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Ukraine-Russia crisis: What to know

February 1, 2022
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What is essential to know about the rising tensions in eastern Europe and the Ukraine-Russia crisis?

Melvyn Levitsky, professor of international policy and practice at the University of Michigan Ford School of Public Policy, shares his insights. He is a retired U.S. ambassador and served as officer-in-charge of U.S.-Soviet bilateral relations and political officer at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow.

Long history of tensions

There’s always been tension between Russia and Ukraine during the Soviet Union. If you go way back during the Stalin (Joseph Stalin) period, millions of people died when he collectivized all the private farms. Also, in the Second World War, some collaboration between the Nazis came through Ukraine, and certain Ukrainians and the Soviets—now the Russians—have been quite suspect of Ukraine itself.

We need to know that Putin wants to reconstitute at least some spheres of influence that came about when the Soviet Union broke up. Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union; now, it’s a different country. He is concerned that NATO will move in. It might sound paranoid to us, but it’s a security issue for him.

Our government recognizes that but, at the same time, we can’t recognize a country that feels that it can control the destiny of another country, even if it’s a neighbor. So the Ukrainians, the U.S. and NATO countries can’t accept that the Russians have the sphere of influence in Ukraine, no matter what the Russians do.

Ukraine and NATO

The Ukrainians and the Ukrainian government are genuinely concerned about Russia undermining Ukraine’s economy and Ukrainian politics. They don’t want to be controlled by another country, and they feel they need some protection. That’s the reason they’re interested in NATO.

The U.S. and other NATO countries may not need to have Ukraine in NATO, but if Ukraine wants to be a NATO member, everyone believes it has that right to join in. However, I don’t think this membership will come about very soon, no matter what we say, because that really would be a tipping stone. After all, we might have a Russian invasion since at least 200,000 Russian troops are gathered pretty close to the Ukrainian border.

Diplomacy

Both the U.S. and NATO sent letters to Russia. We don’t know what’s in the documents; they are not public. It’s a communication between countries, so we’re not engaged in public diplomacy, but we’ve clarified some things. I’m assuming that it states these countries’ position about Ukrainian independence and their right to make their own decisions. Now we’re waiting for a response. It is a case where diplomacy has to come through to create some settlement.

There are also some principles involved. From the U.S. standpoint, there’s been a lot of commentary about how we’ve been weak in Afghanistan. We will want to show strength in this instance and back up Ukraine.

It is one of those occasions when they say, who’s going to blink first, the Russians or the Americans and NATO? I don’t know the answer to that question, but the U.S. wants to stand strong from the standpoint of our national interest.

Possible invasion

If Russia were to invade Ukraine, the U.S. and the Western European partners would certainly put extreme sanctions on Russia to try to isolate them from the international community.

We would, for example, stop leadership in Russia; punish Putin personally and some of his supporters. We would try to isolate them internationally, not let them travel, take away their visa privileges to visit other countries. We could keep them out of specific financial systems necessary to engage in commerce.

The Russians have some leverage because they provide energy via their pipelines, particularly gas, to Western Europe. So they have some skin in the game, but I don’t think it’s in anybody’s interest to engage in a violent war. We have to hope that the Russians know what the consequences would be.

International position

Almost every country worries about the principle of a neighbor invading another country and breaking the rules of international law. Therefore, an important principle for international law and international relations is that a country can decide its own fate and that a neighbor cannot invade and impose its own will on that country.

In fact, when a country signs the UN Charter, as Russia and almost every country in the world has, they take it upon themselves not to invade a neighbor and try to impose its will. This principle would be even more important for many countries worldwide that may have some friction with their neighbors. When you think of Asia, Africa and South America, there are sometimes border disputes or other disputes that happen.

Based on this principle of international law, unless a country is tied to Russia economically and needs their assistance or energy, there won’t be any support for the Russian position.

The effects of a potential war on Russia’s economy

The economic situation has not been good for ordinary Russian citizens. If it worsens because of punishing sanctions that the United States and Western Europe put on, Putin certainly wouldn’t like that. They want to have domestic tranquility, and they’re beginning to have some disruption in that tranquility.

The fact that they’re being deprived on the economic side is also a tricky situation for Putin. He could become a complete dictator. So they are concerned about what we do to isolate them in international relations. I’m sure they’re taking some kind of calculated risk on where the balance is; they want to keep themselves respected as a country that follows international law. If they do invade, that’s a real mark against them.

Optimistic next steps

The Russians aren’t going to back down on their principle—neither are the U.S. nor the NATO countries. Probably, the most optimistic scenario is that NATO does not have an immediate response whether Ukraine can or can’t have its membership. Let us not have a clear-cut answer, at least at this point, to engage in diplomacy with the Russians. This way, we don’t have a situation where a spark—or the Russians find a way—can justify an invasion.

These strategies are part of what diplomacy is all about. Neither side wants to have a shooting war, obviously. So having some kind of compromise and understanding might be the answer for now.


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