Understanding the War in Ukraine: Insights from the Recent Past, 1991—Present

About this Episode

Guests
David Hoffmann

Ohio State University History Professor David Hoffmann examines some key moments in recent Russian and Ukrainian history, with particular attention to the breakup of the Soviet Union, Putin’s rise to power in Russia, and the 2014 Revolution in Ukraine. 

Speaker | David L. Hoffmann, College of Arts and Sciences Distinguished Professor of History. Professor Hoffmann is a specialist in Russian and Soviet history, with a particular focus on the political, social, and cultural history of Stalinism.  

Moderator | Angela Brintlinger, Professor and Interim Department Chair of the Department of Slavic and East European Languages and Cultures and Director of the Center for Slavic, East European & Eurasian Studies.

This lecture is a part of the Center for Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies' "Understanding the War in Ukraine: Weekly Wednesday Speaker Series."

Cite this Site

Angela Brintlinger , "Understanding the War in Ukraine: Insights from the Recent Past, 1991—Present" , Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective
April, 2022
https://origins.osu.edu/index.php/listen/history-talk/understanding-war-ukraine-insights-recent-past-1991-present?language_content_entity=en.
April, 2022

Transcript

Dr. Angela Brintlinger 

Welcome, everybody. I went ahead and turned off my email so it won't be dinging in the background when my microphone is off. My name is Angela Brintlinger. I am the director of the Center for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies here at Ohio State University. And I am really pleased to bring to you today in our series of what we're calling Ukraine Wednesdays, my colleague, David Hoffmann. Let me just tell you again, I know some of you have come to many of these talks, others might want to come to the last one, which we'll be having next week. The war is not ending, the war is continuing. The war has been going on for some eight years, and I don't personally see any end in sight. But I'm really looking forward to hearing from a real history specialist to try to give us some context. We will do our talk today. David will talk for a while and then we'll do what we usually do: a Q&A. Alicia will give you some information in the chat to help you ask questions. I hope you do have questions for our specialist. So Professor David Hoffmann is a specialist in Russian and Soviet history, with a particular focus on the political, social and cultural history of Stalinism. His most recent monograph is The Stalinist Era, from Cambridge in 2018. He's also the author of Cultivating the Masses: Modern State Practices and Soviet Socialism, 1914-1939, Peasant Metropolis: Social Identities in Moscow, 1929-1941, which won the Ohio Academy of History award for best book in 1995, and Stalinist Values: The Cultural Norms of Soviet Modernity, 1917-1941, which analyzes Soviet official culture and the ideological and behavioral norms it was designed to instill. David Hoffman and I arrived at Ohio State the same year, in 1994. And he's been a treasured colleague who has nurtured generations of Russian and Russian-adjacent historians out into the world from our PhD program, as well as taught many, many undergraduates here in his years. And I'm looking forward to his comments today. Thank you, David, for joining us.

 

Dr. David Hoffmann 

Thank you, Angela, for that very warm introduction. My goal today is to provide some historical context to help understand Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Russia and Ukraine both have very long histories going back centuries. But my focus here will be on the recent past, that is, events since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991. In particular, I will talk about Ukrainian independence, Putin's rise to power in Russia, the 2014 Revolution of Dignity in Ukraine, and Putin's decision to invade Ukraine. While far from inevitable, Putin's invasion, in fact, is following his pre-established patterns, patterns of military aggression, intended to increase Russian geopolitical power. Let me go ahead and share my screen, because I want to begin with a map of the Soviet Union as it existed in 1991. The Soviet Union had a federal system, every major nationality within the country had its own territorial unit. There were 15 republics in all. You can see here the one that's by far the largest was the Russian Federative Republic. Ukraine, the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, pictured here in green on the left, was the third largest in terms of territory, the second largest in terms of population. All of the Soviet republics  were under the control of the Communist Party in a highly centralized system based in Moscow. But that centralization began to break down in the late 1980s when Gorbachev introduced democratic reforms, and this gave nationalists in various republics, including in Ukraine, the opportunity to demand independence, and this independence they achieved when the Soviet system collapsed in 1991. So in place of one country with 15 republics, there emerged 15 independent countries, one of which was the Russian Federation, and another of which was Ukraine. Here... is (if I can get my screen to advance....) [Technical difficulty adjustments].

 

