Ukraine-Russia War Explained: International Relations

Carlos Yordan takes a look from a political and international relations perspective

March 2022 – On February 24, 2022, Russian troops invaded neighboring Ukraine in an escalation widely condemned by governments across the globe.

We’ve asked Drew University faculty experts to help put the crisis into perspective.

Here, we’ve spoken with Carlos Yordan, associate professor of International Relations and director of the New York City Semester on the United Nations.

How did we get here?

Russia and Ukraine have a complicated history since 1992 when both countries achieved independence following the dissolution of the USSR. As the more powerful state, Russia tried to shape Ukraine’s domestic politics and control its foreign policy. The last thing the Kremlin wants is a neighbor that aligns with NATO, the EU, or the West in general. Since 2004, when the former Soviet republics of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania joined NATO and the EU, the Russian government has made it clear that it would oppose any efforts to integrate any of the remaining post-Soviet states and this became a red line of sorts.
Ukraine obviously has wanted to pursue an independent foreign policy and join the EU or NATO. But states that border more powerful states must also keep in mind the interests of a stronger neighbor. After all, the U.S. is still punishing Cuba for its decision to host Soviet missiles in 1962! Great powers can’t tolerate their neighbors to serve as potential staging grounds for their adversaries’ militaries.
Ukraine’s decision to push for stronger ties with the West was seen as a threat to Russian security. While Russia did ask the US and its European allies to refrain from expanding NATO or the EU eastward, the response was a predictable and resounding no. Putin’s demands for a sphere of influence are not in line with Western interests, but Western dismissal of the request only increased the possibility of a war. Ukraine unfortunately did not have a backup plan. Lacking a strong military or military allies, Ukraine was unable to balance Russian threats and it was vulnerable to an invasion. Even though Russia was mobilizing for a possible military engagement, Ukraine decided to ignore the threat, and Western powers did not do enough to counter Russia’s power in the region. The outcome is sadly predictable.
Ukrainians don’t deserve what they are going through. They are victims. But their government did not take seriously the Russian threat.

Can you briefly explain the actions the U.S. has taken and what their effects seem to have been thus far?

Russia-Ukraine relations have been a source of concern for the U.S. for many years. We opposed Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and Russian support for the two breakaway republics in the Donbas. While we sanctioned the Russian government, our support of Ukraine was measured. We financed programs to further support democratization and to strengthen anti-corruption efforts. Military aid was not forthcoming during the Obama administration, but it was in line with German and French interests. Both countries were negotiating peace plans with Russian, Ukrainian, and the Donbas’ leaders, and they believed that if Ukraine received military aid it would threaten the peace process.

During the Trump years, President Trump questioned NATO’s existence. Ukraine received some advanced weapons, but support for Ukraine waned.

Biden’s decision to support NATO and to rebuild frayed relations with the European allies was an important turning point. The Biden administration increased military assistance for Ukraine. But, this assistance could not prevent a potential war. While the Biden administration’s support for Ukraine is important to highlight, preventing a Russian invasion required a different set of policies. The only way to prevent a war was to either position U.S. troops in Ukraine or to establish some type of treaty—though technically the U.S. is supposed to protect Ukraine’s sovereignty under the 1994 Budapest Memorandum—that extended some security guarantees to Ukraine.

The Biden administration should be commended for managing relations amongst European allies during this crisis. There are some European states (e.g. Hungary and Cyprus) that have close relations with Russia. At the beginning of the war, these states were against setting strong economic sanctions. But news stories suggest that Washington was able to get these countries to support stronger sanctions, such as kicking out some Russian banks from SWIFT. The Biden administration was also able to get Germany to strengthen its resolve and to take bold actions to punish Russia, even ending the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline.

Even though the Biden administration deserves some credit, it is not clear what it is doing currently to try to resolve the crisis. Supporting a possible Ukrainian insurgency is good and all, but the U.S. should be doing more to try to stop the fighting. While Ukrainians have demonstrated strong resolve, the Russian military is stronger and better armed at this point. Preventing bloodshed is a worthy effort.

Whether Russia made a mistake by invading Ukraine is an interesting question, but one that will be answered by historians.

Where do you think things go from where we are now?

