Ask an Expert: John Ishiyama, UNT

Thursday, February 17, 2022

John Ishiyama, UNTUNT System HR brings you UNT World experts with this periodic and always timely installation called "Ask An Expert." So, let's ask...

EXPERT: John Ishiyama, Ph.D., professor and graduate advisor in the Department of Political Science, is an expert in international politics with an emphasis on Russia. Even casual observers of current world events know that Russian President Vladimir Putin has amassed more than 100,000 troops on the border with Ukraine, a country tied to Russia since the 9th Century. The U.S. has repeatedly warned that an attack on Ukraine could be imminent, perhaps even being launched during the Winter Olympics in Beijing. We sought Dr. Ishiyama to better understand what's at the root of this crisis, what Putin hopes to accomplish by threatening war, the political and economic risks facing Europe, how the U.S. might respond to a Russian attack and why Americans should care about Ukraine's future independent from Russia. This is heavy stuff. Dig in.

Q: Vladimir Putin has gathered more than 100,000 troops along the Ukrainian border, threatening war and heightening tensions in Europe and the U.S. What is the historical relationship between Russia and Ukraine that has brought us to this moment?
Dr. Ishiyama:
 Russia and Ukraine have a very long history. The first organized "Russian state" was centered around Kiev in the 9th century. This kingdom, the "Kievan Rus," established orthodox Christianity as the state religion and it was also through this early state that the Russian Cyrillic alphabet evolved after its introduction by Byzantine monks. Thus, in many ways, the Ukraine is considered the cradle of Russian civilization. Later, however, after many invasions from East and West, the Russian state moved northward to Moscow, and what is modern Ukraine was divided several times by different empires — the Polish-Lithuanian state in the western half (and later Austria) and Russia in the eastern half. This has left a lasting division between the left and right banks of the Dniepr River, with the western half more oriented historically and culturally with the "West" and the eastern half oriented toward Russia. This division continues to dominate domestic Ukrainian politics into the 21st century.
Additional background:

  • Under the Soviets, the Ukraine suffered greatly (highlighted by the great famine in the 1930s -- the Holodomor) and the Ukraine suffered greatly during the second World War. However, Ukraine was considered the second-most important Union Republic in the Soviet Union (almost in partnership with Russia) and enjoyed a relatively privileged status in the USSR.
  • Crimea, up until the 1950s, was considered part of the Russian Republic but was ceded to the Ukraine under Nikita Khrushchev’s leadership. Thus, the Russian claim that Crimea is naturally a part of Russia is based on the view that this transfer of territory was illegal and unjust (and also that the largest majority of inhabitants in Crimea are Russian).
  • After the collapse of the Soviet Union, a diplomatic memorandum of understanding (called the Budapest Memorandum) was signed by Russia, Ukraine, the United States, Great Britain and later France and China. The memorandum stated that in exchange for surrendering the nuclear weapons that Ukraine had inherited from Russia, that all parties would guarantee the borders and territorial integrity of Ukraine. 
  • The most immediate roots of the current confrontation began with domestic turmoil in Ukraine. Ukraine has always been politically divided between the East and the West over whether it should follow a pro-European or pro-Russian path. Elections produced governments that alternately pursued pro-Western and Pro-Russian foreign policies. It was under a pro-Western president that the idea of Ukraine joining NATO was first introduced. However, in 2014, the sitting president, Viktor Yanukovych, from Eastern Ukraine and decidedly pro-Russian, faced massive demonstrations in Kyiv (formerly spelled Kiev) around Maidan Square. Protesters demanded he step down after his refusal to sign a political association and free trade agreement with the European Union (which had been negotiated by his predecessor). After many violent confrontations, the Ukrainian parliament voted to remove Yanukovych from his office and he fled to Moscow. 
  • From the Russian point of view, Yanukovych was removed illegally and the Maidan uprising and Yanukovych’s removal was a "coup" engineered by the West. They viewed this turn of events as extremely alarming in that they saw the removal of a pro-Russian leader in Ukraine. This was a direct affront to the Putin government.
  • Moscow moved quickly to annex Crimea in 2014 (stating that since the current government in Kiev was illegitimate, the Budapest Memorandum no longer applied and that the people of Crimea had "voted" by referendum to join the Russian Federation). Russia also began to arm separatists in most eastern regions of the Ukraine, the Donbas (short of Don River Basin). This was done as to gain leverage against the pro-Western government in Kyiv and to prevent Ukraine from joining the European Union (and perhaps NATO).
  • In 2014, several European states, Russia and Ukraine signed the Minsk Protocol, which called for an immediate cease fire and a discussion of decentralizing authority in Ukraine to provide some autonomy for the secessionist eastern regions of the country, Donetsk and Luhansk. The talks, however, stalled, although the cease fire has largely held.
  • In 2017, Ukraine entered the European Union as an associate member, further demonstrating the pro-Western bent of the Post-Maidan government in Kyiv.
  • In 2019, Volodymyr Zelensky (actor turned presidential candidate) was elected President of Ukraine on an anti-corruption platform and a pledge to end the civil war. In many ways the Putin regime in Moscow saw this as a possible opening to negotiate an end to the civil war and implementation of the Minsk Protocol. However, Zelensky has proven a disappointment from the point of view of the Russians who see Zelensky’s visit to Washington in 2021 and his recent statements opposed to the Nord Stream gas project as an indication of his increasing anti-Russian stance. The Russian government sees this current administration in Kiev (and in Washington) as anti-Russian. 

