Echoes of Stalingrad: Experts Weigh in on the War in Ukraine

March 1, 2022

Graduate Center professors offer their perspectives on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, including its historical parallels, the refugee situation, and the role of the U.N.

Ukrainian Flag
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We invited Graduate Center professors to share brief perspectives on the war in Ukraine. They weighed in on what we can learn from the past, the role of the U.N., the refugee situation, and Putin’s motivations.  

GC: How does Russia’s invasion of Ukraine echo the past?  

Benjamin Carter Hett: As Russian troops close in on Kharkiv and Kyiv, an ironic historical parallel comes to my mind: Stalingrad. Here’s the thing about fighting in cities: It neutralizes most advantages the attacker might have. The German army in World War II was very good at using tanks and air power to strike hard and move quickly. Mostly the Germans tried to avoid fighting in cities. But in 1942 they forgot about that and were drawn into Stalingrad — where moving quickly was impossible and irrelevant. Basically any army can fight house to house and street to street, especially if it is willing to take casualties (as it seems the Ukrainians are). Stalingrad brought the Germans to a level at which, at horrible cost, the Red Army could beat them decisively and change the course of World War II. It doesn’t even matter strategically (as opposed to humanly and morally) if the attacker destroys the city — rubble just creates better defenses. So it will be interesting to see if Putin’s Russia is about to replay one of Nazi Germany’s most fateful mistakes. 

Benjamin Carter Hett is a professor of history at the Graduate Center and Hunter College and author of The Nazi Menace: Hitler, Churchill, Roosevelt, Stalin, and the Road to War. He also penned this Los Angeles Times op-ed on “Putin and the Desperation of Tyrants.” 

John Torpey: I am hardly an expert on the region, but I would imagine that the Ukrainians are recalling the Great Famine of the early 1930s, which could hardly have warmed their feelings for the Russians who dominated the Soviet Union. What is remarkable is how the country seems to have stood up and yelled a resounding “no” to their would-be Russian masters, led by Vladimir Putin.  My greatest concern is that Putin proves irrational and not amenable to a negotiated resolution of his grievances, introduces atomic weapons into the conflict, and brings us to the nuclear brink. That would return us to a situation like that of the Cuban Missile Crisis 60 years ago, and all bets will be off. Even an attack on a NATO country that would trigger Article 5 of the NATO Treaty would be a disaster, bringing an end to 75 years of peace among Europe’s larger powers. Let us hope the crisis remains contained in Ukraine and support the Ukrainians in fending off this unwarranted Russian assault.”  

John Torpey is a presidential professor of Sociology and History at the Graduate Center, director of the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies at the Graduate Center, prolific author, and host of the International Horizons podcast.   

GC: How do you view the response to the refugees fleeing Ukraine? What are the implications of this new tide of refugees for Europe and the U.S.? What is your greatest concern about this new refugee situation? 

Els de Graauw: I’m heartened by the swift and unified response across EU member states and beyond to impose notable sanctions in efforts to stop Russia’s violent and deadly aggression in Ukraine, but I’m alarmed by the evolving refugee situation in Europe. The U.N. estimates that already 670,000 people have fled the war violence in Ukraine, many receiving a warm welcome in Poland and other neighboring EU states. However, there are also emerging media reports of the difficulties that people of color, notably the many African and Indian students in Ukraine, have in finding safe haven. They have trouble getting on buses and trains to the border with Poland, where Ukrainian border guards have been prioritizing the crossing of Ukrainians. Unfortunately, discrimination and disparities in treatment — whether based on country of origin, political ideology, gender, or race and ethnicity — are nothing new in state responses to refugee crises, but Ukraine, too, can do better in facilitating the equitable exit of all who are searching for safety outside of Ukraine. 

Els de Graauw is an associate professor of Political Science at Baruch College, deputy director of the International Migration Studies master’s program at the Graduate Center, and author of Making Immigrant Rights Real: Nonprofits and the Politics of Integration in San Francisco.   

GC: What does the current conflict show about the effectiveness of the U.N. as a peacekeeping organization?  

