As Russian troops mass at the border with Ukraine, a panel of experts convened by Tufts gives insights into the conflict and the role of military threats on European diplomacy
More than 100,000 Russian troops remain massed along the Ukrainian border, and concern is growing that Russia plans to invade. On February 2, President Joe Biden ordered 3,000 U.S. troops to Poland, Germany, and Romania, to signal support for NATO allies in the region. Russia denies that it is threatening Ukraine, but at the same time demands that NATO not expand east or offer membership to Ukraine, and that it halt deployment of armed forces to other former Soviet states.
In response to the continuing crisis, The Fletcher School hosted a panel discussion, “European Security Dialogue: Ukraine, Russia, and the West,” on February 2, moderated by Chris Miller, assistant professor of international history and co-director of the school’s Russia and Eurasia Program.
“I think one of the issues that makes this current crisis so difficult is that there are interlocking crises of U.S.-Russia relations, NATO-Russia relations, and Ukraine-Russia relations,” said Miller. “One key issue for us as we think about ways out of the current crisis is how do you prioritize among these issues? Or can you make simultaneous progress on all of them? That to me seems quite difficult given how challenging it is to make progress on any of them.”
The panelists spoke about issues related to the conflict and offered these insights into its origin and possible outcome.
Russia is ignoring Ukrainian political realities at its own risk. There have been “profound shifts in Ukrainian public opinion since 2014, making public attitudes much more anti-Russian and pro-Western, including pro-NATO, than they have been ever in the 30 years of Ukraine’s independence,” said Oxana Shevel, an associate professor of international politics at Tufts. “These shifts are a direct result of Russia’s actions since 2014.”
Annexing Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and fomenting insurgency in Donbas, a region in eastern Ukraine—territories that are home to some 12% of the Ukrainian electorate, and also the most pro-Russian electorate—reduced Russia’s leverage in Ukraine, Shevel said, “and turned opinion against Russia in the rest of the country.”
As long as the West “unambiguously condemns and sanctions Russian aggression and rejects Russia’s claims over Ukraine, Ukraine’s current leadership likely stands not to fall, but to gain support as people rally around the flag.”
By not acknowledging this, Russian leader Vladimir Putin is creating “a dangerous alternative reality,” said Shevel. “If decisions are made on misperceptions—such as that the Russian army will be welcomed as liberators from a fascist junta—we are in a very dangerous place indeed.”
The smoking gun that led to the Russian mobilization is hard to see, if it even exists. From a European and U.S. perspective, it is very unclear “that there is a smoking gun that led Moscow to go into this kind of military mobilization on a massive scale,” said Liana Fix, program director for the international affairs department at Körber-Stiftung, a nonprofit foundation based in Berlin. “Or is it really sort of an impatience and just a pure willingness to use military force to achieve political gains?”
The costs and benefits of an invasion depend on your point of view. An invasion by Russia doesn’t make sense from a Western perspective. “But I would be careful in assuming that this is really the same cost-benefit analysis in Moscow,” said Fix. The military gains in terms of territory controlled “that might be achieved with an invasion might outweigh the economic costs, because they’re just different benefits considered.”
She pointed to the annexation of Crimea as one example. “Almost no one—I would argue even in Moscow—expected the annexation of Crimea and the destabilization of Ukraine and the war in eastern Ukraine,” she said. “That showed us back then that our cost-benefit analysis might differ very much” from that of “a close circle of decision makers in the Russian leadership.”
One viewpoint from Russia sees war as unlikely. “All the conflict scenarios would eventually be catastrophic, primarily for Ukraine and Russia,” said Sergey Utkin, head of the Foreign and Security Policy Department of the Centre for Strategic Research in Moscow, and head of the Department of Strategic Assessment at the Centre for Situation Analysis in the Russian Academy of Sciences. “And that’s why I think that will not be something that will happen.”
If the West makes concessions, it encourages more Russian military threats. “If that is really the rationale in Moscow—that the threat of war works—then the military buildup will continue as long as all Russian demands are met,” said Fix. “That is really quite a sobering takeaway, because it legitimizes the use of military power in Europe to achieve any political aims.”
Russia’s claims to Ukraine are undermining the modern state system. “Russia is not entitled to control neighboring states or claim other countries on the grounds of millennial myths,” said Shevel, referring to Russian claims that Ukraine and Russia have historically been one country and that Ukrainians and Russians are one people. Experts dispute these claims as revisionist history. “If any state can do it, the modern state system ceases to exist. At least be honest—normalizing Russia’s claims over Ukraine is undoing the modern state system.”
Identify Russia’s actual security concerns—and address them. “I think a potential way forward out of this conflict would be to really talk about the specific things that are happening,” said Shevel. “What exactly does Russia feel threatened by? If, say, there are certain exercises or certain weapons that make it feel threatened, I think that would need kind of unpacking, and really having honest negotiations about how to address those diplomatically.”
Taylor McNeil can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.