6 Questions on Russia-Ukraine Tensions with Adam Stulberg

Posted January 25, 2022

Russia and Ukraine have been at odds since the end of the Soviet Union. Many Russians, especially President Putin, feel Ukraine should still be a part of their country due to a shared history and similar cultures. However, Ukraine treasures its sovereignty and has strived to balance historical ties with Russia with closer alignment to the West. Today, talk of war is rampant. Regional tensions are rising rapidly as Russia and Ukraine mass troops along the latter’s eastern border, and NATO considers sending additional troops to bolster its eastern flank.

Adam Stulberg, Sam Nunn Professor and Chair of the Sam Nunn School of the International Affairs, recently published a policy memo with PONARS Eurasia on the effectiveness of the United States’ current economic sanctions against Russia and the dangers of misaligned strategic postures. We asked him for his insights.

For additional Ivan Allen College expertise on Ukraine, visit https://iac.gatech.edu/people/experts.

What do people need to know to understand what’s happening at the Russia-Ukraine border right now?

We have to know why the stalemate that has been in place since 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea, was broken now. It wasn’t ideal, but it allowed both sides to keep the other at bay without fundamentally altering delicate political balances at home. One answer is that Russian President Vladimir Putin wants more but feels his leverage may be waning. He has had several tactical successes, including annexing Crimea and stoking Russian nationalists and separatists in eastern Ukraine. However, Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, continues to present Moscow with a strategic challenge, as it has resisted core concessions in the peace process to date and moved more towards aligning politically and economically with the West.

Russia, meanwhile, is becoming even more isolated from the West, incurring repeated rounds of American and European Union sanctions. Although these sanctions have not been successful at altering Moscow’s policies, financial sanctions, in particular, have combined with fluctuating oil prices to take a gradual toll on the national economy. More importantly, they have forced the Kremlin to bankroll domestic stability. Moreover, Russia’s aggressive posture has forced new NATO member states to side openly with the alliance and has driven the once-neutral Finland and Sweden to consider closer defense stances with NATO.

Therefore, what Putin wants out of this current crisis is not only about Ukraine. It’s about resetting the dialogue regarding a pan-Euro-Atlantic security architecture and pursuing a broader framework that NATO does not dominate.

What is the United States’ involvement in the conflict?

We are critical to coordinating a Western, NATO-centric response in terms of defense, deterrence, and resilience, as well as a common message about the unacceptability of further violating Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty. We also are critical to leveling international economic sanctions against Russia and, more significantly, to orchestrating that transformational Euro-Atlantic security architecture that interests Putin so much. And Putin knows that the way to get attention from the West — particularly the U.S. — is to pressure Ukraine. Negotiating directly with the U.S. also elevates Putin’s global stature.

Is this current perceived threat of invasion a continuation of decades of conflict over control of the region, or does there seem to be something different about this one?

Unlike the surprise and undeclared annexation of Crimea, Putin has been explicit in this instance about mobilizing forces, issuing redlines, and laying down conditions for the West. Russia’s demands include a guarantee from NATO that Ukraine will never become a member or a base for strategic weapons directed at Russia, goals of Moscow since the fall of the USSR. However, NATO has already said that Ukraine will not be joining any time soon, so further escalation to a costly military incursion would rest on the difference between “not any time soon” and “never.” This seems a high price to pay for Moscow, especially given the ambivalent domestic support at present for a costly war with Kyiv and the West.

What are the likely outcomes of this conflict?

Putin’s place at the international table is weakening. He has an election in 2024 and is losing influence with other countries. Therefore, the threat of a surgical strike and resort to more aggressive non-military measures (directed at Ukraine or elsewhere)—which could rapidly get out of hand, is real. However, it appears that the critical issue for avoiding a kinetic war is not so much about conceding to Putin’s demands. While he holds the cards for initiating a hot war, the West’s best bet for de-escalating the crisis rests with advancing a credible roadmap for jumpstarting negotiations for transforming the Euro-Atlantic security architecture.

The Biden administration has made it clear that the United States has no intention of directly fighting to defend Ukraine. Instead, if Russia were to invade, we would level severe economic sanctions. However, Russia considers the combination of military and non-military elements — including cyber, energy, and economic methods — part of “gray zone warfare,” which effectively blurs the lines between peace and war. While the Biden administration acknowledges that less intense forms of confrontation present challenges for Western solidarity, it generally regards sanctions, energy diplomacy, and cyberattacks as distinct from war.

This presents a “goldilocks” dilemma for the U.S. and the West regarding sanctions. The current ones are too weak and have not staved off the current crisis. Yet, general threats of imposing severe sanctions, if credible, may be too provocative. Russia has a different view of protracted competition and may interpret general threats of catastrophic sanctions — such as cutting off their access to the Western-dominated financial system — as an act of war. Accordingly, they risk showing the Kremlin how much we do not want to use military force, reducing the difference between paying the economic and military costs of war. Therefore, Russia could be convinced that if they are going to suffer real pain of sanctions, they might as well exploit favorable asymmetries in stakes and local power to maximize gains on the ground. At the same time, trying to calibrate Western sanctions to get them “just right” by, for instance, going after Putin and his cronies’ wealth, may be a fool’s errand to sustain, especially given Moscow’s capacity to repatriate wealth and the different impact on Western allies. Thus, more exacting Western sanctions (broad or targeted) risk putting us under pressure to demonstrate credibility and follow through on failed threats, stoking a spiral of confrontation. Because we don’t fully understand each other’s playbooks, we risk missing signs of restraint and escalating the situation instead.

The Pentagon recently told 8,500 troops to be on standby for potential deployment to Europe, and NATO is sending reinforcements as well. What are the implications of such moves?

As a demonstration of resolve, the threat to augment U.S. and allied forces along NATO’s eastern flank seems either too late or too small to have a tangible impact on deterring Russia’s action in Ukraine. The move also plays into the Russian narrative about the “hysterical” and provocative actions undertaken by NATO that, in turn, may justify a concerted Russian military response to domestic and friendly audiences. In general, this gesture — while intended to signal U.S. commitment to current NATO allies and underscore the prospects for NATO military units to be positioned closer to Russia’s border — may be readily used as a pretext for escalation by Moscow. This, in turn, could accentuate pressure on the U.S. and NATO to follow through with more drastic action. This would further play to Russia’s favorable advantages in local power and stakes while distracting attention from laying down a roadmap to revisit the Euro-Atlantic security architecture, which is maybe the only course at this time for re-directing focus from the Kremlin’s steady military mobilization.

Why is it important to stay engaged with far-away issues such as this?

At stake with the current Russo-Ukraine crisis are second-order material interests for us but fundamental norms of international behavior. However, not understanding the playbooks of countries like Russia is a huge problem and risks dangerous escalation into first-order problems of both power and principles. We think we understand Moscow’s relevant tools and what its goals may be, but we don’t understand the Kremlin’s strategies for achieving them. We need leaders in international affairs who can understand not only the ends and means of conflict but also navigate the challenges and policy tradeoffs presented by the interaction among states that possess very different strategies for waging long-term competition.

Related Media

Contact For More Information

Grace Wyner

Communications Officer

Sam Nunn School of International Affairs | School of Public Policy