It is not irrational. It’s about Putin’s legacy: The Russian invasion of Ukraine with Julie George

March 8, 2022

Prof. Julie George, Queens College/Graduate Center, discusses the Russian invasion of Ukraine on International Horizons.

What is Putin’s mental state? Is this the autumn of Putinism? Is the invasion of Ukraine a legitimate response to NATO expansion? 

Julie George, Associate Professor of political science, Queens College and the Graduate Center, CUNY, talks to Ralph Bunche Institute Director and Graduate Center Presidential Professor John Torpey about the real motives behind the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the role of NATO and the U.S. in the invasion, the views of Russians and Ukrainians about the war, Putin’s miscalculations of the world’s reaction, and the prospects of nuclear weapons being deployed in the conflict.  

Subscribe to International Horizons on Soundcloud, Spotify and Apple Podcasts. A lightly edited selection of the transcript follows below.

John Torpey  00:10

Russia has descended on Ukraine, subjecting its people to aerial bombardment, subjugating towns and cities, and choking off deliveries of food, medicine and other supplies. Still, experts have said that Russian President Vladimir Putin has been caught off guard by the fact that his troops have not advanced as quickly as expected, especially to Kyiv and by the resistance of the Ukrainians. The situation is dangerous and unpredictable, and nuclear weapons lurk in the background as an existential threat.

John Torpey  00:44

Welcome to International Horizons, a podcast of the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies that brings scholarly and diplomatic expertise to bear on our understanding of a wide range of international issues. My name is John Torpey, and I’m Director of the Ralph Bunche Institute at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

John Torpey  01:04

We’re fortunate to have with us today Julie George, Associate Professor of political science at Queens College and the CUNY Graduate Center. Her research focuses on ethnic politics in the former Soviet Union, and she’s author of the book The Politics of Ethnic Separatism in Russia and Georgia from 2009. As well as having written numerous articles and chapters, book chapters on ethnic politics in and around Russia. Thanks so much for joining us today, Julie George.

Julie George  01:33

Thanks for having me.

John Torpey  01:34

Great to have you with us. Unfortunate occasion for this discussion, but we have to try to understand what really is going on in Russia and Ukraine. So there’s a debate about whether or not Putin is acting rationally or is evil or a madman? And I think this is a question that we need to think more about. I mean, do you agree with the widespread view that started with George Kennan, you know, the famous author of the Long Telegram about containing the Soviet Union after World War Two and long thought to be the dean of Russia specialists in the State Department and the Foreign Service. George Kennan argued many years ago that NATO expansion was a needless provocation to the Russians. And to what extent then is what Putin is doing irrational, what do you think he’s trying to achieve with this offensive?

Julie George  02:26

There is a lot in that question. Because there are a couple of things in there. One is a commentary about NATO expansion, one is this terminology of provocation and the needlessness of it, and the other is the irrationality of Vladimir Putin and what his intentions are. And I think it’s important really to break those down into parts because it helps us get a sense of how we might go about understanding his mindset. I was reading something the other day and the argumentation was, “we should take him at his word” like you take the autocrat at his word and try to understand what he means when he says why he’s doing a certain thing.

Julie George  03:02

And Vladimir Putin very clearly said, when he rationalized -made his argument to the Russian people and to the world as to why he was going to start a war in Ukraine- that he wanted to rebuild the Soviet Union, and that the calling back on his previous commentary that his position was that the greatest geostrategic tragedy of the 20th century was the collapse of the Soviet Union. He wants to redress that tragedy, and correct it as he understands that. And so in that sense, there’s no inconsistency here. But one thing we do in political science when we talk about something like rationality, we look at consistency over time. Does someone act consistently over time? And what we can see with Putin is both a period of constant and then a dynamic.

Julie George  03:49

The constant is the intent. The constant is the concern. His viewpoint expressed last week, in his address was that the collapse of the Soviet Union showcased a weakness for Russia -and it was his intention to address that weakness. So that hasn’t changed. What has changed though, is his risk assessment. We’ve never seen this kind of acceptance of overwhelming risk of overwhelming punishment by Putin before. Typically, his actions have been a bit more diffident, a bit more careful of making sure that the ground is solid before he steps forward with any sort of really aggressive move out of something that is not in line with a de facto status. And that’s what we see that’s changed. But I don’t see rationality there; I see a change of tactic and a change of willingness to accept the risk. And here we see a great willingness to accept risk. So that’s the point about rationality. I don’t think this is irrational.

