When It Comes to Russia and Ukraine, Nothing is Simple

Over the past few months, Russian President Vladimir Putin has built up a massive  military presence on Russia’s border with Ukraine. 

As a result, pundits, politicians, and casual observers of the news have all been asking the same questions: would President Putin actually invade Ukraine? And if so, what would that mean for the rest of the world? 

These are fair questions, of course. But Michael Kennedy, our guest on this week’s episode of Trending Globally, thinks this framing might actually obscure more than it illuminates.

Michael is a professor of sociology at the Watson Institute and an expert on social transformation in Eastern Europe in the post-Cold War era. He’s written and taught extensively on Ukraine, and on this episode he helps make sense of this crisis that defies easy explanation. 

Despite the complexity of the situation, there’s one thing Michael wants us all to see clearly right now: the stakes of this crisis – for the Ukraine, the US, and democracies around the world – couldn’t be higher.  

Learn more about the Watson Institute’s other podcasts. 


DAN RICHARDS: From the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University, this is Trending Globally. I'm Dan Richards. Over the last few months, Russian President Vladimir Putin has built up a military presence of over 130,000 troops on Russia's border with Ukraine.

SUBJECT 1: US intelligence says Russia is preparing to invade Ukraine. President Biden says the US is taking steps to make it "very, very difficult for that to happen."

SUBJECT 2: War clouds in Eastern Europe signs of a conflict between Russia and Ukraine, and it could erupt soon.

DAN RICHARDS: One question you've maybe seen raised on TV or online or maybe you're thinking to yourself, would Putin actually invade Ukraine? And if so, what would that mean for us? But our guest today Michael Kennedy thinks this kind of framing might actually obscure more than it illuminates. For one thing--

MICHAEL KENNEDY: It's not a question of whether he will invade or whether he won't invade. He has already invaded. He has already taken Crimea. He has already occupying the Donbas. So the war has already begun.

DAN RICHARDS: Michael is a professor of sociology at the Watson Institute, and is an expert on social transformation in Eastern Europe in the post-cold war era. He's written and taught extensively on Ukraine and is just a person to help make sense of this crisis, one which defies easy explanation. Despite the complexities though, there is one thing Michael wants us all to see clearly right now. The stakes of this crisis for Ukraine, the US, and democracies around the world, it couldn't be higher.

MICHAEL KENNEDY: How this crisis plays out will determine the future of the world in this sense. Will it pay for those with power to disregard the rules in order to get what they want? And if that happens, war could break out all over.

DAN RICHARDS: On this episode, Michael Kennedy on where this current crisis came from, where it might be headed, and what it has to teach us about the world today.


Michael Kennedy, thank you so much for coming on Trending Globally.

MICHAEL KENNEDY: It's my pleasure. Thanks for inviting me.

DAN RICHARDS: So Michael, before we get into the crisis as it stands right now, I was wondering if for listeners who maybe aren't that familiar with Ukraine and Russian history, I was wondering if we could start by just explaining the relationship between these two countries a little, and why it's maybe such a special relationship in the eyes of Vladimir Putin.

MICHAEL KENNEDY: So Russia was the largest and most significant power within the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union had 15 Soviet Socialist Republics, and Russia was the leading actor. Ukraine, you could say was the second most important actor. Many of the Soviet Union's leaders came from Ukraine. The other 13 Soviet Socialist Republics were not nearly so powerful nor so important to the self-identified mythology that Ukraine and Russia are basically one people. They are not one people, but they are closely related, especially closely related the further East you go in Ukraine.

DAN RICHARDS: Well and related to that is something I've seen at least a few times in the media recently sort of an expression of surprise over how physically large the country of Ukraine is. It's a little embarrassing, but I think it's something maybe a lot of people in the US or the West weren't maybe all too aware of before a few weeks ago.

MICHAEL KENNEDY: It's huge, of course, but it's not just the size that matters. It's also because of the infrastructure that it has. It did give up nuclear weapons in the end of the Soviet Union in order to create peace in Europe, but it has retained pipelines that provide the principal transit route for Russian gas to European consumers.

DAN RICHARDS: But as Michael explained, it wasn't just cultural or economic ties that bind these two countries in the eyes of Putin, it goes much deeper in ways that really shaped this crisis. And this also relates to something we wanted to note before we get much farther into the conversation. Michael was adamant that when we talk about geopolitics in this region right now, that we don't speak in terms of what Russia wants or what Russia is doing.

