A Q&A with CSU experts about the Russian invasion of Ukraine

SOURCE asked several CSU faculty experts to contribute to this Q&A about the Russian invasion of Ukraine:

Peter Harris
Peter Harris

Peter Harris, associate professor of political science:

Why did President Biden decide against sending U.S. forces into Ukraine?

First, Ukraine is not a formal ally of the United States (it is not part of the NATO alliance). This means that the United States is not obliged to assist with its defense. Second, Russia has the world’s largest arsenal of nuclear weapons, many of which are pointed at the United States. When dealing with Moscow, the overriding concern of any U.S. president is to avoid a direct conflict between the two sides that might result in nuclear war. If U.S. forces were deployed to Ukraine, there would be a non-trivial risk of Putin choosing to retaliate using nuclear weapons. No matter how bad things get in Ukraine (and they are already unspeakably horrific), the use of nuclear weapons would be much worse. This is why President Biden has decided to support Kyiv in ways that stop short of interceding militarily on Ukraine’s behalf.

Can the United States declare a “no-fly zone” over parts of Ukraine?

Not without declaring war on Russia. A no-fly zone is when one country announces a ban on another country’s military aircraft being flown over a certain geographic space. The point of a no-fly zone is to prevent a hostile air force from attacking military targets and civilian populations. In the past, the United States has enforced no-fly zones in place like Iraq (1991-2003) and Bosnia (1993-1995) with some success. However, enforcing a no-fly zone means being willing to shoot down enemy planes and destroy enemy air defenses. This is easy to do against a weak adversary, but it is hard to do against a powerful state like Russia. The bottom line is that there is no chance of President Biden establishing a no-fly zone in Ukraine because it would be tantamount to declaring war on Russia.

Will Putin be held accountable for any war crimes?

It is unlikely that Putin will ever stand trial for war crimes. For this to happen, people in Russia would first have to eject Putin from office. Next, a new Russian government would have to hand over Putin to some sort of international tribunal. While nothing is impossible, these two things are highly improbable outcomes. For now, Putin seems secure in office – and even if he were to be deposed, there is no guarantee that his successor would want to see the international community punishing a former Russian leader. In fact, even the dim prospect of facing trial for his crimes is a reason that Putin will never willingly relinquish power. He and his associates have strong incentives to stay in the Kremlin for as long as possible.

Marni Berg
Marni Berg

Marni Berg, senior instructor of political science:

What does Putin hope to achieve by invading Ukraine?

It is likely that Putin is trying to accomplish two major goals by using military force against Ukraine: removing the current government of Zelenskyy and his allies and preventing the country from joining NATO.

Putin appears to want to recreate some form of a Russian Empire that includes Ukraine with a pro-Russian government tied in with Russia’s sphere of influence for security and trade purposes. I do not think that Russia wants to occupy Ukraine, because it would be too expensive in terms of capital and manpower.

Furthermore, Putin wants the West to acknowledge that Russia is a world power and deserves Western respect. Included in that respect is not extending NATO into what Russia views as its domain. Keep in mind that Russia has been warning the West and Ukraine not to extend NATO membership to Ukraine for years, even prior to Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

Why did President Biden choose to go with sanctions immediately, and will they work?

Sanctions are the only alternative to boots on the ground, and Biden did not want the U.S. involved in a war with Russia.

Biden’s sanctions are aimed at limiting Russia’s ability to do business in dollars, Euros, pounds and so on. Russian banks will no longer be able to transfer money with the assistance of U.S. banks.

Export restrictions on electronics, computers, semi-conductors, aircraft parts and so on will keep Russia from updating its technology and repairing military equipment. Sanctions are aimed at increasing inflation and interest rates in Russia, decreasing the country’s purchasing power, economic growth and living standards.

These all will take some time to make an impact, but will isolate Russia and hurt its economy in the longer-term. They will likely not have an impact on fighting on the ground in the short-term.

Eric Fattor
Eric Fattor

Eric Fattor, senior instructor of political science:

What does the invasion of Ukraine mean for security in the rest of Europe?

Russia’s invasion has breathed new life into multilateral political and security institutions in Europe that appeared to be passing into obsolescence.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has sprung into action, deploying additional troops and equipment to its members that border Russian territory and engaging in close dialogues with non-NATO European states that are threatened by Russia’s attack. States like Sweden and Finland that had long maintained a strict policy of neutrality when it came to European security are now contemplating formal membership in the organization. The European Union, still reeling from the impact of Brexit, has said it would warmly welcome Ukrainian membership into the EU and has pledged to finance the purchase and shipment of weapons to Ukraine.

Beyond collective defense, individual states are pledging to give various forms of material support to the Ukrainian defenders. The United Kingdom, the Baltic Republics (Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia), Germany, France and the United States are all contributing various forms of weaponry to the cause, including portable anti-aircraft missiles and anti-tank rockets. States on the western frontier of Ukraine are waiving immigration rules and allowing Ukrainian refugees to seek shelter in their countries. If one of Putin’s objectives of invasion was to keep NATO at bay and instill discontent in Europe, it seems to have failed badly up to this point.