John Torpey  04:49

Well, you think it’s consistent with a long standing grievance -if that’s the right way to describe this- or a long standing sense that things went badly wrong when the Soviet Union collapsed. So I guess one question might be where does Ukraine fit into a project that is about reconstructing the Soviet Union/the Russian Empire? And and what might come beyond that?

Julie George  05:18

It’s a good question. To just clarify, this isn’t a grievance. Putin feels aggrieved. But the rightfulness and the morality of that grievance is contested by international law. Ukraine is a sovereign state. And it is that sovereignty that Putin is rejecting and trying to overcome in this moment. So in that sense, if when your neighbor as a sovereign country that wants to pursue its own foreign policy and its own domestic policy aggrieves an imperial actor, the problem is for the imperial actor, not for the sovereign state. For Putin in wanting to resolve this grievance and in looking at Ukraine, Ukraine is the largest example and largest embodiment of Russian weakness after the collapse of the Soviet Union because Ukraine has been historically so important for Russia’s understanding of itself as its imperial self. It’s also of course, very important for agricultural and geostrategic reasons. And also for Putin, because in in the way that he understands Ukrainians, and Ukrainianness, and the Ukrainian state is to understand them as the perhaps fallen Russians.

Julie George  06:34

The terminology that he’s using in the discussions, the way he addresses issues in Ukraine, and also in Belarus, incidentally, when he was making his argument for the invasion of Ukraine was that he wanted to unite the Russian people. And in that framing, both Ukrainians and Belarusians are understood by Putin to be Russians. So for Putin, there is no Ukraine. Ukraine is a mythology; it’s a constructed entity that is actually part of Russia. And so he wants with this invasion, he wants to correct this inaccuracy and his understanding of what that reality is. From an international law perspective, of course, the Russian Federation recognized Ukrainian independence as Ukrainian state. They’ve entered in many international agreements with Ukraine. And so Putin’s understanding, this resistance to the notion of an independent entity of Ukraine, with Ukrainians in it, kind of flies in the face of Russia’s own foreign policy making in the last 20 years.

John Torpey  07:40

So, I do want to have you get into the issue that I sort of ended my question with about, you know, where things might go beyond Ukraine, if the project is essentially to reconstruct the Russian Empire. But in some measure, we can get into that, I suppose, by asking this question that we didn’t really finish, because my first question had too many parts, about whether NATO expansion was a provocation. And, to me, the other part of that question, I suppose, is why, if that’s been kind of looming in the atmosphere for two decade, or longer, I mean, why is that? Why is he acting on this now?

Julie George  08:27

I think the heart of the answer to your question is actually in the question itself, that you’ve just mentioned, is in this timing. The criticism about NATO expansion is understandable from an international relations perspective, and IR [international relations] scholars have this thing they call the security dilemma. And what the security dilemma is, it stems from a notion that we cannot understand the intentions of our adversaries, and so we must always perceive them as threatening any action that they take. Our first perception must be one of defensiveness against it, even though we might not fully understand it. The heart of the security dilemma and the problem of the security dilemma intellectually is that any action taken by a particular state is going to be perceived accurately or inaccurately by its adversary as offensive; as trying to move in.

Julie George  09:18

For two states whose interest is in peace, then the security dilemma is a tragedy, right? Because one piece or state will make an action and it’s going to be perceived by its adversary as an offensive action or as something as a threat, when it’s not intended to be so. So then the notion of it, it kind of stems into an arms race sort of politics where one arms oneself to defend against one’s adversary, the adversary sees that, arms themselves to defend against them. They’re their adversary. And then the first adversary, the first actor sees that rearmament and says, “Oh, my gosh, they’re really trying to threaten us.”

Julie George  09:52

From that perspective, from the security dilemma perspective, presuming that both Russia and the members of NATO, in this case probably the United States of America largely since the US is really the one pushing some of these more expansive tactics. In that condition, if they are both status quo powers, if they’re both powers that are peaceful and don’t intend to expand, the expansion of NATO might be seen by Russia as a provocation, because they cannot intuit, they cannot interpret it as being a peaceful act as opposed to an aggressive act.

