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Panel of ASU, UA professors discuss Russia-Ukraine war

ASU professor says imprisonment of oligarch was 'red line' for Putin

Woman holding sign that says "Stop War, Help Ukraine"
March 17, 2022

As the war between Russia and Ukraine enters its fourth week, one expert from Arizona State University believes Russian President Vladimir Putin may be looking for a way out.

“I think we need to keep in mind that Russia and the Russian military were not prepared for a drawn-out campaign. This was supposed to be a quick special operation,” said Yan Mann, who was born in Ukraine and is a clinical assistant professor of history and the program lead of the World War II studies master’s degree program at ASU.

“Much of what we’re seeing now is probably Putin and his commanders reacting to situations on the ground, which are often out of control at the moment," Mann said. "My guess is that Putin will settle for a ceasefire that will offer a guarantee that Ukraine will not enter NATO, Crimea will remain part of Russia and Donbas might achieve some type of independence.”

Mann made his remarks Wednesday night during an online interdisciplinary panel put on by The Melikian Center at ASU that featured experts from ASU and the University of Arizona. The moderators were Irina Levin, associate director of the Melikian Center, and Olesya Zhupanska from UA’s Department of Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering.

The other panelists:

Victor Peskin, associate professor in ASU’s School of Politics and Global Studies and affiliate faculty in the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict.

Hilde Hoogenboom, associate professor in ASU’s School of International Letters and Cultures.

• Benjamin Jens, assistant professor in UA’s Russian and Slavic studies program in the College of Humanities.

• Doug Weiner, professor of history at UA.

• Pavlo Krokhmal, a Ukraine native and professor of systems and industrial engineering at UA.

The experts touched on several topics:

Why did Russia decide to invade Ukraine?

Hoogenboom said Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s arrest last May of Kremlin-friendly politician Viktor Medvedchuk may have been a “red line,” for Putin. Medvedchuk has been sanctioned by the United States for trying to help undermine Ukraine sovereignty.

“He did what previous presidents of Ukraine have not done and gone after the oligarchs,” Hoogenboom said.

Hoogenboom also said U.S. politics played a role in Putin’s decision, noting that Putin didn’t invade Ukraine while Donald Trump was president because, “Trump was doing his work for him by undermining NATO.”

Mann agreed, saying the election of President Joe Biden “closed the door” on the U.S. leaving NATO, and Putin “thought this was the best time to act to achieve his goal of regime change."

Mann said Putin also wants to demilitarize Ukraine and that the destruction he’s already wrought on the country will incapacitate Ukraine’s military for at least a decade.

Krokhmal said the Kremlin’s militant and aggressive rhetoric over the years led to this point. He showed a video of a Russian member of parliament boasting of Russia’s eventual destruction of the West, including the United States and Britain.

“These are words about a world war against major countries, about the destruction of NATO countries,” Krokhmal said. “This is the type of propaganda that the Russians have been imposing on their population. There is a significant portion of the population that has bought into this and believe that Russia is surrounded by enemies, and they need to fight; that Ukraine is completely controlled by foreign powers and that right now they are fighting with NATO. It’s an excuse as justification of this aggression.”

Failure to hold Russia responsible for previous conflicts

Peskin said the world community may have missed its chance to avert this war when the Hague-based International Criminal Court (ICC) didn’t go after Russia for its annexation of Crimea in 2014.

“To be sure, when it comes to deterrence and international criminal justice, there is a vigorous debate as to when, (and) even whether international tribunals can deter armed conflict,” Peskin said. “Still, it’s important to emphasize that a major objective of the ICC is to confront impunity in real time by expeditiously launching investigations and prosecutions. However, the ICC has largely been missing in action in Ukraine.

“The years-long delay in launching an investigation in Ukraine, and then seeking prosecutions in the (2008) war in Georgia has squandered the prospect that the ICC maybe could have prodded Putin to think twice before launching a full-scale invasion.”

Said Zavisca: “We looked away in 2014 at what was happening to people, and not just people, but to institutions, to sovereignty, to the basic rule of law. … There were measures that could have been taken, political and diplomatic measures, much, much earlier.”

The ICC is acting more decisively now. It has begun an investigation into alleged war crimes in Ukraine dating back to 2013 after receiving a petition signed by 39 countries.

“Now time will tell whether the ICC can directly link Putin to the horrific crimes that we are witnessing by the hour, and time will tell whether the pursuit of criminal justice will be bargained away in any ceasefire.”

Should the U.S. consider a stronger response, such as establishing a no-fly zone over Ukraine?

Mann said a no-fly zone will escalate the conflict and reinforce Putin’s assertion that the war is about NATO forces coming together.

“The way I see it, diplomacy has to be the way,” he said. “In terms of punishing Russia and Putin, the sanctions have done a good job of that to some extent. But you also do not want to continue alienating this country. This is a power with quite a bit of nuclear weapons stockpiled. It’s much better to have conversations and be diplomatic than allow for things to escalate.”

Why has this been a more prolonged war than Russia anticipated?

Mann said Russia did not anticipate the resistance it’s faced inside Ukraine, or the support Ukraine has received from the West.

“They did not think that Europe would come together, as Europe has done, or supply Ukraine with this much weaponry and assistance,” Mann said. “Undoubtedly, there’s a lot of corruption involved as well, with the Russian military. Aside from the fact that I think many of those going in did not know what exactly they were going to meet and encounter, there are mercenary forces who aren’t necessarily going to be the best fighters. They’re doing it for money, first and foremost.”

Krokmahl said the world overestimated the might of Russia’s military.

“We have seen predictions that Kyiv the capital would fall within 72 or 96 hours after the war started,” he said. “But we’ve seen that number of units, the number of brigades from Russia, which are really capable of combat, it was not that great. That’s why the Russian machine is stalled in Ukraine right now. (It’s also) a testament to the bravery of the Ukrainian military. Nobody in the world was giving them a chance.”

How does Ukraine recover from the human and infrastructure devastation Russia has wrought?

“We know from lots of comparative research that the demolition of basic infrastructure — housing, transportation, schools, hospitals — have major and long-term negative consequences for public health,” Zavisca said. “It will take long-term strategic international investment to rebuild, especially as these systems were already strained."

Jens said there already have been disease outbreaks in Ukraine, including polio, because the invasion has resulted in a lack of vaccines and vaccination opportunities.

Hoogenboom said that, in the end, the invasion of Ukraine could undermine Putin’s position in Russia.

“We hear a lot in the media of, I think, painting Russians with a very broad brush as being brainwashed into what the government says, and certainly that may be fair with some segment of the population,” she said.

“But I think that is a very narrow understanding of the social dynamics in both countries — that support for Putin is widespread; but it’s thin and could definitely change if mobilized.”

More on Ukraine on ASU News

Top photo by Katie Godowski/Pexels

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