It’s been two weeks since Russia invaded Ukraine, and already, it’s shaping up to be the most important conflict of this century. The invasion, the biggest Europe has seen since World War II, wreaked havoc on Ukraine. People like you and me, who two weeks ago were living normal lives, were suddenly forced to hide in bomb shelters, pick up weapons to defend their country, or escape.
Outgunned and outmatched, Ukraine is fighting heroically, despite receiving blow after blow from Russian artillery. Russia found itself an international outcast, shunned from the global community and subjected to unprecedented economic sanctions. Launching an unprovoked war was just the start of it, the Russian military also bombed civilian centers and according to experts, is already committing war crimes in Ukraine.
The conflict has developed so much that to anyone who hasn’t been following the news very closely (and even to many who have), it’s hard to draw any conclusions. So we asked some experts for help in making sense of it all.
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A tyrant dreams of greatness
We can approach the situation from a number of perspectives, says Edgardo Pappacena, Professor of Strategy & International Business at Florida International University (FIU) and former global chief strategy officer for PricewaterhouseCoopers. Aside from the military and political aspects, there’s the historical factor, the geographic factor, and the economic one. But while this is a multifaceted conflict, it’s also one that was brewing for some time.
“This is something that has been brewing for many years. It’s happening now, but anyone who would have been paying attention to what has happened in the world in the last 20 years, anyone who paid attention to what Putin has been saying for the last 20 years, knew that this was a real possibility,” Pappacena said in an interview at the start of the conflict.
Indeed, the Russo-Ukrainian war has technically been going on since 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea, and it’s not the first recent attack launched by Russian forces (they also invaded Georgia in 2008). However, things have moved quickly in the past few years and Pappacena sees here a clear sign that Putin wants to rebuild the former glory of the Soviet Union.
“We’re seeing here clearly, on one hand, actions, from someone like Putin, and his desire to rebuild what used to be the Soviet Union, and on the greatness of the Russian Empire. I always remind people that back in 2005, Putin said that the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century was the collapse of the Soviet Union. So anyone who really understands history and really understands how tyrants like Putin operate would have predicted this.”
Rebecca Friedman, associate professor in history at FIU, focuses on the history and culture of modern Russia. She even wrote a book on the history of masculinity in Russia, and she too believes Putin has a personal part to play in this invasion. While she says the reasons for the invasions are many, she suspects that Putin’s own sense of “masculinity and might” may have played a role in this.
“Russia’s struggle with its notion of national self vis a vis the west and east/Europe and Asia is, needless to say, decades old and continues to reverberate today. Putin’s own public image is caught up in these narratives, with a particular emphasis on gender and masculinity. One cannot entirely understand either his public appeal or his military aggression against Ukraine in this instance without the lens of gender.”
Economy and politics
Of course, Russia has strong economic interests in Ukraine — and based on what we’re seeing so far, although Ukraine has been an independent country since 1991, Russia still seems to consider it a part of its sphere of influence.
From an economic perspective, Ukraine is absolutely critical to Russia’s ability to supply gas to Eastern Europe — and we should not forget that unfortunately, Western Europe is still highly dependent on Russian gas, Pappacena says.
At the same time, Russia wants to have a buffer between itself and the NATO area, Pappacena adds. A free Ukraine that follows its own path is more likely to head towards the prosperous European Union and NATO, something that Russia sees as unacceptable.
Emboldened by an anemic response to its 2014 annexation of Crimea and the recent US withdrawal from Afghanistan, Putin probably saw his chance here.
“This is happening because of Putin. It is. But it’s also happening because of the extremely weak stance, debilitating stance, almost arrogant stance that the West has taken over the last two decades. [..] This is a consequence of the extremely weak position that the West has taken for the last 20 years,” Pappacena says. This is also a failure of Western leadership, he adds.
The invasion is very illegal and sanctions may not be tough enough
Lauren Sanders, a Senior Research Fellow with The University of Queensland who focuses on international criminal law, says that Russia’s legal grounds for invasion are non-existent.
“There has already been plenty said about the illegality of the Russian invasion itself, that is, the breach of the UN Charter and the jus as bellum (law to go to war). For example, the International Court of Justice has denounced Russia’s claim of justifying the invasion on grounds of defend those in Luhansk and Donesk as ‘nonsensical and utterly unsupported’.”
To make matters even worse, Russia appears to be targeting civilian areas. Sanders suspected that civilians taking arms to defend Ukraine will “encourage opposing Russian forces to target civilians during the ongoing combat operations” — which is already happening.
“There is now, as more information about the actual fighting itself is emerging, discussion emerging about what might be done to deal with the illegal conduct of those who are fighting the war, as a narrative of blatant disregard for jus in bello rules – or the laws of armed conflict – is being painted. Targeting of civilians is unlawful. Targeting civilian infrastructure is unlawful. Targeting of hospitals and first aid posts is unlawful. The use of methods and means of warfare to cause unnecessary suffering is unlawful,” Sanders adds.
Here too, there is something to be said about Western weakness enabling these war crimes. In an article for the Atlantic Council, an American think tank in the field of international affairs, Bohdan Klid from the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies shares his thoughts on the situation.
“Reducing entire cities to rubble does not seem to bother Vladimir Putin or Russian commanders. His military has done this before, destroying the Chechen capital Grozny and Aleppo in Syria. Many observers are shocked to see these tactics being applied in the heart of Europe, but there is really no reason to be surprised. The war crimes we are now witnessing in Ukraine are in many ways the calling card of the Russian army in the Putin era,” wrote Klid.
Pappacena says there are two main sanctions that can truly deter Putin from continuing to wage war: cutting Russia from the Swift banking system and stopping imports of Russian fossil fuels, which account for about 60% of the country’s exports.
