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WAMC News Series Part 4: Geopolitical ramifications of the war in Ukraine are many

Stephen Jones (left) and Constantine Pleshakov
World Affairs Council of Western Massachusetts
Stephen Jones (left) and Constantine Pleshakov

Local experts comment in part 4 of the WAMC News series

When Russian troops rolled across the border into Ukraine one year ago today, the expectation then was that it would all be over in a few weeks.

Instead, the war, which has been a disaster for Russia and a tragedy for Ukraine, has no end in sight.

For a look at some of the geopolitical repercussions from the war, here is WAMC’s Pioneer Valley Bureau Chief Paul Tuthill with today’s installment of our special weeklong series.

What caused the war? Why did Vladimir Putin invade Ukraine?

“I could not answer this question a year ago. I can't answer it now and furthermore I don't think any person any expert whatsoever could answer this question for you,” said Constantine Pleshakov.

He was born in Ukraine and spent 20 years in Moscow working for a Russian government think tank. For the past 25 years he has lived in western Massachusetts and currently teaches political science at Amherst College. Pleshakov has published several books about war, revolution, and international relations in the 20th Century focusing on Russia and eastern Europe.

“Rationally speaking, there was no objective in what Putin did and in what he is doing,and that's the most scary thing to me about this war,” said Pleshakov. “No matter how aggressive your opponent is, as long as they think rationally, selfishly wanting to hurt other nations,sure, but if it makes sense, then you can sort of see where things could be going. But what's really puzzling about this war, there was no gain, for Putin or for Russian ruling class to be gotten from that war, and if there is no gain this means, you know, that is no objective.”

Speculation that Putin is somehow trying to reassemble the old Soviet Union does not make sense, said Pleshakov.

“I don't even know why people say that,” he said. “(Putin) wants Russia to expand. He wants to expand Russia's borders, for sure. But that has nothing to do with the Soviet past.”

The war has had enormous ramifications on Russia’s relationships with the former Soviet states, not to mention its relations with the European Union, the United States, and China said Stephen Jones, Professor Emeritus of Russian Studies at Mount Holyoke College and Director of the Georgian Studies Program at Harvard.

“This is an enormous global crisis,” said Jones. “This one is going to have extraordinary geopolitical ramifications. And we've already seen these massive population movements as well as a result, migration into Europe, into Poland, into Central Asia into the South Caucasus. So we don't know what the long term effects of that migration will be. People may go back to Russia, Ukraine, and certainly will want to come back home to Ukraine when the war is over. But these massive population movements, you know, we have to think about what the consequences of that will be.”

Putin has portrayed the war in Ukraine as Russia fighting against Western aggression. A majority of Russians appear to be buying that. Domestically, Putin’s position appears pretty secure right now, said Jones.

“We equivocated around, you know, in the early 2000s up to 2014, perhaps, and considered Russia sort of a hybrid state, you know, semi-democratic, where dissent could take place, that elections took place, and sometimes the opposition got into parliament. You know, we were sort of thinking yeah, okay, all right. It's not a democracy, but you know, somewhere in between. That's completely changed. It's an authoritarian state with complete control over society. That means it has complete control over the means of information, and Russian people are just receiving propaganda and no alternatives. Even on the internet. It's very hard for ordinary Russians, most of whom do not use the internet, by the way. But it's very hard for them to get any any alternative sources of information.”

Dissenters to the war have not taken to the streets in Russia to protest, but instead have left the country.

“It's a really damaging outcome for Russia because not only are they losing their young men on the front line in Ukraine, but they're also losing their young professionals, those people who, who generate business, some sort of economic dynamism and growth in the economy. And they are disappearing, leaving,” said Jones.

The military blunders and miscalculations by Russia in the war with Ukraine have weakened Putin, believes Pleshakov.

“Because on the surface, he looks like a dictator, who controls the country, but I think that his absolutely mindless handling of this war has made him a really weak leader,” Pleshakov said.

The European Union, with a few exceptions, notably Hungary, has solidly supported Ukraine for the last 12 months, said Jones.

“So it's not what Putin expected in the case of Europe,” he said. “Most of the 27 countries that make up the European Union have really shown quite considerable solidarity in that respect.”

Economic sanctions intended to punish Russia and choke off the resources it needs to wage war have not, so far, worked. Russia found new markets in China and Indian for its exports of oil and gas. But, Jones believes eventually Russia’s domestic economy will be severely impacted.

“Quite apart from the oil and gas so many Western companies have pulled out,” Jones said. “Russia has been able to plug the gap to some degree, but the future looks bleak for the Russian economy. And this is why I'm thinking of a scenario in which we might just see some real, real economic and therefore, political crisis in Russia that really threaten the system that is Putinism.”

One positive from the war is that because of the cutoff of Russian natural gas, European countries have accelerated conversions to renewable energy sources.

One year after Russia invaded Ukraine, there is no clue about how the war might end, said Pleshakov.

“There is no good outcome for Russia in this war,” he said. “No territorial grab can be lasting. So in that situation, how can this war? At the same time, we know that Ukrainians, no matter how horrible the situation in Ukraine is, the majority of Ukrainians are still willing to fight till victory. And as of now, the victory to them means kicking Russia out.”

With Russia apparently preparing for an offensive in the spring, the question may come down to how long can Ukrainians hold out?

“That is the question I'm asking myself too,” Pleshakov said. “Because no matter how united and brave the people of Ukraine are, they are under immense pressure and hardship is horrible. And of course, that's what Putin is hoping for that at some point the hardship will become too much for people, and they will sue for peace.”

Whatever political solution eventually ends the war, Jones said it will have to be carefully crafted to avoid resentments and humiliations that could lead to another war.

The record-setting tenure of Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno. The 2011 tornado and its recovery that remade the largest city in Western Massachusetts. The fallout from the deadly COVID outbreak at the Holyoke Soldiers Home. Those are just a few of the thousands and thousands of stories WAMC’s Pioneer Valley Bureau Chief Paul Tuthill has covered for WAMC in his nearly 17 years with the station.