Julie George  10:23

That whole notion of it being provocative, or needlessly provocative, comes from the baseline condition that they’re status quo powers. There’s no intention on either side to be aggressive. But Putin’s intention since taking office in 2000, has been to rebuild the Soviet Union. And as such, I think for the countries like Poland, for the countries like Ukraine, joining NATO isn’t a provocation. It’s their only lifeline for independence and sustained sovereignty over their own territories, since their neighbor is that expansionary power, and that expansionary power is seeking to expand into specifically definitely Ukraine, obviously, and perhaps Poland as well, and other of the -Belarus, Moldova, the Caucasus- other of the post-Soviet, and the Baltic states, other of the post-Soviet Republics.

Julie George  11:15

At the time of this invasion, the Ukrainian admission status, the admission into NATO status had not been moving forward for years. The annexation of Crimea, the secessionist violence in the Donbass, Luhansk and Donetsk and self-determination movements there (some would call them false flag movements or puppet states, depending on one’s perspective). These were all kind of deterrence for NATO expansion into Ukraine, and had been such for eight years since 2014. So given that, the argumentation that NATO expansion or NATO policy caused this incursion, this invasion of Ukraine just doesn’t hold up to logic, because there is no change in the expansion and here we see a change in the policy.

Julie George  12:07

My suspicion is that Putin is (well, we’re all) aging; he’s coming up on 70 and he’s worried about his legacy. And I think he underestimated the strength of Biden. He certainly underestimated the strength of Volodymyr Zelenskyy. And he underestimated the unity of NATO. NATO had become disunified under the Trump Administration and a bit, and they weren’t all speaking in concert. And I think he misunderstood or misassessed the likelihood of NATO coming together in solidarity over Ukraine, which was a miscalculation on his part.

John Torpey  12:45

Well, he certainly does seem to have brought the West together. I mean not automatically, but, with leadership by Joe Biden, not least. And so he may have miscalculated, you know, or misunderstood perception of the West as weak as not likely to step over certain, you know, shall we call them red lines? You know, that Biden has said repeatedly just said in the State of the Union address the other night that he would not be sending troops to Ukraine. So, I mean, is that kind of what explains the timing of this? I mean, why Putin thought this is the time? I mean, it seems it might have been better to do this at, you know, full American polarization, i.e., under Trump, who seemed to be his good buddy anyway. So was he running out of time from his own perspective or something like that? How would you see that?

Julie George  13:46

It’s very difficult to know. I’ve seen a lot of rumors about various things that might make his time horizon seem shorter, as opposed to longer. And of course, mortality catches up with us all. I think when one is an imperial power, one is looking for openings and chinks in armors. And it I think it’s inappropriate, or it’s not good to think of these things is what the West has done to invite this, because any opening for an imperial power is an opportunity.

Julie George  14:19

The other thing is Putin doesn’t understand democracy. He looks at democracy -as far as I understand and I don’t have an avenue into his mind. I’ve not talked to Putin- but all of his commentary about democratic movements indicate that he fundamentally misunderstands the role of the population in asserting opposition to state control. And he looks at democratic regimes that have to tack and consider their popular opinion as weak. So for Putin looking at a Joe Biden who comes into power with a great deal of a partisan gap, with Stop the Steal campaigns and various other components, and then immediately one of the first foreign policy actions taken to pull out of Afghanistan to much criticism at the kind of conduct of that withdraw. Putin, I presume, looked at those things put them together and presumed that Joe Biden was a very very weak president and would not be able to build public opinion in order to take on the task of supporting Ukraine.

Julie George  15:31

Europe on this as well: the Americans kind of led, we led with the first argumentation for sanctions. And our initial salvos with sanctions were criticized as weak and perhaps not enough. I mean, we did have a desire to have an escalation campaign so that we would be able to modulate the strategy a bit. But Europe also was diffident at first. And then Zelenskyy addressed them, and Zelenskyy, I think, convinced the Europeans that they needed to take a stronger stand. And you can see the foreign policy of Germany shifted within hours, and it is something that was was just fundamentally different than what we’ve seen in recent memory in the last 30 years, at least.

