Scholarly Perspectives on the Russo-Ukrainian War

On Feb. 24, 2022, Russian forces entered Ukrainian territory after months of anticipation. On the pretext of a “peacekeeping” operation announced by Russian President Vladimir Putin two days prior, the Russian military’s stated intentions were to turn the separatist controlled Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine into independent territories.

The self-proclaimed People’s Republics in Donetsk and Luhansk collectively make up over 6,500 square miles, and would already be the largest territorial seizure from Ukraine since the Russian annexation of the Crimean Peninsula at the onset of the war in 2014. However, Russia has quickly moved against major population centers further into the country such as the cities of Mariupol and Kharkiv as their troops inch closer to the Ukrainian capital of Kiev.

As the fighting continues, PBS reports a UN estimate of a whopping 6.5 million civilians have been displaced inside of Ukraine, and a further 3.2 million have fled the country entirely as of Friday, March 18. The United Nations also confirms the deaths of at least 977 civilians from the beginning of the incursion through to March 23; however, estimates from other NGOs, IGOs and Ukrainian sources range much higher. Ukraine has recently claimed that as many as 2,500 civilians have died in the city of Mariupol alone.

This invasion has proven to be one of the greatest contemporary tests of Ukrainian mettle, as their military and many volunteer fighters standoff against the far vaster and more reputable Russian military. Meanwhile, President Putin has been tested in his strength and popularity, charging through one of the most significant campaigns of his long political career as he is bombarded with unforeseen military shortcomings and waves of sanctions from the international community, with Fortune reporting the Russian ruble tumbling by nearly half to 156 to the U.S. dollar by March 7. Though currency controls eventually recovered the exchange rate to 84 to the dollar by the end of March, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development predicts that the Russian economy will shrink by as much as 10% this year alone, in potentially the worst recession faced by Russia since 1990.

To truly understand the context and significance of the invasion, as well as the potential paths this conflict may go down, I spoke to three members of the Colgate community: Jessica Graybill, director of the Russian and Eurasian studies program; Valerie Morkevicius, a professor of political science and international relations; and Alice Nakhimovsky, distinguished professor of Jewish studies and professor of Russian and Eurasian studies.

Though Putin also annexed the Crimean Peninsula and much of Georgia, the professors all point out the uniqueness of his current campaign.

Graybill distinguishes the current invasion from past examples by highlighting the destructiveness and logistical undertakings of the campaign. “It does not surprise those of us who work in this field that this sort of territorial grab has happened,” she says. “What is surprising is the severity of this war and the speed that it has happened, and the horrific war crimes against cousins, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles.” She adds, “The scale at which this is happening is so large … the scale of the war being waged is also something we haven’t seen Putin do.”

Morkevicius also believes that this invasion is distinguished from previous campaigns due to its scale: “Ukraine is much bigger, it’s huge. But he obviously thought he could do it.”

Graybill also believes that this break in Putin’s traditional policy was a miscalculation on his part. “I think he thought he saw a weak West that wouldn’t dare to unify against him. I also think we’re being introduced to a Putin that is becoming more unhinged, and isolated from just about everybody throughout the entirety of the pandemic.”

Morkevicius views this invasion as unique on more ideological grounds, namely that this is a break from what Putin perceives to be a “special obligation to protect Russian language speakers wherever they might find themselves.” She adds, “The inferiority of ‘Ukrainianness’ or that it’s not even a real thing, that I think is somewhat different than what we’ve seen in the other cases, where his story of why he was doing what he was doing was very much tied to Russian speakers and Russian citizens.”

Though Morkevicius recognizes the current invasion as unique, she also believes Putin’s previous campaigns did pave the way for operations such as the one we are seeing now. “The world didn’t react very strongly to the annexation of about 20% of Georgia … and the world didn’t react all that strongly to Russian encouragement of separatists in Luhansk and Donetsk.” This, she believes, emboldened Putin to base a more aggressive foreign policy on the idea that Ukrainians are not ethnically or linguistically distinct from Russians.