Dr. David Hoffmann 

Okay, here's a photo of the first presidents. In the center on the left, Boris Yeltsin, the first President of the Russian Federation, and the center on the right, Leonid Kravchuk, the first president of independent Ukraine. Following the breakup of the Soviet Union, the newly independent countries had to undergo a transition to post-communism. And this involves replacing a state run planned economy with a free market economy. The transition was very difficult. It involved a lot of economic hardship in all of the former Soviet republics, all the Soviet successor states, including in Ukraine. Here, I'm going to focus mainly on the economic transition in Russia, because I want to explain Putin's rise to power. And let me say here at the outset, explaining this does not mean validating it. I think that, on the contrary, Russians had a real opportunity after the collapse of communism in 1991 to achieve a real democratic system. Instead, they ended up with a brutal autocrat in the person of Vladimir Putin. So this requires some historical explanation of why that happens. So Boris Yeltsin, the first President of the Russian Federation, decided to pursue a quick transition to capitalism. Taking the advice of Jeffrey Sachs and other U.S. economic advisers, he instituted a policy known as shock therapy. Shock therapy involved the immediate freeing of prices, which resulted in hyperinflation in Russia. Prices began to increase at a rate of 200% a month, in other words, over 2,000% a year. As a result, people's life savings became almost worthless overnight. For Russians, this was an extremely difficult time, remembered as a time when people simply lost everything in the transition to capitalism. Shock therapy also involved privatization, the rapid sell-off of state enterprises. This was done with no legal safeguards, with no regard to equity in terms of distribution of wealth. Instead, the advice of U.S. economists was simply to do this as quickly as possible, with no regard to the social consequences. And as a result, there was a great deal of corruption, a handful of oligarchs became extremely wealthy. Average Russians saw their standard of living fall sharply, many people were forced to sell their possessions on the street, simply to make money for food. This picture here shows a sight that was very common in Russian cities in the early 1990s. As a result of shock therapy, Russian GDP declined by 50%. It fell roughly in half during the 1990s.

 

Dr. David Hoffmann 

By way of comparison, the great recession in the United States, 2008-2009, saw a GDP decrease of around 4%. So this decline more than 10 times worse. As you can see, the GDP of Russia would then rebound in the 2000s. But this GDP decrease involves closure of inefficient factories, there was unemployment, poverty, as well as the hyperinflation that I already mentioned. Russian people had expected prosperity. Instead, they got extreme economic hardship. And at the same time that this economic catastrophe was taking place, Russia's international standing fell to a new low. The Soviet Union had been a superpower to rival the United States for world domination. Now, Russia had lost control of Eastern Europe and had lost control of the non-Russian Soviet republics. Even within the Russian Federation, the government had a hard time controlling territory, there were separatist movements within the Russian Federation. And in fact, the Russian government could hardly even collect taxes at this time, so from a hyper-centralized world superpower, Russia emerged as a shrunken state, weak and humiliated. Not surprisingly, Yeltsin's popularity plummeted. His approval ratings by the late 1990s were in the single digits. His image was also plagued by poor health and instances of public drunkenness. So this combination of Yeltsin's weak leadership and Russia's decline, made some Russians long for a strong man, someone to take charge, restore order, try to restore Russia's position in the world. Yeltsin himself was desperately seeking a strong prime minister to try to bolster the popularity of the Russian government. In a span of two years (1998-1999), he went through five prime ministers, sacking one after another. Finally, in August of 1999, he appointed Vladimir Putin as the new prime minister of Russia. Putin was only 46 years old, he was relatively unknown at the time. He had served one year as the head of the Russian security services, the FSB, that is the successor to the KGB. Most people expected that he would not last long in power. And then, within one month, Russia was hit by alleged terrorist attacks. Bombs exploded in apartment buildings in Moscow and two other Russian cities. 300 people were killed. The attacks were blamed on Chechen terrorists, but this never in fact, was proven. There was even evidence, some evidence, that the Russian security services, the FSB, was behind these bombings. They carried them out in order to blame Chechens and galvanize support for a Russian invasion of Chechnya. Chechnya is a region within the Russian Federation. It's located in the North Caucasus, as you can see on the map, far to the south of Moscow. It's a region inhabited by Chechens, a national minority within the Russian Federation. Chechens are a largely Muslim people. For roughly two centuries, they've been resisting Russian rule, and in the early 1990s, Chechen separatists had declared independence from the Russian Federation. For much of the decade, the Russian government had fought unsuccessfully to try to re-establish control over this territory. So Putin, newly appointed as prime minister, took on the role of a tough-talking leader who ordered Russian troops back into Chechnya, in order to subdue it. Russia's war in Chechnya was especially brutal. It involved the bombing and shelling of civilian areas. Thousands of Chechens were killed, 100,000s had to flee their homes. The Chechen capital of Grozny, pictured here, was under siege for months from Russian heavy artillery. The city was almost completely destroyed. So here we have a clear foreshadowing of what is going on in Ukraine today.

 

