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Cornell Professors Analyze Putin's Game in Ukraine

Map of Ukraine

Valerie Bunce, Aaron Binenkorb Chair of International Studies and Professor of Government, and Matthew Evangelista, President White Professor of History and Political Science in the Department of Government  and Director of the Reppy Institute, reflected upon Russian intervention in Ukraine, particularly, the Russian leadership’s intent and objectives, at the Cornell Trustee-Council Annual Meeting (TCAM) in October 2015.

Professor Evangelista recounted the history of the region and described the various social and cultural dynamics at play. He talked about the psychological impact of the decline of the Soviet Union on a section of the Russian leadership, particularly on President Putin, who is feeling a “sense of geographic nostalgia.” Professor Evangelista also discussed Ukraine’s history: from the founding of the Kingdom of Kievan Rus' to World War II. A complex set of identities and cultures had developed in the region as a result of being influenced by numerous political and social forces.

The West’s actions, particularly the expansion of NATO, was going against the Russian leadership’s expectations and interests.  Professor Evangelista stated, “While it is not responsible for Putin’s interference in Ukraine, the expansion of NATO and NATO’s first war against Serbia were a big deal for Russia’s attitude towards the U.S. In a way what Russia has done ever since is a sort of mirror-imaging. Russia’s interference in Georgia was justified as supporting separatist areas the same way NATO did [in Serbia] and a similar justification is being used in Ukraine.”

Professor Bunce focused on the origins of the Ukrainian crisis, the possible motivations for Russia’s intervention, and the consequences of Russia’s intervention on Ukrainian politics. She outlined two arguments for President Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine.

First, the international argument is about the perceived threats to Russian National Security due to the regime change in Ukraine. “The changes in Ukraine were a perfect storm for Putin,” she stated, “Simply put, with the changed regime, the Ukraine was moving towards the West possibly joining the EU and NATO. That threatened Russian National Security.” She argued that as a consequence Ukraine was not going to join the Eurasian Economic Union. With roughly 40 percent of Europe’s gas from Russia running through pipelines in Ukraine, it was really important for Russia that Ukraine becomes a member of the Eurasian Economic Union.

Professor Bunce’s second, domestic argument is that Putin was worried about developments in Ukraine and the potential implications for his power at home. She said “[Putin] is an autocrat and was afraid that the protests, the demand for change, the call for greater democracy would spread to Russia.”

The way to understand the invasion of Ukraine is that Putin wanted to use this issue to increase his popularity. She concluded, “Putin has the highest popularity ratings he has ever had and the recent Syrian venture has pumped it up even higher.”

The TCAM faculty panel was facilitated by the Einaudi Center for International Studies.