Steve Hanson (Ph.D., University of California, Berkeley, 1991; BA, Harvard, 1985) is William & Mary’s Vice Provost for Academic and International Affairs (VPAIA) and Lettie Pate Evans Professor in the Department of Government at William & Mary. Hanson is also a renowned expert in Russian and Soviet history and politics, so we asked him to help us make sense of Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine. He will be a panelist at an event hosted by W&M’s Global Research Institute, titled Russia, Ukraine, and the Future of Global Order, on March 1. – Ed.
Q: You told us in a conversation last month that if Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an invasion of Ukraine “it would be the worst case scenario” and “we would be facing the largest land war on European territory since World War II.” What are you thinking right now?
A: This is indeed the worst case scenario that so many of us feared. As I write this, Russian forces are pounding Kyiv and the democratically-elected government of Ukraine faces imminent destruction. Now that Putin has decided unilaterally to break all the remaining norms of the post-Cold War global order, many dangerous and unexpected developments may emerge in world affairs. It’s a tragic day for humanity, and all of us should stand in solidarity with the people of Ukraine, as well as those in Russia who are taking incredible personal risks to oppose Putin’s war.
Q: Can you help us understand Putin’s rationale and mindset? I can’t see how initiating a costly land war in Europe benefits him in any way.
A: I have long argued that “rational actor” theory is a misleading guide to international relations, and human affairs more generally. Of course, people typically respond to the short-term material incentives they face and a good understanding of economic theory is a vital necessity for any decent social scientist. But, when leaders become obsessed with ideas and principles that shape their sense of identity, a calculus of short-term costs and benefits may have little effect on their decision making. Clearly, Putin has fully embraced the myth that he is an historic figure who will complete the rebuilding of the historic Russian empire and bring down the global liberal order led by the United States since 1991. The destruction of Ukraine’s sovereignty, in flagrant violation of international law, is unfortunately only the start of a potentially much more prolonged global conflict about the underlying principles of global legitimacy in the 21st century.
Q: You said back in January that “there are good reasons to be very worried about the future potential for armed conflict in Ukraine, with dangerous potential spillover effects for global security writ large.” What are some of those spillover effects and should we be preparing for them?
A: Clausewitz was right: the “fog of war” does impair everyone’s vision. There are any number of ways in which Putin’s invasion of Ukraine might spur global conflict in other arenas. Imagine, for example, that after Putin’s occupation of Kyiv, a massive insurgency arises in Ukraine, and NATO decides to support it with weaponry and logistics. Putin might then decide to attack NATO bases in Central and Eastern Europe. One can easily see how quickly this sort of escalation can affect the entire planet–particularly given that Putin has openly warned that he is ready to produce “such consequences as you have never encountered in your history,” seemingly referring to the possible use of nuclear weapons if Russia’s aims are threatened.
Q: It seems unlikely that the U.S. will send troops to Ukraine, but what can we do to assist the Ukrainian people short of providing boots on the ground?
A: There are a number of steps we can take to support Ukraine and its people in this dark moment. First, our rhetorical support, while obviously insufficient, still counts for something. As one of my Russian colleagues recently stated, “We are all Ukrainians now.” Putin’s state media machine has been propagating so many falsehoods that it’s incumbent on all of us who care about the future of democracy to counter them with the truth: this was a totally unprovoked military assault on a sovereign, democratic state by an autocratic, imperialist neighbor. Second, most unfortunately, there will be hundreds of thousands of Ukranian refugees and internally-displaced persons in the coming months and years who will need help with resettlement, visas, and employment. Several U.S. civic organizations are already mobilizing to provide aid to Ukrainians in need. Third, while it’s clear that the U.S. will understandably wish to avoid direct military conflict with Russia, our support for our NATO allies who are near the front lines of this war will be absolutely vital for containing Putin’s territorial ambitions.
Q: I asked you this question several weeks ago, but I’m going to ask it again. Why should Americans care about what is going on in Ukraine right now?
A: In our previous conversation, I told our readers that they should care about Ukraine because there could hardly be a more important geopolitical issue than the West’s response to an all-out Russian invasion of its neighbor. I stick to that answer today. People tend to answer this question by pointing to the higher prices for gasoline we are likely to face due to potential cutoffs in Russian oil exports, and the higher general inflation American consumers will encounter as a result. And such negative effects for the U.S. economy are indeed likely to occur. But these are the wrong reasons for American citizens to care about Ukraine. For far too long, American culture has been inwardly-focused, with little attention paid to events beyond our borders. Unfortunately, just as happened twice before in the 20th century, the events now unfolding in Europe are going to touch every one of us over time. We will need a much more consistently global mindset in our country if we are to have any hope of rising to the challenges we now face.
