IU experts assess Russia’s invasion, see problems for Putin

Americans who may feel helpless to do anything as the Russian invasion of Ukraine continues to play out do have power, some of it right at their fingertips, Indiana University professors said Thursday.

“Accurate information is a huge front in this war, and we all have a role to play in providing that information,” IU political science professor Regina Smyth said during an urgently convened and wide-ranging online panel discussion featuring experts on Ukraine, Russia, military affairs, geopolitics and history.

Social media, particularly of the sort that pushes back on Russian propaganda, may be a lifeline for Ukrainians as well as a means of supporting its people who have been subjected to an unprovoked, internationally condemned Russian invasion.

The IU experts repeatedly reinforced the fact that Ukraine is a sovereign nation. They countered Russian President Vladimir Putin’s narratives that the nation of 44 million on its western frontier poses a security threat to Russia. They urged Americans to do the same.

“Reject that idea, please,” said IU geography professor Elizabeth Dunn, who is also director of the IU Center for Refugee Studies. “Public opinion globally matters dramatically.”

She emphasized that as an independent nation, Ukraine is free to form any alliances, including with NATO, that it believes are in its national interests. What Putin or anyone else may think is immaterial to that reality, she said.

IU history professor Padraic Kenney said Putin also has mischaracterized Ukraine’s historic identity as well as its recent past. “Ukrainians have generated three peaceful democratic revolutions in three decades,” he said. “No country in Europe has seen as dramatic a shift in orientation and thinking as has Ukraine.”

Iryna Voloshyna, an IU student from Ukraine who studies folklore and ethnomusicology, said her entire family remained in her home country. Voloshyna was visibly shaken as she described connecting with them Thursday morning. “On the phone, I heard explosions,” she said.

“I feel like I don’t know what I can do other than speaking about the problem,” Voloshyna said.

Meanwhile, in Russia

Smyth called Russia’s invasion “an illogical war,” and noted that as of midday Thursday, more than 1,500 Russians had been arrested for protesting against it in Moscow and elsewhere. She suggested Putin lacks popular support for the invasion and that the Russian people are growing wary of him. “He has a stagnating economy and a very unhappy population,” she said.

Putin in recent years has equated the survival of his regime to the survival of Russia itself, she said, becoming increasingly repressive in the process.

“That repression is taking its own toll on regime support and legitimacy,” Smyth said. She said Putin has been listening to advisers in his inner circle who pressed him to invade Ukraine because they believed it would fragment the West. “The advice was wrong.”

Moreover, she said the invasion “was a moral shock” to ordinary Russians. “We’re seeing this moral shock being discussed and covered” in Russian media. Smyth said Russians are building social networks to challenge the state, and cultural leaders who had long supported Putin are breaking away.

“Over the past couple of decades, I would say, Russians have comforted themselves with the idea that Russia is a normal country and they have a normal leader,” she said. “Russians are now finding out that they, too, were wrong.”

Military situation

Col. Robert McVey, a U.S. Army War College fellow affiliated with the Robert F. Byrnes Russian and East European Institute at IU’s Hamilton Lugar School, said military watchers were surprised that the invasion didn’t bring a “shock and awe” ferocity of overwhelming force. Russia, for instance, didn’t take out vital telecom nodes in an invasion that seeks to set the military conditions for regime change and demilitarizing Ukraine.

Accomplishing this will require a long-term occupation, something McVey said is based on the faulty assumption that Putin will find a Ukrainian population sympathetic to invading forces. Russia, he said, “is very unlikely to sustain a long-term occupation in this country.”

Nevertheless, the invasion presents “the greatest threat ever to the established international rules of order that has kept the relative peace since World War II,” he said.

Panelists cautioned, however, against assumptions of a wider conflict. “We live in an era of doom-scrolling,” Kenney said. “I do not think we need to be thinking about ‘where will Putin stop,’ we need to be thinking very strongly … about Ukraine. … His adventure in Ukraine will not succeed.”

Laszlo Borhi, professor of central Eurasian studies at IU’s Hamilton Lugar School, who was in Hungary during its regime change in 1989-90, said the world is seeing the consequences of failing to convene an international peace conference after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

He recounted chilling instances in which the world was closer to nuclear war than is commonly known, and cautioned “It’s an even more scary scenario today. … This is a situation where very sober minds must prevail.”

Sanctions and refugees

The Biden administration and much of the international community have imposed broad sanctions against Putin’s inner circle and many segments of the Russian economy, but experts are divided on their effectiveness.

“Sanctions should have been imposed much sooner,” Borhi said. “Unfortunately, the lesson we can discern from the Cold War is economic sanctions in and of themselves do not achieve the results we hope to achieve.”

Dunn was even more critical. “I find sanctions to be the political equivalent of ‘thoughts and prayers,’” she said — nice to hear about, but not very effective. “The powers that be are already prepared to deal with them.”

Smyth was less skeptical, believing the sanctions could hamper Russia’s ability to profit from oil and energy. Whatever the effect of sanctions, McVey said, they will take time. “That’s no comfort to those on the ground in Ukraine.”

And many Ukrainians are fleeing, heading west to Poland or Moldova. Dunn said 3 to 5 million Ukrainians are likely to become refugees or be displaced inside the country. The invasion seeking to overthrow a democratic government and conquer a sovereign nation was also something else, she said: “A deliberate attempt by the Russians to create a refugee crisis.

“We should prepare for the world to not make much sense anymore, because that, indeed, is the point,” Dunn said.