Dr. David Hoffmann 

And what was the result of the Chechen war? It was a clear victory for Putin. It was brutal, it was bloody. There were many Russian losses as well as Chechen losses. But in the end, the Russian forces prevailed. Chechen resistance was crushed. Putin was able to install a warlord there and essentially re-establish Russian control over the region. This was a huge boost for Putin's career. Overnight, he went from a relatively unknown political figure to becoming a popular prime minister. He projected an image of a tough, active leader. This was in sharp contrast to Yeltsin, whose presidency was marked by illness, drunkenness, and inaction. In December 1999, Yeltsin resigned six months before his presidential term was to end and in accordance with the Russian constitution, Putin, as prime minister, assumed the role of acting president. Elections were then held a few months later in March of 2000. Putin won those elections and was inaugurated as Russia's second president in May of 2000. So here we have Putin's rise to power, it was based on his image as a strong man, someone willing to use brutal military force in order to reassert Russia's domination. Let me say just a couple of words about US-Russian relations at this time. US-Russian relations under Putin were initially positive. With the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Putin was the first world leader to call President Bush and to offer his support. Later that same year, in November 2001, Bush and Putin had a summit meeting, which included a visit by Putin to Bush's ranch in Texas. But relations between the two countries soon soured. When the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, this was vehemently denounced by Putin. And then the following year, 2004, NATO underwent another round of expansion, adding several countries (the ones pictured here in the dark orange). The countries added included Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. This brought NATO  right up to Russia's borders. This was seen as a hostile act by Putin and Russian military leaders. You know, to us, NATO is the good guys. To Russian leaders, NATO is an anti-Russian military alliance. And in 2008, the Bush administration announced that Ukraine and Georgia should join NATO as well. Now, this did not happen. Other NATO countries did not agree to this. But it put forward the prospect that Ukraine and Georgia would join NATO at some point in the future. I don't have time to go into this in detail. But I should mention here that later that same year, in August 2008, Russia invaded Georgia. It drove Georgian troops out of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, two separatist regions within Georgia. The war only lasted about two weeks. But it was another example of Putin's military aggression. And in fact, Russian troops have remained there in these two regions of Georgia, right up until the present day. So turning back to Ukraine. The prospect of Ukraine joining NATO put the country in a somewhat precarious position. Had they immediately been been admitted to NATO, they would have been safe. But in this case, they were not members of NATO, and yet there was this possibility that they would join soon. So from Putin's point of view, any action he wanted to take against Ukraine, he knew he had to take it prior to Ukraine joining NATO. Once Ukraine was a member of NATO, any Russian move against the country could spark World War Three with NATO countries.

 

Dr. David Hoffmann 

Alright, let me shift to talk about domestic politics within Ukraine itself. And I'll start with the 2010 presidential election, in which this man here, Viktor Yanukovych, was elected Ukrainian president. Yanukovych is a Russian-speaking Ukrainian from the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine. We've been hearing a lot about the Donbass region recently. It's short for the Don River Basin. It's an industrial region of eastern Ukraine. It's where the... war in Ukraine today is about to intensify. Yanukovych, in November of 2013, rejected Ukraine's pending agreement to strengthen ties with the European Union. And instead, he sought to strengthen economic ties with Russia. This was extremely unpopular within Ukraine. In fact, it sparked weeks of protest. Protesters demanded that Ukraine have closer ties to the European Union. They also denounced Yanukovych for corruption and for his use of force against demonstrators. All of this culminated in the Revolution of Dignity in 2014. The Revolution ousted Yanukovych from power, he fled the country and went to Russia. And the result was a new Ukrainian government with a more Western orientation. Putin saw Ukraine's turn toward the west as loss of influence for Russia. He claimed that Ukraine might join the EU and join NATO, and that if this happens, Russia would lose control of its naval base at Sebastopol. If you look on the map here, Sevastopol is a city on the Crimean Peninsula, on the Black Sea, it's the home of Russia's Black Sea Fleet. So it's a very important military asset. Russia's most important naval base. Putin's claim was that this prospect of Ukraine joining NATO would mean that Russia would lose its naval base there, and that it would become a NATO naval base instead. So Putin reacted with military aggression, sending Russian troops to seize Crimea in 2014. Russia's seizure of Crimea was internationally condemned. Western countries levied sanctions to punish Russia (economic sanctions). But in the end, Putin gained control of this territory, he also got a huge boost in popularity at home in Russia. So he probably concluded that his military aggression had once again paid off. Ukraine did not militarily resist the seizure, partly for fear of provoking a broader Russian invasion, and partly because it was occupied with another military struggle going on at the same time, this one in eastern Ukraine in the Donbas region (which is this other pink-shaded area to the right). So, at the same moment, 2014, separatists in that region declared independence from Kyiv and Putin quickly sent Russian troops into that territory in order to back the separatists. So this region was an area of intense fighting from 2014 to 2015. Fighting with separatists and the Russian military on one side and the Ukrainian military on the other. The fighting was finally de-escalated with the Minsk II Accords in February of 2015. The Minsk Accords were brokered by France and Germany. You can see the participants pictured here on the far right, is Petro Poroshenko, who was the president of Ukraine at the time, the Minsk II Accords stipulated that eastern Ukraine would receive autonomy.