Paula Pickering (Ph.D., University of Michigan, 2001; BA, Stanford, 1989) is the Richard S. Perles Professor of Government at William & Mary. Pickering is an expert in Eastern European politics and post-conflict state building. Previously, Pickering worked as an analyst on Eastern Europe and as a political officer in Turkmenistan for the State Department (1990-94). — Ed.
Q: From your standpoint, what are the most important things to know about this military attack on the Ukraine and what it means for all of us?
A: The Russian government has launched an unprovoked full-scale invasion by air, land and sea of a sovereign European county. It is the most massive military attack in Europe since the end of WWII. Russia is using force to remove the democratically elected government of Ukraine and is jeopardizing the lives of more than 40 million people. It directly challenges the UN charter and the rules-based European and international security order. It means that Russian President Vladimir Putin will not be constrained by international rules that he claims as illegitimate and that he believes he can get away with it. It’s a clear threat to peace and security throughout the world.
Q: Now that Putin has initiated this attack on Ukraine, how far do you think this will go?
A: While political scientists cannot get into the mind of President Putin, the military action, array of hybrid types of warfare and the rhetoric of Putin are ominous. Russian military forces are attacking Ukraine from three different directions and are striking not just military targets but major cities, including Kyiv. Russian forces appear to be encircling Kyiv as a prelude to entering the city and removing the democratically elected government of Kyiv. They seek to inflict as much damage as possible on Ukraine’s military in order to forcibly “demilitarize” it. The words that Putin has used in recent speeches are chilling: that Russia is launching a “special military action” aimed at the “demilitarization and denazification” of Ukraine. He has been falsely accusing the Ukrainian government of being fascist, targeting ethnic Russian citizens of Ukraine, and of not having the right to be a sovereign state “unless it is in partnership with Russia.” The military and hybrid actions, such as cyberattacks and disinformation, together with this rhetoric suggests Russia is willing to use whatever means necessary to compel installation of a leadership subservient to Russia.
Q: How can the United States and European allies push back? How important would this response be?
A: The U.S. and Europeans allies must push back in a unified and concerted manner with aid to Ukraine; coordinated, significant and targeted sanctions on Russian elites and state owned banks; and a resolute defense of NATO allies. Euro-Atlantic leaders need to ensure that Putin and his allies experience consequences for these violations of international law. It means that the West needs to significantly bolster the defense of NATO allies on its eastern flank through deploying additional weapons and troops to these countries and re-emphasize treaty obligations that a Russian attack on any NATO member will be considered an attack on all.
The U.S. needs bipartisan support to hold Putin accountable and support European and NATO allies. It’s hard to exaggerate how important this response is. Lack of a resolute response to the invasion of Ukraine would embolden Putin to go further in attempting to forcibly redraw borders in Eastern Europe and the post-Soviet space, as well as encourage other authoritarian leaders seeking to forcibly redraw boarders in the Balkans and globally.
Q: Are you surprised by these events? Are you surprised Putin took it this far?
A: The mobilization of forces, cyberattacks, consistently aggressive rhetoric from Putin and track record of military intervention into other post-Soviet states signaled that Putin would escalate its intervention into Ukraine. While I considered a full-scale invasion as a possibility, I am surprised that Putin decided to do it. The main reasons are that he appears to underestimate the difficulty of achieving his goals.
It is difficult to see how a full-scale invasion produces a positive outcome for Russia in the medium- to long-term. While the Ukrainian military will not be able to stop a full-scale invasion and attempt to install a puppet regime, what will be the cost to the Russian people, how exactly will it bolster support for his regime in the medium- to long-term, and what will Russia do next? How will the Putin regime be able to ensure that a puppet government will be able to govern a population of over 40 million when 72% of its population views Russia as a hostile power? In addition, a full-scale invasion has increased the solidarity of the E.U. and Euro-Atlantic nations against the Russian regime, in contrast to his goal of sowing divisions among EU and NATO members in order to weaken these institutions.
Staff, University News & Media