In a virtual discussion Wednesday, March 9, Texas A&M University professors explored a variety of topics related to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, offering analysis on the roots of the conflict, how things have played out since the invasion began, and where things may be headed in the future.
The hour-long discussion hosted by the MSC Wiley Lecture Series featured political science lecturer Dwight Roblyer and associate professor of international affairs at the Bush School John Schuessler, who also serves as co-director of the Albritton Center for Grand Strategy. Their conversation was moderated by David Koepsell, a lecturer in the Department of Philosophy. According to MSC Wiley Lecture Series Chair Madison Baugh, around 150 people tuned in to watch the program.
As explained by Schuessler, Russian president Vladimir Putin’s decision to take drastic measures in Ukraine can be broadly understood as an attempt to maintain some kind of grip on neighboring countries which have begun to associate more with Western nations, both militarily and in terms of their economic and political structures.
“Putin or Russia is threatened in two ways: in encroachments on its traditional sphere of influence and by the spread of liberalism, which is a threat to its regime,” Schuessler said. “So in a way, Russian paranoia and lashing out, that would be fairly overdetermined.”
Still, the Russian leader’s decision to launch a full-scale invasion came as a shock to many. Schuessler said it will take some time to get a complete understanding of what Putin and his government specifically hoped to achieve with this action and what degree of success they expected to find.
“We know that deterrence tends to fail when the aggressor thinks it can win a quick and decisive victory,” Schuessler said. “Sometimes these expectations are sound — think France and May 1940. And sometimes these expectations are unsound.”
Referencing recent comments by former Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Andrei Kozyrev, Roblyer explained that Putin may have been operating under mistaken assumptions about the condition of the Russian military, as large sums of money meant to modernize Russian forces have been siphoned off by corrupt officials.
“Certainly there’s this issue that the expected might of the Russian military machine seems to be something of a Potemkin village,” Roblyer said.
However, Roblyer noted that despite the apparent underperformance of the Russian military and the impressive ferocity of Ukrainian resistance during the initial weeks of the conflict, it is important to keep in mind that Russia still has the capacity to do tremendous damage.
“Russia has the capability to be able to turn Kyiv into an Aleppo — to literally raze it to the ground with just their artillery and their thermobaric weapons and the other things that they have,” Roblyer said. “That’s what Kyiv faces right now unless we can find some way to be able to turn the tide on this conflict.”
But as both Roblyer and Schuessler explained, the capacity of the U.S. and its NATO allies to intervene is severely limited by Russia’s status as a nuclear power. That’s why Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s calls for the West to “close the skies” and remove Russian airpower from the picture by establishing a no-fly zone over Ukraine have, as yet, gone unheeded.
“I do think it’s fairly irresponsible to be calling for a no-fly zone because it’s the one thing that would ensure direct combat between NATO-American forces and Russian forces, which is the quickest route to nuclear war,” Schuessler said.
Despite Russia’s strong strategic position in this respect, the West appears to have found some success in targeting the already-weak Russian economy with aggressive sanctions. However, the long-term feasibility and effectiveness of this approach remains in question, Roblyer said.
“Just because these financial restrictions and sanctions are holding at week two doesn’t mean that they will hold at week four or week six or at month 10,” Roblyer said. “And so what we may see as being very successful now, we may have a very different assessment in the future.”
Looking ahead, Schuessler said that even if Russia manages to drive the current Ukrainian government into exile and take the country over, it is likely that some form of NATO-backed insurgency will remain. This would, in turn, create additional possibilities for escalation, as Russia may attempt to tighten its grip on the country by going after nations that choose to aid the Ukrainian insurgents.
“That’s where things, I think, could get dangerous,” Schuessler said. “They’ll be dangerous for Ukrainians regardless, that’s the true tragedy. But where you could see escalation is in this process of grinding insurgency and then the Russians grasping for increasingly desperate means to kind of stamp it out. And that’s going to be a hard problem for NATO to manage.”
By Luke Henkhaus, Texas A&M University Division of Marketing & Communications
Note: This story originally appeared in TAMU Today on March 10, 2022