 

Dr. David Hoffmann 

And this gave Putin something that he wanted, because if this region of the country was autonomous, it would leave Ukraine weak and divided, presumably unable to join NATO and unable to join the EU. But the Minsk II Accords were deeply unpopular within Ukraine. And understandably so. If enacted, these accords would mean essentially the Ukrainian government losing control of eastern Ukraine. The other problem is that the Accords did not actually stop the fighting, low-level fighting continued in this region, and is ongoing to this day. Well, that brings us to the election of Volodymyr Zelenskyy. And here we have a very interesting contrast between Putin and Zelenskyy, whereas Putin's rise to power was based on military aggression in Chechnya, Zelenskyy's rise to power was based on a TV comedy series, Servant of the People. This was a show in which Zelenskyy played a high school teacher who was unexpectedly elected President of Ukraine. And then, in a case of life imitating art, Zelenskyy actually was elected President of Ukraine. He won the 2019 presidential election, defeating the incumbent Poroshenko, winning 73% of the vote. Zelenskyy ran on a platform of fighting corruption and making peace in eastern Ukraine. He did make a sincere effort to strike a peace deal in Eastern Ukraine, but this proved to be politically impossible. In October 2019, Zelenskyy announced a prospective deal with separatists in eastern Ukraine, by which the Ukrainian government would respect local elections there in exchange for the withdrawal of Russian troops. But Zelenskyy was harshly criticized for even proposing this deal. He was criticized not only by politicians in Ukraine, but by Ukrainian public as well. You can see a photo here of protesters in Kyiv, who denounced any deal with Ukrainian separatists. People said that any elections held in eastern Ukraine would be unfair because pro-Ukrainian residents there had been driven out by all the fighting. And more fundamentally, I think the Ukrainian people were simply unwilling to give up sovereignty. You know, all these Russian demands, including autonomy for eastern Ukraine, recognition of Russia's control of Crimea, a pledge by Ukraine that it not join NATO, all these things involves giving up a significant degree of Ukrainian sovereignty. So this was simply politically unacceptable in Ukraine. Zelenskyy and other politicians began to openly criticize the Minsk II Accords, and to say that they were not going to grant autonomy to eastern Ukraine. And it was at this point that Putin decided to take matters into his own hands. So what accounts for Putin's decision to invade Russia? Or I'm sorry, invade Ukraine. We've heard many explanations for this. So let me just consider them one at a time. One thing we hear quite often is that Putin is crazy, he's a madman, he's come unhinged. I think the truth, in some ways, is much worse. I think Putin is perfectly sane. He's simply willing to invade another country, kill thousands of people, all to achieve his geopolitical goals. As I've shown in this talk already, Putin has used military aggression multiple times in the past. This is not a case of him suddenly coming unhinged, and deciding to invade Ukraine. Another explanation. This is the one that we hear from Putin and the Russian government is that this invasion of Ukraine is in order to protect Russian-speaking Ukrainians from Neo-Nazis in Ukraine. Well, this is clearly just Russian propaganda. First of all, the Ukrainian government is not run by Neo-Nazis. As many have pointed out, President Zelenskyy himself is Jewish, he had ancestors who were killed in the Holocaust, there's no way this can be construed as a Neo-Nazi government.

 

Dr. David Hoffmann 

Secondly, this idea that the Russian military is protecting Russian-speaking Ukrainians in eastern Ukraine is also equally ridiculous. Russian shelling of cities there, including Kharkiv, and Mariupol, this shelling has killed thousands of Russian-speaking Ukrainians. So Putin clearly has a strange way of protecting these people if he's going to shell their apartment, buildings and kill them. Another explanation we hear for Putin's invasion of Ukraine, is that this is just the first step towards invading other Eastern European countries as well, that Putin is intent on restoring the Soviet empire and restoring Russian control over Eastern Europe. Well, I'm sure if Putin could magically restore the Soviet empire, he certainly would. But he realizes that invading the Baltic countries or Poland, for example, these countries that are members of NATO, this would trigger a war with NATO, [which] could easily escalate to become a nuclear war. So I don't think he's willing to risk that. The crucial consideration with Ukraine is that it is not a member of NATO. So Putin thought that he could get away with this without having any sort of military intervention by NATO countries. So I think the fact is that Putin's aim here is more limited. Though, I'm not trying to minimize it in any way. This is clearly a flagrant violation of international law and extreme violation of Ukrainian sovereignty and human rights. But from Putin's point of view, Ukraine is a country of vital strategic importance to Russia, so he invaded, planning to overthrow the government, install some sort of puppet regime, this would have kept Ukraine out of NATO and under Russian control. It would also secure Russia's annexation of Crimea. In other words, a quick-strike invasion that would increase Russian geopolitical power. Well, that raises the question, why did Putin miscalculate so badly? It's due to his decision making process, which is deeply flawed. Putin now relies on a twelve member National Security Council to make all important decisions in Russia. This council is dominated by representatives of the military and security services. All of these people have very hawkish views. They're anti-Western, anti-American. They have a kind of fortress-Russia mentality.

