UO political experts view Russian invasion through different lenses

Ukraine flag with silhouettes of refugees

As the world scrambles to assess the ramifications of the invasion of Ukraine, UO experts are shedding light on the calculations of Russian president Vladimir Putin and the impact of the attack on Ukraine, Russia and the West.

The massive scale of the attack suggested to Julie Hessler, an associate professor of history and historian of the Soviet Union, that Putin intends to send an unmistakable message to the West.

“It’s a demonstration of strength,” Hessler said. “Putin’s desire is to demonstrate that Russia is strong, that it’s not a weak country that has to follow rules set by others, it’s a strong country and people must respect its interests.”

Ukraine’s history since 2000, Hessler said, is one in which elected governments friendly to Russia and important as partners were twice overturned by movements that favor the values of the West and were spurred on with vocal backing from the U.S. Putin considers it hypocritical for the U.S. to “talk the language of democracy,” Hessler said, but to help subvert electoral outcomes when it suits their economic or geopolitical interests.

Putin has repeatedly characterized U.S. attacks in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya as examples of the willingness of the U.S. to topple governments problematic to its interests. Perceiving America as Russia’s primary enemy, actively injurious to Russian interests, Putin may have opted for a full-scale invasion of Ukraine in a bid to shake up the world order, according to Hessler.

“I’m persuaded by analysts who see him as hoping to revise the international system so that it is more multipolar and makes more space for Russia’s interests,” Hessler said, “a Russia-China axis, in addition to an axis in the West.”

Could that happen? Political science professor Craig Parsons is skeptical.

Parsons, an expert on Europe and the European Union, said Putin’s invasion is quickly turning formerly divergent European economic and security interests into a united front against Russia. As just one example, he noted European intentions to accelerate renewable energy efforts and reduce reliance on Russian gas by 66 percent in a single year.

The result of a renewed connection between the United States and the European Union could be a more formidable opponent that isolates Russia economically and forces China, an emerging power, to choose whether to tie its economic future to continued trade with most of Europe and the West or a single, belligerent country that is in economic decline, Parsons said.

“It’s too early to say which way China will lean,” Parsons said, “and it remains to be seen how fully the Americans and Europeans can stick together. But I think for China the status quo is better than scrambling the board. I don’t see how the Chinese can feel comfortable with an ally the rest of the world is denouncing. The kind of isolation that Russia has now chosen will look disastrous for the Chinese.”

Political science professor Mikhail Myagkov, an expert in Russian politics, believes there was a chance, albeit a small one, that the tragedy in Ukraine could have been avoided had the Biden administration and current leadership in countries of the West showed more attention to Russia and its interests.

He pointed to two promises Putin sought from the West in December: no NATO expansion and prohibiting Ukraine from joining the alliance. By brushing off those requests, Myagkov said, the Biden administration and the West may have unnecessarily provoked Putin.

“Putin had much better personal communications with former chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel and former President Donald Trump than with current chancellor of Germany Olaf Scholz and Biden,” Myagkov said. “Were Merkel and Trump still in place, the diplomatic solution might have been easier to achieve.”

Pro-tem instructor Keith Eddins of the law shool, who spent three decades as a U.S. foreign service officer, including stints at the American Embassy in Moscow and on the State Department’s Russia Desk, said he doesn’t see the war having “a happy ending.”

While Putin may ultimately prevail militarily, Eddins said, “He has screwed up in a broader geo-political sense.”

Putin began his career as a “thug” in the KGB, and remains, at heart, a thug, willing to murder political opponents to hold onto power, Eddins said. The vision he laid out for Russia in his Feb. 22 speech is an “imperialist vision,” a vision that Russia has the right to dominate Ukraine.

But in invading Ukraine, he has unified NATO in a way that hasn’t been seen for decades.

“If Putin saw a geopolitical world in which he would eliminate NATO, (the invasion) has had the opposite effect,” Eddins said.

“I think Putin has given NATO, which he purports to fear, which he purports is an enemy of Russia, a new life,” he said. “NATO certainly will be around to celebrate its 100th anniversary in 2049. I would not have said that six months ago.”

By Matt Cooper and Tim Christie, University Communications