Thomas G. Weiss: United Nations paralysis over the Ukraine crisis demonstrates, once again, that the world organization is only as effective as its member states permit. The Security Council is the only entity that makes “decisions” and not “recommendations,” but a veto by one of its five permanent members means that most decisions with teeth are excluded. So, last Friday’s resolution condemning Russia’s flagrant breach of international law in Ukraine failed because of Moscow’s veto, just as Washington traditionally has vetoed any meaningful condemnation of Israel’s numerous flaunts to international law in Palestine. Nonetheless, the U.N. system remains pertinent — high-decibel condemnations of human rights violations and humanitarian efforts for what may be 4 million refugees. The 193 members of the General Assembly completed a rare “special” emergency session, an unusual procedure that was last used in 1982 and has been deployed only on 10 previous occasions over the last three-quarters of a century. The harsh language about Russia in the resolution with almost 100 co-sponsors reflected Moscow’s isolation. Members of the usual chorus of voices that regard sovereignty as sacrosanct — think China and India — finally uttered “nyet” to Russian irredentist imperialism. While non-binding, the resolution carries the political weight of naming and shaming, which is why Putin is furious. He and Russia are in a minority of five out of 193 member states.

Thomas G. Weiss is a presidential professor of Political Science at the Graduate Center, director emeritus of the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies, and author of numerous books on the U.N., including Wartime Origins and the Future United Nations

Why is Putin so desperate to annex Ukraine? How far do you think he'll go to conquer the country?

Julie A. George: Putin has long said that the greatest geostrategic tragedy of the 20th century was the collapse of the Soviet Union. His grievance against the West, with regard to its unipolarity and NATO expansion at the turn of the 21st century, come from a deep hostility toward the Soviet weakness of the late 1980s and the loss of international prestige and influence that accompanied the Soviet collapse. This effort in Ukraine, the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, and the invasion of Georgia in 2008 are consistent with the larger goal of restoring Russia as a great power. 

My sense is that Putin will go until he is stopped, either by the international community or from Ukrainians themselves. Barring either, his goal appears to be to establish Russian control over the policymaking of the country. Putin’s current tactics show a willingness to target civilians; his strategy appears to be to force Ukrainian submission through punishment and devastation. This willingness to use murderous techniques is mirrored by the devastating tactics in the Chechen War as well as the use of chemical weapons against Russian dissidents living at home and abroad. 

Putin is taking few risks with the Russian public, despite their rejection of a theoretical military incursion, at least in the near term. There is little free media in the country and the population is used to blaming the West, rather than their government, for the hardships they face. 

Julie A. George is an associate professor of Political Science at the Graduate Center and Queens College and author of The Politics of Ethnic Separatism in Georgia and Russia

What do you make of the international shunning of President Putin? How effective do you think the economic and diplomatic isolation of Russia will be in in deterring this authoritarian? 

Manu Bhagavan: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine sets a dangerous precedent that, if allowed to succeed, will lead to a reversion to an unambiguously imperial world order. But Vladimir Putin appears to have badly miscalculated, assuming a quick victory and a weakened and divided Europe and United States unable to muster any significant response. Instead, his largely lied to and unprepared forces have been met by fierce and inspiring Ukrainian resistance and a surprisingly unified international coalition prepared to take extraordinary measures to isolate, contain, and weaken the Russian regime. Because post-Soviet society is so unequal, with wealth and power concentrated in the hands of just a powerful few, the targeting of their assets and the evisceration of the Russian financial sector have the potential to swiftly undermine Putin’s hold on the state. Yet, with nuclear weapons looming in the background and an arsenal of other deadly tools at his disposal, some already in use, a cornered Putin poses a potentially even greater, existential threat. We are at a precarious point in history, rife with possibility and peril. We can only hope that those with level heads will prevail.   

Manu Bhagavan is a professor of History at the Graduate Center and Hunter College and a faculty member of Hunter’s Human Rights and Public Policy programs. He is also a senior fellow at the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies. He is the editor of India and the Cold War and is currently writing a biography of one of the 20th century’s most important diplomats, Madame Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit.  

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