 

Dr. David Hoffmann 

And as I said, these are really the only people Putin listens to anymore. During Putin's first decade in power, he actually enjoyed broader popular support due to economic growth. But in the last 10 years, he has relied increasingly on repression to stay in power. And that means relying on the security services more than ever. The security services personnel are quite different from the oligarchs in Russia. The oligarchs are unsavory in their own... ways. But they were against this war, not only because they feared having their yachts seized, it's because they want international connections, international trade, international travel, all the things that have been destroyed by Russia's invasion of Ukraine. So Putin and his small group of national security advisors, badly underestimated the strength of the Ukrainian military. Somehow, they thought Ukrainians would simply lay down their weapons in the face of a Russian onslaught. Obviously, this did not happen. Putin also underestimated the strength of Ukrainian national identity. Here, he may have fallen victim to his own propaganda about the fact that Ukraine is not a real country, that Ukrainians are just a subset of the Russian people. Obviously, none of this is true, either. Ukrainians have a strong sense of nationalism and patriotism. And finally, Putin and his advisers did not foresee the unity of Western countries or their willingness to inflict harsh economic sanctions. Perhaps they expected a repeat of 2014, because when Russia seized Crimea in 2014, there was Western condemnation, there were sanctions, but not the crushing economic sanctions that we see today. Another thing that's happened, it's not just Western governments inflicting economic punishment on Russia, international corporations have cut ties with Russia, have withdrawn from Russia. So all of this is essentially punishing Russia, as well for the invasion of Ukraine. Okay, let me cover one more topic. And that is public opinion in Russia. Russians have nothing against Ukrainians, far from it. Many Russians have relatives in Ukraine. They have friends in Ukraine, there are many Ukrainians who live in Russia. There are strong ties between the two populations. There's no way that Putin could have portrayed this war as a war against Ukrainians, or an invasion of Ukraine. That is why he calls it a special military operation against Neo-Nazis in Ukraine. Now, do Russians believe Putin's propaganda? It's very difficult to measure public opinion in Russia now since the war started. But we do have some information based on public opinion polling prior to the war. And what that polling shows is a sharp generational split within the Russian population. Older, more provincial Russians, those who get all their information from state television, are more likely to believe Russian propaganda, more likely to support Putin. These people are probably supporting the war today. Younger, more educated Russians, by contrast, were even before the war, tended to be against Putin, tended to have much more favorable views of the West and the United States. These people are much more likely today to be against the war. Of course, repression means that we no longer have open protests of the war in Russia. There were protesters, initially, who are arrested, some 15,000 of them. This photo shows a woman holding up a sign that says no to war, and she has been arrested by the Russian police. However, there is some potential for popular discontent. I think as the war grinds on, as Russian casualties mount, as economic hardship deepens, there's certainly that possibility. I don't think there's any immediate threat to Putin's power. But if there's one thing that Putin hates even more than the idea of Ukraine joining NATO, it's the idea of Russians protesting his government. So hopefully, this will add some pressure on Putin. I should say that I'm not very optimistic about the chances for a ceasefire and negotiated settlements. It's just very hard to see how either side is going to compromise in any substantial way. For Ukrainians, you know, their country has been invaded, they're defending their homeland, they're defending their sovereignty. It's not easy for them to make some major concession to Russia to end the war. Though I should mention that Zelenskyy has left open the possibility, at least, of negotiations. Putin, on the other hand, in his news conference, yesterday, April 12 [2022], stated that negotiations had come to a dead end, that Russia was just going to press forward with the war until it achieved all its aims militarily. So that's not very promising. It's certainly hard to imagine Putin admitting defeat and withdrawing his troops. Still, I hope that there, in the future, will be additional negotiations and some attempt at a ceasefire. Because the alternative, I'm afraid, is that this war could drag on for months, or even years, with thousands of more people killed. Well, thank you. I'll be glad to answer any questions.

 

Dr. Angela Brintlinger 

Thank you, David. Thank you so much for taking us through that carefully. And really helping us to think about the different international forces that have led us to this place. I mean, a lot of this, I've been reading and listening to people who see, in some ways, Putin's rise as the rise of Stierlitz you know, that with Yeltsin in power, people were just embarrassed and frustrated. And what they wanted was a strong, brooding, thoughtful, silent, you know, spy from Germany from the old Soviet Seventeen Moments of Spring show that had the spy Stierlitz, who would come and lo and behold, there comes Vladimir Putin, who used to be himself indressed in the KGB. So I want to invite everyone to ask them questions. I have many, many questions, as I always do. But let's start with John Mueller, who wanted to know, "why did Ukraine do so badly economically after 1991? In 1991, its GDP per capita was about the same as Poland's and by 2018, or so, it was less than 1/3 of Poland's and Ukraine was the poorest country in Europe." I think probably, Moldova is usually the poorest country in Europe. But do you have a thought about Ukraine's economy after 1991?

 

Dr. David Hoffmann 

Right, yeah, so the issue was, the Soviet economy was so integrated, it relied on exchange between the different Soviet Republics. The republics were not really set up to operate independently, economically, in any way. There were, you know, certain resources that were only available or certain industries only developed in one republic. As long as the Soviet Union was all one country, that wasn't a problem because they could send goods from one region to another. When the Soviet Union broke apart, all those independent countries, including Ukraine, faced enormous economic problems, because they did not have sort of self-sufficient industries. They had to rely on, you know, trying to then work out trade deals, import vital equipment, raw materials, and so forth. So that actually is what caused enormous problems. I mean, there were also just larger problems with the Soviet economy overall. Many of the factories in Ukraine, as well as in the Russian Federation, other places, those were simply inefficient and based on market capitalism, they either closed or they they sort of, you know, continued on in a lackluster way, with workers not being paid their wages, and so forth. So all of that contributed to this very dire economic situation, as John Mueller says, in Ukraine, as well as in Russia in the 1990s,

