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Top tips to understand about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine

February 25, 2022

Ukraine flag flying in cloud
In this 3-things-to-know about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine blog series, we ask our faculty three things we should know about the political, cultural and historical context of these two countries and related foreign policy issues.

Rick LorenzFrederick “Rick” Lorenz is a retired U.S. Marine Colonel, his career as a judge advocate included service in Somalia and with NATO in Bosnia. He served with the United Nations in Kosovo and later consulted for the US State Department on missions to the Republic of Georgia, Kenya, and the Republic of Somaliland. He is now a Senior Lecturer at the Jackson School, and has been teaching International Humanitarian Law (the Law of Armed Conflict) at UW for the past 16 years.  

Jackson School: Is Russia committing war crimes in Ukraine?
Rick Lorenz: International law prohibits indiscriminate or intentional attacks on civilians, and recent reports from Ukraine indicate major violations and presumptive evidence of war crimes by Russia.  In particular, attacks on nuclear generating stations are strictly prohibited, even when they may otherwise be valid military objectives. This is the first major international conflict in Europe since World War II and it is not clear how far Putin will push to achieve his goals, and each day the situation becomes more dangerous.

If Russia is committing war crimes, what can be done about it?
R.L.: Although the actions of Russia have been widely condemned, the United Nations seems powerless because Russia retains veto power in the Security Council.  Investigations have been initiated, and crimes have been documented, but there is no effective enforcement mechanism.  The International Criminal Court has opened a formal investigation but it is slow, poorly equipped, and notoriously ineffective in dealing with the actions of major powers. Still, we might hope that the accusations might cause the Russian leadership to reconsider its current path.

Why will the US not protect Ukraine with a “No-fly Zone?”
At this point the U.S. and NATO have decided not to directly confront Russia on the battlefield, and the declaration of a No-fly Zone would require that Russian aircraft be shot down and destroyed. This could easily escalate the war beyond Ukraine and risk nuclear confrontation. Russia has warned that such action would make the US a “co-combatant” with Ukraine, and this is true under international law. The U.S. and NATO have been supplying weapons to Ukraine that have been very effective, and for now the Russian assault has been stalled.

What to consider one week after Russia invaded Ukraine

Ambassador John Koenig, a practitioner faculty for undergrad and graduate students at the Jackson School, career U.S. Foreign Service diplomat, including as U.S. Ambassador to Cyprus, has also served as a U.S. Deputy Permanent Representative to NATO in Brussels.

Jackson School: What has most surprised you about the invasion? 
Amb. J.K.: Two things. First, the ability of the Ukrainian armed forces and people to slow Russia’s advance, particularly on Kyiv and Kharkiv. This may be tested, however, as Russia ramps up its use of force, including against civilian targets.  Second, the speed and solidarity of the European and international response, especially regarding economic sanctions like excluding Russian banks from SWIFT, but also the sudden, dramatic shift in German defense policy.

Jackson School: What should NATO do next?
Amb. J.K.: NATO should keep doing what it has been doing: mainly reinforcing defense capabilities along NATO’s front line with Russia, and encouraging the supply of lethal and other assistance to the Ukrainian armed forces. The Alliance should prepare to support humanitarian assistance to refugees.  NATO should not take on new missions that would entail direct military engagement between NATO/U.S. and Russian forces, such as a no-fly zone.  This would greatly increase the risk of a wider war that could potentially involve nuclear weapons.

Jackson School: What U.S. foreign policy options remain?
Amb. J.K.: 
We have done enough for now to isolate Russia and put in place sanctions that will punish Putin and his regime for their outrageous invasion of Ukraine.  This, combined with the Ukrainian resistance, creates leverage that may not last. The U.S. should now work with Ukraine, our NATO allies and other partners toward a cease-fire and political resolution of the situation. It may be too early for a breakthrough, but an opening for progress could arise at any moment, and we should look at the ongoing Ukraine-Russia talks hosted by Belarus as a useful opportunity.

This blog was posted on March 2, 2022.

Explainer: Why is the Ukraine-Russia crisis happening?

Scott RadnitzScott Radnitz is the Herbert J. Ellison Associate Professor of Russian and Eurasian Studies and Chair, Ellison Center for Russian, East European and Central Asian Studies and a faculty member at UW’s Center for an Informed Public. His most recent book is on the politics of conspiracy in Russia and post-Soviet states.

Jackson School: Why Ukraine? What is Russia President Putin’s obsession with Ukraine?
Scott Radnitz:
Although we cannot get inside Putin’s head, we can infer from his past actions and words. He has openly railed against the expansion of NATO for years, and has also worked to keep Ukraine in Russia’s sphere of influence. Additionally, he has argued that the West disregarded Russia’s interests after the Cold War. He referred to all these issues at length in his speech before the invasion of Ukraine. Yet Ukraine was nowhere close to being admitted into NATO, so there is no obvious reason why he chose to do this now. The invasion was simply unprovoked and an act of aggression.

Jackson School: What’s the chance of a broader, global war?
S.R.: Any time there is a war, there is the potential for matters to escalate and have unpredictable ripple effects in other countries, including cyber attacks and sanctions. But NATO states, while arming Ukraine, have prioritized avoiding a direct military confrontation with Russia–a nuclear power.

Jackson School: What can the U.S. do?
S.R.: The U.S., and allied countries, tried to deter Russia. Failing that, they are using sanctions to punish Russia economically in the hopes of deterring further aggression or, ultimately, weakening the Putin regime domestically. But, because it has committed to not using military forces in Ukraine, the U.S. impact on ending the invasion can only be indirect.
This blog was posted on Feb. 25, 2022.