Responses from the three professors showed some ranging schools of thought on why Putin is so interested in Ukraine.

Graybill proposes that hardcore economics may have been a factor in Putin’s interest in former Soviet territories like Ukraine. “If we think of Russia as the big core and all of the Eastern European [nations], and all through Caucuses and the Central Asian states as the periphery, we can think of that as places with a lot of resources of different kinds. Oil, gas, coal, copper, zinc, you name it.” She also offers that Ukraine in particular is a benefit to Russia’s powerful fossil fuel market. “Lots of Russia’s pipelines go from Central Asia and Siberia, through Ukraine to Europe. So Ukraine has been, and still is, crucial to Russia’s pipeline infrastructure.”

Graybill also explains that there is a deep cultural background to this conflict. “One of the things to understand about the long, long relationship between Russia and Ukraine, is that the nascent state of Rus began in what is now Ukrainian territory. That’s a thousand years ago.” Not only does she believe Putin has an interest in reclaiming Soviet territories, but she believes Russia has a unique interest in Ukraine because they have shared a “rich, cultural, Slavic history.”

Morkevicius offers an alternative possibility – that this invasion was motivated more by prestige than economics. “My training is as an international relations realist, so we try to look for material explanations for why wars happen. And it’s hard to see why a war for Ukraine would be materially beneficial. Ukraine’s natural resources – coal, for example – are not the way of the future.” She further notes that while Ukraine has a large population, it is much poorer than Russia, and that Russia has a lot of development it can do on its own. She continued, “The cost of these conflicts is quite high for what would seem like a materially low payoff.”

Morkevicius suggests there is a large ideological component to the invasion, and that Putin believes that “Russia’s place in the world has been diminished, and the only way to reassert that is demonstrating its right to a sphere of influence of its own.”

Graybill and Morkevicius highlighted different considerations, Graybill focusing on their shared cultural background and Morkevicus on their global stature. However, these arguments are not mutually exclusive and show that there are multiple possible motives, both material and immaterial in nature.

As Russian forces swept further into Ukraine, Putin’s rhetoric quickly changed from that of a self-professed peacekeeper to justify a broad brushed seizure of Ukrainian territory. Bloomberg reports that he has repeatedly likened the Ukrainian government to neo-Nazis, and invoking nostalgia of the Soviet Union, lamenting the redivision of the world that came after its collapse in a recent speech. In his speech, he also abandoned the original pretext of the invasion that he wished to turn Donetsk and Luhansk into independent territories and instead claimed he was defending the freedom of “all the peoples living in today’s Ukraine” to rejoin Russia. It would seem increasingly likely that Russia intends to swallow Ukraine whole, and that Putin is attempting to convince the international community that he has legitimate grounds to do so.

Nakhimovsky notes how significant these accusations of Nazism are to the Russian people in particular, saying that Putin is invoking a narrative of World War II to rally domestic support. “Another familiar narrative of World War II is the Siege of Leningrad, where a quarter of the city dies of famine,” she said. “Survivors of that … always had a special place in the Soviet Union, including relatives of mine. They carried an ID, and they got in free to museums, and free transport.”

She refers to this sort of messaging as sickening, and recalls a video from early March where an actual survivor of Leningrad was arrested protesting the war. “There’s this woman … and she’s shouting down a policeman … she says to him ‘I am a survivor of the Siege of Leningrad, I was a baby and they found me next to my dead mother.’ He looks at her and he seems to walk away. But if you let it roll for another twenty seconds, he grabs her by the arm and takes her away.” This was consistent with the arrest of 77 year-old Yelena Osipava, according to Independent UK.

All three professors were also asked the following question: “How legitimate of a claim would Russia have to Ukraine if they were to take it?” Their sentiment seemed nearly unanimous.

“There is no legitimate claim to the sovereign nation-state of Ukraine after 1991,” Graybill responded.