 

Dr. Angela Brintlinger 

Right, I mean, we think about how long it took to build the Soviet economic enterprise. But everything was very tightly laced. I remember in the late-1980s, when I was in Moscow.. there was no soap powder, because Lithuania was trying to become independent and some key component of soap was in Lithuania, nobody, none of the factories could work. And again, thinking about these factories, you know, under the Soviet system, you could employ a lot of people, because it didn't really matter. It wasn't really related to what you were producing. And of course, that economic transition made a huge difference. I want to turn to Ab Anis, one of our colleagues here at Ohio State, who is herself from Estonia. "In the early 1990s," she writes, "there was a vision of Russia joining both NATO and the European Economic Community, the EEC, that in 1993, became the European Union. How and why and when did this option for Russia's future collapse? I wonder if it was really actually a live option. But I remember it being spoken about."

 

Dr. David Hoffmann 

Yeah, there were discussions in the early 1990s, about this. And one of the proposals, which in ways is too bad it wasn't pursued further, was NATO's Partnership for Peace. So there was a lot of discussion, you know, should NATO expand, should NATO be disbanded after the Cold War, or should it take on some new forms? So one initiative was a Partnership for Peace, which would have allowed an association for the countries of Eastern Europe and for Russia, to be the sort of partners with NATO, not full members, but partners. And that, in fact, would, perhaps have avoided the situation where some countries were in NATO, and some countries were not, which, you know, as it turned out, was extremely dangerous for Ukraine. This in the end, this path was not followed. It was partly due to what was seen as increasing Russian aggression. For example, the war in Chechnya, that began to make, you know, leaders in Eastern Europe very nervous, because they saw a possibility for, you know, Russia, a turn from democracy to autocracy, a return to Russian aggression. These countries, you know, you have to remember, countries of Eastern Europe, had just been under Soviet domination for the previous 40 years. So they wanted some sort of stronger guarantee against future Russian aggression. And they, they essentially wanted full NATO membership. But that did result in the sort of collapse of this Partnership for Peace program. And it resulted in some countries being in NATO and some countries not being in NATO. So as I said, that was a dangerous situation.

 

Dr. Angela Brintlinger 

Right. And I know that this this question of NATO on the border is one that has been worrying Putin for a long time. But of course, NATO is on the border already in the Baltics, and as people said, you know, a NATO missile could reach Moscow from Ukraine in five minutes, it could reach it from Poland in seven minutes. It's not a big difference, right? So thats absolutely a trumped up fear, it seems to me. I can ask this question, [it] says "thank you so much for this enlightening talk. Do we have reliable information about the impact of the sanctions on Russian people and their perception of this war? Is there a chance that the pressure from the West can make, has made, Russian people coalesce around Putin and his Russian war effort?" It's a really good question.

 

Dr. David Hoffmann 

Yeah, yeah. So as I was saying before, we don't really have reliable information on public opinion in Russia. But I think that it is safe to say that these sanctions are having an effect. It looks like Russia's economy will contract by roughly 10% in the span of just three months, so that's a pretty severe economic contraction, which over time will of course affect average Russians pretty severely. We don't really know how they will react... I imagine there will be a divide within the Russian population where some people will blame Putin and blame him for starting this war that's causing all this, all these problems. But some people may rally around him and see, you know, see  the West as the enemy, Western countries as inflicting these sanctions and this economic hardship. So certainly, you know, as mentioned before the public opinion polling prior to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, which indicated that, while the more provincial and less educated, Russians tended to support Putin and to view the West with hostility. So, you know, this, if they continue listening to Russian propaganda on state television, they probably will tend to blame the West for any sort of economic pain. So yeah, it's it's kind of a mixed picture. Hopefully, you know, the economic pain will put some pressure on Putin. But that remains to be seen.

 

Dr. Angela Brintlinger 

Certainly, access to independent news sources, has been closed off to a great extent. And so I think, you know, what I'm understanding is that we should never pay attention to sociological questions in looking for the word...questionnaires, you know, surveys in wartime, but it may also be the case that we in the West have been looking at the Levada Center as independent. And they're still doing some polls, and we should probably not pay attention to them because people simply can't answer polls correctly. And the Pollsters can't... ask the questions correctly right now. So somebody wants to talk about Hunter Biden. "Did the Hunter Biden emails impact or encourage the invasion, that reveals some kind of corruption?" I think it is worth talking a little bit about corruption in Ukraine, if you can address that. One of the reasons that Ukraine was really not in any danger of entering NATO at any time is because they still haven't come near the conditions that NATO requires for entrance, including a lack of corruption within the government.