As Michael explained, to do so masks the fact that Russia is a large and heterogeneous country. One that's currently under the rule of an authoritarian leader. And it's this leader, Vladimir Putin, who is the actor we should be focusing on in this crisis, not on some entity that we call Russia. So for all of these reasons, before we get back to what's going on now in this crisis, we might actually need a little refresher on Vladimir Putin himself and the moment that saw his rise to power.

MICHAEL KENNEDY: So Putin came into power at the beginning of this century or at the end of the last century. We didn't know who he was. He was kind of this unknown former KGB guy. And he's turned out to be a far more tactically brilliant leader of Russia than anyone ever expected. But that comes on the heels of an assumption that was profoundly erroneous through the nineteen-nineties. And that was that Russia was permanently defeated, that it was always going to be a second class power.

Most Russians had difficulty swallowing that, especially when all the promises of that radiant future through markets and democracy did not come to pass. So many people right now are fond of referring to Putin's recent manifesto, in which he talks about the raw deal Russia got at the end of the Cold War, and also the enduring brotherhood of Russia and Ukraine.

DAN RICHARDS: Putin has also referred to the collapse of the Soviet Union as a "major geopolitical disaster", and that it's stranded fellow countrymen in other countries, such as in Ukraine. And while some former Soviet Republics have forged bright new paths in the new millennium, others have been less successful. In Ukraine, efforts have been particularly stifled by Putin's belief that true Ukrainian independence would mean yet another piece of Russia lost to the West.

MICHAEL KENNEDY: In my second book m I wound up comparing Estonia and Ukraine. And Estonia has fulfilled the promise of what the West offered. Russia has refused the invitation. Ukraine also accepted the invitation, but it hasn't been nearly so promising. Not only because Ukraine is so much bigger and so much more complicated, but also because Putin has been trying to undermine the experiment Ukraine has undertaken to become "part of the West".

DAN RICHARDS: And what we're seeing on the Russian Ukrainian border right now is partially just this, a Russian effort to undermine Ukraine's growing independence. It's also, in many ways, like what happened almost exactly eight years ago. In Twenty-Fourteen, Ukrainians overthrew their government, which at the time was led by a Russian Allied President Viktor Yanukovych. After months of bloodshed, much of it in Ukraine's capital, the president fled.

SUBJECT 3: For three months now, the protesters have been demanding closer economic ties with Western Europe.

SUBJECT 4: The center of Kiev Ukraine's capital is now under the control of anti-government protesters.

DAN RICHARDS: In response, Putin sent Russian troops into parts of Eastern Ukraine, including Crimea and the Donbas. These are areas that Russia continues to occupy. And the violence that accompanied this invasion, it never really ended. According to the Ukrainian government between Twenty-Fourteen and today, roughly 14,000 Ukrainians have died, which is why according to Michael, trying to understand the exact initial spark of this current build up, it kind of misses the point. This crisis has been going on for years. And in some ways, it's just a part of a series of crises that goes way beyond the Ukraine. And seeing this bigger pattern is essential for understanding the stakes of this moment.

MICHAEL KENNEDY: The most obvious predecessor to this incursion into Ukraine is what happened in Georgia in Two-Thousand-and-Eight. The reason that that's a significant precursor is because Georgia is the only sovereign state that Putin actually attacked before he attacked Ukraine. And what's also very important to keep in mind is that gambit one for Putin. Why? Because by taking advantage of unrest in parts of Georgia, Putin has been able to establish military alliances and bases that, in effect, would prohibit Georgia from ever joining NATO. Just like he's trying to prohibit Ukraine from joining NATO.

DAN RICHARDS: Would you also put Belarus into this pattern?

MICHAEL KENNEDY: It's actually a critical part of the story. Obviously, it's really important in this security crisis we face now because Putin has with the support of Lukashenko, who is the leader of Belarus, the dictator of Belarus has moved troops into Belarus so that he can invade from Belarus and go directly to Kiev, Ukraine's capital. But the crucial thing about Belarus in that even though Putin is only a backstage player in this, he does not want the Democratic revolution that has begun in Belarus to succeed. In fact, this is what unites Ukraine and Belarus.

One might say, that if Belarus were to overthrow Lukashenko and establish the legitimate Democratic government associated with Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, if they were to do that. they would show their Russian cousins that it is possible to have democracy in a post-Soviet space. Belarus is key to solving so many issues. And we should keep this in mind, a risk one more story that shows how this is part of a pattern. Putin came to power and established his leadership in what is called the Second Chechen War. The First Chechen War took place in the middle of nineteen-nineties. It's a complicated story.

