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Russia Invades Ukraine: Historians Weigh In

Read what AU historians think about Putin’s invasion and how history brought us to this place

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Six days ago, Russia invaded Ukraine, creating the largest land war in Europe since WWII, with countless casualties and more than half a million people fleeing the country. As the Russian convoy advances on the capital city of Kyiv, and world watches in horror, we asked American University historians to weigh in on how we got to this place, and what the invasion may mean for Ukraine and the world order as we know it.

Read on for thoughts from Eric Lohr, Professor of History and the Dr. James H. Billington Chair of Russian History and Culture; Max Paul Friedman, Professor of History and Interim Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences; Peter Kuznick, Professor of History; and Anton Fedyashin, Associate Professor of History.

Can you give us a quick overview? How did Russia and Ukraine get to this point, and what does it mean for the region and the world? 

Eric Lohr
Until this week, many thought that the buildup of Russian troops on the Ukrainian border was the latest in a string of aggressive actions by Russia to keep Ukraine from moving toward membership in NATO or the European Union. But the total nature of the invasion and Russian President Putin’s latest speeches indicate that it is much more than that. It is in fact about Putin trying to conquer and occupy Ukraine, replacing its messy but vibrant democracy with an autocratic regime under Moscow’s direct or indirect control. 

We have not seen an attack on a democratic state on anything like this scale since Hitler and Stalin’s annexations of countries in east Europe during and after World War II. The extraordinary nature of this invasion now threatens to upend the postwar international order. 

Peter Kuznick
Last week, sounding unhinged if not delusional, the usually cold, calculating, and risk-averse Putin gave the order to invade. Such behavior was even more terrifying coming from the leader of a nation with enough nuclear weapons to end life on this planet. He had already just showcased his nuclear-capable missiles and made nuclear threats against the West. He has since put his nuclear forces on high alert. 

The Russian invasion of Ukraine is an outrage, a moral failure on Putin’s part, a breach of international law, and a geopolitical nightmare. If it isn’t halted very quickly, it will also be a humanitarian catastrophe. 

What is Putin’s endgame? In what ways can you see this ending?

Eric Lohr
Putin might think that he can split the country into pieces, ruling directly in the east, indirectly in the center, and perhaps leaving the region around Lviv in the west as an independent state. But Ukraine has developed a strong national identity in the 30 years since the end of the Soviet Union, and it is an identity based on shared democratic and civic life — not just on language and ethnicity. 

Any Russian-imposed government would have a hard time maintaining effective control over Ukraine. Russian rule would be illegitimate and would likely face both armed and other forms of resistance. Illegitimate regimes require police and officials with local knowledge and willingness to collaborate, and after this invasion and surge of Ukrainian national unity, it is unlikely that it would be easy to find collaborators. In Chechnya, for example, it took massive violence and alliance with a brutal warlord, along with major expenditures on rebuilding for Russia to end resistance. Russia likely cannot do anything on that scale in Ukraine. 

As the costs of the invasion and occupation rise, we may well see Ukrainian defiance inspiring more resistance to Putin’s regime in Russia itself. Protests have already taken place on the streets of St. Petersburg and elsewhere. Ultimately, that may be where the fate of Ukraine is decided.  

Max Paul Friedman
Putin’s decision — which I personalize because it appears he bullied even some of his own advisors into consent — to launch a war of aggression is causing tremendous suffering that will ripple far beyond Ukraine. As energy prices rise, inflation will contribute to political instability around the word, exacerbated by the food shortages we can expect since Russia and Ukraine together produce a quarter of the world's wheat.

Now that Putin has invaded Ukraine, he has produced a classic case of blowback, ensuring a lasting paradox by providing the best possible argument for countries that were once in the Russian sphere of influence to seek to join NATO for their own protection, and the costs his country will now pay undermine much of the popular legitimacy he had managed to construct through growth, disinformation, and the repression of dissent.  

Anton Fedyashin
It is unclear what the endgame of Putin's dangerous gamble is, as it is unclear what the Western strategy is. I do not foresee any fracturing of the Western resolve to impose crippling sanctions on Russia for its illegal invasion of Ukraine. But sanctions failed to deter it, and although they will inflict considerable economic punishment, they will not solve the crisis by themselves. Sanctions must interact with diplomacy. And that, in its turn, must be part of a broader geopolitical strategy. But the key for now is for Moscow to halt the war and get back to the diplomatic table.

Peter Kuznick
Such madness cannot be tolerated. Putin’s actions have united the world against him. By invading Ukraine, whose citizens are fiercely resisting, Russia’s standing in the world, as well as its economy, have been degraded, and Putin’s legacy has been greatly diminished even if he is able to subdue Ukraine and reestablish a sphere of influence. There is still time, however, to avoid the much worse bloodbath that many fear if this fighting continues. Pressure should be brought by all, especially China, to bring this to a halt before it goes any further.  

