With Russian President Vladimir Putin’s onslaught on Ukraine, the most serious crisis in Europe since the end of World War II has come to a head. The West has leveled harsh sanctions against Russia in retaliation, about a million Ukrainians so far have fled the violence as more cities are besieged, and France’s President Emmanuel Macron said Thursday that, after speaking to Putin, he fears the worst is yet to come.
In an expert briefing hosted at Perry World House (PWH), former NATO Deputy Secretary General Alexander Vershbow, Penn political science Professor Rudra Sil, and Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Trudy Rubin discussed sanctions, the humanitarian crisis, and whether diplomatic solutions are realistic. The event, co-hosted by the Christopher H. Browne Center for International Politics, was moderated by Jane Vaynman, Lightning Scholar at PWH and assistant professor of political science at Temple University. Vershbow is a Distinguished Visiting Fellow at PWH, and Rubin is a PWH Visiting Fellow.
Vaynman started the conversation by asking why Russia chose to invade at this time, with a full-scale invasion.
Vershbow said he thinks Putin saw the situation in Ukraine becoming more urgent even though there was no fundamental change.
“I think he saw that Ukraine was slipping from Russia’s grasp,” Vershbow said. Russian efforts to send in separatists since 2014 to get Ukraine to abandon its NATO and EU aspirations simply weren’t working, he said, and Putin was concerned that the United States and NATO were building defense cooperation with Ukraine.
However, Vershbow said, a full-scale invasion by Putin was surprising.
“He may have believed his own propaganda that Ukrainians were actually going to welcome Russian troops with open arms,” he said. Those miscalculations that have made the operation a bit of a bungle, Vershbow believes Putin will prevail soon with his superior forces.
Rubin said Putin likely didn’t realize how far the economic sanctions would go.
“The question of why he went so far, I can come up with no answer except to believe that he drank his own Kool Aid,” she said, believing he could easily decapitate the Ukrainian government and somehow govern the people he had just bombed.
“He also underestimated Volodymyr Zelensky,” said Rubin. “He had no understanding of the resistance he would face both in Ukraine and from the president who has turned out to be a global star.”
The discussion turned to the role of China in the crisis and how the war in Ukraine will affect how China thinks about Taiwan.
Sil said India and China are looking at the war from a broader distance and noted they both abstained on the United Nations Security Council resolution.
“China sees a chance to get its hands on discounted gas and oil, and the demand for energy is going to grow more in the South and East,” he said.
Sil said Putin made a miscalculation about China. “Putin’s assuming China will have his back, which it has, but China’s power rests on its economic strength and its Belt and Road Initiative, which goes through Eastern Europe,” he said, adding that keeping this area safe and part of the global economy is in China’s interest.
Vershbow thinks China was watching the Western reaction closely, and the strength of the sanctions might give them pause on Taiwan.
“They also feel misled; people suspect Putin didn’t warn Xi he would go in when they signed their joint statement ahead of the Olympics,” he said. “They feel like Putin is leading them into a pariah status they don’t want. This may cool enthusiasm in Beijing for an alliance with Russia.”
The discussion then turned to audience questions and concluded with whether there are any possible diplomatic off-ramps for Putin.
Rubin thought there could be an off-ramp if Putin wanted one, but his “ludicrous demands” seem to show he doesn’t want to deescalate.
Sil, calling himself an optimist, said perhaps there could be some flex, offering minimal concessions to Russia like going back to the moratorium on Ukraine joining NATO, “especially as the costs of the war mount over time. Putin hasn’t thought through those costs,” he said.
Vershbow, however, was not optimistic about an off-ramp and said the focus now must be on “maximum pressure,” making sure sanctions are implemented, training and equipping the Ukrainian army, and getting ahead in the information war by getting information to Russians about what’s really going on, via social media, broadcasts, and other means.
“This isn’t some minor regional peacekeeping operation in Donbas,” Vershbow said. “This is a case of naked aggression, as destructive as the firebombing of Dresden in World War II.”
To view the conversation in its entirety, visit Perry World House’s YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MuuSUOf7U-o.
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