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‘The human costs of Russia’s aggression are staggering’

VCU expert Judy Twigg explains where things stand in Ukraine, the impact that sanctions on Russia are having, and the role of the U.S. moving forward.

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Since Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, thousands have died — including numerous Ukrainian civilians — millions have been displaced, and the humanitarian crisis is deepening.

A portrait of Judy Twigg
Judy Twigg, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Political Science in the College of Humanities and Sciences.

Judy Twigg, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Political Science in the College of Humanities and Sciences at Virginia Commonwealth University who is an expert in global health with a particular focus on Russia and Ukraine, and who teaches courses on Russian politics, says the toll of Russia’s aggression has been “staggering.”

On Tuesday, Twigg and other global public health experts co-authored an article in The Lancet Regional Health-Europe titled “The Russian Invasion and its Public Health Consequences.”

“The unprovoked and unjustified Russian invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022 is already having terrible consequences for health,” they wrote.

Twigg discussed the crisis with VCU News, explaining where things currently stand in Ukraine, what the domestic situation is like in Russia, what impact sanctions are having, and what role the U.S. should play moving forward.

As someone who has studied this region for so long, what has struck you the most in watching this invasion unfold? What have you been reflecting on?

Like most other observers, including surely Vladimir Putin himself, I’ve been stunned by the slow, uneven success of Russia’s military offensive. Putin’s initial game plan was to focus on Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, assuming that it would crumble quickly and that he’d be able to replace the country’s leadership with a puppet government friendly to Russia. We expected massive cyberattacks on Ukraine before military operations began that would bring down Ukraine’s power plants, electricity grid, heating systems, traffic lights, other critical infrastructure — and that didn’t happen. We expected massive air and missile assaults that would soften up the battleground before ground troops went in — and that didn’t happen.

Two weeks into the war, Russia has now occupied key regions of eastern and southern Ukraine, and they’re dangerously close to completing a pincer movement that will surround Kyiv, but that progress has come at much higher cost than they anticipated. Ukrainian troops and ordinary citizens have fought back with clever and determined resistance. They’ve used our Stinger anti-air missiles and Javelin anti-tank missiles to great effect. There are many reports of Russian troops getting lost, running out of food and fuel, stalling in the mud, not sure where they are or why they’re there, surrendering.

 It’s widely assumed that Russia’s sheer numbers and firepower will eventually win, but we’re learning a lot about the shortcomings in Russia’s armed forces — and the strengths of Ukraine’s — as we watch these events unfold. Don’t count Ukraine out just yet.

Of course, I’m spending most of my time reflecting on the horrific consequences of the war for the people of Ukraine. Over 2 million Ukrainians have become refugees, and many more are trapped inside occupied or besieged cities with no heat, food, water, or medicine. Ukraine and Russia have negotiated humanitarian exit corridors for these civilians, but Russia has repeatedly violated those agreements. The human costs of Russia’s aggression are staggering.

While we have seen anti-war protests being held in Russia, the Russian government is also censoring news about the invasion of Ukraine and jailing dissidents. What’s your sense of how the Russian public views the war? Do you see signs that opposition to Putin is growing in Russia?

Russians who openly oppose the war have two options: stay and get arrested, or leave with no certainty about whether or when it will be safe to return. Internal security forces have arrested over 13,000 brave protesters over the past two weeks. Thousands of Russians — those who can afford it — are departing for other countries. New laws are being passed almost every day restricting the specific words that can be used to discuss the conflict: It’s forbidden to call it a “war” or “invasion,” and under a new law passed last week, Russians face up to 15 years in prison for spreading anything the Kremlin decides is “false information.” Every single independent news source inside Russia has been shut down. Fearing for their safety, The New York Times decided today to withdraw its staff from Russia, something that didn’t happen even at the height of the Cold War.

Public opinion polls inside Russia should be taken with a grain of salt, of course, but recent surveys find almost 60% of Russians in favor of the war. Sadly, that’s not surprising, given Putin’s control over virtually all media and his false narrative painting Ukraine as the aggressor. But there are some small glimmers of hope in those surveys. Young people overwhelmingly oppose Putin’s actions, and support is tepid among better-off Russians in larger cities. As the conflict drags on, as family members of fallen Russian soldiers question what’s happened to those young men, and the impact of Western sanctions starts to sink in, we could see Russian public opinion shift rapidly.

The U.S. and the international community have imposed severe sanctions that restrict Russian travel, banking, energy and much more, potentially tanking the Russian economy and isolating the country to an unprecedented level. Do you think these sanctions could persuade Russia to end the invasion? What consequences of the sanctions do you anticipate?

I don’t think there’s anything that could persuade Putin to change course at this point. He is dug in. His own statements and actions, including overt threats of escalation to use of nuclear weapons, have cut off all face-saving exit ramps. His legacy is now inextricably intertwined with this war and its outcomes. That means that the main pathway for a Russian change of course would have to involve removing Putin from power. Our hope is that the cost-benefit calculus of the Russian elite will shift enough for them to decide that new leadership is needed. That would, of course, be an extraordinary event, carrying high risk of short-term instability both inside Russia and for the course of the war.

Is there more the U.S. and its allies should be doing to stop the invasion, in your view?

We can cut off the supplies of Western cash that, in effect, continue to finance the Russian war effort. The sanctions imposed two weeks ago were unprecedented, but we can go further. We have to make the costs of supporting this invasion unbearable and unsustainable for the broader Russian elite. The West is taking new steps almost daily: President Joe Biden has just declared a ban on Russian oil and gas imports. The United Kingdom is expected to follow suit, and the European Union is announcing plans to accelerate its independence from Russian energy. The American companies that are still doing business in Russia — and there are quite a few — are feeling enormous public pressure to withdraw. We could do more to track down the illicit Russian money that’s laundered and stashed in Western banks and other institutions.

Our fear of escalation limits the extent to which we can engage militarily. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is clearly frustrated with the West’s unwillingness to risk broader military confrontation. Those risks are enormous, but so is the risk of letting Russia win. On top of the humanitarian tragedy, the political consequences of losing Ukraine would reverberate across Europe and the Western alliance for years to come.