Russia-Ukraine Crisis: What’s Going On – and Why Americans Must Pay Attention

February 1, 2022 By Andrew Ramspacher, Andrew Ramspacher,

As more than 100,000 Russian troops line the Ukraine border, tensions in Eastern Europe are growing by the day.

The building crisis, rooted in a fight for identity, could be nearing its tipping point. UVA Today turned to former U.S. diplomat Stephen Mull, University of Virginia’s vice provost for global affairs, for clarity on the situation, his thoughts on what could be coming next – and why Americans should pay attention.

Mull, who has held a variety of national security positions, was the U.S. ambassador to Poland from 2012 to 2015 under President Barack Obama and the U.S. ambassador to Lithuania from 2003 to 2006 under President George W. Bush. He’s currently a senior fellow at the Miller Center of Public Affairs.

Q. For those who are just starting to pay attention, what is the brief history of tensions between Russia and Ukraine?

A. Although its heritage goes back thousands of years, Ukraine didn’t become an internationally recognized independent state until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, when more than 92% of its voters supported full independence. For the previous 1,000 years, the lands and tribes now constituting Ukraine were subject to foreign domination, from Mongol invaders and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the Middle Ages to Russian and Soviet control in more modern times.

Russian popular history holds that Russian identity was born in the small kingdom of Rus in the ninth century, where Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, lies today. Russian President Vladimir Putin has stated that Ukraine is not really a country, but rather an integral part of Russia, and that Ukraine’s growing aspirations to affiliate with the West pose a serious threat to Russia’s national security. The Ukrainian government, with the support of a large majority of its citizens, disagrees vehemently. That is at the core of today’s tensions.

Ukrainian governments have struggled during 30 years of independence to forge a single national identity, fighting severe challenges in governance and corruption, economic mismanagement and ethnic tensions between Russian and Ukrainian speakers. Those tensions have played out in competing visions for Ukraine’s strategic destiny, resulting in alternating governments that have pursued membership in the European Union and NATO and those who have sought tighter association with Moscow.

In 2008, the Bush administration prodded NATO to announce that former Soviet republics Ukraine and Georgia would ultimately join NATO. Russia invaded Georgia later that year, after which the new Ukrainian government of Viktor Yanukovych (2010-14) cooled the country’s drive to join NATO and instead concentrated on signing an association agreement with the European Union. When that agreement was ready for signature in late 2013, Russia successfully pressed Yanukovych to withdraw from the process, prompting a major popular uprising in Kyiv that drove Yanukovych into exile in Russia in February 2014.

Russia responded to Yanukovych’s fall by launching a hybrid war against Ukraine, including massive information operations aimed at destabilizing Ukrainian internal politics and the infiltration of unmarked mercenaries and special forces into eastern Ukraine to support Russian-speaking separatists. Russia also annexed Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula, which had been part of Ukraine since 1954, and offered quick Russian citizenship to Ukrainian Russian speakers, in a presumed tactic to justify further Russian military intervention in Ukraine, should it become necessary.

Russian forces continue to support Ukrainian separatists in eastern Ukraine, where a low-grade conflict with continuing casualties is about to enter its eighth year. This is despite Russia’s agreement in 1994’s “Budapest Memorandum” with Ukraine, the United States and the United Kingdom to guarantee Ukraine’s borders in exchange for Ukraine’s surrender of the nuclear weapons that were on its territory at the time of the Soviet Union’s collapse.

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Stephen Mull headshot
Stephen Mull, a former U.S. diplomat and UVA’s vice provost for global affairs, is concerned about what a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine could mean for the U.S. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

Q. What are a few of the recent developments that have sparked a potential Russian invasion? 

A. The unusual aspect of this crisis is that Russia appears to have manufactured it based on what Putin believes is a coincidence of geopolitical factors favoring Russia’s interests, as opposed to any single flashpoint.

NATO’s commitment to Ukrainian membership has not wavered since 2008, but neither has it moved forward toward that goal, and most observers believe Ukrainian membership is at least a decade or much longer away, if indeed it will happen at all. Russia has also bridled against U.S. and some European defensive military assistance to Ukraine and expanded NATO exercises on the territory of eastern NATO members since Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine. While it is difficult to see these activities as a threat to Russia’s security, Russia and its supporters like to point to the history of U.S. responses to Soviet or Russian influence in the Western Hemisphere such as in Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela or Chile as a parallel.

U.S. and European support for Ukraine’s Western aspirations is not particularly new, but I think a number of recent factors have encouraged Putin to raise tensions now. These include a perception that severe political polarization undermines U.S. resolve to act, and a general sense of growing U.S. disengagement from the world following our messy departure from Afghanistan in August. While Russia doesn’t have the alliance system that has been a historic strength of the U.S. for the last 75 years, Putin has deftly moved to exploit rising tensions between the U.S. and China to win China’s likely acquiescence in any moves he may make to strengthen Russia’s security position in Europe (and perhaps in exchange, Russian acquiescence in any move by Beijing to seize Taiwan). 

