Ford School alum and Ukraine expert gives analysis of emerging crisis

February 28, 2022
Photo of Orysia Kulick
Orysia Kulick (MPP/MA '06)

Orysia Kulick (MPP, MA in Russian Studies '06) was a Fullbright fellow in Ukraine in 2004-2005, during the time of the Orange Revolution that overthrew a Russian-dominated government. She went on to earn her PhD from Stanford University in History (with a focus on the Soviet Union, Russia and Eastern Europe). Currently, she is an assistant professor of German and Slavic studies and political studies at the University of Manitoba.

Kulick gave her assessment of the beginning of the Russia-Ukraine conflict. 

Q: Are you surprised by the extent of the Russian attack? There was a feeling that it might be confined to the eastern provinces, and that diplomacy might have a chance to keep the incursion limited. Was this always Putin's plan?

A: This morning I awoke to news of heavy fighting in and around Kyiv, one of my favorite cities in the entire world. Photos from streets and neighborhoods I recognize from the years I spent living, working and studying there were heartbreaking. Yes, I am surprised by the extent of the Russian attack. Still. I think many of us thought (or perhaps hoped) that Russia was amassing forces on the Ukrainian border as a show of force to serve as a deterrent. As a way of communicating the risks of Ukraine continuing to pursue closer ties with the West and also of not formally declaring its neutrality. I should say that I find this framing frustrating. From the Kremlin’s viewpoint (and they have been very clear about this), the EU and NATO are synonymous – membership in the first being a Trojan horse for the second. This position de facto hamstrings Ukraine’s ability to set its own foreign and trade policy, by constraining its field of movement to what would be acceptable for Russia. This points to a larger problem facing smaller countries caught between big powers, some of which are on the decline and some of which are ascendant. 

The West and the United States also bear considerable blame in this situation. Many Western policymakers essentially share Russia’s view on Ukraine, captured most succinctly by Zbigniew Brzezinski years ago when he said “without Ukraine, Russia ceases to be an empire, but with Ukraine suborned and then subordinated, Russia automatically becomes an empire.” While it was understood implicitly that Ukraine would never be offered NATO membership, it was not stated explicitly. And it should have been. Now it seems that Zelensky conceding neutrality will not be enough to stop this war. In recent months, a dangerous game of brinkmanship between Moscow and Washington unfolded over Ukraine. The country is now being thrown to wolves, which angers me as a Ukrainian American. There is plenty of blame to direct across both sides of the aisle and decisions taken by six U.S. presidents, Democrat and Republican alike. 

That said, I don’t think this is all about NATO or the U.S. Putin’s messaging on Ukraine has some very alarming elements (the words “denazification” and “decommunization” appearing to be code for regime change in Kyiv and changing Ukraine’s borders). He has also never believed that Ukraine truly exists, a view shared by a number of his compatriots but not all. Some very brave Russians have taken to the streets in protest at very high personal cost and we need to remember that. 

I don’t think this was always Putin’s plan – to launch a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. This crisis has been unfolding along a series of timelines with different inflection points. But it’s also hard for me to believe that this wasn’t discussed alongside other more moderate scenarios. 

Q: Reports are emerging from those who have dealt with him that Putin is acting differently. Why would he go forward with this attack in the face of nearly universal condemnation and the threat of extensive sanctions? Why wouldn't any of these threats work?

A: This crisis and the manner in which it unfolded are I think telling us some things about Russia and its leadership at the moment. I think the tendency to focus on rational self-interest or national interest and security concerns misses something. As Peter Pomerantsev wrote last month, Moscow’s “language also hints at something more intermingled with the intimacies of family dynamics.” There is an irrationality at play here that requires a different mode of analysis. Historians have been doing this for a while – history as a family drama. Violence like this between neighbors, so called “brotherly nations” is unfathomable and yet has happened repeatedly throughout history. What makes it so painful is the intimacy of that violence. I really believe that at some level there is a desire to humiliate and subdue Ukraine and Ukrainians, who have thwarted on many occasions Putin’s plans and vision for Russia’s near abroad, and solve the “Ukraine problem” once and for all. His bilious remarks today as chairman of a meeting of the Security Council are bordering on unhinged, marred with gross distortions of the past and total mischaracterization of Ukraine and who is beating back Russian forces. Until this morning, I was certain Russia’s leader was in full command of his faculties. We have grown accustomed to thinking of him as a grand strategist, but there are clearly other factors at play here.   