“They’re bombing the place, they’re killing as many people as they can. So I can’t understand ‘legitimacy’ following that,” echoed Nakhimovsky.

“Zero,” said Morkevicius. She highlights two important pieces of international law that refute any Russian claim. “The UN Charter outlaws aggression. Only self-defense is a permissible use of force without the prior authorization of the UN security council.” Though she says Russia may attempt to claim this is a humanitarian intervention that wouldn’t require the authorization of the Security Council, she refutes this noting that such interventions by organizations such as NATO have been against provable human rights abuses such as ethnic cleansing, and that Russia has no such defense here. “The workaround that international legal scholars have had about humanitarian interventions and a responsibility to protect just doesn’t apply in this case, because the facts on the ground make it impossible to accept that kind of claim.”

Morkevicius also cited a principle of international law called “uti possidetis,” meaning “as you possess.”

“The idea is that when a state breaks up, either because of decolonization or because of secession, it receives and should treat as its legal boundaries the administrative boundaries it had in its previous iteration. So in this case the boundaries of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic are under international law, the natural and accepted borders of Ukraine as a state. The Russian Federation doesn’t get to say after the fact, ‘Oh well it would have been better if Kruschev hadn’t given Crimea to Ukraine.’”

Morkevicius also notes that the Russian Federation itself recognized the original borders of Ukraine, including its ownership of Crimea and the Donbas region where the bulk of fighting is currently taking place, in the Budapest Memorandum of 1994.

The question of whether Russia has a right to take Ukraine aside, all three professors seemed to share a skepticism that Putin actually could. Nakhimovsky believed there would be serious logistical challenges to holding the Donbas region alone. “You need the old Soviet KGB apparatus, and people in every building and at every level of every workplace, watching over people and ready to denounce as a prelude to arrest. [Putin] doesn’t have that infrastructure.”

“I think that [Putin] has massively miscalculated the strength of not just the West, but the world coming together against him,” says Graybill. However she notes that not even the best experts know what comes next.

Nakhimovsky believes that Putin underestimated the resistance from the Ukrainian military. “Russian speakers are slightly overrepresented in the military, and it’s clear that Putin expected them to just give up, to just walk away and they haven’t.” Though she notes that, “It’s nearly impossible to carry out any serious social scientific work” in the separatist controlled regions Russia first invaded, she believes that Russia wrongly assumed that “Russian speakers are somehow naturally interested in a political relationship with Russia.”

All three professors also provided advice for any interested observers wishing to find reliable information on the conflict as it unfolds. Graybill recommends several outlets, including the BBC, The New York Times, The Guardian and, for those interested in Russian sources, and Radio Free Liberty.

Morkevicius says, “It’s so important to look for journalists who are on the ground, and to turn to them first. And nowadays, with social media, you can follow journalists who are right there. Both American and European journalists, but also Ukrainian journalists, particularly the Kyiv Independent.” She also says that it is “important to be aware that both sides have a narrative that they want to portray,” warning about the exaggerations of government forces.

Nakhimovsky says that The Guardian “has particularly timely coverage,” and also recommends Meduza. “They were long since kicked out of Russia, and operate out of Latvia.”

Meduza recently held a rare 90 minute interview with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, which was censored in Russia, according to the Washington Post.

The greatest takeaways that can be made from the consensus of these three professors are as follows: First, Russia and Ukraine have a close cultural and political history, and Putin’s interest in them is in large part due to their ethnic and linguistic ties. Second, Putin’s invasion of Ukraine demonstrates a new form of foreign policy that is unique both for its ideological components as well as its scale and aggression. Third, Vladimir Putin underestimated the pushback he would receive both from the Ukrainian people and the international community. And fourth, despite Putin’s assertions otherwise, Russia has no legitimate claim to the territories of Ukraine.

Graybill offered one final closing remark to be passed to the Colgate campus: “нет войне,” “ні війні,” or “no to war” in Russian and Ukrainian, respectively.