As the Russian invasion of Ukraine nears its fourth week, we asked several Hamilton professors, experts in various aspects of the region and the war, to comment on recent events. The situation may have evolved since they shared their perspectives between March 10 and 15.

Shoshana KellerPutin Rejects Ukraine’s Existence as a Separate Country

Shoshana Keller, professor of history (March 10, 2022)

Vladimir Putin has been telling the West for years what he wants to do, and why, in plain language. It reveals a very different way of thinking than what we are accustomed to.

Today’s Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus share cultural and linguistic roots in Kievan Rus’, a loose polity of city-states that flourished from the 10th to the 13th centuries. The Mongol conquest of 1240 split Rus’; the north became Muscovy, ruled by tsars who were supported by the Orthodox Church. The south was a more diverse region of Catholic landowners, Orthodox peasants, and Jewish middlemen governed by the confederation of Poland-Lithuania. The eastern part of this ukraina (borderland) came under Moscow’s control in 1654, but Ukrainians and Russians vehemently disagree over whether that meant temporary military protection or permanent rule.

Catherine the Great conquered the north shore of the Black Sea, including Crimea, in 1783. But the western areas of today’s Ukraine were under Polish or Austrian rule until World War II. Eastern Ukraine suffered from Stalin’s collectivization and the man-made famine of 1933 that killed over four million people, but the western areas did not.

Putin is deeply convinced that the shared history means Ukraine does not exist as a separate country. An independent, democratic Ukraine can only be an “anti-Russia,” and therefore a threat. The tragedy is that Putin is destroying not only his own vision but Ukraine itself in his war of rage. He will fail to absorb Ukraine into Russia, but I’m afraid he will kill tens of thousands of people in the process.

Note: The phrase “Ukraine will no longer be an anti-Russia” appeared in an essay by Petr Akopov published by the RIA Novosti Russian news agency on Feb. 26. Clearly the essay was intended to be a celebration of triumph, but RIA pulled it within a day as it became clear no triumph was to be had. However, the web archives everything.

Sharon RiveraCan Putin Keep the Elites on His Side?

Sharon Rivera, professor of government (March 13, 2022)

President Vladimir Putin has built his legitimacy on his ability to “raise Russia up from its knees” and restore its international influence and respect. The majority of Russian elites, however, diverge from Putin with respect to key foreign policy priorities. Analyses of the Survey of Russian Elites that I conducted with Hamilton students reveal several important differences. Since 1993, high-ranking Russians have consistently been more concerned with how Russia’s failure to solve its domestic problems threatens its security than with threats emanating from the West. Elites also give Putin much lower marks for his domestic achievements than for his performance on the international stage, and two-thirds support maintaining Ukraine and Russia as completely independent countries.

These findings are important because research shows that more than two-thirds of authoritarian leaders who lose power by non-constitutional means are removed by regime insiders. A traditional coup d’état in Russia is unlikely, as are defections in Putin’s inner circle. Putin has fortified his security forces, staffed them with loyalists, and narrowed his circle of advisors to like-minded officials with careers spent mostly in the military and security forces.

Although our survey respondents are not members of Russia’s top leadership, the elites in the study are a broad cross section of individuals with occupations suggesting that they have substantial potential to affect policy. So as I wrote in The Washington Post in early March, “If military action in Ukraine and its consequences for the Russian economy make it impossible for the Kremlin to make progress on key domestic concerns such as infrastructure, health care, inflation, and climate change, Putin may lose elite support for any bid to stay in power beyond 2024.”

Alan CafrunyRussia’s Invasion is about Security

Alan Cafruny, professor of government (March 13, 2022)

Three weeks into Russia’s illegal and barbaric invasion of Ukraine, the humanitarian crisis continues to deepen. Sanctions will impose a terrible collective punishment on ordinary Russians, but they will not bring an end to the war. The vast quantities of arms that NATO is now supplying to Ukrainians will not help them defeat Russia but only prolong their suffering.  

Notwithstanding Putin’s bizarre rhetoric, Russia’s invasion is not fundamentally about imperial nostalgia or fear of democracy, but rather of security. De-developed and plundered by oligarchs since its neoliberal rebirth in 1991, Ukraine is barely more democratic than Russia itself. To explain the invasion in terms of security is not to justify it, but rather to understand the origins of the conflict and how to resolve it.

Since 1991, NATO has relentlessly expanded eastward, systematically dismantling arms control agreements and positioning missiles closer to Moscow. The United States and NATO have carried out massive, clearly illegal and brutal assaults on Serbia, Iraq, and Libya. These factors have deepened Russia’s fears of encirclement. Ukraine’s membership in NATO is a “red line” for Moscow.

The Biden administration refused to discuss proposals for Ukraine’s neutrality, the centerpiece of Russia’s demands.  Many observers (myself included) proposed prior to the invasion that provisions of neutrality in the Austrian State Treaty of 1955 could provide a template for negotiations on the status of Ukraine, with necessary compromises on other important but secondary issues. Critics may dismiss these proposals as unrealistic but tragically they were never tried. Ironically, Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky has now stated that NATO membership is out of the question.

The crisis will resolve in one of three ways: First, a sacrificial proxy war in which NATO fights Russia “to the last Ukrainian;” second, direct conflict between Russia and the United States and its NATO allies raising the prospect of a catastrophic nuclear war; third, negotiation and compromise. American citizens have no influence over Russia’s government. While condemning the Russian invasion and supporting the beleaguered Ukrainian people, we must also demand that our own government avoids further escalation and seeks a negotiated solution. 

