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Six Questions about the Russian Invasion of Ukraine

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Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine on Thursday morning, unleashing airstrikes, missiles, and ground troops across the country. SIS professor Keith Darden, an expert on the politics of Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia, answered our questions about the unfolding situation. Our conversation has been slightly edited for brevity and clarity.

This is obviously a quickly evolving situation. Given that, let’s look first at the causes. Putin has said that “it was [historically] impossible to imagine that Ukraine and Russia may split up and become two separate states.” Is this invasion really an attempt to reunite what was divided in the breakup of the Soviet Union, or is he using Ukraine as a proxy—a bargaining chip—against the West and Western ideals more generally?
I actually think Putin is using the NATO narrative as kind of a proxy, and he's really committed on the issue of Ukraine. I do think that if Russia wanted to challenge NATO, they would have attacked Latvia and would have taken a very different set of steps. If you think about it from the Kremlin’s perspective, or let's say from Putin's personal perspective, prior to 1991, Kyiv and Moscow were part of the same sovereign entity for well over 300 years. And Putin is correct when he says that within the Russian Empire, there was not a stark differentiation between being Russian and being Ukrainian.
There was an extent to which the Soviet Union did construct a modern Ukrainian sovereign state as we know it, and that state became independent in 1991. I think Putin was willing to tolerate that—much as he is perfectly content to tolerate an independent Kazakhstan, which was also created by the Soviet Union and has a significant Russian-speaking population. He was also willing to tolerate an independent Belarus.
I think the difference with Ukraine is that the government in Kyiv was, especially since 2014, trying to cut those historic ties. And not just cut the historic ties but make a new set of ties, particularly military ties, with the United States and the West. I think Putin felt that now is the time to turn that process back. Certainly, Putin was not going to tolerate what he perceived to be an anti-Russian and pro-US government on Ukrainian soil, which he sees as historic Russian land. We're looking at somebody who has a pretty strong set of nationalist ideas in which Ukraine is part of that nation.
Did the lack of reaction to Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea embolden Putin? Is “appeasement” an appropriate word to use, or is that inaccurate?
No. I think that the US, in particular, responded pretty significantly in 2014. I think there were a lot of missed opportunities between 2015 and 2021, and especially in 2022, where we could have found ways to create a settlement that would have prevented the Russian invasion of Ukraine. I actually think we didn’t appease, and we, in fact, did not encourage the Ukrainian government to implement the Minsk agreements. We armed the Ukrainians—incrementally at first and increasing over time—in ways that Russia had said, very clearly, were a “red line” for them.
Maybe appeasement would've worked; we didn't try appeasement. What we're finding now is that the quasi-confrontational stance that we have taken since 2014 was in no way, shape, or form a deterrent to Russian actions and, if anything, may have precipitated those Russian actions.
In your opinion, will sanctions against Russia or Russian individuals have any impact on the country’s actions?
Yes, I think the sanctions that were announced by the Biden administration yesterday are very significant sanctions, and they constitute an escalation on our part. Prior to this point, the US involvement had been with Ukraine—in other words, supplying the Ukrainian government with weapons and funds. In this conflict, we had not taken direct action against Russia. We are now going to initiate a set of very significant sanctions that could potentially cripple the Russian banking sector. That's going to bring a Russian response, but I don't think the Russian response is going to be to back down.
The US has imposed significant sanctions on Russia, and Russia will probably initiate a set of counter-sanctions on us. Those sanctions will not take the same form—they're much more likely to take the form of cyberattacks on our banking sector or more significant responses that are going to be costly for Americans.
The US, the most powerful member of NATO, has moved troops to Romania and Poland. A Russian attack on a NATO ally would be very different than an invasion on a non-NATO-member nation, but is this distinction—and the US’s and Europe’s reluctance to act in Ukraine’s defense—going to lead us to a new Iron Curtain falling across Eastern Europe and a new Cold War?
I think it’s important to remember that the Cold War was defined by the absence of a direct military confrontation between Russia and the United States. I hope we're headed for a new Cold War, but my worry is that we’re headed for a new hot war and that we have to worry about escalation in this context. I think the Biden administration did absolutely the right thing in stressing that an attack on NATO and movement onto one inch of territory of a NATO member would bring a full military response from the United States, if not other NATO members.
At this point, we do need to start thinking about fortifying Europe. It’s now clear that Russia has aggressive intentions, and those intentions may extend beyond Ukraine. We are now in a position where we have to make Europe a true military alliance—not a set of institutional arrangements for maintaining peace within Europe itself. For example, Hungary has about 26,000 active military personnel—that is not anything remotely capable of defending its own territory. Poland, similarly, has inadequate military forces. Part of the problem is that European countries have been relying on an external actor, the United States, to serve as a deterrent. And while that has been good for peace within Europe—none of these European countries have offensive military capabilities that would allow them to invade one another—the problem is, now, they also don't have enough defensive military capability to defend themselves, and that's going to have to change.
In your opinion, what role did disinformation play in the run-up to this invasion? And do the Russian people, generally, support this invasion?
The disinformation in the run-up to this invasion was pretty significant on the Russian side. I think what's really remarkable is how effective information coming from the White House has been in undermining that Russian narrative. Certainly, the people that I know in Moscow are very well aware of that, but even those who thought that the US was pushing disinformation now clearly see that the Russian narrative is a false narrative, and the US was correct about Russian intentions with respect to Ukraine.
In regards to the popular support within Russia for an invasion of Ukraine—no one knows what actual attitudes look like outside of the major cities, but my sense is that there isn't great support for this. If it were to become bloody, even that support would diminish very rapidly.
In your opinion, will we still have an independent, free Ukraine a year from now?
My sense is that a year from now, we'll have a Ukraine with a different set of borders and a different government in power. That will be a very non-democratic and Russian-allied, or -oriented, Ukraine. A very different Ukraine than the one that we've had since 1991.