On March 27, 2022, IWP’s Dr. Marek Chodakiewicz delivered a lecture entitled “Ukraine and Russia: What’s going on?” Dr. Chodakiewicz analyzed the goals and strategy of Putin to help attendees better understand the invasion of Ukraine. Additionally, he dedicated time to addressing questions that frequently come up in conversations about the invasion.
Dr. Chodakiewicz began by debunking a common argument that defends Russia’s actions in Ukraine. The argument asserts that because NATO has expanded so greatly, it has begun encroaching on Russia’s borders. As a result of perceived encroachment, Russia invaded Ukraine to reclaim the former Soviet territory and fend off NATO encirclement. Dr. Chodakiewicz responded by highlighting the unique geography of Russia. Russia is, by far, the largest country in the world. As a result of its size, Russia is bordered by 14 different countries. Given that 14 countries already border Russia, Putin cannot claim that NATO expansion poses such a threat that it uniquely warrants an invasion of Ukraine.
After debunking the myth of a defensive Russia, Dr. Chodakiewicz identified the driving motivation for Putin’s invasion. Putin seeks to reestablish Russia as a superpower and end the unipolar balance of power. Moreover, he seeks to return to the bipolarity of the Cold War. However, this goal overlooks the presence of China. While China and Russia currently cooperate to counter the U.S., Dr. Chodakiewicz argued that this alliance is temporary. Russia cannot be the preeminent superpower with a powerful China to its south and vice versa. Russia and China are fundamentally adversaries, but the larger goal of balancing against the U.S. has temporarily aligned the two countries.
Dr. Chodakiewicz also noted that Putin was becoming much more impatient. Before the invasion, Dr. Chodakiewicz hypothesized that Russia would take less severe action to lessen blowback in the international community. Instead, Putin has foregone the tools of statecraft and relies on crude power. To explain the sense of urgency Putin exhibits, Dr. Chodakiewicz asserted that Putin is facing a crisis. Vladimir Putin is currently 69 and will not be in power forever. As a result, Putin must contend with two questions. If progress isn’t made now, when will it be made? If Putin doesn’t reintegrate Ukraine into Russia, who will? These two burning questions, combined with Putin’s grand plan for a return to supremacy, have created a situation where Putin concludes that he cannot wait any longer and must strike before it is too late.
Dr. Chodakiewicz wrapped up his lecture by exploring the different visions Putin could have for Ukraine. The first was complete reintegration. By reintegrating Ukraine into Russia, Putin would move one step closer to recapturing great power status and returning to the balance of power enjoyed during the Cold War. Another vision Putin may hold for Ukraine is installing a puppet leader. This would give Putin the control he seeks over Ukraine’s politics without requiring a complete military takeover of Ukraine’s territory. The final possibility is a partition of Ukraine’s territory to varying degrees. In 1940, under Stalin, Helsinki was free to pursue free-market capitalism and democracy while possessing no independent foreign policy. Putin may seek a similar arrangement for Ukraine.
Before ending the lecture, Dr. Chodakiewicz responded to various questions about the invasion of Ukraine. One attendee asked Dr. Chodakiewicz to assess the risk of deploying tactical nuclear weapons. Dr. Chodakiewicz argued that we should be concerned because Russia’s use of nuclear weapons remains a possibility. Russia’s military doctrine embraces the use of nuclear weapons to resolve conflict. Moreover, Putin may use nuclear weapons to send a signal to the rest of the world. The Soviet Union conducted over 450 nuclear tests in Kazakhstan as a show of strength, and Putin may do the same.
Thanks to Dr. Chodakiewicz’s analysis of Putin’s strategy and motivations, attendees left with a clearer understanding of the Ukraine crisis and how it may develop over time.
Dr. Chodakiewicz is a Professor of History at The Institute of World Politics. He is also the Kosciuszko Chair of Polish Studies and leads IWP’s Center for Intermarium Studies. Before joining IWP, he taught at the University of Virginia and Loyola Marymount University. His interests include the post-Soviet zone, World War II, European history, and Western intellectual tradition. He holds an M.A. and Ph.D. both from Columbia University.