Julie George  16:18

So I think that they Biden has unified but Zelenskyy, I think, also, we should recognize his ability to work that European room. And he is someone who understands democracy, and he understands the Western commitments to it. And he also understands when the West wants to step back from engagement. And I think that by playing on both that desire to do more, and the limitations, though, that the West feels for what we can do for Ukraine, actually put him in a much better strategic position than Putin ever expected. And then Biden then is able to riff off of that and build into that unity to create a much more unified, Western, indeed, international, right? Because this is Japan, this is this is bigger than just the West response. And I think that works to Biden’s favor because now it’s not just about NATO, you know, this is a world condemnation of an aggressive act.

John Torpey  17:22

Right. But let’s go back to the sort of heart of the matter, ethnically speaking. Tell us about how Russians and Ukrainians view each other. I mean, right now, there’s a lot of understandable hostility among Ukrainians, vis-á-vis Russians, who are dropping bombs on their cities and that sort of thing. You know, how should we understand the sort of ethnic antagonism? How far back does it go? Because I think it seems as though this is all going to shape the long game, so to speak, of this conflict, which is maybe starting out surprisingly well for the Ukrainians, and not so well for the for the Russians. But you know, the Russians still have a lot of weaponry and not to mention nuclear weapons. And, you know, who knows how long this could all play out. So I’m sort of curious if you could set the stage for us about how these people kind of think about each other.

Julie George  18:22

Sure. It’s going to sound ironic, but they love each other. They’re brothers. And they, the locus, the ethnic locus of this for Putin, is that he understands Ukrainians to be Russians. And so the sad, sad irony of this is that it is born from more of a feeling of togetherness than a feeling of apartness. And we see similar trend lines actually in the former Yugoslavia and some of the conflicts there in the 90s. So I think it would be inappropriate to think of this as ethnic antagonism, but there certainly ethnic contours to it. In part because for Putin, as the aggressor here, as the designer of the aggression, his argument is about the solidarity and the unification of the Russians. And there was a disagreement, of course, in the sense ethnically in that the Ukrainians do not feel themselves to be Russians, they feel themselves to be Ukrainians. And that’s something that a Putin cannot countenance. But the locus of that is a feeling of togetherness, and a rejection of apartness, which, does not come from a place of hostility; it comes from a place of ownership.

Julie George  19:36

Overlapping that are the state interests of Russia as a civic entity, and as Ukraine as a civic entity. And the fact of the matter is in Ukraine, there are both ethnic Russians and ethnic Ukrainians who are defending the civic Ukrainian state. And so there, the antagonism isn’t against Russians, ethnically. It’s against those that support the Russian state in its aggression against Ukraine. Now for everyday Russians, who are now in this position of having to decide to love their autocrat or love their brothers, that they’re in an impossible condition. And you can see this with the devastation, you know, there are these the videos of the young Russian soldiers who are taken in by Ukrainian families and fed because they haven’t eaten because they didn’t have enough food rations for their invasion. And they’re calling home and saying, “Mom, I’m in Ukraine, I didn’t even know this was going to happen.” You can see they’re flabbergasted by this; this is devastating for them. Many, many Russians have many, many family members in Ukraine. And so for the everyday Russian who may not be hooked into this kind of radical nationalism of Putin, which is not a standard nationalist trope in Russia necessarily, not something that’s shared universally, this is a hardship I think beyond comparison, or beyond expression.

Julie George  21:06

And then finally, of course, adding to all of this is the cult of personality that Putin has cultivated over the last 22 years since he became president in 2000. And then, you know, his larger than life persona as a savior of Russia. So it causes a bit of a mind problem when one has to shift so quickly to think of one’s savior as now the holder of one’s devastation. And then finally, the fact that it is an authoritarian regime, with propaganda, shouted from every corner. And as such, the everyday Russian in this in this moment, is going to be torn in 1000 different directions with a great deal of uncertainty as to what’s going forward at the time period when incidentally, their entire economy is collapsing.

John Torpey  21:53

Right. Yes, I heard a woman from I believe this radio station that was being shut down, Echo Moscow or something like that. I think the person interviewing her said, you know, what’s the future hold? And she says, “North Korea,” and that was a rather depressing thought. But this all raises for me, the question of how seriously, should we take the opposition to the war that has sprouted up in many Russian cities? You know, how significant a thing is this? You know, some of the scenarios that people are projecting from the current situation involve Putin basically being chased out of office, either by a popular rebellion of some sort, or by the oligarchs who tire of his rule. I mean, how do you see the support or opposition for the war in Russia, and how do you see that developing?

