How the War in Ukraine Could EndIGIER VISITING STUDENT VAASAVI UNNAVA REPORTS ON THE SEMINAR BY PROFESSORS MCFAUL (STANFORD) AND GURIEV (SCIENCES PO) ON THE RUSSIAN UKRAINIAN WAR
If those in the United States refer to the opening fire of their Revolutionary War as the “shot heard around the world,” then it might be apt to consider the beginnings of the Russian invasion of Ukraine as the “shots watched around the world.” The war has profoundly changed perspectives on international relations globally; the depth of the reaction across Europe is unprecedented: Switzerland broke a longstanding tradition of neutrality to issue sanctions, both Sweden and Finland renewed considerations to join NATO, and governments in Europe have recast energy independence as a matter of national security.
How did we get here? At the IGIER Policy Seminar on April 4th, two prominent scholars—former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Ambassador Michael McFaul, now Professor of International Studies at Stanford University, and Professor Sergei Guriev, Professor of Economics at Sciences Po—joined Bocconi faculty, students, and staff to shed insight into the Russian-Ukrainian war and how the war might be resolved, in a panel moderated by Bocconi Professor Massimo Morelli.
In the discussion, former Ambassador McFaul outlined his belief in the rationality of Putinism as the underlying reasoning for the invasion of Ukraine: though President Putin is not inherently fearful of NATO expansion, he does fear the expansion of liberalism to Ukraine, a territory so compositionally like Russia that his mandate is under threat should liberalism work. Professor Guriev agreed, noting that President Putin feared the democratization of all neighboring countries, but Ukraine was different. The neutrality of Ukraine between western liberalism and Russian hegemony is necessary, though as former Ambassador McFaul pointed out, its joining NATO was never a consideration.
Professor Guriev additionally cast the invasion of Ukraine as a miscalculation: President Putin, facing waning popularity given his handling of COVID, needed another move like the annexation of Crimea to increase his polling numbers, and overestimated the ease at which his forces could conquer the whole of Ukraine. In this miscalculation, the war has endured for much longer than the quick occupation of Crimea.
This may not be due to as much internal resistance: former Ambassador McFaul noted that even with the sanctions, President Putin still has the spending power to continue paying his army, while Professor Guriev later added that while President Putin is facing some internal resistance in Russia for an unpopular war, he is also not under major threat from the Russian elite. Instead, former Ambassador McFaul commended the work of the Ukrainian army to continue to fight against a larger force, with a special emphasis on their ability to retake the city of Kiev.
Though NATO countries have made the explicit choice not to directly participate in the war, their sanctions appear at least partially effective. Professor Guriev noted that there appear to be few international banks willing to transact with Russia. The initial set of sanctions have affected macroeconomic stability, decreasing the strength of the ruble and increasing inflation to two to three percent per week for the last few weeks, only now slowing down. However, this is yet to spill over into spending power for the army. By some estimations, Professor Guriev added, a 40% tariff on gas and oil would mean an 80% decline of exports of Russian gas, properly decreasing spending power for the army. This would make tariffs the most important tool that NATO countries have to end the war.
However, there is a third global power whose participation is essential—China. Former Ambassador McFaul argued that the Chinese government, though enjoying the presence of another major autocracy in the current world order, is reluctant to support the actions of Russia. There is an asymmetry, he notes, in their relationship—for its size, Russia’s exports of mostly raw materials fall short of the expectations many Chinese government officials have of the country. Russia, to Chinese officials, is a destructive revisionist power; for the Chinese government, participating actively in the new world order is of higher importance.
How might this war end? With the progression of the war, it seems for now that a possible end is in sight. Given President Putin’s movements thus far, former Ambassador McFaul says it seems unlikely nuclear weaponry will be employed in any strategic sense, though its less clear in a tactical sense. Professor Guriev also appended that the use of nuclear weaponry is so taboo, its use would coerce now neutral players off the sidelines, making a large strategic misstep for President Putin. Both Professor Guriev and former Ambassador McFaul agree, however, that the most important consideration in ending the war effectively is respecting the agency of Ukraine.
Respecting Ukrainian agency likely manifests in peace through a version of the neutrality deal currently on the table, respecting the borders that Ukraine itself proposes; however, there are still two major issues. First, it is an open question who will finance the rebuilding of Ukraine, an undertaking so large that Professor Guriev notes it cannot be done without funding from NATO countries. Second is the question of security: how can the world make a credible guarantee that Ukraine is safe? Former Ambassador McFaul believes that credibility is unconditionally tied with real support to the Ukrainian army. Further considerations on sanctions themselves, however, are sticky.
In the new neutrality deal, there appears to be a way for the deaths and destruction in Ukraine to finally cease. Whether this deal will be accepted or changed remains an artifact of a future we are yet to live. However, the critical insights of Professor Guriev and former Ambassador McFaul prove that there is a way forward—one that might forge a tentative peace for Ukraine’s own self-determination, and for its restoration.
by Vaasavi Unnava