Why has Russia attacked Ukraine now, and will economic sanctions stop Putin?

Stef Recchia, John G. Tower Chair in International Politics and National Security at SMU, offers his expert analysis of Russia’s attack against Ukraine.

Could you start by giving us some historical perspective about Russia and Ukraine relations?

Ukraine became an independent country in late 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed. The Soviet empire’s breakup has haunted Russian nationalists, especially in the country’s defense and national security establishment, ever since. They perceived the Soviet collapse as a humiliation that diminished Russia’s status on the world stage. NATO’s subsequent incorporation of former Soviet satellite states in central and eastern Europe further reinforced this sense of humiliation, as did the West’s military interventions in the Balkans during the 1990s that targeted Russia’s traditional regional ally there — the Serbs. President Putin and Russian defense leaders have seen it as part of their mission to restore “Russian greatness” and push back against the West’s perceived “encroachments” in Russia’s neighborhood. Regarding Ukraine in particular, Putin perceived Ukraine’s shift to the West in recent years, accelerated under President Zelensky, as a major affront.

What does Russia, or more specifically President Putin, hope to gain from this?

Putin appears to have concluded that a military attack on Ukraine, seemingly with the goal of implementing regime change in Kyiv, could achieve two objectives. First, pull Ukraine back into Russia’s sphere of influence and ensure that Ukraine would never become a NATO member. Second, re-affirm Russia’s status as a major world power that the West needs to take seriously and, indeed, should fear.

Can you go more in detail about Russia’s War against Ukraine? Why now?

Putin seemingly believed that now would be a good time to strike, for several reasons. He probably observed, correctly, that after protracted and largely unprofitable military involvements in Iraq and Afghanistan, Western publics are war-weary. This may have led him to conclude that Western nations would place a premium on trying to avoid any kind of military confrontation with Russia. In addition, he likely reasoned that, given current high oil prices and inflationary tendencies in Western economies, the United States and its allies would lack the resolve to impose serious economic sanctions on Russia. Finally, he may have inferred from recent squabbles within the Western alliance that he could drive a wedge between the United States and its partners, further weakening the Western response to a Russian attack.

What consequences will this have for the Western alliance and European security?

President Biden and other Western leaders have done the right thing by ruling out any deployment of combat troops to Ukraine. A direct military confrontation with Russia should be avoided if at all possible, given Russia’s nuclear arsenal and its doctrine allowing for the use of nuclear weapons in response to a conventional strike. Russia’s aggression on Ukraine is a blatant violation of international law, and it challenges the European security order. But Ukraine is not a formal U.S. ally. The calculus would have to change, if Russia went beyond Ukraine and began offensive operations against NATO members, such as the Baltic countries. If that happened, NATO’s Article 5 collective defense commitment would need to be upheld – meaning war with Russia. In my assessment, this worst-case scenario is unlikely, assuming that President Putin is still a rational actor. Mutual destruction cannot be in anyone’s interest.

Putin clearly miscalculated, however, in his belief that his attack on Ukraine would divide and weaken the Western alliance. It provoked the exact opposite: it reinvigorated NATO, strengthened Washington’s commitment to European security, and prompted even “pacifist” countries such as Germany to increase their own defense spending and agree to deliver defensive weapons to Ukraine.

In your opinion, have sanctions done anything to influence Russia’s position?

Sanctions are probably the one issue on which Putin miscalculated most seriously. He must have reckoned sanctions would remain largely symbolic, given European dependency on Russian oil and gas exports. Instead, the sanctions imposed to date are fairly tough, significantly limiting Russia’s ability to engage in financial transactions with the outside world. Nevertheless, I believe the sanctions should be strengthened further. Essentially, the United States and its partners should impose a complete economic embargo on Russia. Sanctions are unlikely to stop Putin in the short run. However, comprehensive sanctions, along the lines of those imposed by the United States against Iran or Cuba, could really cripple the Russian economy. Such sanctions would undoubtedly also carry a significant cost for the United States and its allies – in particular, they would likely increase current inflationary tendencies, especially regarding gas prices. However, I believe that would be a cost worth paying. It would send a clear signal to the Russian leadership and other major powers around the world – including China – that the Western democracies, far from being paper tigers, are determined to uphold the European security order and will push back strongly against military aggression.

Stefano Recchia (Ph.D., Columbia University) holds the John G. Tower distinguished chair in international politics and national security at SMU.  He has published widely on the politics and ethics of military intervention. His latest research investigates the issue of public support for joining military counterterrorism coalitions:  https://doi.org/10.1093/isq/sqab032