Julie George  22:56

I think there’s less support for the war, and more fear of what’s to come next and also an uncertainty. The everyday Russian has a great deal of uncertainty about the war, because they have very little access to news. And they’re predisposed to love Putin. I mean, he’s been very popular. In fact, he was fairly popular when the war began. So the notion that he was doing this for a domestic audience, yeah, maybe a domestic audience, but I think he’s more doing it for his legacy of because his popular support had not faded. Below 60%, I think, I was looking at public opinion polls at that time.

Julie George  23:34

With authoritarian leaders, they don’t rely on elections for legitimacy, they have to rely on other components for legitimacy. And for the first 10 years of Putin’s presidency in Russia, his legitimacy stemmed from his ability to stabilize the economic system and the political system after kind of the chaos of the 1990s. But that only went so far, because the mechanism that he did it was through corruption and co-optation of oligarchs, the nationalization of the oil and gas industry. And with the nationalization of the oil and gas industry, the Russian economy was never able to fully develop and diversify. And without that, it meant the continued economic growth that was so prevalent in the early the first decade of the 2000s began to decline. And so we see that decline happening after 2010; you see a steady decline of GDP, you see recessionist pressures in Russia.

Julie George  24:28

And so what that does is that it cuts away at that claim that he has for authority; so that’s no longer available for him because he still has to pay off his loyalists, his co-opted folks to maintain a system. And so that means he can’t really do a lot to diversify that economy because he has to choose where his investments are and it’s smarter in an authoritarian regime to invest in your loyalists than it is to invest in the longer term payoff of economic development and popular electoral prestige because your elections don’t matter.

Julie George  25:00

So as those fade away, he’s left with a couple other tools for maintaining legitimacy. One is repression, propaganda, so you cut off people’s availability of information, so they only see what you see, a role you want them to see. So you can create yourself as a hero in their world. And through co-optation: making sure you have a strong surrounding group of siloviki of the military and security personnel, cultivated from his KGB days into the intelligence services today, and then also rich oligarchs who are kind of helping fund the entire mission. With the currency crisis, of course, in Ukraine, he’s going to lose his oligarchs, but he’s expecting this (or sorry, the currency crisis as a result of the invasion of Ukraine and the sanctions). He’s going to lose his oligarchs, but he still has his siloviki, which means he has a third tool and that is his repression.

Julie George  25:52

So can you just quickly say what “siloviki” are?

Julie George  25:57

The siloviki are an inner circle that are part of the security structure in current day Russia. Putin, before he was president, before the collapse of the Soviet Union was a KGB official in Eastern Germany, in Dresden, which was quite a high post actually at the time. And so many of his first inner circle will come from that community, not from an oligarchic economic community. And as such, their interest levels are not as focused on the financial prestige and the financial payoff of the mission; they share that ideological vision of the collapse of the Soviet Union. And as such, the seizure of yachts, as exciting as it is for outsiders to watch, doesn’t necessarily cut into that central group that are supporting him.

Julie George  26:47

The other thing about the siloviki is that, because they feed in both the intelligence and the security communities, these are going to be the arms of coercion and repression that we’re going to see unveil within Russia as the kind of the other -like if we imagine a tripod of authoritarian power, cult of personality, or four part cult of personality: economic growth, cooperative oligarchs, and repression. What we see here is a teetering structure as the cult of personality goes away, as people realize that Putin is invading and murdering, leading the mass murder of Ukrainians in cities. The cult personality begins to fall away: the economic growth is falling away, the collapse of the currencies is quickly advancing that, the undermining of the oligarchs, the economic oligarchs. What’s left? Repression.

Julie George  27:42

And Putin has no desire, of course, to leave power. And the cost, I mean, the cost of holding power for authoritarian leaders is always quite high; there’s no pathway out of power. And lacking that pathway out of power, Putin, especially now with this aggression in Ukraine is looking; the option for a Qaddafi sort of expulsion is high. And you know, I don’t know if it’s on YouTube: Qaddafi pulled out of a convoy and murdered in the streets in a fairly horrific way.

