Auburn political science expert weighs in on Russia-Ukraine war
Auburn University experts are closely monitoring the Russia-Ukraine war and its impact both at home and abroad. Matthew Clary, senior lecturer in the Department of Political Science at Auburn University, explains the current state of the conflict, how U.S. citizens will be affected and how they can support Ukraine from home.
How did the war between Russia and Ukraine materialize, and how much did previous conflict between these nations play into what is currently taking place?
The first thing to note is that this is Vladimir Putin’s war of choice, evidenced particularly by Russia’s attempts to conquer and control all of Ukraine. The full invasion of Ukraine is part of a broader track record of Putin attempting to restore Russia to its position of prestige and power by righting the perceived wrongs that have been committed against Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union that has seen attacks and invasions of Chechnya in 1999, The Republic of Georgia in 2008 and Crimea/Ukraine in 2014.
Additionally, Putin believes that he was misled about the role and expansion of NATO into Eastern Europe (into former Soviet Republics such as Estonia or Romania) since he took office in the late 1990s and believes it is now time—primarily due his misperception that NATO and the European Union were divided and thus vulnerable to such a significant action—to stand up to NATO, forcibly resist further expansion and attempt to right historical wrongs by reclaiming Russian autonomy over Ukraine and perhaps other former Soviet Republics. Such a belief makes war between NATO and Russia possible if the conflict in Ukraine were to spill over into a neighboring country such as Latvia or Poland.
How much do you think the sanctions imposed by the United States, other countries and the UN on Russia for its aggression against Ukraine will affect its military operation? Will it be enough to stop the war quickly?
The sanctions established against Russia are perhaps the most stringent ever placed upon such a large economy. The primary objective of the sanctions and induced isolation they produce is to punish Russia, Putin and his inner circle personally for launching the invasion and to make it as costly as possible for Russia to continue pursuing the war. These sanctions include significant moves such as removing several Russian banks from the SWIFT banking network (including the Russian central bank), targeting/freezing/seizing the assets and bank holdings of Putin and his inner circle, sanctioning travel to and from Russia into many nations’ air spaces and territory, including the U.S. and most of Europe, and making it difficult for Russia to interact with the global economy beyond its limited exchanges with the few nations not part of the global sanctions regime (i.e., China and some Central Asian nations).
Of course, a downside of sanctions is that they are slow to place pressure on a regime, and they can be circumvented and/or survived, so they are unlikely to solely produce a quick end of hostilities. The goal of this approach is more long-term in scope—meaning that the hope is to cause such substantial harm to not only the Russian economy, but more specifically to the wealthiest elite of Russian politics and society, including Putin himself, to change their calculus about the costs and benefits of continuing with the war. Additionally, I believe another long-term goal of the sanctions is to isolate Putin further and induce internal dissent within Russia among the Russian people, primarily the youth, and more significantly, among the political and social elite, the very people that could work to undermine and overthrow his regime from within.
The final note is that the current sanctions are at about 80% pressure right now. The main remaining element is to cut off Russia’s sale of oil into the global market. Russia accounts for about 10% of all oil sold on the open market, so the choice to embargo those sales would require nations such as the U.S. and those in Europe to accept much higher energy and gasoline prices (perhaps as high as $5/gallon or more). The U.S. and Europe are working on alternatives at the moment, most notably releasing 60 million barrels of oil from their nation’s strategic reserves (which honestly isn’t a lot and won’t have much impact) and pressuring nations such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to release more oil reserves, which they are hesitant to do because they wish to maintain their control over the supply and price of oil and seem to be hedging that the war in Ukraine won’t last for long. Additionally, American and European diplomats have stepped up negotiations with Iran regarding renewing the nuclear deal that would see an end to sanctions placed against the sale of Iranian oil that could alleviate pressures on the global energy markets.
Finally, no matter the degree or nature of the sanctions, the most realistic goal of this approach is to open Putin’s eyes and bring him to the negotiating table. The hope is to identify a potential ‘off ramp’ for Putin to pursue that would allow him to declare an end to the war, but still appear as a victor to his people and inner circle. The question is, can that “off ramp” be found, and how quickly will it take for events to induce those negotiations?
Can you talk about what repercussions this war is having here in the United States?
The main concerns for the average American and, more broadly, for U.S. national security are related to energy and economic security, but also the looming specter of a much larger conflict between NATO and Russian forces on the European continent. In terms of energy and economic security, the main concerns will be regarding supply chain disruptions that we’ve all become accustomed to during the COVID-19 pandemic, most specifically regarding oil, gasoline and wheat/grains. There is honestly very little the U.S. government can do to mitigate these high prices given the limited scale of the U.S. strategic oil reserve, the unwillingness thus far of Middle Eastern producers of oil in OPEC+ to sell more oil and the likely added pressure that will come if Russian oil is embargoed as part of the sanctions regime against Russia. In order to resist and defeat Putin’s plans in the long-term, Americans will be required to make sacrifices in the short term, most notably in terms of higher costs for gasoline.