I'd recommend people read [INAUDIBLE] for more on that. However, in the Second Chechen War at the beginning of the century, Putin established his legitimacy. Among those more racist and violent parts of the Russian populace by brutally attacking Chechnya and winning but at the cost of innumerable war crimes. So from Two-Thousand to Two-Thousand-and-Eight to Twenty-Fourteen when Putin attacked Ukraine in Crimea and in its Donbas, and now Twenty-Twenty-Two. This is a well-rehearsed strategy for Putin to enhance, maybe not Russia's power, but his own.

DAN RICHARDS: And I guess that brings up the fact that this is bigger than just Putin's interest, in particular, neighboring countries of his. And that this is also a tool he uses as part of a bigger global strategy of his. I was wondering if you could maybe just describe how you view that type of strategy of his.

MICHAEL KENNEDY: So Putin has incredible energy powers with the natural gas he exports. He has incredible military powers, may be seconds in the United States. But what he has that may be greater than anyone in the world is his power to recognize points of vulnerability. But it is accompanied by a profound disrespect for what it is that the United States seeks to lead in the world. The United States and the West more generally seek a rule-based order so that things are more or less predictable. Putin sees that as a weakness because he can throw the West into utter convulsions by acting in ways that rules don't allow. So this is the starting point.

One of my friends from Russia, Lilia Shevtsova, has said that Putin is a master of disruption. Fiona Hill recently in the US government and a specialist on Russia has described his ability as one of creative disruption. She has a better term for it. But these two authors are really good for looking at how to characterize Putin. He doesn't play by the rules. And even if you think about social change, he might have an end game something so broad and vague as restoring Russian imperial power. But he's got about 20 million different routes to get there. And they are all involving disruption of the routine. He has already won in this crisis because he is being negotiated with. Seriously, the whole world is focused on what does Putin want. Boy, if you are a little bit of a narcissist, this is great. Attention is focused on you. And now the question is, how is the West going to respond to this ultimate disruptor?

DAN RICHARDS: Which I guess brings us to another question about this current crisis. In what ways is Ukraine important to the United States?

MICHAEL KENNEDY: So Ukraine is important to the United States for both practical reasons, and also reasons of principle. The practical reasons include the fact that Ukraine is a conduit of energy. That's one thing. The second thing is that Zbigniew Brzezinski, this great strategist for American power, often declared that the only way in which Europe will be free would be if Ukraine can be free. So some geostrategic theorists and practitioners like Brzezinski see Ukraine's autonomy as a critical source in limiting Russian power. I think that's a reasonable assumption.

But there's a far more important thing at work right now beyond the practical and beyond the geostrategic, and that is how this crisis plays out will determine the future of the world in this sense? Will it pay for those with power to disregard the rules in order to get what they want? Or should they play according to the rules of the world imperfect as they are? But at least they are less likely to produce nuclear Holocaust. I have many friends from Taiwan, in Taiwan. And they are telling me China is watching what NATO's response will be to this potential invasion of Ukraine because if Putin succeeds in any measure, China could be emboldened to occupy in a forceful fashion, Taiwan. And if that happens, war could break out all over.

DAN RICHARDS: So according to Michael, the stakes could not be higher. Thankfully though he thinks the US and NATO have learned some valuable lessons in the last eight years, and are finally seeing this threat clearly, maybe for the first time since Putin's rise to power. And that might help us find a new way out of this crisis.

MICHAEL KENNEDY: We should go back to Twenty-Fourteen because that's where the lesson comes from and the failed response by the Obama administration. One of the things that I am appreciative of, I have to say, is that there are so many commentators out there in American media, basically, preparing the American public for a much more serious response to Russia than we've ever done, much more serious. And why? Because we failed in Twenty-Fourteen. Our sanctions were far too pathetic to actually dissuade Putin from his course of action by now, and especially with the ratcheting up of sanctions.

In fact, I read the British Foreign Secretary came up with this great plan to confiscate Russian property in London. That's a great threat. So I think what we have done effectively, and the media has, in a sense, amplified US policy, which is not always the right role for the media but it has played its role in this moment, is that I think and I pray that we have dissuaded Putin from a full scale invasion.

DAN RICHARDS: And this might also be because as Michael sees it, the US and NATO have finally done something that surprised Putin.

MICHAEL KENNEDY: One of the unintended consequences of Putin's aggression, and it's something I am sure he did not anticipate was the terrific solidarity evident now in NATO. If Putin had just continued along as a nice uncle for Ukraine, maybe NATO would have broken up as its own accord. But because he's threatened Ukraine, and because this is clearly dangerous for the security of Europe, he has given NATO now a new reason to exist. The lesson, we have learned is, well, maybe Putin, if you give them enough rope, he'll hang himself.

