The New School News

Nina Khrushcheva, Professor of International Affairs, Discusses the Russian Invasion of Ukraine

In February, Russian President Vladimir Putin launched an invasion of Ukraine, Europe’s first major war in decades. The invasion has triggered a humanitarian crisis, with millions of people fleeing Ukraine as Russian forces continue bombing civilian infrastructure. The New School News spoke with Nina Khrushcheva, professor of international affairs in the Schools of Public Engagement’s Julien J. Studley Graduate Programs of International Affairs program, to hear her insights into this catastrophic event. Khrushcheva, the granddaughter of Nikita Khrushchev, who led the former Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War, is a scholar of Eastern Europe. She is a co-author of In Putin’s Footsteps: Searching for the Soul of an Empire Across Russia’s Eleven Time Zones (St. Martin’s Press, 2019) and the author of Imagining Nabokov: Russia Between Art and Politics (Yale UP, 2008) and The Lost Khrushchev: A Journey Into the Gulag of the Russian Mind (Tate, 2014).

Although Putin invaded parts of Ukraine not that long ago, it seemed as if most people didn’t believe he would launch a full-scale invasion. Why did most world leaders not think Putin would actually take this course of action?

Taking parts of Ukraine such as Crimea in 2014 seemed like a calculated act that Vladimir Putin believed he could get away with. Most Russians wanted it back; they have long complained that this Russian territory should not have become part of the Republic of Ukraine within the Soviet Union in 1954. Annexing Crimea was then a very popular move.

The breakaway republics of Donetsk and Luhansk and other East Ukrainian territories wanted to go a similar route, but there was more opposition among the Ukraine-affiliated population there, and so only small parts of these regions around the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk ultimately sided with Russia. Putin stopped there because in 2014 he seemed to be still able to politically calculate that he should bite off only as much as he could chew.

Many world leaders and many analysts (myself included) thought it would be illogical, irrational, and suicidal to try to take all of Ukraine now, especially when global eyes have been trained on Russia for so long. Yet Putin took this grand gamble, perhaps the greatest gamble of his life.

It has been stated that this is not just a war on Ukraine but also a war on Western values. Is there any truth to that idea?

It is a nice line, and a good soundbite. It is true, or could be, but President Joe Biden’s implication that it is the United States that is saving Ukraine and leading the way runs a bit thin nowadays. The West has broken its values many times over, not in the least in recent decades.

Ukraine does want to be independent; Ukraine does have vigorous elections; it does have a tremendous civil society. But it was not until the Russians became a threat to all of it that the United States, and even Europe, began paying attention. I wrote an article about it back in 2007—the West needs more involvement, but not much was happening for a while.

Today Ukraine checks all the boxes for U.S. support—and it deserves all the help in can get, for sure—but it is also a way for the United States to redeem itself after Afghanistan, which did not check all the boxes and ultimately was abandoned after 20 years without as much as an apology. If you are to fight for values, you do it everywhere, not just in a white country in Europe. This bias was thoroughly on display in the Western media reporting. Ultimately, democracies fail not because autocracies take them over but because they are not democratic enough to lead by example.

Putin seemed to feel that the Ukrainians would welcome a Russian takeover, but the Ukrainian people have mounted a formidable defense. Did Putin actually believe Ukrainians wanted a regime change, or was that just propaganda?

Ukrainians did not want regime change. Volodymir Zelensky was unpopular, certainly—at about 29 percent last summer—yet he was still the most popular politician there. It appears that Putin had bought into his own propaganda.

His military people must have convinced him that the “Nazi regime”—and the neo-Nazi element does exist in Ukrainian politics; a strong Nazi collaborator contingent fought against the Soviets in World War II, and now there is a nationalist movement that fights against the Russians with the memory of those collaborators past—has taken over all of Kyiv’s politics and politicians. From that he must have surmised that, as in World War II, most Ukrainians were fighting with the Russians against fascism, and now they would just do the same—fight against the Zelensky-led “Nazis,” eager to be “liberated” by Moscow. But of course, he should have been told that Ukrainians don’t want to be liberated from their freedoms, and they certainly don’t want to be part of the Russian empire once again.

Moreover, Putin is not even fighting a war with Ukraine. It may look like a “brother killing brother” war, but in the Russian propaganda it is framed as fighting the “nazified” lackeys of the United States, which has been after Putin. It wanted to undermine Russia with its hateful rhetoric and actions for years, but enough is enough—Russia finally had to act.

This level of delusion was indeed unexpected in previously rather rational and calculating Putin, calculating even in his autocratic tendencies. These warring actions, however, fit into a dictator’s rationale. Those leaders usually have almost no access to reality and only see the world as they picture it in their mind.

What are Putin’s end goals for the invasion? What’s the possible exit strategy?

It seems that nobody can answer this question coherently. Putin says to deweaponize Ukraine, and now he has an extra demand for the official recognition of Crimea and the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in full. And the ultimatum, it seems, is either this or full occupation and/or even potential nuclear threat—you decide.

There is also a “denazification” (and this is not even a real word) demand, whose parameters are unclear. Ultimately, Zelensky may be forced to agree to these conditions to avoid further occupation. But then other leaders of other countries may become emboldened to act the Putin way, as in say, China and Taiwan. Putin may be counting on everyone wanting to end the war as fast as possible.

As for sanctions, now, when they heavily fall on regular people and already have completely devastated not only their economic but also their social and cultural lives, Putin may even further strengthen his strong hand at home. When the whole world is against you, people have no other place to go than to rally behind the flag. The United States hopes, of course, that the protesters go to the streets in millions and take down Putin. But this rarely happens in Russia. It may, but I won’t hold my breath, not in the short run.

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