With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine ongoing, Utah State University assistant professor of political science Anna O. Pechenkina agreed to share her unique perspective about the conflict.

Pechenkina earned her bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Mississippi and both of her graduate degrees from Penn State University: a master’s degree in international relations and a doctorate of political science. Her research focuses on how peace emerges out of war and why it succeeds or fails.

Deseret News: As an ethnic Russian who was raised in eastern Ukraine and still has family there, what was your initial reaction to the news that Russia had invaded Ukraine?

Anna O. Pechenkina: Complete shock. Imagine someone told you that the United States (the stronger neighbor) would invade Canada (the weaker neighbor) in the future. Yes, the stronger side has the capacity to carry out an invasion but given the deep economic and cultural ties between the countries, you would dismiss such a forecast as inconceivable. Most of my friends and family in both Ukraine and in Russia are completely stunned by Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Many prominent figures inside Russia have described this as fratricidal war, underscoring that this is a conflict against a country where many Russians have family ties.  

DN: Why did Russia invade Ukraine now? Has Russian President Vladimir Putin ever recognized Ukraine’s now 30-year-old independence, or is it, in his eyes, part of “spiritual Russia”?

AP: Indeed, Putin regularly emphasizes that he does not view Ukraine as a sovereign state that can make its own decisions in the international arena. Yet, Russia’s violent aggressive actions against Ukraine have not occurred regularly during his 22-year rule. Two spells of aggression stand out. In 2014-2015, Russia annexed Crimea and instigated the Donbas War that was geographically contained to the eastmost provinces of Ukraine, Donetsk and Luhansk. Then, the current spell in 2021-2022. In 2021, a massive display of force on Ukraine’s borders and a full-scale invasion of Ukraine was initiated on Feb. 24. The invasion occurred seven years after the Minsk II ceasefire agreement was signed in February 2015, so, why did Putin assemble troops on Ukraine’s border in 2021 and ultimately invaded in early 2022? The reasons include immediate triggers that occurred in 2021 and longer-term westward shift inside Ukraine, refusal to implement the Minsk II agreement, and NATO’s arming of Ukraine. 

The immediate reasons include: 

  • Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s campaign against “Russian agents in Ukraine” in early 2021. Zelensky closed three pro-Russia TV channels in Ukraine owned by oligarch Viktor Medvedchuk and froze Medvedchuk’s financial assets. This campaign of closing sources of pro-Russian information inside Ukraine and Medvedchuk’s house arrest (Medvedchuk is also widely believed to be Putin’s daughter’s godfather) must have angered Putin. Since these actions followed a phone call with Secretary of State Antony Blinken, they are widely interpreted in Russia as Zelenskyy’s government becoming a puppet of the U.S. and not an independent player.
  • Germany’s election results in September 2021 led to the Christian Democratic Union not being in the governing coalition, which likely made Putin think that Germany would not join sanctions against Nord Stream 2 pipeline. Indeed, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz refused to say explicitly in early February that Germany would freeze the certification of Nord Stream 2 pipeline. a clear statement of threat. 

Germany froze the certification of the pipeline on Feb. 22, which came as a relief to Western policymakers; this move was not viewed as a certainty inside Russia before the events of Feb. 22-24.

The context for these immediate triggers is the long-term westward shift among Ukrainians which creates a pressure on Russia (as perceived by Putin) to act now rather than later because otherwise it will be too late in the future. In particular:

  • A measurable shift of Ukraine’s public opinion in favor of Euro-Atlantic integration and against integration with Russia. In 2013 (immediately before 2014, the watershed year when Russia annexed Crimea and instigated the Donbas War in Ukraine’s east), only 34% of Ukrainians favored membership in NATO, while in January of 2022, close to 60% of Ukrainians support NATO membership. 

This idea is so popular in Ukraine that in February 2019, the parliament passed and former President Petro Poroshenko of Ukraine (who lost the election in May 2019 to Zelenskyy) signed a constitutional amendment that states Ukraine’s strategic goal of NATO and EU membership. 

This move, I am sure, also angered Putin. But the tragedy of this situation is that Ukrainians’ desire to join NATO was largely manufactured by Putin’s aggression against Ukraine in 2014. Putin has only his own policy to blame for it.  

  • Ukraine’s refusal to implement the Minsk II peace agreement signed in February 2015. It is important to understand that no government in Ukraine could implement this agreement because it would de facto grant Russia a legal veto over Ukraine’s foreign policy through its Donbas proxies (the agreement required local elections in the Donbas without establishing control over that territory first and granting the disputed enclaves a special status).  

While Zelenskyy was elected in 2019 as a pro-peace candidate on a platform of resolving the Donbas conflict. Some context: for seven years, since 2015, there were ceasefire violations between the DNR/LNR rebel armies backed by Russia and Ukrainian military stationed along the line of separation in the Donbas. By late 2020, Zelenskyy was backed into the corner by Putin who insisted that Ukraine must comply with the Minsk II peace agreement as it is written down and refused to renegotiate the terms; Putin also recruited European leaders to pressure Ukraine to implement this agreement.