Putin is now in his fourth term. It appears that the information he is getting is coming more and more from a single source – the state security services, which by its very nature is paranoid, as they are in every country in the world. It’s the nature of the beast. Russia has changed in ways that have contributed to how we got here, becoming more autocratic over time and giving Putin greater freedom of movement and sidelining cooler heads in the broader leadership. Russia’s relationship with the West has become more hostile. All those interlocking issues of how Russia has transformed from within are important and unpacking them would take time. 

But my main answer the question of why the threat of sanctions and universal condemnation of an invasion did not work is twofold. The first is that Putin thinks we in the West are hypocritical. He’s talked a lot about Yugoslavia in recent weeks, referring to the NATO bombing campaign that happened in 1999 to bring a stop to the genocide unfolding there. When challenged on Crimea, Putin will ask how it’s different from what happened in Kosovo. Those of us interested in talking about peace rather than war would be hard pressed to disagree with him. Putin also understands that there are limits to what the West will do for Ukraine. Sanctions have limited reach. Europeans are thirsty for Russian gas. Markets have already moved on. Raytheon and Lockheed Martin are bragging to their investors about this war being good for business. US defense stocks are soaring. It’s appalling, but we have short attention spans, ignore wars all over the world in which we have played a part either directly or indirectly through monstrous defense contractors, and Putin knows this. 

Q: How will Ukraine survive this? Are the institutions strong enough? Could you foresee a government-in-exile? What other scenarios?

A: Ukraine is a flawed country and it is unclear whether its institutions will weather this storm. Experts like my colleague Volodymyr Ishchenko have pointed out that had Kyiv taken meaningful steps to implement the terms of the Minsk Accords (necessary for bringing the war in Eastern Ukraine to an end) we would not be here. That would have entailed restructuring Ukraine from within and giving those regions more autonomy. Changing Ukraine’s unitary system to one in which regions have more autonomy has been part of the conversation since independence in 1991. This unresolved issue has resurfaced a number of times over the years, but we are well beyond that point now. 

Another colleague Serhii Kudelia mapped out several scenarios in Twitter. Only the first scenario of five “presumes possibility of a diplomatic solution in the short term. The rest of the scenarios presume perpetual conflict with the West and war with Ukrainian people.” 

Russia will most certainly aim to take more territory – connecting Crimea to water supplies on the Ukrainian mainland has already happened. I think we can expect more – possibly connecting the separatist enclaves in the Donbass with Odessa and cutting Ukraine off from the Black Sea. The language about “decommunization” suggests that Western Ukraine would be left alone possibly, nullifying its forcible annexation into the Soviet Union following the violent dismantling of Poland by the Nazis and Soviets in 1939. 

I’m not sure Ukraine will survive this. Presently, the government remains in Kyiv. The Russians will face a fierce insurgency whether they manage to take the capital of Ukraine or not. They have overestimated their capabilities and underestimated the will of Ukrainians to resist and this will have far reaching consequences for both, for Europe and for the emerging multi-polar global order. 

4) Should the Baltic States or other former Soviet republics be worried by this new Kremlin attitude?

The Baltic States are in NATO (since 2004) and other members are required to come to their defense collectively. This is in a way focuses our attention on the main issue. Whether NATO should or should not have expanded following the collapse of communist governments throughout Central and Eastern Europe is an interesting counterfactual. Were there mistakes made along the way, certainly. But the Baltic States, unlike the other former Soviet republics, have the backing of NATO. Whereas the rest remain vulnerable. If you look at Russia’s near abroad historically to the west and south, you have a series of so called “frozen conflicts” that unfolded following the collapse of the Soviet Union – Transdniestria, Adjaria, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Crimea and the Donbass. There was also a prolonged civil war in Tajikistan and clashes between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz is Kyrgyzstan. Not to mention Chechnya and Dagestan and other sources of instability within Russia itself. While I think it’s imperative to maintain cool heads and warm hearts, the neighborhood is not as stable as it seems… and I think based on this past week, we are all adapting to a new global reality.