Two panels of Harvard experts and scholars examined the historical roots of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and assessed where the situation stands after six days of fighting and whether the West’s tough financial sanctions will nudge Moscow toward a quick resolution.
During a discussion Tuesday afternoon at Harvard Kennedy School moderated by Graham Allison, Douglas Dillon Professor of Government at HKS, analysts said the key to understanding Russia’s motives involves understanding President Vladimir Putin’s sense of injustice over the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s.
“What this is about is the post-Cold War writ large and the way Putin feels that he’s been marginalized by it,” said Mary Sarotte ’88, a professor of historical studies at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C., and an associate of the Center for European Studies at Harvard.
Putin wants to reclaim Ukraine for a mix of historical reasons, but primarily because of Ukraine’s success as an independent nation and its desire to move closer politically and culturally to the West. But the invasion doesn’t mean he is trying to rebuild the Soviet Union.
“I don’t think it’s as simple as Putin putting out a map of the Soviet Union and saying, ‘I want all this back,’” said Sarotte, author of “Not One Inch: America, Russia, and the Making of Post-Cold War Stalemate” (2021). “I think there’s a weird overlap between his generalized grievance about the Soviet loss and the ‘unfair’ post-Cold War order and his specific grievance about Ukraine.”
“The Soviet Union, however flawed its ideology was, had an ideology. Vladimir Putin has no ideology,” said Emily Channell-Justice, director of the Temerty Contemporary Ukraine Program at Harvard’s Ukrainian Research Institute.
The fierce pushback from Ukrainians no doubt caught Putin off guard, which means there will be prolonged aggression until a solution is found, Channell-Justice said.
“Many people have been kind of surprised at the Ukrainian resilience, the Ukrainian response. I’m not, I’ve seen them do it before,” said Channell-Justice, a sociocultural anthropologist who studies political activism and social movements in Ukraine. “People will be fighting for a long time if that is what it takes. But that’s really not a good thing.”