This conversation between Peter J. Hoffman, Nina Krushcheva, Jessica Pisano, and Everita Silina was organized by The New School’s Julien J. Studley Graduate Programs in International Affairs, with an eye towards bringing light to different angles and perspectives on this conflict. It occurred on March 1, 2022, and has been edited for length and clarity.
Peter J. Hoffman: An armed conflict In Ukraine has raged since the seizure of the Crimean Peninsula and the attempted annexation of the Donbas region in the far Eastern part of the country in 2014. In roughly eight years, over 14,000 people have been killed. 30,000 have been wounded and 300,000 and uprooted, but the eruption of a full-on war as of February 23 is the most tragic and dangerous development. With over 200,000 troops, Russia is now unleashing its powerful arsenal on Ukraine. The Ukraine military is far smaller but has maintained control of most of its major cities.
But there have been thousands of casualties, over 2 million people have become refugees, and thousands of others are internally displaced. Some estimate that 5 million Ukrainians could become refugees in the coming months. The situation is overwhelming at many levels, from local traumas experienced by the Ukrainians to the geopolitical dimensions of great power struggle and the so-called rules-based international order, and the domestic turmoil for Russians opposed to the war.
Nina, how is the conflict understood in Russia?
Nina Khrushcheva: Russian civil society, political pluralism, and the independent media has suffered a death by thousand cuts, and these events are like a knife to the Russian heart. Until last week I and many others argued that this couldn’t happen. It goes against everything that Putin is known for as a tactician, and a rational actor.
Russians have numerous relatives in Ukraine, and people like me are completely stunned and shocked by a full-blown war. Why would you want to occupy a country knowing that sanctions are coming, a hard iron curtain? So, for about four days, there was an idea that maybe it was just a negotiation tactic. But instead, escalation.
There was immediately an order that Russian outlets must cover only what the Russian state tells them. Yet there were outlets that disobeyed, and there were thousands and thousands of protestors, people who were quickly arrested and yet continued to speak. On February 24, over a thousand people were arrested and arrests have continued, but we don’t know how many, because that information is also forbidden.
This is 1984 on steroids: this is not called war. It’s not called an invasion. It’s called a “special operation” to fight things that aren’t happening. Now if you speak of the invasion, it is treason: a fifteen-year sentence. Independent TV was accused of terrorism, and they immediately lost their signal, their websites were taken down. So was Facebook and other social media.
I’m feeling an incredible amount of shame for what’s happening. Russia is in turmoil and Ukraine has the whole world behind them. They’ll survive. They will soldier on, and they will be better for it, but for Russia, it’s the end. The plan is to occupy Ukraine, but occupation never works well for anybody.
In addition, Russia is being completely cut out of the world community. We are the enemies of the world. And every Russian is now considered to be participant in this war, even if they’re not. So, in the very, very long run it’s, it’s an incredible tragedy for the Russians, because it will take generations to get out of the shame that they are in now.
How is Putin planning to get out of this? I think it’s a pivotal moment in world history and in Russian history.
Jessica Pisano: I want to begin on a human, not analytical, level, and bring our focus to the Ukrainian experience.
Unlike Nina, I am not at all surprised. I have spent the last 30 years working on both sides of the Russia and Ukraine border, in rural areas. Although I am shocked by the barbarity of the attack, I think Ukrainians have known that this was coming in some form.
But why are we shocked? For example, Russia has used thermobaric weapons, second only to nuclear weapons in their force. If Ukrainians are having a common experience in contemporary warfare, Russia has already used these weapons in Syria.
While we’re having this conversation, it is nighttime there. In some cities, there is no access to drinking water. Ukrainians across the country in cities are in subways sheltering from bombs. There are people of all ages, young children, and we’re still in the middle of a pandemic. In March, Ukraine is colder than New York and some places do not have heat. Food supplies may run out in a few weeks as Russian troops encircle cities in a classic Soviet-style military formation.
What is it that these Ukrainians want? Self-government or, as the Ukrainian national anthem puts it, to oversee their land. And it’s for this that they’re being punished.