I think that Russia encountered more resistance than expected. While many analysts thought that Ukraine would fall quickly, we should also understand that it took almost a month for the U.S. military to drive into Baghdad and depose Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003. Russia has made some significant gains in the last few days. Russian forces have achieved many of their objectives on the southern and eastern fronts. Even though Russian forces have experienced resistance from Ukrainian forces, especially outside Kharkiv and Kyiv, I think that they will not stop their advance. If anything, they will use more force to accomplish their objectives.

The Russia-Ukraine War will have many chapters and I think that Russia will eventually oust the existing government in Kyiv. It will face an insurgency that will make it difficult to rule the country. My only concern is that fighting will more than likely be concentrated in urban centers. The Russians have been more than willing to destroy city centers to end insurgencies. The Russian military’s leveling of Grozny during the Chechen wars serves as a reminder of Russia’s brutality. Russian actions in Homs and Aleppo during its intervention in Syria are also indicative that Ukrainians are probably going to face more hardship in the near future.

Whether Russia made a mistake by invading Ukraine is an interesting question, but one that will be answered by historians. What is clear is that Putin has demonstrated his resolve to push through with the operation. He has also mobilized Russia’s nuclear forces. This is a reminder that we are dealing with a nuclear weapons state and that the U.S. and its allies should search for ways to end the fighting.

The UN Security Council, having failed to address the war given Russia’s veto, called on the General Assembly to hold an emergency session. This is a big deal. People forget that General Assembly authorized one of the first peacekeeping missions in history and that it also authorized the U.S.-led coalition that fought North Korea during the Korean War. At this point, I don’t think the General Assembly will take these actions, but adding the issue to the General Assembly’s agenda allows the UN Secretary-General to play some role in the conflict. We need some leadership and if Washington and its European allies are not willing to act, then it should be the UN.

Is there an historical example we can pull from when thinking about this crisis from a political/international relations perspective?

Well, the U.S. of course invaded Iraq under false pretenses in 2003. While the U.S. had allies in this war, the invasion was illegal. The goal of regime change was achieved but at great cost to the Iraqi people, the U.S. treasury, and of course U.S. service members. The same can be said of the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan in 2001, which was driven by a different set of interests. But the results are similar.

The Soviet intervention in Afghanistan in 1979 also serves as a reminder that regime change is easy, but defeating insurgencies are difficult. We can say the same about Israel’s occupation of southern Lebanon or Vietnam’s ouster of Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s.

What is clear is that regime change seldom works. It usually breeds insurgencies that are difficult to defeat. When these are defeated it happens at a very high cost, often involving serious human rights abuses and deep humanitarian crises.

Again, Russia was able to destroy the insurgency in Chechnya, but this territory is smaller than Ukraine.

What global reactions are you looking at?

President Zelensky of Ukraine noted earlier this year that one of Ukraine’s main errors was giving up its nuclear arsenal in 1992. Had Ukraine kept a few bombs it would have been able to deter Russia. Many countries are looking closely at this crisis and they are probably reconsidering their options. I am sure that some countries like South Korea, Japan, and Saudi Arabia are strongly considering developing nuclear weapons. And having more nuclear states would be destabilizing as other states may follow the example.

Russian actions have convinced Germany to increase its military spending. What impact will this have on Germany’s foreign policy, which is mostly defensive in nature? We can ask the same about Japan, which is of course looking at China, North Korea, and Russia as growing threats.

China is studying the West’s reaction to the war. It is not a secret that China wants to reunify Taiwan and assert its claim over the South China Sea. China has time to build up its military and prepare its economy for that possible decision. But let’s face it. If Russia can succeed in Ukraine, China will probably start putting a plan into action to invade and annex Taiwan. The U.S. should start preparing for this possibility and clarifying its position vis a vis Taiwan.

Finally, I am surprised that Americans don’t seem to be rallying behind Biden. We will have a better idea later this week whether this is the case. But so far the polls are showing that Biden’s approval is in the low 40s. An international crisis should boost his standing but so far the evidence is weak. Republicans’ reactions confuse me a bit but I am most interested in how independents interpret the current crisis and the Biden administration’s foreign policy towards Ukraine and Russia.

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