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‘Very tragic day’: Stanford experts react to Russian forces crossing Ukrainian border

Feb. 23, 2022, 1:00 a.m.

After Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision on Monday to send troops into two separatist-held regions of Ukraine, Stanford political science and international relations experts denounced Russia’s actions, explaining the fallacies in Putin’s reasoning and expressing grave concern for the futures of Ukraine and Europe. 

“I see this as a very tragic day for Ukraine, for Russia, for Europe, for the world,” said Michael McFaul, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia and the director of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (FSI). McFaul warned that Russia’s actions have the potential to ignite one of the largest armed conflicts in Europe since World War II. 

Russia’s action followed a Monday address in which Putin declared that “Ukraine has never had stable traditions of their own statehood” and signed decrees “recognizing” the Luhansk and Donetsk regions of Ukraine as independent.

History professor Norman Naimark, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, said that Putin’s movement of troops into Ukraine should be viewed as “an assault on the international system.” 

Naimark called Putin’s narrative of Ukrainian history “distorted and self-serving,” warning that the attack could jeopardize European security.

McFaul echoed Naimark’s concerns about European peace.

“This could easily become the largest war in Europe since 1939,” McFaul said. “Many leaders promise small little wars won over a few weeks and that do not extend to other countries. But tragically, throughout history, it rarely works out that way.”

Despite attempts by the Russian government to portray the crisis as one between NATO and Russia, the issue primarily revolves around Putin’s feelings of ownership over Ukraine and his fear that the nation will “irretrievably slip out of Moscow’s orbit,” said Steven Pifer, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and FSI fellow. 

Assistant professor of Slavic languages and literatures Yuliya Ilchuk agreed that the reason for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine does not revolve around concerns about NATO, but rather stems from a desire to reclaim a nation that was once a part of the Soviet Union.

“The escalation of the war in Eastern Ukraine is the result of the Russian Federation’s effort to restore the Soviet Union,” Ilchuk wrote in a statement to The Daily. “President Putin has voiced this intention in his Munich speech in 2007 and yesterday, when he announced the recognition of the puppet regimes in the occupied regions of Donetsk and Luhansk regions as legitimate and ordered the ‘peacemaking’ operation there.”

In response to the escalation, President Joe Biden on Tuesday announced a slate of U.S. sanctions on state-owned Russian banks, referring to the movement of Russian troops into Ukraine as an “invasion.” 

Acting in concert with the U.S. and other EU states, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz declared a halt to the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project that promises to transport natural gas from Russia to Germany over the Baltic Sea.

While McFaul praised Biden and his European counterparts’ sanctions on Russia, he questioned whether the sanctions would deter Putin.

Former NATO Deputy Secretary General and Hoover Institution Research Fellow Rose Gottemoeller said that forceful pushback on the part of Germany as part of the West’s response could prove critical due to Germany’s central economic role in the EU and close economic ties to Russia.

“If Germany is ready to act as they signaled this morning by halting the certification of Nord Stream 2, this is going to have a major additional impact on the sanctions of the United States,” Gottemoeller said.

Although Naimark agreed with the U.S.’s sanctions-based response to Russia and its fortification of the borders of NATO allies in Eastern Europe and the Baltic region, he said he was concerned that war could break out, resulting in resounding ramifications.

“If full-scale war does break out, it is hard to contemplate the number of casualties, the extent of destroyed towns and villages and the resulting refugee crises,” Naimark said. “Especially if there is full-scale warfare because of a Russian invasion, U.S.-Russian relations would be set back to those of the worst periods of the Cold War. The West would not quickly get over the forcible subjugation and incorporation of Ukraine into Putin’s ‘Russian world’.”

McFaul expressed similar views regarding the severity of the war that could break out. However, he agreed with NATO’s decision not to directly intervene militarily. 

“I agree with President Biden that the American people are not prepared to go to war with Russia over Ukraine,” McFaul said. “And Ukraine is not a member of NATO. I do think it is important, however, to fortify our presence. I fear that this will grow bigger than what has been promised so far.”

In his speech, Putin spoke of the historical connection between Russia and Ukraine, saying that  “modern Ukraine was completely created by Russia,” specifically referring to the Bolshevik policies of Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin, which Putin blamed for “alienating parts of historical territories of Russia.”

The Stanford experts said that Putin’s speech diverged from objective history. According to Kathryn Stoner, the deputy director of FSI, the vast majority of Ukrainians disagree with Putin’s assertions that Ukraine and Russia are one. Stoner also pointed out that Putin has reneged the 1994 promise made by his predecessor Boris Yeltsen to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty in exchange for the nation’s denuclearization. 

The increasing pressure Putin has recently placed on Ukraine, Stoner said, has driven many Ukrainians to reject Russia with increasing vigor and campaign to join NATO. In 2014, Putin successfully dissuaded former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych from signing an association agreement with the EU and aided Yanukovych’s escape from the country. 

“We can see in public opinion polls that, since 2014, this has driven an increase in interest in joining NATO,” Stoner said. “Ukrainians becoming more vehemently in favor of joining NATO and that their government should not concede to Putin the Donbas region.”

Putin also accused the West of primarily viewing Ukraine as “a future battlefield that is aimed against Russia,” claiming the U.S. had similar intentions for Crimea, and said the annexation of Crimea indicated a rejection of the West by the people of Crimea. In similar fashion, Putin added, the Luhansk and Donetsk regions of Ukraine were “people’s republics” that opposed the “movement towards stone age nationalism.”

Gottemoeller said Putin’s decision to directly enter Ukraine abandoned the “plausible deniability” principle employed in the annexation of Crimea, which ultimately occurred by way of popular vote — even though the vote occurred in the face of threatened military aggression from Russia. Gottemoeller said that Putin’s decision to enter the country represents the next stage of the rising level of Russian boldness that has taken place under his leadership. 

Putin’s plan of action in Ukraine may be miscalculated, Pifer said, since the Russian president’s inner circle consists of a small group of officials whose formative years, like Putin’s, occurred during the Cold War. Pifer said that due to the nature of his advisers, Putin may not be “getting a variety of opinions.”

“I was in Moscow 10 or 11 years ago,” Pifer recalled. “I remember asking a former very senior foreign policy official ‘does anybody in the Kremlin understand Ukraine?’ And he goes ‘yeah, there’s one guy who really does understand Ukraine, but nobody listens to him.’”

Jed Ngalande ‘23 is a Staff Writer for Vol. 259 Academic News.

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