Thanks to Putin’s actions and the failure of statesmanship all around, the world has suddenly become a much darker place. The only hope is that this serves as a wake-up call, much as the Cuban Missile Crisis did for Kennedy and Khrushchev, and we embark upon a new era of peace and diplomacy in a multipolar world in which everyone’s legitimate security concerns are taken into consideration as we deal with the serious challenges that confront all citizens on this troubled planet.

Share with us some of the history that led Russia and Ukraine to this point.

Anton Fedyashin
At its Bucharest Summit, NATO offered Ukraine the hope of becoming a member, but no timeline and no goalposts. Then the EU launched the process of integrating Ukraine into its security sphere with "Title II" of the 2014 EU Association Agreement. Many American officials and thinkers — George Kennan, Bill Gates, and William Burns, among others — have admitted that NATO expansion triggered legitimate security concerns for Russia. But while dismissing most of them, NATO also failed to give Ukraine any viable security guarantees, which left it profoundly vulnerable — a strategic blunder that will enter the history books.

But the key for now is for the Kremlin to halt the war and get back to the diplomatic table, although it is unclear what trustworthiness its diplomats will have.

Peter Kuznick
It begins with the 1990 assurances from US, British, and German leaders that NATO would not expand eastward in 1990, followed by its 1999 expansion, US abrogation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002, US invasion of Iraq in 2003, and NATO’s further expansion to Russia’s borders in 2004. From the Russian perspective, the US ran roughshod over Russia during a period of post-Soviet weakness despite Russia's conciliatory 1990s policies and offers of assistance after the US was attacked on 9/11.

In 1997, 50 US statesmen, including Robert McNamara and Paul Nitze, warned President Bill Clinton that the US-led effort to expand NATO “is a policy error of historic proportions." Cold War architect George Kennan, who had long since broken with his earlier containment policies, declared, "Expanding NATO would be the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-cold-war era." 

Putin unleashed his outrage in his February 10, 2007, speech to the Munich Security Conference. At the time, US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates reported to President George W. Bush that "from 1993 onward, the West, and particularly the United States, had badly underestimated the magnitude of Russian humiliation in losing the Cold War and then in the dissolution of the Soviet Union." But Bush plowed ahead the following year with his announcement that he "strongly supported" Ukraine and Georgia joining NATO. The US Ambassador to Russia, William Burns, wrote an urgent memo to the White House headlined "Nyet Means Nyet," telling US leaders not to cross Russia's red lines.

In his March 1, 2018, State of the Nation address, Putin declared that Russia had five new nuclear weapons that could circumvent US missile defense. He declared, “Listen to us now.” But the US and NATO remained deaf to Russia’s security concerns, which Putin again laid out clearly in his December 2021 demands. Had Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky opted for neutrality and rescinded his request to join NATO, or had President Joe Biden accepted Russia’s demand that NATO cease its expansion, Ukraine might be at peace today. But Ukraine, egged on and armed by the US, rejected implementation of the Minsk 2 agreement that it signed in 2015. Biden did not acknowledge the legitimacy of Putin’s long-held security concerns. Zelinsky’s announcement on February 19 that Ukraine was giving up on the 1994 Budapest Memorandum that traded Ukraine’s nuclear weapons for security guarantees that Russia had already violated, signaling a willingness to acquire nuclear weapons, was the last straw for an increasingly paranoid and isolated Putin. 

Max Paul Friedman
No one forced Putin's hand. There are debates among Americans, however, over whether a more foresighted US foreign policy might have reduced the likelihood of war. A lot of the discussion around NATO enlargement misses the point. Of course, there was no formal promise not to expand NATO to the east made by treaty, but there were enough verbal and written promises from Western leaders and diplomats to make Russian leaders believe that they had a commitment that their acquiescence to German unification — potentially a nightmare scenario to those who had lived through Hitler's scorched earth campaign against the Soviet Union, which killed 27 million people — would not bring a hostile alliance again to their gates. 

And, of course, countries should have the freedom to control their own foreign policy and request admission to alliances if they wish. But NATO, led by the United States, should have had the good sense to acknowledge that Ukraine was never going to join. That would have removed the most acute of the provocations appearing in Putin's mindscape, fed by a long history of hostility, encirclement, and even invasion from the West. It would not necessarily have persuaded him not to try to smash the Ukrainian government, since a successful Western-oriented democracy next door looks to an autocrat like a dangerous alternative. Putin is to blame for ordering the attack, and a whole series of misguided policies based on imperial thinking have set the table for this terrible outcome for all concerned.