Q: What does Putin (and Russia) stand to gain by invading Ukraine now?
Dr. Ishiyama:
In terms of the question of why Putin is doing this now, these actions are the product of long-term trends, but also of recent trends in Ukraine. First, Putin has advocated ever since first becoming Prime Minister in 1999 and then President in 2000, the return of Russian greatness. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the dark years of the 1990s was in many ways, I think, humiliating for many Russians. Putin promised to restore Russia to international prominence. Further, Putin sees the "near abroad" (a term Russia uses to describe the countries that made up the former Soviet Union) as a crucial part of Russia’s sphere of influence and critical to its national security position. The Ukraine is the biggest part of that strategy and keeping Ukraine at least neutral is critical to Russian influence in the "near abroad." Additionally:

  • The use of military power has proven to be a reliable means to attain political goals for Putin. From intimidating Georgia over South Ossetia and Abkhazia in 2008, to the Donbas and Syria more recently, military force has proven more reliable than other means. Russia, unlike China and the West, which have substantial economic levers of influence, does not possess these economic levers. Although Russia possesses enormous gas and oil reserves, prices of these resources fluctuate greatly and Russia is just as dependent on exports of these resources as are the European recipients they send this gas and oil to. This makes fuel resources an unreliable means to exert political pressure — the threat of military force is a proven lever for the Russians. This explains why they are exerting this pressure on trying to compel Ukraine to move away from the West. 
  • Why now? It’s a combination of increased frustration with Zelensky and lack of progress on implementing the Minsk Agreements, and that Putin himself is facing some pressure at home. I think in some way, this crisis provides some diversions for the regime. I do also think there is something to the argument that Putin wants to build on his legacy in the latter part of his life (he will be 70 this year) and that legacy has to be making Russia great again. A pro-Western Ukraine cannot be part of that legacy.
  • Will Russia invade? Well, I think we first need to qualify what we mean by invasion; I think that an all -ut attempt to seize and subdue the country is very unlikely. Perhaps more likely is an incursion to seize Kyiv and then install (or reinstall) a pro-Russian government to replace the "illegal" one there now. I think this is also unlikely. What is somewhat more likely is some cross-border incursion that follows declarations of independence by Donetsk and Luhansk, and then Russia annexing those areas. Or perhaps some other cross-border incursions (such as the seizure of Mariupol, a major Ukrainian port on the sea of Azov). These kinds of actions can be done quickly and then the West would be faced with a Fait Accompli. However, Russia is likely to be faced with severe sanctions which will be crippling economically, if any of these actions are taken.

