War in Ukraine: Your questions answered by Stanford experts

Feb. 27, 2022, 10:33 p.m.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine on Wednesday, cities across Ukraine have been bombed, at least 240 civilians have died and Western nations have passed sweeping sanctions in response. The invasion has prompted condemnation from Stanford foreign policy experts and protests by Stanford students calling for solidarity with Ukraine.

To learn more about the future of the war and its significance, The Daily spoke to three Stanford experts. Kathryn Stoner is the director of the Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law and author of “Russia Resurrected: Its Power and Purpose in a New Global Order.” Steven Pifer ’76 is a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and currently serves as a fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies. Michael McFaul is a former U.S. ambassador to Russia and current director of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies.

Russia has crossed Ukraine’s border and fighting has ensued in major Russian cities. Hundreds of civilians have died. Now that Russia has officially invaded, what will the upcoming months look like? 

There are two possible scenarios, the experts explained.

“The first is a smaller-scale incursion aimed at destroying major elements of the Ukrainian military,” Pifer said. In this scenario, Russia attacks major Ukrainian cities without taking the capital, Kyiv.

“In one of his speeches, Putin made threats about cities in Ukraine where pro-Russian protesters were killed in a fire in 2014, and he complained that no one has been brought to justice for that,” Stoner said. “We could see responses in those cities, like Odesa, a city of a million people.”

The second, more likely outcome is a full occupation, according to Pifer.

“Right now, it’s looking like a pretty major operation. Putin’s talking about things like ‘denazification’ and Russian airmen have landed within 10 miles of Kyiv,” Pifer said. “This suggests that they are trying to go in and arrest major Ukrainian leaders.”

In this scenario, Russia would need to prepare for a long occupation period. Ukrainians, Pifer added, would likely violently resist Russian rule: “Any puppet government that Russia installed would not last five minutes once the Russians left.”

“It could be that Mr. Putin has underestimated Ukrainian resistance. If that’s the case, then he has to be willing to really spill a lot of blood,” Stoner said.

Putin could have attacked at any time in the past two decades. Why did he choose now, of all times, to attack? 

For one, Putin has become increasingly emotional about Ukraine, viewing it as central to his legacy, Pifer explained. 

“At the same time, his circle has been getting smaller and smaller, in part due to COVID. Three out of the five people he listens to have foreign intelligence backgrounds, and they lived through the collapse of the Soviet Union,” Stoner added. The result, Stoner said, has been an echo chamber that amplifies the perspectives of those clamoring for war.

“In addition, Russia’s relative power position today is probably as good as it’s going to get,” Pifer said. “His military has been modernized, the U.S. is bitterly divided, Chancellor Merkel in Germany is gone, France is preoccupied with its own election and Boris Johnson in England faces his own political problems.”

The U.S. has enacted a sweeping set of sanctions on major Russian officials and deployed additional NATO troops in Eastern Europe on Friday. On Sunday, the U.S. barred some Russian banks from the SWIFT financial messaging system. How else has the U.S. responded, and what tools do we have at our disposal?

Compared to Russia’s invasion of Crimea in 2014, U.S. intelligence today has improved, according to McFaul. “The Biden administration has taken an aggressive approach to declassifying that intelligence as part of their strategic response,” he said in reference to U.S. intelligence on Crimea.

The U.S. has also imposed stronger sanctions on Russian oligarchs and their families, and could continue to impose heavier sanctions, Stoner added. 

“The nuclear option for the U.S., economically, is cutting off all Russian access to the SWIFT banking system, which handles transactions between banks,” Stoner said.

Pifer also advocates for orchestrating a degree of political isolation targeted at the Kremlin, as well as searching for more ways to deliver arms to Ukraine. Although the U.S. has the option to respond to Russian aggression through militaristic retaliation, all three experts agree that it is unlikely that the U.S. will deploy the military in Ukraine. 

“The United States has no intentions of deploying missiles that can attack Russia,” McFaul said. 

The most consequential military action that the U.S. could take is continuing to deploy troops in the eastern flank of NATO, such as the Baltic states, Poland and Romania, in order to reaffirm support for those governments and send a signal to Russia, Pifer said.

We have sanctioned Russia before. How is this situation different? What is the potential impact of the U.S. response? 

The sanctions intend to strike the Russian economy where it hurts, barring major banks from the SWIFT  international finance system and preventing powerful oligarchs from conducting business abroad. But Russia is prepared to weather the storm, Stoner said.

“Russia’s economy is often mischaracterized as being in shambles,” Stoner said. “But they have a lot in foreign reserves, they have a very low debt-to-GDP ratio, and they have been able to substitute imports they got from the U.S. with investment from China, India and the Middle East.” 

Even if the U.S. entirely cut off the SWIFT banking system, Russia could find ways to survive by working with cryptocurrency or relying on Chinese support, even though the Russian population may feel the immediate pain of the sanctions, Stoner said. 

Regardless of the U.S. response, Russia’s unique emotional investment in controlling Ukraine will impact potential avenues for international intervention. 

As a result, the primary goal of the U.S. economic response and military support to Ukraine is to make the invasion much more painful for Russia, Pifer said. “Sanctions are appropriate in any case, because the world needs to signal to the Russians that this is not acceptable behavior.”

“And if the Ukrainians succeed in exacting a price on Russia, then I don’t think many Russians would be happy to see their relatives coming home in body bags,” Pifer added. “The Kremlin does pay attention to public opinion, so this could backfire.”

As a nuclear-armed state with the 11th-largest economy, Russia is one of the biggest international players. What broader geopolitical consequences does Russia’s invasion have?

If we don’t show that we’re willing to punish this kind of behavior, then where does it stop?” Stoner said. If adversaries like China see Russia’s actions as relatively painless, he added, it could increase the risk of a Chinese attack on Taiwan. 

“This is the biggest use of military force Europe has seen since World War II,” Pifer said. “And the question you have to ask is: do you want to live in a world where one neighbor can invade another, without provocation, and get away with it?”

The headline of this article has been updated to say “War in Ukraine” rather than “Crisis in Ukraine” to more accurately depict the current conflict. The Daily regrets this error.

Karsen Wahal ’25 is a writer from Arizona. He’s interested in studying economics and political science. Contact Karsen at news 'at' stanforddaily.com.

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