This is not the first time that Ukraine has felt Moscow’s wrath. In the nineteen-twenties, Kyiv was the capital of Soviet Ukraine, and it was like Paris. It was a center of literary, theatrical, and other artistic activity. Many of these people were then shot, some in the basement of a building just in front of one of the opera house that was bombed yesterday. Stalin also targeted the people of Kharkiv. Now, we have Putin targeting the people of Kharkiv, not because they are bearers of a Ukrainian language, or revolutionary literature, but because they are like New Yorkers: part of a multicultural, international, and vibrant democratic society.
So, while this war is unfolding in Ukraine, the target is the west and everything we associate with democratic society. Ukrainian people are standing up by themselves right now to protect those things. If they do not prevail, what does democracy look like for us?
These are good reasons to care about Ukraine. The thing that I worry about is that as we see video footage of fair-haired, fair-skinned women and children crossing European borders by the hundreds of thousands, were we paying attention a few years ago when people in other places had hellfire raining down over their heads?
Everita Silina: Many commentators see this being a major moment for Europe, a challenge to the post-World War II security architecture, or post-1997 security architecture. But it’s also a wake-up call, which is why many interpret the European Union’s decision to allocate 450 billion for a common military fund to assist Ukraine as a major statement for the future.
Significantly, Germany has broken with its longstanding pacifism, if you want to call it that, agreeing to bolster defense spending, send weapons directly to Ukraine, and allowing other actors who have purchased German weapons to send them there too. All these actions, and the sanctions, are good signs of European unity. And countries that have generally been neutral, like Ireland, Austria, and Malta have abstained, but have not objected to this contribution by the European Union.
But at the same time, we are celebrating rearmament, right? That leaves me very uncomfortable. We see Europe supporting all its member states and NATO boosting its Eastern flank in Baltics and in Poland. Is a NATO battle with Russia over the Baltics anything other than a global battle at that point? That is certainly a horrifying and sobering thought.
I also wanted to introduce a regional and global view. Turkey, which imports 80 percent of its grain from Ukraine and Russia together, has been in a major economic crisis for years. People are having a very hard time affording basic staples; this war is going to increase that pain. Oil subsidies will have to be increased, and whether the Turkish state is in position to do that is not clear.
Expectations were that tourism would be back, and Russians, 5 million of them, were some of the top tourists to Turkey last year. All of that is now in jeopardy, not least because the travel is going to be difficult and there are restrictions and sanctions, but also because it’s not clear how anyone would pay for these holidays.
So, we already see these reverberations very quickly, not just in Europe, but in African and South American countries that also purchase wheat from Russia and Ukraine. Will we have the same kind of unified approach towards these issues as we give to military issues? And how long will Europeans tolerate a new influx of refugees?
Peter J. Hoffman: In the vanguard of the attack, as I understand it, was the Wagner Group, a Russian private military company. This mimics what the West has done in Afghanistan and Iraq: using private soldiers so that the body bags that return aren’t a political liability. The other aspect of the strategic situation that I find troubling is the size of the military force. There has been a lot of talk about whether Russia aims to occupy Ukraine, but the military footprint is strangely small for that. It’s more reminiscent of a military geared to mass atrocities or ethnic cleansing campaigns.
We’ve never, ever seen a successful, occupation force this small. There are about 200,000 troops, and a population of 44 million in Ukraine. That is a force ratio of less than four soldiers per 1000 civilians. If you compare it with post-World War II Germany, the Allies’ footprint was a ratio of 100 to 1000, more capable of building stability and engaging in action or a hearts and minds campaign.
There are two other aspects of this that trouble me.
When people talk about wars, sometimes they talk about winners and losers. There are no winners ever, but if there was to be one from this war, it would be China. The parallel that seems relevant here is Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia in 1935. In that conflict, Italy did not have great success initially. It wasn’t until they aligned themselves with Germany, a bigger power, that they were able to defeat Ethiopia. And the politics of how China has been playing this are reminiscent of German strategy at that time.
All of this creates a second crisis about the relevance of the UN. The UN’s great value has always been that it has prevented great power conflict and averted a so-called World War III. This war undercuts the legitimacy of the UN’s authority, which is necessary to a host of other problems beyond peace and security.
Nina Khrushcheva: The implications of this war, whenever it ends, are going to be tremendous. And is how does Putin plan to play it out? Even when you read the military reports, it’s very unclear what it is they’re trying to do. Unseat President Zelensky and argue that it is denazification? Take the country with street-to-street fighting?