Julie George  28:16

And this is an outcome of authoritarian power, there’s no quick way to leave authority for authoritarian leaders. And this scenario, of course, is something that Putin absolutely wants to avoid, just like the Hitler scenario of the suicide in the bunker. And I think it’s important that we recognize just the fear that’s associated with being authoritarian leaders. We often think of them as being people who instill fear. And certainly Putin’s actions are instilling a lot of fear, but a lot of those actions that he’s taken come from his own fears, and to not recognize that is to not understand many of the kinds of stimuli that he’s responding to.

John Torpey  28:58

Right. Interesting. So, you know, we sort of take for granted that the information coming out of Russia is disinformation. And, there are many reasons, obviously, to think that that would be the case. But I wonder about the accuracy of the information that we’re getting out of Ukraine in general, sort of from both sides. I mean, I’m not saying anybody’s necessarily lying. But, there obviously, is a kind of interest in saying things that will bolster the courage of the Ukrainians as they face a rather desperate situation. And I wonder what you would say about that? I mean, how reliable is the information that we’re getting out of this wartime setting? I mean, it’s still early; there’s a lot of, you know, sort of fog of war kind of things going on, it seems. Can we count on reliable, accurate information coming out of there?

Julie George  29:55

No. No, we can’t. And for two reasons: I mean, one, as you say, the fog of war. We see snippets coming from people’s phones, and then one can look back and see how those videos were actually taken at a different time. And they’re just kind of framed in the in this particular place. The kind of Tik-Tokness of the war is fascinating. But the Tik-Tokness of it is also very individualized, like it’s decentralized. This isn’t a Ukrainian propaganda machine that is working at government circles. These are individual actors who are pushing a particular narrative: one that, of course, is understandable of the Ukrainian underdog. The West, Americans love the underdog. And so there’s something very appealing about these images. And of course, if one is under siege, using that I don’t find anything morally suspect about that impulse. At the at the governmental level, when you’re looking at a much more concerted sort of image making. Right?

Julie George  31:03

Zelenskyy is many things, but he’s a performer. He understands audience, he understands exactly who he’s talking to, he understands exactly the way he looks, and now is a moment for him to embody that. Do I think that he is embodying it falsely? No, absolutely not. I mean, the thing that he is embodying is a man who is trying to win a war against a giant. And doing whatever he can to do that and to achieve that. If he wasn’t being genuine, he would have accepted the ride from the Americans. And I think it’s important to realize that the way we present ourselves in moments when we have an audience, like I have an audience, now you have an audience, we’re presenting ourselves in a different way. Or we’re presenting ourselves in a particular way, because we are aware of our audience, it doesn’t mean that we’re less genuine than what we are.

Julie George  32:03

I have noted that the Ukrainian official figures, they mention individual heroes by name. So Ukrainians who have died during the war, Ukrainian soldiers by name, in small numbers, like here are 15 heroes, some of whom died, some of whom did not die. They mentioned the civilian deaths, especially all the children who are dying. And they mentioned the Russian deaths; the Russian soldiers, how many Russian soldiers have been killed. And the numbers are huge, at least the ones that are listed. I don’t know if they’re accurate, but they seem quite large. There is no discussion of Ukrainian soldier deaths. And that is, I think, an interesting omission. But again, one that makes sense, because they don’t want to showcase probably how extensive their military capacity has been whittled away by the Russian onslaught.

John Torpey  32:55

The numbers of Russian deaths have been, were delayed in coming out as I understand it, for a while. Then they felt some pressure, I guess, to release some numbers. And you know, they’re widely regarded as wildly understated. I don’t know what you mean, but when you say that the Ukrainian battle deaths are large, I don’t know what numbers you’ve seen.

Julie George  33:16

No, I presume they are. I presume they are, because they’re not being listed.

John Torpey  33:19

But you haven’t seen a specific number?