David RiveraThreat of NATO is Russia’s Ruse

David Rivera, visiting assistant professor of government (March 14, 2022)

Russia’s leaders would like us to believe that they regard NATO expansion as a security threat as conventionally understood—that is, as presenting an unacceptably high probability of either a land invasion of Russian territory or missile attack on its major cities. Several considerations expose such claims as falsehoods.

First, a Kremlin that truly harbored fears of a NATO attack would refrain from actions that could be used as justification for an attack, yet the list of provocative behaviors that Russia has engaged in since the mid-2000s is lengthy. That list includes interference in elections of major NATO states; carrying out assassination attempts of political enemies residing in NATO countries by means of radioactive isotopes and banned chemical weapons; repeatedly sending fighter jets and bombers up to or into U.S. and other NATO airspace; and seizing sovereign territory of a neighboring state.

Second, even after the many arms reduction treaties reached following the end of the Cold War, Moscow still possesses one of the two largest nuclear arsenals in the world and extremely robust second-strike capability. This unquestioned ability to annihilate an enemy’s major cities should provide Russian leaders with confidence in their ability to deter any attack on the homeland. Over the last half decade, Putin has repeatedly expressed confidence in the Russian military’s ability “to guarantee the security of the Russian state” and has boasted that Russia possesses a substantial technological edge over all other countries in intercontinental strategic weaponry.

Third, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia — like Ukraine, former republics of the USSR that border the Russian Federation — became members of NATO in 2004. Yet over the course of the subsequent 18 years, no infringements on Russia’s territorial integrity have taken place. Moreover, these states already provide NATO with ample platforms for stationing ballistic missiles that could reach Russia’s second major city, St. Petersburg, in just minutes. Yet the alliance has not pursued any deployments.

Claims made by Russia’s leaders that Ukraine’s potential membership in NATO sometime in the future poses an unacceptable risk of a NATO military strike on Russia indicate that the current occupants of the Kremlin are either disconnected from reality or engaged in propagandistic deception. Both are possible, but the latter is the more likely.

Jason CieplyWe Cannot Remain Impartial Bystanders

Jason Cieply, assistant professor of Russian studies (March 10, 2022)

I can barely bring myself to write about this war, and to the extent that I can, I can only write in personal and partisan way. The scale of this tragedy for the Ukrainian people takes on new dimensions and depth every day. I am sure I do not need to convince you of their heroism. I spent five weeks in Kiev and Odessa last year, and, in retrospect, I was looking at all the wrong things. This was a country at war, one that has urgently needed the world’s help for a long time, and one that the world could not even offer its attention. Yes, we must be critical of the reasons why this war and these refugees, as opposed to other wars and other refugees, have captured the world’s attention, but there are also good reasons why this war is giving rise to darker, more existential fears.

Vladimir Putin seized the largest nuclear power plant in Europe with rocket launchers. Russia has announced plans to seize and nationalize foreign-owned companies that have left Russia. It is one thing to dwell on the personal pathologies and disconnect from reality that could drive someone to this madness, and these are important considerations, as much as history has taught us to be cautious about attributing too much to individual historical actors. It is another, far more important thing to appreciate what sovereignty means to Putin, what it means to him to be a sovereign actor, bending reality to his will. Every senselessly destructive act up to an including the annihilation of life on this planet is, to him, an expression and irrefutable realization of that sovereignty.

Allocating attention, anxiety, and care to the Russian people at a time when their government appears hell-bent on wiping their neighbors off the map and holding the entire world hostage can feel uncomfortable, but it is vitally necessary. The regime has been tightening the gears for a long time, and scholars of Russia share with many in the country a feeling of guilt –we saw all the signs but were incapable of imagining where they all pointed, much less doing anything about it. There was another Russia, a young, flourishing, infinitely creative and profound Russia which captured our hearts and minds and sustained us in our hope. The entire media landscape has imploded in a matter of days. The last channels of communication are being severed with sickening speed. Out of powerlessness, the world is inflicting unthinkable economic violence on a population which has no say in the deeds of its ruling elite, an elite which has no concern for their wellbeing and which, I think, came to see total isolation as a necessary condition for its continued survival. I have been disgusted by the Schadenfreude on display in our media, by the animal desire to inflict what indiscriminate pain we can because we cannot do anything else, this at a time when this society is already descending into a dystopian nightmare.

Russian citizens of conscience have demonstrated remarkable courage, coming out to protest this war at a time when even calling it a war can result in a prison sentence. Protest was already effectively illegal. As of March 10, 13,842 Russian citizens have been arrested for protesting since this war began, knowing full well what the consequences may be, because they want their solidarity with Ukraine and their underlying humanity to be seen. It is easy to say they should have done more earlier, but it will get harder and harder to believe this as we too come to share in their powerlessness.

Two beautiful societies which I love very much are locked in a death spiral, and incredible people on the inside are fighting against all odds on all of our behalf to avert ultimate catastrophe. We cannot remain impartial bystanders. We cannot allow ourselves to slide back into indifference once the initial shock wears off. True, it is not immediately clear what we can do, apart from donating to humanitarian organizations in Ukraine (which you should do – here’s the site for the International Committee of the Red Cross). These are painful, confusing events to contemplate, but please do not turn away – it is a time which demands courage, care, and action of all of us. A lot is on the line.

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