The University’s Miller Center of Public Affairs hosted a webinar Monday evening to discuss the possible futures of the ongoing war in Ukraine, consequences of continued escalation and the possible effects of an extended conflict.
The conflict between the two countries stems from the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, when Ukraine gained independence — the country has long been divided between Ukrainians who see Ukraine as part of Europe and those who feel it is linked to Russia. In 2014, Russia invaded and annexed Crimea, and tensions have risen since. Belarus has supported Russia in its invasion of Ukraine, while the Ukrainian regions of Luhansk and Donetsk publicly stated their intent to secede from Ukraine and join Russia, which became part of the pretense for Russia’s invasion.
William Antholis, director of the Miller Center, moderated the discussion with Philip Potter, Associate Professor specializing in foreign policy and international relations, and Allan Stam, professor of public policy and politics and former dean of the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy.
“Nothing [that has occured in the war] has gone as planned or expected,” Stam said.
Stam further discussed the cause of the U.S.’s connection to the conflict — a relationship established via the U.S.’s foreign policy of supporting other nations’ democratic rights and independence from unprovoked militaristic aggression — but noted that the U.S. doesn’t have very clear or significant interests in Ukraine, though Potter contended that U.S. interests in the region are “evolving.”
“This is going much worse for Russians than anyone would have anticipated,” Potter said. “We have a rival on the ropes here.”
This, Potter said, led the U.S. to reassess its interests in the region, and he stressed that the U.S. must be careful about moving Russia into a state of “true desperation.”
Moving to the humanitarian consequences of the war, Stam discussed the escalating intensity of the attacks, which have included large-scale attacks on civilians.
“If President Putin feels that Russia is losing, he might decide to launch a tactical or short-range and relatively low-yield nuclear weapon against a single target in Ukraine,” Stam explained. “That would entail a significant rupture of norms over the past 70 years.”
Potter argued that, while tragic, the infliction of human suffering might not constitute an escalation.
“This is very much in keeping with Russian past behavior and doctrine,” Potter said.
The “tremendously-worrying” alternate escalation would be the use of a weapon of mass destruction, in the form of nuclear, chemical or biological warfare, Potter said.
“In terms of the limited yield of tactical nuclear weapons, they are limited in comparison to some strategic nuclear weapons, but the amount of damage it would take to definitively dispose of [Ukraine President] Zelenskyy would level Kyiv,” Potter said. “This is a very serious situation, and something that would involve a tremendous escalation.
Addressing this possibility of extreme escalation, Antholis then posed a question to the group, asking the panelists for their perspective on the probability of Putin provoking a greater response by attacking members of NATO — an international military alliance whereby member states in Europe and North America agree to provide mutual support in the event of external attacks. Ukraine is currently recognized as an aspiring member of NATO — a subtle difference which has deterred many global powers from a military response.
In response, Potter argued that the closer that Russia gets to “invoking the wrath of NATO”, the more the U.S. and allies are considering increasing response to the conflict.
“[The U.S. and its allies] are seeing the Russians get very, very close to a situation where the US might have to act,” Potter said.
This reality is incurring a great deal of risk on the part of Russia — a strategy intended to achieve a sort of stalemate between the two sides, Potter said. Potter described that “escalate to de-escalate” is a simplification of Russian doctrine, it is the type of logic that could cause serious escalation.
“You try to get eyeball-to-eyeball to back us down, and instead … something might go wrong,” Potter said.
Stam asserted that while it’s true that Russians have fought several of their recent wars by attacking civilians, many Russians feel the attacks have been out of order of typical and acceptable military action. Stam further pointed to social media and videos of large-scale attacks on civilians circulating, which effectively put political pressure on NATO country leaders as well as President Biden to respond.
“We should not just think of this conflict as military planners might — we have to think about how non-specialists will be observing the information coming out of the warzone,” Stam said.
Antholis then pushed Stam and Potter to consider what it might mean for Ukraine to win the war — the two agreed that it would depend on what winning means in this context. It is possible a Russian consideration of victory is simply the prolongment of combat and the disruption of Ukrainian economic and political functions.
“The Russians are politically and emotionally prepared for this to be a long war,” Stam said.
However, an absolute victory on one side is not the only possible future for the war, according to Stam. While coming out of this with a negotiated settlement would be a significant win, the possibility of an agreement is far in the future, Stam said.
In terms of strategy, there is also a strong potential for Putin’s critical information to be inferior to other leaders, Stam said. In critical situations, dictatorial leaders are prone to biased and inadequate sources of information.
“The more personalistic a dictatorship becomes, the less good the information flows become,” Stam said.
The rest of the global community is another focal point of this struggle, Stam said. U.S. involvement in the conflict would send a message to other nations regarding American policy of involvement in dangerous foreign conflicts.
“The more we push a position with regard to Ukraine… we firm our deterrent capacity with China and elsewhere,” Stam argued. “The longer the US hangs in there in Ukraine, the better.”
Stam explained that making it clear that attacks on sovereign neighboring states will not be tolerated by the western economic system and that such attacks can lead to the destruction of domestic economies — an important lesson for other states to observe.
Although Russian victory is possible, it would be preceded by civilian death and other masses of humanitarian crimes, Potter said. Currently, civilian casualties caused by Russian attacks on Ukrainian soil count up to nearly 900.
“As ugly as it may be from a humanitarian standpoint… we may be going to a point where Russia does not lose but also does not win,” Potter argued.
The Miller Center will continue to examine the war and its effects through a series of upcoming events, to be found on the Center’s website.