Russia’s war with Ukraine: asking the right questions

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine saw the return of full-scale war to Europe for the first time in nearly 80 years. While many Westerners worry about the escalation of the conflict towards a confrontation between two nuclear powers, Lloyd Gruber asks the key questions – and offers unexpected answers.

War has returned to Europe. This is great news, terrifying news. But before we panic – or institute a no-fly zone, or agree to sit down with Mr. Putin, or decide never to sit down with him – we need to take a step back from events. that take place in the field.

Way back.

It is not enough to know what is happening. We need to know why this is happening and why what is happening matters. Let’s think about this. Are we asking the right questions about the conflict, questions whose answers could help us and our Ukrainian friends bring peace to the region? That’s where you have to start: by asking the right questions.

Here is my list.

What more should we do?

A no-fly zone? Setting up a no-fly zone, as some commentators have suggested, would not prevent Russia from bombing Ukrainian cities from the ground, and it would negate one of the few advantages Ukrainian forces currently enjoy, their air power. More importantly, a no-fly zone would force NATO forces to shoot down Russian planes. If – rather when – Russia then retaliates against a NATO member, that would trigger Article 5, meaning all NATO members would have to respond. A New Cold War? If only. It would be a hot new war. And here is the neighborhood…

Strengthen our economic (and other) sanctions? The question here is whether our sanctions could ever inflict enough damage on the Russian economy to set Putin back down. They can just embolden him. It’s not like he’s running for re-election (well, not until 2024 at least). If Putin’s people are getting poorer, that’s their problem, not his. It may even help him. Increased prosperity and “modernization” only raise expectations. Which could quickly turn into frustrations or, yuck, revolutions. What autocrat wants that? The less Putin’s people expect – the lower their aspirations – the better for him. Plus, he’s a multi-billionaire. Putin could lose most of his money and still be very rich.

Will the West’s reaction to Russia backfire?

The Russians are already mobilizing around their flag. Don’t forget, it’s Putin’s flag they’re raising. What happens when the deep-rooted antipathy Russia’s standard-bearer engenders abroad combines with the fervent support he garners at home? Could this brutal juxtaposition push him to do something, shall we say, crazy? Russia may no longer be a superpower, but it is no ordinary power either. Far from there. Let us ensure that our sanctions are not self-destructive or, worse, self-annihilating.

Even our words, our harsh words, could dig us into a hole. This hole looks like a nuclear missile silo to me. It’s been a long time since nuclear weapons have been a hot topic of conversation. Have we forgotten how to talk – and think – about nuclear deterrence? If we’re not careful, the crisis could escalate quickly and far, potentially to…you-know-what. As long as Putin is a rational actor, you should be fine on that front.

But does President Putin seem rational to you? His decision to invade Ukraine already looks like the height of madness. And what Putin said about his “special military operation” only drives her and him crazier.

Did the war bring Europe together?

Angela Merkel, the recently retired German Chancellor, has done her best to deepen European integration. French President Emmanuel Macron also tried and is still at it. But their efforts have never found traction, until now. Did Putin’s unilateral act of aggression unify Europe? This is the conclusion reached by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, as she said on Monday. Talk about unintended consequences.

The big picture: How will the war affect the West’s relationship with China?

If Putin gets his way in Ukraine, will that encourage China to take back Taiwan? Perhaps America’s (sort of) security guarantee to Taiwan is stronger than our commitment to Ukraine, so the two situations are different. China will know not to extrapolate from one to the other.

Or maybe China will be less probably go to Taiwan now, precisely because the war in Ukraine has united the West in ways unimaginable just a week ago. (See above.)

“Every Night For Ukraine 022 Russian Emba” (CC BY 2.0) by rajatonvimma

Putin’s motives and their importance

Is Putin what International Relations (IR) theorists call a “security seeker”? It is not because he invaded Ukraine that he will attack the former Soviet republics like Latvia or Bulgaria. Ukraine is a buffer state. Did we really think Putin would tolerate Ukraine joining NATO or (perhaps even worse) the European Union? He had to stop all that, all that, before it started. From this perspective, the current conflict is Putin’s preemptive strike. Is it so crazy? Surely the United States would have behaved the same way if, say, Cuba had slept with Russia. No, wait, we’ve been down this road before. I went there, it’s done. If the United States can have a sphere of influence, why not Russia? Sorry, folks, but we live in a realistic world. Get used to it.

