With troops on the ground and rockets from the air, Russia attacked Ukraine Thursday as Vladimir Putin made good on months of threats against a neighboring country that he claims, falsely, wasn’t a country at all until communist Russia created it. The invasion, the largest attack by one European nation on another since World War II, has had widespread global impact, causing stock markets to plummet, oil prices to soar, and NATO countries, including the United States, to threaten aggressive consequences for Russia.
Among the sanctions against Russia from President Biden that are already in place, or expected soon, are restricting Russia’s access to large financial institutions, cutting it off from advanced technology that could hinder its communications, and sanctioning members of Putin’s closest inner circle. Biden has sent troops to fortify NATO allies, but vows they won’t engage in the Russia-Ukraine war.
For perspective on the stunning developments, BU Today asked two Pardee School of Global Studies professors, Igor Lukes and Vesko Garčević, to assess the crisis. Lukes, a professor of history and of international relations, specializes in Central European history and contemporary Russia (he watched the 1968 Russian invasion of Prague as a teenager). Garčević is a professor of the practice of international relations, specializing in diplomacy, security, and conflict, and in Europe. He has served as Montenegro’s ambassador to several nations and international organizations, including NATO.
With Igor Lukes and Vesko Garčević
BU Today: How dangerous is the European situation, and why should Americans care about it?
Igor Lukes: The situation is dangerous. Russia has committed a massive force to seize a peaceful sovereign country that never presented any threat. This will trigger limited countermeasures by NATO. Diplomats and politicians of all nationalities—including Russia’s last plausible partner, China—had warned Putin not to use force. He dismissed their concerns. Launching this attack on Ukraine, he has irreparably damaged the post–Cold War order.
Should Americans care? Yes, they should. This is not about Ukraine alone. This is about the future of democracies everywhere. But even the most fervent supporters of Ukraine must bear in mind John Quincy Adams’ view that America, although a champion of universal freedom, “goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy.” The Ukrainians are on their own as they face Putin’s armed force.
Vesko Garčević: Vesko Garčević: The world should care about it, because it puts the European security architecture in question. And not just the European architecture; it’s international norms, like respect for territorial integrity and sovereignty of other countries. [If] the big ones can take small countries as booties in world affairs… I come from a small country, therefore I understand it very well.
On top of it, Russia has more nuclear warheads than three NATO states—the United States, the UK, and France—put together. It has the third largest conventional army in the world. And it has a veto in the UN Security Council, which prevents the council from taking any measures in this case. Russia knows its power very well. It’s exercising its power right now in front of our eyes, and I would say that very much matters to somebody who lives in the United States as much as somebody who lives in Europe.
BU Today: Russia is not the military threat that it once was, correct?
Vesko Garčević: Garčević: I would disagree with that. We can speak about other problems that Russia is facing, like economic crisis and the political system, but whether it is on the same level as the USSR or lagging behind, it is still powerful enough to match the power of other big powers. It has a security culture of an empire that implies they can use power in the way they are using it right now. I would just refer to the open letter signed by 73 European security experts a couple of weeks ago in which they highlighted the military might of Russia.
Igor Lukes: Lukes: The threat has changed. Nobody expects the Russian troops to come pouring through the Fulda Gap in Germany on their way to the English Channel to install the flag of communism along the way. Putin’s objective is to degrade and destabilize the West to camouflage his failure to improve Russia. Looking at the collapsing global markets today, he is rubbing his hands.
BU Today: Some observers say that Putin’s end game is to revive the Soviet empire, while others suggest he has real security concerns, whether unfounded or not. Which is your view?
Vesko Garčević: Garčević: It has something to do with both of those. I would say Russia sees itself more as tsarist Russia than the USSR. They think in terms of spheres of influence, and they need to have buffer zones around them because—I’m speaking of their official narratives—of a need of enlargement; they would like to get security guarantees.
It’s not the first time that Russia brought up this issue. In the ’90s, they believed that they would be able to create, along with Americans and others, some type of umbrella security organization in Europe. It’s about the influence of Russia in regions they consider historically, intimately, inherently part of their sphere of influence. An essay by Putin last year referred to Ukraine as a nation that doesn’t exist as such; the same narrative, according to media reports, Putin used in meetings with other world leaders. I can disagree, but I can recognize the idea of a sphere of influence of Russia.
Igor Lukes: Lukes: In 2005, Putin said that the “collapse of the Soviet Union was a major geopolitical disaster of the [20th] century.” However, I reject the chimera of Putin’s alleged “security concerns.” Note that Russia, after months of deceptive signals—maskirovka—has attacked its neighbor. The much weaker Ukrainian troops were deployed in a defensive pattern because they had no plan to attack Russia. Under such circumstances, who should feel insecure?
Stalin, generations of Soviet arms control negotiators, and now Putin have all sought to gain unilateral advantage by claiming that Russia’s historical experience with foreign invasions justified their disproportionate demands. It is easy to refute the myth of Russia’s vulnerability and victimhood, provided one has patience with a bit of history.
