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The War to Destroy a State: Russia's Invasion and Ukraine's Response

March 10, 2022

Speaker: Sergiy Kudelia, Associate Professor of Political Science at Baylor UniversityChair: Eugene Finkel, Associate Professor at Johns Hopkins SAISAfter a brief introduction by Professor Finkel, Professor Kudelia began with an overview of the recent siege of Mariupol in southeastern Ukraine. According to Ukrainian officials, the attack has resulted in at least 1,200 deaths, and it points to Russia being more willing to inflict harm on civilians in order to coerce the Ukrainian side to yield to the invasion.
Kudelia then spoke about why Russian President Vladimir Putin chose this moment to invade Ukraine. First, Putin recognizes that applying pressure to Ukraine has yielded gains in the past, with examples being his interference in the 2004 Ukrainian presidential election, the termination of gas supplies in 2006 and 2009, and the direct use of force in Donbass from 2013 onwards. Second, Putin’s levers to influence policy within Ukraine, such as pro-Russia media, elites, and political parties, have proven less effective in recent years. Third, Russia’s deployment of military force in Donbas has been successful in creating a “zone of permanent instability” in Ukraine, and the conflict in Donbas has helped Putin on the domestic front by mobilizing anti-Ukrainian sentiment in Russia. Fourth, Putin has taken advantage of the failed implementation of the Minsk agreements, which Russia had undermined by distributing Russian passports to citizens of Donbas and by not withdrawing troops from the region. Finally, other factors such as the January 6 Capitol riot, the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, and the current subordination of Belarus have influenced the timing of Putin’s decision to invade.
Kudelia said Russia's pretext for the invasion was about “defense and liberation.” At the strategic level, Putin justified the invasion as a way to ‘de-nazify’ Ukraine and protect the Russian population in Donbas from alleged Ukrainian violence. Putin has also said that the invasion is ultimately the responsibility of the West and its expansion of NATO into Eastern Europe. At the ideological level, however, Russia’s invasion is premised on the rejection of Ukraine as a state. Putin seeks to exert permanent control over Ukraine and turn it into a kind of satellite state reminiscent of the Cold War.
Kudelia then described the invasion so far, including Russia’s bombing of civilian areas and the obstacles Russia faces in occupying Ukraine. He said that occupation is unlikely to be successful because of the cohesion of Ukraine’s political leaders and the large-scale popular mobilization against the Russian invasion. Kudelia said that if Ukraine is to successfully resist the Russian invasion, it needs long-term commitment to military and economic assistance from the West, reinforcement of its political and economic aspirations through, for example, EU membership, and more action from the international community that limits Russia’s ability to fight the war, such as economic sanctions.
Kudelia concluded with an overview of ways to support the Ukrainian people, and in the Q&A section he answered questions about the efficacy of sanctions and the potential implementation of a no-fly zone. He said that sanctions have already proved effective, with one example being the rapid decline in value of the ruble, but that the most significant effects of sanctions have yet to be felt. He expressed doubt that the West would move toward a no-fly zone in Ukraine but suggested that one option could be a limited no-fly zone over Western Ukraine, away from active combat areas, to ensure that humanitarian evacuations can proceed securely.