Q: What stake does the U.S. have in any of this and why should Americans care?
Dr. Ishiyama:
Unlike Russia, the region does not fall in the "strategic sphere of influence" for the United States. However, the region has significant importance for many of our NATO allies in the region (to who we are bound by treaty to defend) such as Poland, Romania and Bulgaria. Further, to allow Russian to blatantly violate international law and annex territories or install puppet governments will likely lead to further incursions. In many ways, I think for many foreign policy analysts this conjures up images, whether accurately or not, of Munich and the appeasement of Hitler prior to the Second World War. The post-war peace has been maintained because of the U.S.’s emphasis on collective security and to abandon that now will create a direct challenge to that peace. It is also a direct challenge to America’s leading role in the world, and I think Americans should care about that.

Q: If Russia invades, what options do the U.S. and its allies have to push back? Is President Biden prepared to go to war to keep Ukraine from falling under Putin’s control?
Dr. Ishiyama: 
I’ll answer the second question first -- no, war is likely not an option, at least not the deployment of U.S. troops in combat roles in Ukraine. However, there will be mass provision of advanced arms to the Ukrainians (which are being stockpiled along with the deployment of NATO troops to states bordering Ukraine). Also, the provision of intelligence and reconnaissance information to the Ukrainians will likely occur. There may even be the deployment of military advisors (but I think that's unlikely). The strategy will be to make a Russian invasion so costly that it will lead to the collapse of the Russian incursion and cause Putin significant political costs at home. Although Russia has 130,000 troops on the border, they will need far more than that to occupy the entire country. The U.S. response will, of course, depend on what kind of "invasion" happens. I think there will be much less military response if Russia "only" annexes the Donbas, rather than launching a full-scale invasion of the country.

I think a far more dangerous scenario for Russia is the imposition of further economic sanctions. The sanctions instituted against Russian in 2014 were crippling and led to a sustained recession that Russia has only begun to emerge from (on the wave of rising oil and gas prices). In fact, Russian attempts to influence elections in the West were largely motivated by seeking to place governments in power who would remove the economic sanctions. However, if an invasion occurs, much more severe sanctions (such as removing Russia from the SWIFT financial transaction system) would be absolutely catastrophic for Russian banks. If Russia is removed from the SWIFT system, their banks will be unable to complete financial deals, which will have a crippling effect on trade and investment, and potentially lead to the collapse of Russian banks (which are connected to the oligarchs who own most of the economy). That, coupled with the collapse of oil and gas exports (also controlled by the oligarchs) if there is a war,  will create enormous problems for the Putin regime, especially if the conflict is sustained.

Q: How do you see events playing out?
Dr. Ishiyama: 
No crystal ball here, but I don’t think a massive Russian invasion is likely. What is somewhat more likely, if there is a Russian military action a quick incursion to seize Kyiv and install a puppet government (which will likely invite sanctions and a massive expansion of the current civil war in Ukraine). I am not sure this is Russia’s primary strategy because this is likely to create a massively unstable situation in a large country on Russia’s border. I think Putin would like to avoid that — but I suppose it could happen. Even more likely, if there is to be a military incursion, would be Russian military intervention and annexation of the Donbas. There are more than enough troops to do that, and troops on other parts of the border will prevent the Ukrainians from fully deploying their forces to prevent annexation of regions they do not control anyhow. A third outcome is that this crisis continues for some time, and Putin will try to stare the West down until they blink and offer concessions. Such concessions could include assurances that Ukraine does not join the West. Perhaps a compromise is a promise that Ukraine does not join NATO for the foreseeable future, but to allow Ukraine to deepen its economic and cultural ties with the EU.