NATO vs. Putin

American Academicians Debate the Ukraine War Implications

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a working meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, 01 March 2022. EPA/ALEXEI NIKOLSKY / KREMLIN POOL / SPUTNIK
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a working meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, 01 March 2022. EPA/ALEXEI NIKOLSKY / KREMLIN POOL / SPUTNIK

NATO vs. Putin

As the Russian invasion of Ukraine entered its second week, the overwhelming American public opinion, not only opposed the invasion, but, also, criticized President Joe Biden for not providing more support to the Ukrainians.

According to a poll by Harvard Center for American Political Studies (CAPS), 62 percent of voters say Putin wouldn't have invaded Ukraine if Trump were president. 85 percent of Republicans and 38 percent of Democrats answered this way. However, 38 percent of all Americans polled believed that Putin would have invaded Ukraine even if Trump had been president.

And according to a poll by CNN, the Americans overwhelmingly, 83 percent, favored increased economic sanctions against Russia and broadly supported further action to end Russia's invasion of Ukraine. But, most oppose direct US military action.

Among university professors, a heated debate has been going on about the historical, military and geo-political implications of the Russian invasion.

While most of them, critical of Russia’s dream of the past power of the Soviet Union, if not of the Russian Empire that reached its zenith during the 18th century, argued that Putin has been appealing to the Russians’ emotions for his own benefits. 

But, a sizable opinion among historians and political scientists, while not less critical of Putin, argued that the NATO, as it has been expanding to the east after the fall of the Soviet Union, should have considered the Russian historical sphere of influence.

Below are excerpts from opinions by two American university professors, from their tweets, websites and statements to the media.

On one side, the expanding power of the NATO benefits Putin, said Brett Benson, an associate professor of political science at Vanderbilt University (in Tennessee), and author of a book, “Constructing International Security: Alliances, Deterrence, and Moral Hazard.”

On the other side, Putin is but a harsh dictator whose main concern is his own self, said Graeme Robertson, professor of political science at the University of North Carolina, and co-author, with professor Samuel Greene, of a book, "Putin v. the People: The Perilous Politics of a Divided Russia.”

Brett Benson: “The NATO Power”

“In analyzing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, many commentators have focused the following factors:

First, President Vladimir Putin’s hatred of democracy.

Second, his desire to show that post-Soviet Russia remains a global power.

Third, Russians’ view that Ukraine is historically part of their state.

War, however, is not the obvious approach for achieving these goals. What makes war attractive in this case is the fact that one country (Ukraine) has been positioning itself to join an alliance (NATO) which is meant to counter the other country (Russia) …

International-affairs scholars know that, throughout history, few moments are riper for war than when the enemy (Ukraine) of one country (Russia) makes a bid to join forces with other adversaries (NATO).

Such alliances can utterly transform the balance of power between two countries (Russia and Ukraine) and therefore, when a potential alliance (with NATO) is signaled, the nation that will be put at a disadvantage (Russian) faces a huge incentive to strike.

Ukraine’s membership in NATO was hardly imminent, but Russia felt threatened enough by the possibility that it was willing to launch a war to prevent it …

Recognizing the dynamic at play is the first step toward understanding the conflict — and recognizing how NATO’s membership process may unintentionally invite this kind of crisis.

The relationship between alliance formation — imminent partnerships, especially — and war is a close one:

In 1939, Britain made a commitment to defend Poland, but was not able to make good on the pledge right away. Germany attacked Poland before Britain and France could get into position.

In 1954, the Chinese communists attacked islands held by the Chinese nationalists in a failed attempt to block an alliance between the United States and Taiwan.

In 2008, Russia attacked Georgia after NATO membership for that country was proposed. Perhaps not coincidentally, Georgia is still not a NATO member.

Alliances — even “defensive” ones such as NATO — bring about significant power shifts, creating a new strategic landscape …

Research suggests that impending alliances are particularly dangerous when certain conditions apply:

First, the alliance explicitly or implicitly targets another country.

Second, the anticipated power shift from the alliance is large.

Third, it takes time, so, opening a window for attack.

Fourth, the attack is likely to block the alliance …

Ukraine potentially joining NATO checks those boxes. NATO is a military juggernaut, and Ukraine’s situation would be utterly transformed if its 30 members were pledged to defend it.

NATO also “targets” Russia, in the sense that its raison d’etre, at its founding, was to counter the Soviet Union. In Putin’s mind, war today may lead to a better outcome than negotiating with Ukraine in the future, when it could be backed by the combined strength of NATO countries …”

Graeme Robertson: “Selfish Putin”

“We know what Putin’s domestic political motivations might be. His overriding interest is in maintaining and cultivating his power; that focus often crowds out concerns about the future and his legacy …

The archives of Putin’s speeches are littered with grand promises and even good ideas, many of which were abandoned because they threatened his power base. Such as:

First, shifting the economy away from natural resources.

Second, making the police more accountable to citizens.

Third, breaking up powerful monopolies …

It turns out that, like most politicians, Putin is willing to sacrifice long-term goals for short-term survival.

We know that there are limits to Putin’s ability to manipulate public opinion. While the Kremlin’s TV and online propaganda machines are formidable, they can’t change the way people think and feel about the things that matter to them most — especially the economy.

And we know that when Putin does decide to go on an adventure abroad, he tries very hard to minimize the costs to him at home. When possible, this means making his wars short and sweet:

First, his five-day invasion of Georgia in 2008.

Second, his virtually bloodless annexation of Crimea in 2014.

Third, his use of mercenaries (in Syria, Libya and the Central African Republic) …

Put these things together, and we have a much clearer view from Putin’s vantage of what might happen in the current showdown. Whatever ambitions Putin may harbor for restoring Russian greatness or reconquering Ukraine, he is not likely to pursue those goals at the expense of his own power …

It is true that the annexation of Crimea gave Putin four years of stratospheric approval ratings of over 80 percent, even as the Russian economy tanked. A large-scale invasion of Ukraine, however, would be very different. For more than one reason:

First, it would involve massive numbers of regular Russian troops, not a few thousand “little green men,” proxies or mercenaries. And many of those troops would die.

Second, it would bring immediate and sweeping sanctions onto an economy that is already struggling to cope with the pandemic and inflation …

Putin’s power depends on his popularity. That makes him vulnerable.

But would Russian public opinion reward him for such an adventure? …”

font change

Related Articles