DAN RICHARDS: I had been hoping to avoid bringing up a certain figure during our conversation. But as we got towards the end, I couldn't help but ask Michael, what role did he think the Trump presidency played in how Americans view this crisis? Do you think Americans are paying more attention to this right now because the feelings are so raw around our last president's relationship with Putin? We used to laugh-- people laughed when Mitt Romney said Russia was a main geopolitical threat. And then I think we all sort of took a second beat on that during the Trump years. And that maybe now we're all just taking it more seriously, and maybe that's like we should be, but like to what extent do you think our own domestic issues maybe have played into how we're looking at foreign policy now in this realm?

MICHAEL KENNEDY: That is such a great question. The last time I was writing a lot about Ukraine was Twenty-Fourteen, and I switched not just because things, all of a sudden, got unproblematic in the region, that's not true at all. But things became so problematic in the United States that my attention shifted for the first time in my life to my own country. And that was because I am a sociologist interested in rapid social change, especially social change that is unpredictable. Trump brought in with his leadership an unpredictable America. In this, he was just like Putin. He didn't want to follow the rules, and in fact, he believed by acting erratically. He could enhance his own status. Just like Putin.

The reason why we're paying so much attention to Ukraine is not however because of Trump. Unfortunately, to my mind, we have yet to deal with the Trump legacy. And in fact, the Trump legacy is not at all past, it endures. What I think is motivating our attention is that people are aware that potential war in Ukraine is cataclysmic. It is cataclysmic. We cannot afford to live in a land of denial. And this might be actually the legacy of Trump. I have to say for all my criticisms of this Biden administration, I am impressed by the degree to which they have mobilized allies across the world to stop Putin from becoming the ultimate disruptor of the world as we know it.

DAN RICHARDS: OK, a final question and you can say no. Do you care to offer any predictions?

MICHAEL KENNEDY: I've never been a policy wonk, but policy wonks do a good thing. And that is that they think in terms of scenarios. They think typically in terms of three. I don't think it's because they're all Catholic, but I think it is because we often think in three. The ideal or the optimal outcome will be that we continue negotiation and the West figures out a way to give Putin an off ramp. And we are reminded in the West and in NATO and in the European Union that Ukraine matters. And that solidarity is critical for solving any major problem. So that's my ideal scenario number one. My hell scenario number two is that Putin says, what the hell? Let's invade and see if the West blinks.

Here, I have no secret information, but I am really afraid that the West cannot blink. It cannot blink. It won't go into Ukraine, initially. It will supply weapons to Ukraine even more. And what will happen, which will make it all worse, is that on the borders of the Baltic states, we're on the border of Poland, there is a skirmish and NATO is forced to act to defend the Baltic states or Poland. And there we have the makings of World War III.

If I had that most likely scenario, it would be that Putin does some kind of minor incursion. And clearly, we are figuring out now what is the best response to a minor incursion. It can't be full-throated war, but it can be something so punishing that Putin actually worries for the stability of his own leadership. That's what I think is likely going on in the White House and in NATO headquarters figuring out what that would be. And if I knew what it would be, I would be there.

DAN RICHARDS: But one thing Michael is sure of crises like we're seeing in Ukraine right now and the threat to democracy they represent, these things won't be resolved on the battlefield alone.

MICHAEL KENNEDY: We can't just say let us assemble an alliance of democracies to oppose these authoritarians. We should, but democracy has to be substantive. Democracy has to be about recognizing the world as it is, not as we fantasized about how it should be. We need to recognize the world's problems in order to make democracy appealing for the younger generations that will succeed us. So in this crisis where we face down Putin, I hope successfully. I hope we don't sit back and say, that was a damn good job. I hope we say, this is the opportunity because we have even bigger problems to face and we need to take the solidarity that we built in the world around defending the world order as it is in order to build a world as it should be.

DAN RICHARDS: Thank you so much, Michael Kennedy for coming in and helping shed some light on this for all of us.

MICHAEL KENNEDY: It's been my honor. Thank you, Dan.

DAN RICHARDS: This episode of Trending Globally was produced by me Dan Richards. Our theme music is by Henry Bloomfield. Additional music by the Blue Dot Sessions. You can learn more about Trending Globally and all of Watson's podcasts on our website. We'll put a link in the show notes. And if you haven't already, please subscribe to Trending Globally. You can find it wherever you listen to podcasts. We'll be back in two weeks with another episode. Thanks.


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Dan Richards

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