Julie George  33:21

No, I’ve seen none. I’m noting that they’re not there. But I can only imagine if the Russian battle deaths are in the 5000s. I don’t know, unless this is Henry V in Agincourt, I imagine. I mean, they may not be commensurate. But just given the firefights that have to generate those numbers of fatalities, it’s hard to say. And it’s also probably hard actually, for the Ukrainians to count because so many of their people in the field are actually civilians or paramilitaries that have just called up. So who counts as a real soldier versus a veteran being called up, versus, you know, the grandmothers with guns that we see on the on the Tik Tok war? I imagine it’s hard for them actually, to discern and count with any realistic accuracy at this point, how many of each, and kind of the uncertainty of how to report that is probably also profound.

John Torpey  34:22

Sure. So our time is waning. So I am afraid I want to throw a question at you that, you know, you may not feel like you’re an expert on but you’re more of an expert on it than I am. So I’m going to ask you under what circumstances do you think nuclear weapons might be introduced into this conflict? I mean, there’s been some halting and not very successful discussions between the Russians and the Ukrainians. I consider that a hopeful sign even if they haven’t really amounted to much yet. But this could all go south in a lot of ways, and drag out for a long time, and I guess I just wonder how you envision, you know, is that a possibility that you think we ought to be reckoning with?

Julie George  35:15

Well, it’s always a possibility, when one deals with a nuclear power, one has to recognize the tools in their tool chest. And that is one of the tools in the tool chest. But I think the conditions would have to change so vastly, it’s hard to anticipate what would happen. The nuclear weapons are a deterrent. Right? You know, you guys don’t strike us because we can strike you back with this level of devastation that is just so profoundly destabilizing that you can’t even contemplate its use, right? Like that is the point of the nuclear weapon: as a deterrent. And so Putin, saying, you know, “I’m ready to have a nuclear war,” he is communicating to the US and other Western nuclear holding powers, that they should not intervene into this conflict militarily, because he’s willing to use these nuclear weapons. So he is deterring the US in specific from entering into conflict militarily.

Julie George  36:14

But what’s also interesting is Biden has made it very clear that he has no interest in entering the conflict militarily. He has said it from the beginning. So the nuclear card that Putin is playing, is actually spoken into an audience that has already accepted it before he even threw it down. Right? We know, Biden knows, he’s made very clear, we’re going to protect our Polish allies, we’re going to protect all of the allies of NATO, we’re going to make sure that Estonia and Latvia are protected. But we are not going to use military, we are not going to intervene militarily for Ukraine. So that was clear from the beginning.

Julie George  36:51

So the point of this messaging, right, leads to two things. One, maybe Putin, recognizing his miscalculation in Ukraine is wanting to reassure himself that the West is going to be deterred because why else do it? Or he’s doing it for another reason, he’s signaling somebody else. I think the biggest risk here is the desperation of Putin to stay in power, and not be removed, and to not be killed. And I think that his domestic situation as protected as his by his own authoritarianism is increasingly costly for him. I think the thing that is uncertain with everybody is that it’s very clear that Putin took on this war for maximal advantage to take the entirety of Ukraine, maybe not territorily but in terms of political influence.

Julie George  37:54

But he’s going to face, you know, that there’s this first aggression, which is the taking, and once they take, if they do if they are successful, which most people think they will be, ultimately, in terms of the quick seizure, then there’s the occupation, which will be necessary, because Ukrainian insurgency is going to be quite powerful, and it’s going to be quite sustained. And so this really extends the Russian military capacity, especially since it’s been so tested already. Its ability to maintain that occupation is very, very much in doubt, even though the initial seizure is not going the way the Russians expected to at all. It’s taken a lot longer. So, you know, I feel they’ll probably end up taking it, but that’s what US intelligence officials are predicting at some point. The Russians will be able to overtake the Ukrainian initial defense, but the insurgency will last a very long time. And the Ukrainians are ready for that. And they will receive Western support for that insurgency at the same time that the economic war is continuing, and that’s one that has been waged by the West.

John Torpey  39:13

Well, obviously, this is a fluid and tragic situation that’s going to take some time to play out, but I want to thank Professor Julie George for her insights into the Russian war on Ukraine. Remember to rate and subscribe to International Horizons on SoundCloud, Spotify and Apple podcasts. I want to thank Oswaldo Mena Aguilar for his technical assistance, as well as to acknowledge Duncan McKay for sharing his song International Horizons as the theme music for the show. I also want to thank Merrill Sovner for helping put today’s episode together. This is John Torpey, saying thanks for joining us and we look forward to having you with us for the next episode of International Horizons.