The world has taken some steps in these two directions. Some Russian banks (though not the largest one) have been removed from Swift and recently, the US announced that it will no longer import oil from Russia. These are significant steps, but the US only imports a relatively small fraction of oil from Russia — the bulk of Russian fossil fuel exports are still continuing largely unabated.
“So far, the Western response to Putin’s invasion has proved insufficient to restrain Russia. Sanctions imposed since the beginning of the war have been unexpectedly severe, but they have stopped some way short of the most extreme options available. The UK has been reluctant to match its rhetoric with tough steps against Russian oligarchs, for example, while Germany has blocked efforts to impose potentially game-changing sanctions on Russian energy exports,” Klid notes in his article.
Perhaps the most impactful sanction was the freeze that central banks throughout the West put on Russia’s sovereign assets. Since the invasion of Crimea in 2014, Putin has been carefully amassing a huge reserve of currency — a massive war chest. This $640 billion stockpile was meant to be used exactly in this type of situation, as a buffer should the Western world ostracize Russia. Having been cut off from this war chest, Putin found his buffer removed, and the Russian economy took a full hit. The Russian economy is expected to shrink by at least 7% this year — even worse than what the pandemic did. Finance companies are also saying that a default on Russian bonds is imminent, and it’s still not clear just how bad things will get for the Russian economy.
Alas, one of the problems with sanctions is that they take time to cause an effect. According to Pappacena, the time for these sanctions was months, if not years ago.
“You don’t amass 200,000 troops overnight, right? He [Putin] has been doing this for six months for God’s sake. And we didn’t do anything. So from my perspective, I think that the West should have taken very drastic measures six months ago, five months ago, even in November or December — not wait until now.”
The other problem with sanctions is that while they will clearly affect the Russian people, it’s not clear what effect this will have on Putin himself and his ability to wage war.
“I would suggest that sanctions could have a terrible impact on the Russian population at large, but that may not impact the leader himself. It is well known that the very notion of “popular political appeal” for a president like Putin is fraught,” says Friedman.
Pappacena says severe sanctions will have severe consequences — but this is what needs to be done to prevent further war.
“Of course the sanctions also have an impact on the Russian people and unfortunately, will have an impact economically on the west. But, you know, it’s where we are.”
What Putin wants and how this could all end
Even the stated intentions of Russia in Ukraine are extremely concerning. Russia has essentially stated that they want to change the democratically elected government of Ukraine, ensure that Ukraine won’t have a military, and ensure that Ukraine won’t ever join any international alliance (such as the EU or NATO). They also want Ukraine to give up on Crimea and its separatist territories. Basically, they want to turn Ukraine into a puppet state.
“I would not underestimate the intentions of a leader like Putin. He may well have plans to annex parts of Ukraine or recapture it entirely. If the regime at home can continue to quell protests, despite their growing strength, anything is possible. It might be a return to Soviet-style linguistic/cultural oppression, which would no doubt destroy any hopes of Ukraine’s budding democratic and civil society goals and aspirations,” says Friedman.
Russia’s intentions were also published by mistake by RIA, the Russian state-owned domestic news agency. RIA published an article on 26 February, at exactly 8:00, saying that “Ukraine has returned to Russia” and “there will be no more Ukraine as anti-Russia”. It was obviously a pre-planned article for the expected outcome that Ukraine would fall in three days — which it did not. The article would go on to claim that “Russia is restoring its unity” and praised Vladimir Putin for assuming the “historic responsibility” of “deciding not to leave the solution of the Ukrainian question to future generations” — echoing the Nazi leaders who wanted to “solve” the “Jewish Question”.
Because this was a pre-written article on the state-owned media, it’s pretty clear that the article was meant to serve as an explanation for what Russia wants after it conquers Ukraine — although again, this hasn’t happened.
Per this article, Russia’s goals are to virtually kill Ukraine’s statehood, “restructuring it and reestablishing it to its natural condition as part of the Russian world.” But this is just the start.
The article goes on to claim that this is the start of “a new era” and the era of “Western domination is fully and definitely over.” In other words, Russia seems to see this conflict as the start of something bigger.
Pappacena agrees that given Putin’s track record and modus operandi, it is unlikely that Ukraine will be the end of it. It’s still speculative, but it’s not impossible to consider that in the “worst nightmare” scenario, this could trigger a global confrontation.
“If Russia installs a puppet government in Ukraine, the real risk here is the Baltics because the Baltics would be completely surrounded by Russia. There’s a recent study done by the Rand Institute where a war scenario found that if Russia decides to invade the Baltics, the Baltics would fall in 60 hours, less than three days,” Pappacena says. If this were to happen, it would trigger a confrontation between NATO and Russia, essentially equating to a world war.
But even in a less gloomy scenario, this will likely have long-lasting international consequences — aside from the humanitarian crisis it is triggering in Ukraine.
“This could, indeed, have long-lasting geo-political impacts. They might range from specter of nuclear war to economic collapse from a variety of sources, whether increased supply-chain challenges or simply ongoing military and soft-power involvement,” Friedman notes.
So is there anything good that could come out of this? It’s hard to envision, and will likely take a lot of time, but it’s not impossible, says Pappacena. The one thing to look forward to would be a national backlash in Russia against Putin and against war — a backlash that would put Russia on a more democratic and anti-war path.
Currently, Putin is tightening his grip on the country back home. Independent journalism has been effectivelly banned, access to social media is severely restricted, and anyone spreading “fake news” about the Russian military can be sentenced to up to 15 years in jail. Russian authorities have arrested thousands of peaceful protesters at anti-war rallies across the country — according to one report, as many as 13,500 protesters have been arrested.
Meanwhile, in Ukraine, the situation remains critical. This is shaping up to be a momentous event, and its consequences are still hard to fully understand.