What does the invasion of Ukraine mean for global security?

The invasion in many ways signals a return to multipolarity in international politics. The power and prestige of the United States may have been sufficient to deter a large war in Europe in the past, but a rise in Russian power and decay of U.S. influence have diminished the stability U.S. leadership provided in the past.

The question now turns to other parts of the world and whether other great powers will seek to address their security grievances. China has long sought to bring Taiwan back under its sovereign umbrella and may decide the time is right to realize this aspiration. However, China has not given Russia a formal endorsement of its invasion and abstained from vetoing a resolution in the United Nations Security Council condemning the invasion. Indeed, China has insisted on the importance of protecting the sovereign integrity of states and would not doubt look on with worry if Russia’s actions triggered a larger European war.

There is also the concern of escalating nuclear tensions between Russia and the United States and the possibility, though still remote at this point, that the hostilities in Ukraine might spill over into a NATO country in Europe that would trigger the military involvement of the United States and a possible escalation to the exchange of nuclear weapons.

Ramaa Vasudevan
Ramaa Vasudevan

Ramaa Vasudevan, professor of economics:

What is the purpose of the financial sanctions imposed by the U.S. and Europe on Russia?

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine sparked a coordinated offensive by the U.S. and Europe in terrain of financial markets. The main objective of the barrage of sanctions over the weekend of Feb. 27 is to close Russia out of the U.S. and European international financial networks. Apart from cutting off key oil, power, shipping and railroad companies from access to global financial markets, the sanctions have targeted select financial institutions – banning them from raising money in international capital markets, freezing their assets and expelling from the SWIFT international payments system that executes cross-border financial transactions. Russian financial institutions conduct about $46 billion worth of foreign exchange transactions on average daily, 80 percent of which are in U.S. dollars. The sanctions disrupt these operations.

Crucially, U.S. has announced sanctions against Russia’s two largest financial institutions, Sberbank and VTB Bank, which make up about half of the Russian banking system in terms of asset base and are both heavily exposed and embedded in the international financial system. These have been cut off from access to the U.S. financial system and transacting in dollars, damaging their ability to operate globally. More striking, the reserves of the Central Bank of Russia have been effectively cordoned off through restrictions which prevent the Central Bank from using these reserves to circumvent or counteract the impact of the sanctions and defend the ruble. The Russian Central Bank has, since the debacle of the debt default of 1998, accumulated a massive stock-pile of reserves amounting to $630 billion and has been steadily reducing its external debt burden. These reserves could have placed Russia in a stronger position to withstand the repercussions of its invasion of Ukraine. The sanctions render these reserves useless as a defense against the fall of the ruble.

What immediate impact have the financial sanctions had?

While the Central Bank of Russia has been divesting its dollar reserves in recent years and reallocating its holdings to increase euro, gold and renminbi holdings, it is still constrained by these curbs on its capacity to intervene in dollar markets. On Monday, Feb. 28, after the U.S. and European sanctions on the Russian financial system were announced, the ruble plunged by more than 30% against the dollar, more than the fall after Russian defaulted on its debt in 1998. The Central Bank of Russia hiked its interest rates from around 9.5% to 20% in order to shore up the ruble, but the ruble is still vulnerable. Russia’s biggest foreign bond, $7 billion in debt maturing in 2047, lost more than half of its value on Monday to reach around 30 cents on the dollar. S&P Global has downgraded Russia’s credit rating to junk.

While the impact of the sanctions has been dramatic, the longer-term implications would also depend on China’s actions and whether Russian banks can switch to the Chinese Cross-Border Interbank Payment System (CIPS) as an alternative to the SWIFT payment system.

What are the implications of these sanctions for the U.S. and Europe?

Russia is a major exporter of oil and gas, in particular to Europe, and a key loophole in the sanctions are the carve-outs that allow the U.S. and Europe to continue to buy oil and gas from Russia. In that sense, the sanctions run the tightrope of preventing Russia from importing goods, starving it of key technology and other necessary imports without necessarily curbing oil exports that the West needs. Soaring energy prices had already been a concern before the invasion. The reach of the sanctions is constrained by the West’s capacity to bear the burden of further hikes in energy prices.

The sanctions might also have repercussions on the international financial markets. To the extent that Russia has been using its dollar holdings increasingly in short-term money markets by lending dollars in exchange for non-dollar securities (known as swaps), it has been pumping funds into these markets. The sanction will turn off this spigot. Given the climate of uncertainty, this drying up of funds could have global spillover effects. Most critically, it could trigger a run for safety of the dollar, and once again put the U.S. Fed at the center of large-scale interventions to prop up the international financial markets just at a time when it is grappling with the contending pressures of COVID fallout and rising inflationary pressures.