 

Dr. David Hoffmann 

Right, yeah, both the European Union and NATO have pretty strict requirements for countries to join. So Ukraine had not met those. I'm afraid I don't have any expertise on Hunter Biden. So I can't really speak to that. There was this big problem of corruption in Ukraine, in fact, I mentioned that that was one of Zelenskyy's main issues in the 2019 presidential election. One reason that people supported him was they saw him as an outsider and not a typical politician who was corrupt, somebody who was going to address issues of corruption in Ukraine. Of course, he didn't have a chance to get far with that because of the war, because of Russia's invasion. So at this point, it's kind of a moot question. But yeah, there were definitely a lot of problems of corruption in Ukraine, prior to the war.

 

Dr. Angela Brintlinger 

And it's one thing to come in and say you're gonna solve those problems. It's another thing to address them. And it's a complex situation, certainly. So I think we've addressed this question already, Greg wanted to know whether Putin is a sociopath or a psychopath. But more importantly, are his threats of nuclear strikes realistic? That really is a question that we need to answer.

 

Dr. David Hoffmann 

Yeah, sure. So very, very, early on, I think, like the second or third day after Russia's invasion, Putin put his nuclear forces on alert. I think this is mainly saber rattling. I don't think this was a serious threat by him. He just wanted to remind NATO countries that he has a lot of nuclear missiles, and that they should not get directly involved in the war in Ukraine. So you know, there's always a danger of nuclear escalation. But the danger would be, of course, much greater if NATO troops were actually engaged directly with Russian troops in Ukraine. The situation that we're in now, where NATO is simply aiding Ukraine, is much less likely to lead to nuclear escalation. So, you know, I think Putin likes to bring this up fairly often simply to remind other countries of Russia's huge nuclear arsenal, but I don't I don't see any immediate danger of nuclear war.

 

Dr. Angela Brintlinger 

I think that Sean Connery brought up the four levels of alert and this is only the first of four or something going up from one to two, something like that, and it's also the case, you know, if we're gonna, we can blame Jeffrey Sachs for some of these problems. You know, I don't think Hunter Biden is the one we need to blame. I often think too about why we insisted after the fall of the Soviet Union that Ukraine give all their nuclear weapons to Russia. We could have had two nuclear states which would have been even worse. But it is one of those things that Ukraine, I think feels upset with at that moment, that suddenly it was easier for the West to think of just one nuclear force. And so we made that happen.

 

Dr. David Hoffmann 

Yeah. In fact, in my first draft of this talk, I actually included discussion of the Budapest Memorandum of 1994. So this was an issue after the breakup of the Soviet Union, there were nuclear weapons in four of the successor states, Russia, Kazakhstan, Belarus, and Ukraine. The concern among American policymakers was that we don't want nuclear proliferation. And so through various negotiations and financial incentives, they got Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan, to give up their nuclear weapons in exchange for security assurances. So Ukrainians very much feel betrayed by this because at these 1994 negotiations and signing of the Budapest Memorandum, Yeltsin, who was Russian president at the time, as well as Bill Clinton, and John Major of Britain, all signed of this agreement, saying that they would guarantee the security of Ukraine and its borders in exchange for Ukraine giving up these nuclear weapons. So then in 2014, and then, once again, in 2022, this past February, Putin flagrantly violated those agreements by seizing Crimea and then invading Ukraine. So these agreements, really, as it turned out, to not have any any force behind them,

 

Dr. David Hoffmann 

Right. Yeah, absolutely. So Jeff Trimble wants to think, again, about the Crimea takeover, which he says, you know, came too close on the heels of Maidan [2014 Revolution of Dignity], to be considered a result of Maidan, these two events took place within a matter of days, there wasn't enough time to work out the sophisticated complex military prep, to deploy the little green men and other forces. So Crimea must have been in the works earlier. And so he wondered what your thoughts are on that. It is important question. No?

 

Dr. David Hoffmann 

Yeah, thank you Jeff for pointing that out. Right. So Putin sort of claimed that this takeover of Crimea was a result of what he he called a coup, rather than calling it a revolution. He called it a CIA-inspired coup that overthrew Yanukovych. But as you point out, the fact that this happened so quickly indicates that actually, the Russian military had plans for this prior to that happening. So we don't really know how long these plans were in the works, they could have been drawn up years before, in fact, but it's clear that Putin and the Russian military had these designs on Crimea and that they planned to do this, and maybe we're just looking for a pretext to do it. But that 2014 takeover of Crimea, you know, as I said, was something that the Ukrainian military hardly had time to resist. They didn't really resist it, partly because the fighting broke out in eastern Ukraine in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, at the very same time, so the Ukrainian military was occupied with that. And of course, Russia sent troops into eastern Ukraine as well. So 2014 really saw a massive incursion of Russian forces into Ukraine, which was exceeded only by the February invasion, which was, of course, much more massive, leading to ongoing war there right now.

