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'Putin is not interested in peace.' VCU expert explains crisis in Ukraine

Judyth Twigg, a professor in the Department of Political Science, says the potential implications of Russia’s actions are “enormous and wide-ranging.”

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Russia has invaded Ukraine, and the world is watching. Judyth Twigg, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Political Science in the College of Humanities and Sciences at VCU who is an expert in global health with a particular focus on Russia and Ukraine, and who teaches courses on Russian politics, explains what’s behind the crisis – and how it could have “enormous and wide-ranging” implications for the  U.S. and the world.

What do you see as the motivation behind Putin's actions toward Ukraine? What’s driving this crisis?

Putin has been laser-focused for a long time on three things: his power, his personal wealth, and his legacy. The latter preoccupation has intensified during the pandemic. Putin's been in literal isolation, interacting with just a narrow circle of conservative advisors. He's been stewing, egged on, I'm sure, by the few people he's spending time with. Restoring Russia's great power status has always been one of his central aims, but more recently he's become downright obsessed with what he views as the greatest tragedy of the 20th century: the collapse of the Soviet Union. He wants to restore the key elements of that empire, and at the center of it all sits Ukraine. 

Head shot portrait of Judyth Twigg
Judyth Twigg, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Political Science

All Ukraine wants – and this is shown over and over again in public opinion polls across Ukraine – is the freedom to modernize and develop while looking West, on the basis of liberal democratic values, and to benefit from the types of freedoms that we all take for granted. Putin cannot allow that. He perceives a Western-oriented country right on his border – even one that's not an actual member of NATO or the European Union – to be an existential threat to his rule. He can't let Ukraine stand as an example of a possible alternative path for Russia itself. He needs to bring it into the fold. His preferred scenario has to be that all this pressure, now including air strikes, will cause the current Ukrainian government to fall, and he'll be able to orchestrate the installation of one that's considerably more beholden and friendly to him. Over the coming days, we'll see how far he's willing to go with ground troops and further occupation of Ukrainian territory.

Could diplomacy defuse this situation at this point, or are we beyond that now that Russia has invaded Ukraine?

We have clearly exhausted the limits of diplomacy. As I'm writing this (in the early morning of February 24), Putin has ordered airstrikes not just in the eastern part of Ukraine, but across the entire country – and in a direct insult to diplomacy, those bombs started to fall during a United Nations Security Council meeting where representatives of virtually every member country were begging for de-escalation. There are reports of tanks and missile launchers rolling across the Ukrainian border from Belarus. Putin continues to lie about alleged Ukrainian provocations that justify these attacks, but there is absolutely no evidence to support his claims. Ukrainian President [Volodymyr] Zelensky tried to reach out directly to Putin one last time earlier this evening, but Putin did not take his call. Putin is not interested in peace.

What response do you anticipate from the U.S. and NATO?

There's a reason Ukraine has not been welcomed into NATO: NATO member countries don't want a legal obligation to defend Ukraine directly in precisely this kind of situation. We're not willing to risk world war over Ukrainian sovereignty, which is what would happen if U.S. troops – or troops from any of the larger NATO members in Europe – were to engage directly against Russia. Given the events that are currently unfolding, however, we will (and should) step up our provision of military hardware and training for the Ukrainian armed forces in a major way. And it's important to remember that the Ukrainian army is much more capable of using that assistance than it was in 2014. But our most immediate response will be to escalate sanctions, and we should expect those to be severe. Russia is reliant on Western capital markets, and on Western technology to get their oil out of the ground. Plenty of Russian oligarchs still enjoy the ability to stash their money in Western countries and send their families to live in Western cities and send their kids to Western schools. Cutting those things off will hurt. It's important to keep in mind that Putin's been sanction-proofing the Russian economy since the first round in 2014; they're considerably less vulnerable to sanctions than they were then. But Putin may have miscalculated about the intensity and scope of the sanctions he'll have to face now; his naked aggression is unifying the Western world against him more than he anticipated.

What do you see as the potential implications of this crisis to the region and the world?

The implications are enormous and wide-ranging. First, there's the immediate diversion from the preferred foreign policy priorities of the Biden administration. Biden did not want to have to be paying this much attention to Russia. His initial to-do list revolved around the three C's: COVID, climate, and China. Now all of those things have had to move toward the backburner. Second, it's no accident that China is saying very little about what's going on; China would like nothing better than to watch Russia and the U.S./Europe weaken one another through protracted conflict. Finally, and most importantly, the way the Western world handles this crisis will shape the future of the global fight against authoritarianism. If Putin manages to shrink Ukraine geographically (more than he already has), to orchestrate regime change in Kyiv, to further degrade Ukraine's sovereignty in any major way, it will demonstrate to the rest of the world that we're not strong or resolute enough to defend what we say we believe in. Ukraine is literally the front line in the defense of Western liberal democracy. It is absolutely essential for us to stand with Ukraine against Russian aggression.