Beyond energy and economic issues, the other significant concern for Americans is the prospect of a much larger conflict in Europe. The current plan and hope are that the war remains limited to Ukraine and that all efforts being undertaken to avoid direct conflict between Russia and NATO are successful. If, however, Putin has calculated that Russia has nothing to lose and/or a strategic advantage to attack NATO at the current moment, that war may come nonetheless. Should Russian forces attack a NATO member (through any means, including cyberattacks), Article 5 of the NATO Charter indicates that the attack of one member is an attack against all members and thus requires all members to retaliate. This means that the U.S. would be legally obligated to dispatch military forces to repel Russia and thus would be at war with Russia. The exact scenario that American and Soviet leaders worked to avoid at all costs for the entirety of the Cold War: U.S. and Russian forces fighting directly on the battlefield and risking an escalation to nuclear war between the two most nuclear-capable nations in the world.
The hope here is that Putin is rational and deterred by this collective defense feature of NATO and doesn’t intend to start World War III. The risk is that he sees Russia’s position today as different from any time during the Cold War and that starting World War III and perhaps an exchange of nuclear weapons is inevitable, and thus, he would want it to occur on his terms. The chances of this are hopefully quite low, but definitely not zero, and have increased quite a bit since Russia’s surprise invasion of the Ukraine.
What would you say to those experiencing anxiety over the current conflict? How do you recommend they stay informed?
I would say that firstly, I’m right there with you. This is a difficult time in world history—it’s one of those moments that comes once every 20 to 30 years. Staying informed is worth the anxiety here—it allows you to understand the complexity of the current challenges and threats before the U.S. and world and provides you the tools to work to counter it. Ideas are powerful, and it is imperative that we back up our long-standing claims to value human rights, sovereignty and international law and justice with action—not necessarily military action, but to do everything in our power to support the brave Ukrainian people that have shown the world that David really can stand up to Goliath, even facing overwhelming odds.
I encourage folks to provide humanitarian aid and support where they can (i.e., donations to International Red Cross or Ukrainian efforts to fight the war) and to continue to encourage our elected officials to work together, not apart, to counter Russia’s aggression. We must be unified in our communities, first and foremost. Additionally, I would also try to reassure everyone that thankfully, the worst-case scenarios of World War III and nuclear war are likely still very, very low. I don’t want everyone running out to construct a nuclear fallout shelter in their basements like folks did in the 1950s. We just aren’t in that place yet.
We also must continue to demand a peaceful and diplomatic outcome to this crisis—I’ve read stories of individuals going on TripAdvisor and Yelp (and similar websites within Russia) and posting truthful accounts and emotional appeals to the Russian people to protest and resist Putin’s unjust war in Ukraine. Getting any information about the real costs of the war (i.e., Russian soldiers dying in very high numbers to this point; civilians being killed and harmed unjustly on numerous occasions; the committing of war crimes by Russian forces in the Ukraine) to the Russian people through the Russian government’s embargo against free press and social media can only have a positive impact. The hope is that the Russian people that didn’t want this war, of which there are many, will protest and challenge the government’s position and place so much pressure upon it to induce an end to the conflict. This is definitely something we can all do from our homes and offices to combat these injustices.
Finally, this is likely the new status quo. Those Americans who lived through the Cold War remember these feelings of anxiety and vulnerability. It’s not something we as Americans have had to experience that much of the last 30 years (9/11 was an exception), so most young people likely are feeling new anxieties produced by old problems. The trick will be to find healthy ways to cope as we all have had to do during COVID and to resist the temptation to check out and/or become jaded by world events. Doing so would risk such events getting out of control if there aren’t enough of us to care enough to do something about them.
About Matthew Clary:
Matthew Clary, senior lecturer in the Department of Political Science in the College of Liberal Arts at Auburn University, specializes in international security and foreign policy. His research is primarily focused on national reputations and democratization processes. Clary teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in international relations, comparative politics and national security.
Auburn University is a nationally ranked land grant institution recognized for its commitment to world-class scholarship, interdisciplinary research with an elite, top-tier Carnegie R1 classification, life-changing outreach with Carnegie’s Community Engagement designation and an undergraduate education experience second to none. Auburn is home to more than 30,000 students, and its faculty and research partners collaborate to develop and deliver meaningful scholarship, science and technology-based advancements that meet pressing regional, national and global needs. Auburn’s commitment to active student engagement, professional success and public/private partnership drives a growing reputation for outreach and extension that delivers broad economic, health and societal impact.