Ukraine has been a kind of an appendage to the Russian empire, certainly since the sixteen-hundreds, but this is also a proxy war. One of the things that is clearly happening is that Putin and United States President Joe Biden are looking into each other’s eyes, and they’re not seeing the others’ soul clearly, to paraphrase what George W. Bush once said about Putin.
What Putin wants is to stare Biden in the face and say, “This is my region. Get out of my region,” but ultimately this is going to end badly for Russia. Putin, in his (I think now delusional) mind, is fighting for the status that he feels the United States denied him for so long.
Jessica Pisano: I think we also want to be careful about assuming that imperialism is the right frame: that what Putin wants is to acquire something, as opposed to do harm to something.
For years, a great deal of Russian foreign policy has been oriented toward provoking crisis in the so-called West. And the economic costs of this war, through refugee flows and inflation, will influence both European and transatlantic unity, even though they seem strong now. And who imagines that an incumbent American president will be re-elected if gas costs $5 a gallon for any length of time?
To return to denazification: we need to separate our categories of analysis from categories of practice, the concepts that we use to analyze politics, and the concepts Putin uses to do politics. Denazification makes no sense to our ears as a concept to analyze what is going on here. However, in Russia, denazification is powerful as a political concept and as a category of practice, right? It speaks to the politics of memory around World War II, and how a certain generation of Russians came to understand what Ukraine represents because of official memorialization promoted by the Putin government.
Although we may read that as a Russian projection of denazification, it also is a signal to a domestic constituency, which genuinely believes that there are Nazis in Ukraine. Now it is important to note that there are far-right parties in Ukraine who have been doing the work of the state and providing social services, but they’re not Zelensky’s party.
What, what exactly does Putin intend to do after having committed vast violence against a civilian population? I don’t know the answer to that question, if he wanted to govern by proxy, as in the Donbus, that would be by referendum, right? And this is the political theater part, which is the way that Putin’s regime is supported in Russia: he is not widely liked right in the Russian Federation, but people vote for him, because his regime maintains complex client relationships at a local level. If we think about this form of governance as theater, Putin is the director sitting in the audience, and the people backstage make sure that the players know their part.
But Putin doesn’t necessarily know what’s going on back there in Ukraine, and this makes him vulnerable: such an approach depends on knowledge of local actors who are willing to cooperate in an occupation, and that does not look likely now.
Everita Silina: I want to make two points. One has to do with the post–Cold War security order: that certain things can’t be done in Europe even though they have been done elsewhere, to other people. But there is still a presumption that certain things are not acceptable, and what this war causes many to fear is that now they will be.
Friends on the ground tell me that people in Bosnia are very worried. The government there is calling up troops, and there is the question of what China might do about Taiwan.
Jessica Pisano: But let’s also include Russia’s arguments for war. In 2022, the claim that Russia was justified in invading Ukraine to protect Russian speakers in the Donbas was nonsense. And I don’t think there was any serious argument about the threat of a NATO attack on Russia prior to this. There is no doubt that the United States routinely engages in democracy promotion activities.
However, the Kremlin position that Ukraine is a United States client only reflects the Kremlin’s ideas about how it deals with other states. Criticism of NATO, with respect to Kosovo, is not incompatible with the idea that NATO does not pose a threat to the Russian Federation directly. We need to be careful about parsing the ways in which Putin and other Russian political leaders have talked about NATO.
Everita Silina: Another question is: Will this violence teach other countries that the only way to protect themselves is with nuclear weapons? I think it teaches the opposite: that nuclear weapons cannot be used without the expectation of a global Armageddon. I don’t see how anyone can learn anything else from this conflict.
My worry is, however, that given the rush to violence, future conversation will favor an increasingly nationalist, militarized perspective rather than pluralist debate. It would be nice, if we are thinking of this as a global conversation to take an eye off the West and see what this conversation looks like in other parts of the world.
Nina Khrushcheva: So here is the question: What’s the next step in a post-Putin world? When Putin is gone, and he’s going to be gone one day, will Putinism remain? And if we are at a moment when the Russian empire can collapse further, there will be destruction and blood. Are we prepared for that?
Peter J. Hoffman is an associate professor and director of the Julien J. Studley Graduate Programs in International Affairs at The New School.
Nina Khrushcheva is a professor of international affairs at The New School.
Jessica Pisano is an associate professor of politics at The New School.
Everita Silina is an assistant professor of international affairs at The New School.