On Feb. 24, a conflict began in Ukraine after Vladimir Putin, the President of the Russian Federation, authorized a full-scale military invasion of the country. This came after months of a Russian military buildup along Ukraine’s borders, and diplomatic back-and-forth between Russia and various Western state powers. The invasion itself was a major escalation of tensions between the two nations that flared up in 2014 after Russia annexed Crimea, a small but strategically important part of southern Ukraine, and has led to generally widespread hardship and suffering in the region.
Many Americans who knew little about the foreign policy strife that has occured in Eastern Europe since the end of the Cold War in the 1990s seemed to have been shocked by the invasion, moving to condemn the Russians as cartoonish thugs who invaded Ukraine with no pretext.
“I hope you turn to dust, I hope you become invisible, I hope you become a complete unknown with no direction home,” said rock star Stevie Nicks in an open letter to President Putin released on her Instagram page- just one example of supporting Ukraine in the conflict becoming a social media trend.
With all this hysteria, uproar, and conflicting information constantly coming out about the situation, an expert is evidently needed to provide a level-headed and sober analysis. This is where Adrian Political Science Chair Dr. Phillip J. Howe comes in. Dr. Howe has been teaching at Adrian since 2005, and has spent most of his 30-year career in the political sciences studying the developments of democracy in Central and Eastern Europe, particularly in the former Hapsburg monarchies. He has visited Ukraine in relation to the study of those former Hapsburg territories, and follows European politics closely.
Most experts, Howe says, could not have predicted that Putin would have ended up invading Ukraine because the costs would outweigh the benefits of doing so: in terms of military casualties, economic penalties coming from the west, and the political unpopularity that such an invasion might cause. Indeed, when the invasion occured, many of these costs did come to fruition: Sweden began discussing joining NATO, Switzerland, historically a neutral country, joined the West in its economic sanctions, among other things.
“In short, a lot of us were more or less correct about the consequences of invasion,” Howe says, “but wrong about whether Putin cared about those consequences.”
But other than those consequences that the West has already imposed on Putin’s Russia, the United States coalition led by President Biden has little more they can do to reinforce what he describes as their motives: to “uphold existing state borders in Europe and defend political democracy there.”
“My sense is that Americans don’t have much of a taste for sending U.S. troops into a European land war, especially after two decades in Afghanistan and Iraq. Furthermore, conventional military conflict between the US or any of its NATO allies and Russia risks escalating to a nuclear war,” Howe says.
However, some of Biden’s recent bluster against Putin in his recent speeches, most notably his recent State of The Union address, may turn out to be advantageous to him, as presidents tend to appear stronger when they stand up to foreign aggressors.
According to Howe, the current Ukrainian conflict dates back to the history of Europe as we know it.
“The history of Europe in general is contested borders, and much of Europe’s modern history has involved Russia, various “Western” European states and the Ottoman Empire intervening militarily and politically in the regions in between,” Howe explains, adding that the nationalism that developed in the 19th century, defined in ethnic terms, also plays a part in the deep roots of this war.
In terms of modern causes, though, Howe elaborates that one of Putin’s main concerns is the possibility of Ukraine joining the Western security alliance NATO, which was formed in 1949 as an arm for the American-led West to counter the influence of the Soviet Union.
The possibility of Ukraine joining NATO is a security concern for Russia because, as University of Chicago political science professor John Mearshimer put it in 2015, “Imagine the outrage if China built an impressive military alliance and tried to include Mexico and Canada in it.”
In a recent editorial, former Presidential advisor Pat Buchanan argued that Putin hopes to build a regional sphere of influence, much like America’s Monroe Doctrine in the Western Hemisphere that we’ve maintained with the Latin American countries.
While Howe agrees with Buchanan’s analysis that Putin hopes to build a sphere of influence, he contends that “We shouldn’t view the “Monroe Doctrine” as all that benign. One of its consequences has been U.S. American military and economic predominance in the Western hemisphere – including a long history of overthrowing Central and South American governments when it seemed to suit US interests,” adding that Putin’s government is considered to be highly corrupt.
But beyond pure security concerns, Howe continues that Putin has personal reasons for the Ukrainian invasion as well.
“Putin has long disparaged the collapse of the Soviet Union as a historical tragedy and he is clearly interested in bringing “lost” territories back under control from the Kremlin,” Howe says.
To mask these deeply personal motivations, Howe posits, Putin has come up with a number of thinly-veiled excuses to make major incursions in Ukraine.
“Over the last few months, Putin’s rhetoric has shifted from the pretense of liberating ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine to an all-out denial of Ukrainian nationhood. His equation of Ukrainian nationalism with fascism is ridiculous – many Ukrainians’ sense of their own identity is tied to Ukraine as a multi-ethnic state, Ukraine’s President Zelensky is ethnically Jewish, and for that matter his first language is Russian!”
All in all, Howe says, “The situation is changing constantly, there is a lot of uncertainty and no one can predict the future. As far as the future is concerned, though, for some time now we have believed that inter-state wars in Europe were a thing of the past. That is obviously no longer true. My hope is we do our best to limit the horrific consequences of that development.”