Putin also likely perceives historic levels of disagreement between Europe and the United States after their fractious relationship during the Trump administration; continued U.S. concern about democratic backsliding in Turkey, Poland and Hungary; and rising populist forces throughout Europe sympathetic to Russia. Western preoccupation with the pandemic and its related economic and energy insecurity might also seem to mitigate any harsh reaction to renewed Russian aggression in its historic sphere of influence. This could particularly be the case with the recent assumption of power by the Social Democrats in Germany, who have traditionally pursued closer relations with Moscow.

Putin’s deployment of more than 100,000 battle-ready troops on Ukraine’s border in this context probably reflects a calculation that such a provocation could exacerbate the divides he already sees in the West and perhaps win concessions on Ukraine’s NATO aspirations and the NATO military presence on Russia’s borders without even having to go to war.

Q. How likely is a Russian invasion?

A. Answering that question requires a superpower I don’t have – reading Vladimir Putin’s mind!

Certainly, the massive deployment of Russian troops on Ukraine’s borders, apparently with increasing combat support operations, such as blood supply and medical support teams; recent cyberattacks on Ukraine; and an assertive anti-Ukrainian tone in the domestic Russian press suggest that an invasion could be imminent.

But at the same time, it seems that Russia could achieve its objectives much more cheaply and effectively by using other tactics that it has already used to great effect in the past: the fear – as opposed to reality – of an armed invasion; financial and energy pressures; and the use of social media and cyberweapons to destabilize Ukrainian politics and inflame ethnic tensions. The Russians can, and do, employ all of these tactics without incurring the kind of severe penalties the Biden administration appears likely to impose in response to a full-scale invasion, even as they engage in diplomacy to address their concerns.

An invasion, on the other hand, would likely result in expensive and painful consequences for Russia, including the strong likelihood of being bogged down in a long-running and bloody insurgency, with likely heavy costs to Putin’s domestic political support, and a significantly enhanced NATO military posture in its neighborhood.

Q. How well might Ukraine defend itself if Russian invaded?

A. On paper, Ukraine’s armed forces are not much of a match for Russia’s far more experienced, resourced, numerous and modernized forces. While Ukraine has made extraordinary progress in 30 years of independence in developing its self-defense capabilities, with help from the U.S. and Europe, it still depends on aging and unreliable equipment, substandard command and control infrastructure, and inadequate communications. On the other hand, Ukraine has built an active-duty force numbering about 250,000 troops, has one of the largest fleets of tanks in the world and has amassed anti-tank weaponry, all of which would likely make an invasion a bloody affair for the Russians.

Additionally, in the eight years Ukrainian forces have been fighting Russian insurgents in eastern Ukraine, they have developed considerable skills in urban warfare. Further, with para-military training in the civilian police force and more than 900,000 military reservists, Russian invaders would encounter a well-armed and trained local populace with superior motivation to attack Russians on their home territory. It’s likely that such an invasion would morph into a long-running campaign of guerilla warfare on Ukrainian territory.

Ultimately, how this plays out would depend on what kind of invasion the Russians launch, if they launch one at all. A full-scale assault to conquer the country would likely lead to long-term guerilla war throughout the country. A more surgical effort to slice off additional pieces of Russian-speaking Ukrainian territory would likely be easier to accomplish, though would still likely incur significant costs from the West.

Q. What can be done, internationally, to prevent an invasion?

A. I think the Biden administration has done a good job so far in deterring the Russians from attacking by underscoring its commitment to diplomacy; mobilizing all the great institutions of European security such as NATO, the European Union and the Organization for Security and Cooperation against an invasion; credibly spelling out the kinds of severe consequences Russia would face if it invaded; and offering face-saving “off-ramps” to address Russian security concerns about military activity in Europe without sacrificing core U.S. interests such as NATO’s open door policy. Unless, and until, Russia stands down from provocatively bullying Ukraine with so many troops on its borders, the international community should continue to work hard to stand in solidarity against any threats to change the borders of a European nation by force.

Q. Why should Americans be concerned with what’s going on at the Russia-Ukraine border?

A. One of the greatest contributors to the world’s peace and security since World War II has been the general recognition of the principle that borders should be inviolable; the breach of which have generally led to broader wars, whether in Korea and Vietnam, or more recently in the former Yugoslavia. 

In the past 20 years or so, this principle has undergone increasing challenge. The Russians complain that NATO’s armed support for Kosovo’s secession from Serbia in the late 1990s was the beginning of the erosion of this principle – a principle they went on to violate themselves by invading Georgia in 2008 and then Ukraine in 2014.

For our part, the United States recently reversed decades of policy to, among other things, recognize Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights, which it had occupied since the 1967 war; move the U.S. embassy to Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in spite of the latter’s still-unresolved international status; and recognize Morocco’s occupation of the territory of Western Sahara.

Each of these cases had its own merits to consider, but I think there’s a distinct risk that the more that nations redraw the borders of others by force, this kind of destabilizing activity will pick up the pace and make the world less safe for all of us, with clear implications for such U.S. interests as the future fate of Taiwan.

Additionally, we have a legal, treaty obligation to defend the security of all 30 NATO members. A Russian invasion to the very borders of the NATO alliance would be hugely destabilizing to our allies and likely demand a significant military response, which would be costly to us, despite the many other challenges we have on our national agenda right now.

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Andrew Ramspacher

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