in smaller-scale “teapot” refineries that may include government involvement. He also noted a recent transfer of surface-to-air missiles from China to Russian-allied Serbia.
History professor Karl Krotke-Crandall spoke on the narrative of the “denazification” of Ukraine, which has been pushed by Russia. Though some pundits assumed the tactic was specifically in reference to the Azov Battalion, a neo-Nazi military unit in eastern Ukraine, Krotke-Crandall said it was pulled from the old Soviet playbook that used historical innaccuracies of World War II.
Noting Ukrainians fought on both sides of that war, Krotke-Crandall mentioned that was also the case for Polish people and Russians. Generally, those who sided with the Nazis usually did so “to throw off the yoke of Soviet oppression.”
Krotke-Crandall said the Ukrainian military’s work with Azov was an attempt for the country to establish itself as a modern democracy. Before anyone in the U.S. attempts to pass judgment, he said they should look at similarities in their nation.
Krotke-Crandall said media outlets who have claimed Putin is playing a game of three-dimensional chess in his information warfare are inaccurate.
“I would argue that he’s actually overseeing a game of Hungry Hungry Hippos in which he drops pieces of information waiting for the press to gobble it up in a flurry to distract us from what might be his alternative objectives,” Krotke-Crandall said.
He gave the example of increased scrutiny of foreign nationals by the Russian government and its liquidation of a human rights organization which uncovered past Soviet atrocities. Krotke-Crandall said those moves provided cover to Putin’s movement of troops into Belarus. More recently, he said media outlets have focused on high-profile individuals who may serve as a distraction to the war.
Krotke-Crandall said the majority of Putin’s Feb. 24 address before the invasion focused on NATO expansion, not Ukraine. He said pushing back on “neo-imperialism” through NATO with the incorporation of Nazism was a “hallmark” of Joseph Stalin’s propaganda. Even after the Soviet leader’s death, the same kind of framing was used against the West. At one point during 1967’s Six-Day War, Krotke-Crandall said Soviet media described Israeli leaders as Nazis.
Krotke-Crandall said the message of Russia’s Great Patriotic War is a “deliberate scheme to ensure the support” of a captive audience in the country by Putin.
Effects on the Balkans
Currently a Fullbright scholar at the University of Ljubljana in Slovenia, political science professor and two-time Congressional candidate Carolyn Long explained the war in Ukraine from a Balkan perspective.
Though there have been claims that the war in Ukraine and its impact has resulted in the worst conflict in Europe since World War II, Long pointed to the wars following the disintegration of Yugoslavia and the Kosovo conflict in Serbia during the 1990s.
She noted the vulnerability of western Balkan states, notably Bosnia, Serbia and Kosovo, which have not joined NATO. She said the war in the region following the dissolution of Yugoslavia could be used as a parallel for what Russia aims to do in Ukraine with regard to recapturing lost territory, as evidenced by Serbia’s conflicts with Bosnia and Kosovo.
Long said Serbia remains “a staunch ally of Putin,” which is reflected in the fact the country hasn’t joined European Union sanctions. The country also relies on Russia’s energy supplies and receives financing for local media from Russia.
Though Bosnia has aspirations to join NATO, Russia’s ambassador to Bosnia said if the latter country joined the organization, the former would see it as a threat. Recently, one of three of Bosnia’s presidents who represents the Bosnian Serb population has threatened to withdraw from the country’s federation.
The chief concern in the Balkans isn’t any direct action Russia may take in the region, but is focused on the spillover that may occur. That could result in leaders taking advantage of the situation, Long said.
“It is a tinderbox. It is where a conflict will spread, not where Russia will invade the Balkans, but Russian invasion of Ukraine creating uncertainty, which may then lead to conflict in the Balkans,” Long said.
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