The British noted in 1836 that since Peter the Great (1672-1725), the boundaries of Russia had extended 700 miles toward Berlin, 500 miles toward Constantinople, 630 miles toward Stockholm, and 1,000 miles toward Teheran. In 1848, a clear-sighted Central European historian warned the Frankfurt Assembly: “You are aware of the power possessed by Russia; you know that this power, already grown to colossal size, increases in strength and pushes outward from the center from one decade to the next. Every further step that it may be able to take…threatens the speed and creation and imposition of a new universal monarchy, an unimaginable and unmentionable evil, a calamity without limit or end.” This trend was only accelerated by Joseph Stalin, who extended his dominion from Berlin to Vladivostok.
The Russian state began emerging in the 15th century and grew into the biggest country on this planet. This could hardly have happened as a result of foreign invasions.
BU Today: We’ve long been told Putin is a master chess player in international affairs. But some say he’s miscalculated and bitten off too much with Ukraine. Which is it?
Igor Lukes: Lukes: Putin is an improviser. He started in 2000 by promising to focus on Russia’s unprecedented population decline, public health, environment, and education. He dropped all of those needed reforms because they took too long and were not properly spectacular. Instead, he focused on military reform, weapons development, killing his critics at home and abroad. Nobody should mistake this mediocre KGB lieutenant colonel for a strategist. With his war on peaceful Ukraine, he has unified NATO, his neighbors, including Finland and Sweden, and the European Union. His troops may swiftly overwhelm the regular Ukrainian forces. But they will merge with the civilians, and later, at a time of their choosing, come out at night; it will hurt.
Vesko Garčević: Garčević: Even great chess players make mistakes. I would not say this action has not been carefully planned. A year ago, there were Russian troops on the border of Ukraine, staging something similar, but this was put on hold. Russia didn’t decide to invade Ukraine on a whim—Putin simply woke up one morning and [said], let’s go and invade Ukraine. But that doesn’t mean that this is not a miscalculation. I think for the long run, Russia, and particularly Russian citizens, will pay a steep price. Even if they have immediate gains—one may be to install a puppet government in Ukraine—for the long run, this may not be a right calculation. Because Russia should cooperate with the world and not live as a pariah in world affairs.
BU Today: Several analysts, and history, suggest sanctions won’t be effective. Are there any that the West has imposed, or might impose, that could make Putin negotiate a settlement?
Igor Lukes: Lukes: I agree that sanctions won’t change anything, but they won’t be pleasant. I hope that they will be tailored to hit the Kremlin clique rather than the innocent Russian people. I’d like to see the oligarchs and Putin’s family expelled from the palaces in the West, deported to Russia, their accounts frozen. The banks that finance Russian intelligence services need to be cut off. Putin has turned himself into an international pariah, below the level of Kim Jong Un. Treat him accordingly.
Vesko Garčević: Garčević: I come from a country, [the former] Yugoslavia, that was under sanctions [during the Bosnian and Kosovo wars of the 1990s]. I experienced myself what it means. General economic sanctions don’t work. They affect ordinary people. I just discussed with my students: imagine you live in an authoritarian regime which controls the economy. Once space shrinks, who benefits are those who are connected to the regime. There are not many options on the table, and I think Putin knows that, because Ukraine is not a NATO member. You cannot invoke Article 5 [obligating NATO to defend members under attack].
But you cannot also sit still, looking at what’s going on in front of all eyes. Well-crafted sanctions that target people that are behind [the regime], freezing their assets—or what the UK just did, kicked out [Russian billionaire Roman] Abramovich from the UK—those types of sanctions, but trying to avoid that ordinary people suffer, this is the only way to go.
For the long run, I think this [invasion] tells us that Russia feels cornered. Not many countries will side with Russia. But in the short run, militarily, Russia outmatches Ukraine. They may reach Kiev or destabilize Ukraine to bring to power somebody who is similar to [pro-Russia] Belarus, Kazakhstan, Armenia. They will eliminate any potential threat that Ukraine may turn to the West. If Ukraine becomes a prosperous, democratic country, that’s a message for Russians, too.
BU Today: Are fears that Putin will threaten other nations if he succeeds in Ukraine warranted? Is this the start of a new and unstable Cold War?
Vesko Garčević: Garčević: When it comes to Russia’s intentions, I’m not sure that they’re going to go further. There is NATO, and the situation is different in the Baltic states. I tweeted that if Ukraine teaches us something, it teaches that for the Baltic states, the best decision they made was to join NATO. [Otherwise], they would have been targeted potentially by Russia on the same pretext—they have a Russian national minority that may call the mother state to intervene to protect their rights.
But Russia may play in another part of Europe, like the Balkans, where I come from. The Balkans are not fully integrated into the European Union or NATO. It can be seen as an easy target, low-hanging fruit. It is what many people are concerned about, including me. There are also people [there] very supportive of Russia.
Igor Lukes: Lukes: Excepting the crises in Berlin, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and Able Archer in 1983 [when a NATO military exercise panicked Russia into readying nuclear forces], the Cold War was a stable and predictable affair. The Kremlin leaders, including Stalin and Brezhnev, were rational actors. Putin is not. Therefore, he is a threat to the world order, and he is probably proud of it.