Or maybe Putin, rather than trying to create a safe zone for his people, is really an expansionist. Is there evidence that Russia has turned into what IR scholar Charles Glaser calls a “greedy state”? If so, it would – and certainly should – change our strategy. Boots on the ground might just make sense in this case.

Perhaps Putin is simply misguided. He is an autocrat, after all. The longer dictators stay in power, the more their inner circles shrink until, in the end, the circles are just dots. Putin may still have a few people offering him advice, but those who remain – his bodyguards, for example – suck. Wise advice is not what these people dispense. They have to stay in Putin’s good graces, don’t they? Telling the Supreme Leader what he wants to hear is their best strategy. Is it any wonder that Putin thought (wrongly, ultimately) that the Ukrainian people would welcome him with open arms? If I was his adviser, that’s what I would have told him. And you too. That our boss was doing a great job. That everyone loved him. Everyone, everywhere.

This version of the story is not as depressing as one might think. If that’s what Putin meant – if he was simply given bad information and, based on that bad information, launched his attack – reversing him should be easy enough. Once Putin sees his mistake, he will go home (and find new advisers).

Are we witnessing an elaborate “diversionary” war? This is my own explanation – or let’s call it a hypothesis – although I don’t hear other people do the case. Maybe it’s just Putin wreaking havoc and thereby changing the subject. How can the Russian public focus on their domestic problems when there are even more problems abroad? And when it comes to diverting public attention, wars are the bomb. Military conflicts like this turn people into patriots, and good patriots support their leaders, right or wrong, even a dictator as bad as Putin. The Russian public doesn’t really need to like Putin. It is their country that they support. And for now, Putin represents their country. For now, and probably for a long time. Dropping Putin in the middle of an existential conflict like the one we know – existential not only for Ukraine but also, if it goes badly, for Russia itself, the aggressor – would be too risky.

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but what starts out as wars of diversion can sometimes turn into “real” wars. Security issues may not have been the initial trigger, but over time as these conflicts begin to spin out of control, winning the war becomes a matter of life and death for both sides, the initiator as the victim. According to this diabolical logic, Russia cannot afford to lose this fight. And because his vital safety is now at stake, he needs Putin at the helm. It’s Putin or bust.

Or maybe Putin’s Ukrainian campaign is personal. Is it hurt pride that pushes him? If so, most IR‍ theories—the rationalists‍—are barking up the wrong tree. Forget Mearsheimer, Walt and Glaser. It is Shakespeare‍ that we should consult here. And Freud too. The conflict is not only personal. It’s neurotic!

What (else) did international relations theory get wrong?

Is the conflict playing out as IR researchers would expect, or should they go back to the drawing board? And while they (or, uh, us) are thinking about this, maybe we should spend more time trying to figure out the regime change. Seems like a big one, otherwise the big question here: how can Mr. Putin be expelled? Could his acolytes do the dirty work for us? Would they even want it? How is this supposed to end?

Finally, did all this have to happen?

Could the current conflict have been avoided since 2002? What if the Prague summit that NATO held that year had not resulted in a flurry of invitations to countries bordering Russia, welcoming them into a defensive alliance led by the United States? Did the NATO enlargement that followed soon after Prague add fuel to the fires of Russian nationalism? Does this top to start up fire? At the time, Russian nationalism was on the decline. Today, of course, the Russians are rallying behind their hyper-nationalist leader. And as nationalism returns, so do nationalist wars. But it didn’t start today or even this year. The Russian public began to mobilize about twenty years ago. Do we in the West, in our haste to enlarge NATO, have any part of the responsibility in this?

So those are my questions. What are yours?

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Note: This article gives the point of view of the author, and not the position of the USAPP – American Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics.

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About the Author

Lloyd GruberLSE international development
Lloyd Gruber directs the Masters of Public Administration (MPA) program at LSE’s School of Public Policy. A recognized expert in international and comparative political economy, he is the author of Governing the World: Power Politics and the Rise of Supranational Institutions (Princeton 2000) and numerous articles and book chapters on globalization, international governance and education policy in developing countries.