 

Dr. Angela Brintlinger 

Well, certainly, Crimea, for Russians, Crimea felt different, right?...  Many Russians believe that Khrushchev gave Crimea to Ukraine and that he didn't have the right to do it during the Soviet period. And a lot of my academic friends were what we came to call kind of Krymnashisty, right? This is a term that emerged: "that Crimea is ours, it's always been ours." I have colleagues who wrote books about it. I have colleagues in Crimea who were happy, who really were in favor of this quote/unquote "referendum," and really were in favor of moving back to being part of Russia. So it isn't the case that all Crimeans, you know, preferred being in Ukraine and the corruption problems of Ukraine, since 1991, contributed to low salaries in Crimea, people were concerned, and they thought things were better in Russia, and they were watching Russian television in many cases. So it's all that kind of complex, really, really... One of the reasons that Putin was able then to rise to power is that Crimea was popular among many Russians, regardless of the propaganda.

 

Dr. David Hoffmann 

Yeah, you're right, Angela, that that was a very popular move in Russia. Russians did not see that as an invasion of Crimea. They saw Crimea as most Russians, that is, they saw Crimea as part of Russia. So this was like, taking back this territory. You know, back in the 1950s, when Khrushchev sort of took Crimea and said, okay, it's no longer gonna be part of the Russian Federative Republic, it will be part of the Ukrainian Republic, it didn't really seem to make that much difference, because it's all one country back then. Then when the breakup of the Soviet Union came, of course, it's different countries. That referendum, so just to fill in the details there, after Russian troops took over Crimea, they held a referendum there for the population to vote, you can't really consider a referendum held under military occupation to be a free and fair vote. But that that vote did show overwhelming majority of people in Crimea, wanting to be part of the Russian Federation. So again... it was extreme violation of international law. And it certainly did not conform to any sort of standards of a free election. But Putin did use that to sort of give a sense of legitimacy for Russia seizing control of Crimea.

 

Dr. Angela Brintlinger 

So I want to get to our last questions here. We have a few minutes left. Phil Kline just says great summary. Thank you, and he wants to talk about Belarus. Belarus is being forced into greater integration and alliance with Russia. Can you speak to the invasion of Ukraine being part of Putin trying to forge a greater Russia? It seems similar to Hitler trying to form a greater Germany. Surely Putin could have learned from this failure? Alas, yeah. About that greater Russia?

 

Dr. David Hoffmann 

Yeah, right. So I think that Belarus, let me say first, Belarus has almost become a vassal state of Russia. You know, there were protests against Lukashenko, the President of Belarus that were only put down with Russian aid. So he is actually dependent on Putin and the Russian government to stay in power in Belarus. So, unfortunately, that means that really, you know, this is almost... we're almost to a stage where Belarus could be absorbed by Russia. I don't know if that will happen or not. But in any case, it... Belarus does not have any real independence from Russia, or independent foreign policy. And we saw that at the start of Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Russian troops came in from Belarus, as well as from Russia. So is this part of a greater Russia? You know, I think that Putin does, in fact, see Belarus and Ukraine as kind of parts of Russia. And he doesn't, you know, some of this may be propaganda to legitimize his invasion of Ukraine, which is for geopolitical reasons. But it also seems that he, he does not really recognize the people of Belarus or the people of Ukraine as independent peoples.  So yeah, I guess you could consider that in particular, these two former Soviet Republics would be the two that he would most consider part of Russia, if you wanted to form a greater Russia. These would be the territories that he would most like to take control of.

 

Dr. Angela Brintlinger 

We have one more question about China stepping into bolster Russia's economy. But I...wonder if you could actually address the question... of what Putin's actions have done and what this war has done to create and solidify the Ukrainian nation, including Russophone-Ukrainians. I don't know whether which of those questions you want to ask. We really don't have much time. It's your choice.

 

Dr. David Hoffmann 

Yeah. Okay, so let me speak to that question about Ukrainians. So... if Putin's goal was to deny that Ukrainians are a people, and just say they're a subset of the Russians, he's achieved the exact opposite. Because this has inspired a great deal of Ukrainian patriotism, even Russian, even many Russian-speaking Ukrainians, you know, they feel a strong sense of allegiance to Ukraine, they don't want their country dismembered, they don't want it invaded by Russia. So if anything, this has greatly strengthened Ukrainian national identity and Ukrainian nationalism. So... this war, this Russian invasion, certainly has, in some ways overcome some of the divides that used to exist within Ukraine, there used to be quite a divide between strong Ukrainian nationalism in the West, and Russian speaking Ukrainians in the East. And now I think... for much of the population, they feel strong unity as one Ukrainian people.

 

Dr. Angela Brintlinger 

Well, I think that's it. I want to respect your time and our audience's time. I think that's a good place to to end our conversation today. This was super David, I really want to thank you. Everyone, we will be able to offer this as a recording. I'd watch for it [on] the Slavic Center newsletter as well as Origins's website, I think we'll be able to offer this webinar for other people to share with your family and friends. Again, thank you for caring about Ukraine. Thank you for learning about Ukraine. We have one more lecture in our series, we will talk with Jaro Bilocerkowycz, who is a professor at the University of Dayton, [a] professor of political science, along with Paul Morrow, who is at the Human Rights Center at the University of Dayton, next week at this time for the last in our series. The war has not ended. The series will end for now, as we come to the end of our semester, but we will continue to do our best to keep you informed about the contexts and the repercussions of this terrible war in Ukraine. Thank you, everyone. Appreciate it.

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