Political scientist sheds light on Russia’s war with Ukraine

CATEGORIES: News, Research
Ukraine flag flies over Kyiv

The daily atrocities that Ukrainians are experiencing since Russia’s unprovoked February invasion of the country leave most citizens in democratic nations around the globe shaking their heads in disbelief. Why would Russia invade Ukraine, pummel its villages and cities, and cause thousands of innocent people to flee for safety or, in too many cases, perish?

In a word, power.

In February 2021, a year prior to Russia’s assault on Ukraine, Scott Feinstein, assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at Iowa State University, published a study in the journal International Politics that seemingly prophesied the 2022 invasion.

In his paper, “Testing the world order: Strategic realism in Russian foreign affairs,” co-authored with Associate Teaching Professor of Political Science Ellen Pirro, Feinstein asserts that Russia’s foreign policy strategy is rooted in political “realism,” meaning the primary way it seeks to gain power is through aggressive action. Essential to this pursuit, Russia must strategically gather information through “tests,” which are ways to determine how the rest of the world might react to Russia’s aggression. The goal for Russia, Feinstein says, is to see how much muscle it can flex around the globe without getting squashed by NATO or other nations.

“Tests are a way for a state, like Russia, to grow in power, but at the same time, do so in a way that they learn what they can get away with so that they are not harmed in the process,” Feinstein said.

Strategic moves

Feinstein’s paper cites numerous political scientists who contend that Russia has been confronting an emerging new world order since about 2007. Unsure of its place in that world, Feinstein says Russian President Vladimir Putin and his advisors have embarked on a series of tests to determine where Russia stands. These tests have included political nuisances like conflict diplomacy, subterfuge, provocations, economic measures and cyberattacks.

Russia has also stepped up its militaristic maneuvers during this timeframe by moving troops into Ukraine (2014), seizing Crimea, supporting Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad both financially and militarily, provoking NATO by air and sea, getting involved with North Korean and Afghanistan, and questioning the legitimacy of western political elections.

But with the current war in Ukraine, Russia has significantly upped the severity of its tests.

“This invasion of Ukraine is a much different type of military action,” Feinstein said. “They wouldn’t say it, but Russia has gone to war with Ukraine and invaded the clear sovereignty of an independent state.”

Feinstein said that such an aggressive move suggests Putin is confident that the West and NATO will not react militarily to halt Russia’s attack on Ukraine, based upon responses to previous tests.

“With the new invasion this year, Putin has experienced huge sanctions but there hasn’t necessarily been that direct military confrontation with NATO,” Feinstein said. “It’s in line with what he learned he was going to get from previous tests. That said, I don’t know that it was the most rational action.”

Based upon Russia’s military escalation and destruction in Ukraine since the beginning of the latest siege, Feinstein believes economic sanctions will not stand in the way of Putin gaining control of the country.

“I think economic sanctions will not have a big impact,” Feinstein said. “Some sanctions may make some of Russia’s internal circle change their minds, but I think they have enough economic power to sustain this type of isolation, and Putin probably has enough power to sustain his authority, regardless of what happens economically.”

David vs. Goliath

What Putin’s tests apparently failed to convey, however, is Ukraine’s fierce resistance and dogged determination to retain independence.

“One thing Russia has learned is that certain diplomatic lines [Ukrainian President] Volodymyr Zelenskyy represents in this distinct state power can’t just be removed or toppled,” Feinstein said. “Ukraine has tested Putin’s military prowess and showed lots of holes within it. Russia has all these fancy new weapons but they didn’t update their organizational skills by any means.”

According to Feinstein, it’s likely Russia became acutely aware of their military limitations early on in the invasion. Other possible obstacles to Russia’s eventual success in this war could be the resolve of the Ukrainian forces and Russia’s reliance on pure military force. However, Feinstein thinks Russia will likely continue its battle for control in Ukraine.

No end in sight

Feinstein says the current war in Ukraine may persist well into the future, unless Putin accomplishes his goals in the country, which include no Western or NATO military presence in Ukraine, and a central government that prioritizes Russia’s interests over those of Western Europe, the European Union and NATO.

“This military campaign isn’t necessarily dwindling down until Putin has some semblance of what he went in there to get — control of at least the eastern borders, a guarantee that Ukraine and the Kyiv government are going to support Russian interests, and no military NATO ascension,” he said.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   Beyond the battlefields

The ravages of Russia’s war on Ukraine are chronicled daily in news reports, photos and videos. But Feinstein predicts a new challenge lies ahead for the millions of Ukrainians who have sought refuge in new countries. He poses the question of whether the Ukrainians seeking asylum will continue to be welcomed with open arms, or will their welcome eventually wear out?

“For those that are leaving Ukraine, there are going to be challenges socially, economically and politically as new elections are coming up,” Feinstein said. “Do politicians in Western European countries run against the new minorities that have arrived from Ukraine, or will they embrace these folks who are coming in?”

If it’s the former, Feinstein fears Ukrainian refugees may face future issues with employment and housing in their new countries.

“That can have a very traumatic effect on a large group of people that aren’t directly getting bombed in the war.”