  • NATO increased supply of weapons to Ukraine since 2018 (mainly by the United States and Turkey). This is interpreted by Russia as a security threat because if they let this trend continue the war against Ukraine in the future would be much costlier than a war today. 

DN: How do you see this playing out?

AP: The “hopeful for Ukraine” scenario would be that sufficient resistance by Ukrainian military and citizens would slow down the advancement of Russian troops. The initial projection by the U.S. intelligence was that Kyiv would fall in four days. If it takes a week instead, then potentially this invasion could be seen as too costly inside Russia and Putin could scale down his objectives. While such a scenario is unlikely, we’ve seen many acts of heroism and defiance from Ukraine’s military — the defending armies are oftentimes more motivated than the aggressors. In this case, Russia could potentially settle for Ukraine repealing its constitutional amendment about joining NATO and EU and committing to a neutral status (the Finland model). 

Additionally, another source of pressure on Putin here is public opinion inside Russia. Few wars are popular after their initial period. The longer Ukraine is able to mount the resistance and make this war last, the stronger the anti-war movement would normally become — although, of course, peaceful protests in Russia are risky and costly because of severe fines and police brutality, so it is unclear how much pressure could be placed on Putin from inside.

Given the disparity in military power, the likeliest outcome is that Russia will take over Kyiv quickly. Russia’s political objective is to install a pro-Russia government in Ukraine in perpetuity. While Putin and his officials claim that they do not plan to occupy Ukraine, I do not see how a pro-Russia government in Ukraine is achievable without a long-term occupation and outlawing of free and fair elections in Ukraine. 

Additionally, on Feb. 25, we received a glimpse of how Putin wants this invasion to be portrayed. Russian propaganda TV portrays this invasion as “liberation of Ukrainians from an illegal regime in Kyiv.” Putin and Lavrov (Russia’s foreign minister) issued statements on Feb. 25 in which they reiterated that Russia “does not plan to occupy Ukraine,” instead Russia plans to “liberate” Ukrainian people from “Nazis who captured power in Kyiv.” Putin also called on Ukraine’s military to carry out a coup d’état. So this is what Putin hopes will happen: a swift takeover of the capital, and Russian TV portraying Russian army as “liberators” of Ukraine.

It is unclear to me how much Putin believes his own words here, but I want to emphasize that these claims are divorced from reality. For example, the reference to “Nazis” — while a special obsession of Putin’s — has no basis.

First, President Zelenskyy is an ethnic Jew who was elected by 73% majority in 2019.

Second, Putin’s language refers to a far-right group that participated in the Euromaidan protests in 2013 that overturned Ukraine’s then pro-Russia government in early 2014 (the precursor event to the annexation of Crimea). That far-right group later formed a political party that did not receive enough votes to receive seats in the national parliament. One of its leaders ran for president in 2014 and received less than 1% of the popular vote! To recap: there is no basis for these claims, Ukraine is governed by a democratically elected government.

Additionally, Russian propaganda TV also often alludes to the campaign of discrimination (sometimes, described as “genocide”) against Russians and Russian speakers inside Ukraine. This is also false. The Russian language is widely spoken throughout the country. Ethnic Russians in Ukraine enjoy full political rights. 

DN: What is the appropriate role for the United States in this conflict? Are sanctions, collective statements of disapproval and coalition building effective deterrents to Putin’s aggression?

AP: As deterrents, these actions have failed. Deterrent threats succeed if you do not need to follow up on them. However, in the long run, if the European allies withstand the pain of these sanctions, they could work in completely isolating Russia’s economy and reorienting European energy market to other suppliers, so that Putin’s leverage over European leaders is diminished in the long run. Ideally, these sanctions should be styled after sanctions on Iran imposed in 2006 (targeting both energy and technology sectors) which ultimately incentivized Iranian elites to initiate negotiations around their nuclear program which eventually led to the signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (commonly as the Iran nuclear deal). This should be a long-term project, as it will take time to reduce Europe’s reliance on Russia’s energy supplies. 

DN: What are the implications of this conflict for the United States, i.e., the specter of cyberattacks, inflation, worsening supply chain issues, stock market instability, but also, as a superpower that other nations have historically relied upon to push back against autocrats/dictators? 

AP: Yes, inflation is a likely consequence due to the disruption of energy markets. Regarding cyberattacks, I hope the administration will take a proportional approach when responding because escalation often is difficult to control. 

Some observers in the U.S. have called for a more muscular response. I would like to caution against such ideas. It is important to remember that for Russia, Ukraine is a key national interest, while the U.S. national interests are not threatened by this war. Ukraine is only a peripheral issue. While, of course, we’ll hear the rhetoric of democracy under attack, a confrontation between nuclear powers always carries the risk of a catastrophic mistake, technological failure, or accident. I appreciate the very clear line that the Biden administration has drawn by emphasizing that no troops would be sent to Ukraine. While it is heartbreaking to watch this catastrophe unfolding, it is in humanity’s interest for this war to remain a regional one.