Quo Vadis, Ukraine?

– An Interview with Dr. Ellen Carnaghan

The world may be witnessing today a new shift in the system of International Relations, with Ukraine as a decisive symbol. This shift invokes memory of  other grand movements in the field, such as  the end of WWI and WWII, and the fall of the Wall of Berlin (1989). So, why Ukraine, and why now? What do protagonists want for the future of this country? Is Kiev a city on which the future of Western and/or Russian influence depends? To understand better the situation, the OCC sat down with Dr. Ellen Carnaghan. Dr. Carnaghan is a prominent scholar on Russian politics and political change. Throughout her career she has published multiple books, such as Out of Order: Russian Political Values in an Imperfect World. and contributed to countless projects on the subject. She is a professor at Saint Louis University, where she has gained honors in teaching and most recently the John Slosar Shared Governance Award, SLU, 2014. She is a member of the American Political Science Association and the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies. 

Dr Carnaghan, according to you, what are the main reasons for the US-Russia escalation that we have witnessed the past weeks in Ukraine?

The immediate reason for escalation is the massing of over 100,000 Russian troops and sophisticated weaponry in the Black Sea and in areas of Russia and Belarus adjacent to Ukraine. Ukraine is surrounded by Russian troops on three sides. Although President Vladimir Putin claims that these troop movements do not indicate an intention to invade Ukraine, leaders of other countries find that claim hard to believe, especially given the fact that in 2014, Russia annexed Crimea and, since that time, has provided military support to separatist movements in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. The US government sees Ukraine as an ally and hopes to prevent war and preserve what is left of Ukrainian territorial integrity after previous Russian assaults.

There is likely also some fear in US government circles that Putin would not be satisfied with Ukraine. Emboldened by a victory in Ukraine, Putin might be tempted to invade another neighboring country, and that country could well be a NATO member. Of course, an invasion of a NATO member would obligate the rest of NATO to defend that country, and then a major war would be inevitable.

It is difficult for an outsider to fully appreciate the motivations and strategies of any political actor, and that difficulty is compounded in the case of Vladimir Putin. Putin keeps his cards close to his chest. That said, the Russian government objected to the expansion of NATO to include countries that were formerly part of the Soviet Union or within its sphere of influence. And now the Russian government firmly opposes any effort to draw Ukraine into the European sphere, either through NATO or EU membership. Putin’s main goal appears to be to close off that possibility permanently. If he can also weaken or destroy the Western alliance in the process, that would be a great benefit for him. In any event, he can push Russia to the center of attention on the world stage, a position Russia mostly lost with the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Putin may imagine that weakening the Western alliance is a plausible end goal, but in that he may be mistaken. Certainly, the Trump administration had little interest in NATO or in maintaining good relations with Western allies, but that situation changed with the inauguration of Joe Biden. The Biden administration is strongly committed to the survival and strengthening of NATO and has been unwilling to allow Vladimir Putin to dictate who will be a member and who will not. However, after the ignominious withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan and given dysfunctional polarization in the US Congress, it is reasonable to think that the US government is not looking for another foreign adventure. 

So far, most European governments have sided with the US against Russia, though their position is still trickier. Conflict with Russia, even if limited to economic sanctions, harms European economic interests much more than American ones, with the Nord Steam 2 pipeline and Russian natural gas exports high on the list of items of concern. Just as Putin may imagine that the US is not well-positioned to respond to attacks on Ukraine, he has reason to think that a divided Europe will also be hesitant. Apparently, he senses a moment where his adversaries’ preoccupation with other concerns gives him a window of opportunity.

Do any of the protagonists really want war?

It is safe to say that US, European, and Ukrainian leaders would be happiest if Russian troops were to quietly withdraw. The US and Europe have nothing to gain from war, and their failure to defend Ukraine militarily would effectively cede countries beyond NATO’s boundaries to Russian influence. Ukraine, of course, has a great deal to lose. The Ukrainian military would be wildly outmatched, and fighting would occur primarily on Ukrainian soil. Ukrainian casualties would likely be high.

It is especially hard to imagine what Putin is thinking when it comes to the desirability of war. After all, he is the person who ordered the troop movements, so he either is very good at bluffing or sees a benefit in war. Both interpretations are plausible. On the one hand, consequences of a Russian invasion of Ukraine are necessarily unpredictable. Such an invasion could produce a reaction that strengthens NATO, just the opposite of what Putin wants. On the other hand, war in Ukraine accomplishes his shorter-term goal of keeping Ukraine out of NATO. It could also increase his domestic popularity, especially since the Russian press has been full of apparently fabricated stories about the harm Ukrainians are doing to ethnic Russians in Ukraine. Having moved so many troops into the area, it is hard for Putin to back down without something that he can claim as a win.

Can we correlate the continuation of diplomatic channels rather than complete escalation of war exercises with the fact there remains agreements between the US and Russia like the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START)?

The main reason that this has so far been a diplomatic rather than military crisis is that it is not clear military action would improve the outcome for any side. All sides likely would prefer to achieve their goals through diplomacy rather than war. Insofar as Putin wants Russia to be taken seriously as a formidable power, a diplomatic crisis serves the purpose just as well as a military crisis. It is possible that the existence of other agreements means there are points where productive compromise is possible as a way of defusing the Ukraine situation, even if NATO refuses to budge on key issues.

Would strong sanctions on Russia work, or be dissuasive?

Since sanctions of one kind or another have been in place against Russia since the earlier invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea in 2014, it is not clear how effective sanctions are in changing behavior. And it is not clear that still stronger sanctions would be more effective. Russia has lots of natural resources, other trading partners – like China – who will not join in sanctions, and strong currency reserves. Indeed, the situation in Ukraine is escalating in part because other governments doubt that economic sanctions alone will curb Putin’s ambitions.

Where does NATO stand on the issue?

NATO has rejected Russian demands that it halts its eastward expansion, deny membership to Ukraine, and roll back troop deployments in countries that were formerly part of the Warsaw Pact. Further, NATO diplomats have suggested that Putin’s demands leave little room for a compromise that all sides would accept.  NATO members, particularly those close to Russia, are fortifying their defenses, and the US has sent troops to Poland and Romania. But neither the US nor other NATO members have expressed an intention to send troops to defend Ukraine if Russia should invade, although the US has sent weapons. Some NATO members also oppose offering membership to Ukraine any time soon, in part because Ukraine does not meet a variety of political conditions.

How do you see the situation potentially developing?

As long as all sides think that it is possible to negotiate a compromise solution, it is likely that diplomacy will continue, along with public posturing and hostile denunciations. At this point, however, it is impossible to rule out war.

This interview has been conducted on February 12th, 2022 by Catherine McQueeny and Elise Petrocci, Research assistants at the Observatory on Contemporary Crises (OCC) and students in the Master’s of Political Science and Public Affairs at Saint Louis University – Madrid Campus.

To quote this article, please use the following reference: Ellen Carnaghan (2022), “Quo Vadis, Ukraine?,” OCC, February 2022, https://crisesobservatory.es/quo-vadis-ukraine/

The OCC publishes a wide range of opinions that are meant to help our readers think of International Relations. This publication reflects the views only of the author, and neither the OCC nor Saint Louis University can be held responsible for any use which may be made of the opinion of the author and/or the information contained therein.