The Gist: Will Russia Invade Ukraine?

Author: Margaret Fosmoe ’85

Russia Ukraine Split Flag

Ukraine has drawn the eyes of the world in recent weeks as Russian troops have massed along its eastern border, prompting threats of sanctions by the U.S. and Europe, and military deployment by NATO allies.

Will Russian President Vladimir Putin order an attack on the sovereign nation, which was part of the Soviet Union before it collapsed in 1991?


Three campus experts discussed the possibilities during a virtual panel discussion Wednesday, January 26, about the heightened tensions. The discussion was moderated by Clemens Sedmak, director of the Nanovic Institute.

Selections from the panelists:


Taras Dobko, associate professor of philosophy and senior vice-rector at Ukrainian Catholic University, current visiting scholar at the Nanovic Institute:

As we observe the situation on the Ukrainian border, we seem to be on the brink of new war in Eastern Europe. The military buildup of Russian troops may develop either into a full-scale invasion of Ukraine or local targeted operations in an attempt to destabilize the country and induce panic in the population.

Putin wants sovereign Ukraine to collapse and become part of the Russian world. So he perceives independent and democratic Ukraine as a threat to his authoritarian regime and his dreams about restoring the imperial greatness of Russia.

Putin is not trying to improve relations. He tries to fracture NATO and weaken the European security system. So there is no guarantee that Putin’s Russia stops at Ukraine.

As soon as you start to address one of Putin’s demands, be sure, there will be another one.

Putin believes Ukrainians to be an integral part of the Russian people, with no right to their own political identity. Second, Putin believes that Ukraine is a house of cards, an artificial, fake and failed state created to make Russia less great. Third, Putin fears democracy in Ukraine. And fourth, Putin strives for the symbolic restoration of the Soviet Union in a new imperial Russia.

Mary Ellen O’Connell, Robert & Marion Short Professor of Law and research professor of International Dispute Resolution, Notre Dame:

Ukraine became a fully sovereign state . . . under an agreement with Russia in 1991. The international borders that Ukraine had at that time remain its borders under international law, unless and until Ukraine would give its own authentic consent to changes.

There’s also reason why Russia is concerned legitimately for its status and security in the world. And some of those concerns are related to broken promises.

First with regard to Russia’s status in the world: It believes that the 1990 promise made by the United States that NATO would not expand into the former sphere of influence of the Soviet Union has been broken. That plainly undermined Russia’s status to have NATO moving in on territory and in a geographic space that it considers vital to its security and cultural and other interests.

In addition . . . the United States and its Western allies have done a great deal to undermine the status of the United Nations, including the privileged status of the five permanent members of the Security Council. That, of course, includes Russia.

The U.S. has acted in disregard of the rules and system — the very system that it now demands Russia obey.  If, however, Russia were to invade — despite, perhaps, clear grievances — a full invasion to take over Ukraine will be a blow to the international system from which it may not recover. It’s on the order of magnitude of when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, an act of aggression in clear violation of the United Nations charter and other principles.

The world came together in 1990 — unanimously, including the Soviet Union — to end that use of force against Kuwait, to liberate Kuwait. And it did so successfully. It will be imperative — if we’re going to retain this system, this rules-based order based on the prohibition of the use of force — for the world to act effectively against any attempt to fully invade Ukraine.

The (U.N.) General Assembly should be in session right now under the Uniting for Peace resolution. And it’s a real failure of the Biden administration that they have not called that meeting and gotten the international community coalescing in support of Ukraine against Russia.


Michael Desch, Packey J. Dee Professor of Political Science and Brian and Jeannelle Brady Family Director of the Notre Dame International Security Center:

My bottom line is a bad news/good news story. The bad news is I don’t think the United States and the international community will do the right things. . . . On the other hand, I don’t think that this crisis is going to end with a bang. It will end, if it does end, with a whimper.

The historical record is very clear that the United States gave the Soviet Union verbal assurances that we would not expand NATO.

It was in 2008 at Bucharest where — largely at the urging of the United States and the Bush administration — NATO formally opened the door to membership by Georgia and Ukraine, not Eastern European countries, but former integral parts of the Soviet Union. So that’s mistake No. 1.

Mistake No. 2 was our well-intentioned, but ultimately counterproductive effort in the ’90s through the Nunn-Lugar Act to denuclearize Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan. The arguments were reasonable about why we would want them to denuclearize, but in terms of the geopolitical situation that those countries were in and the likelihood that they would feel pressed living so close to Russia, that was clearly going to be a downside of the Nunn-Lugar process.

Here we are in a peripheral fight with Russia over a secondary interest in terms of American interests, when we should be doing everything we can to divide Putin and (Chinese Premier) Xi (Jinping), who — by the way — are not natural allies.

We hate Putin in the West. And to be sure, he deserves it. He’s a rotten guy. But just because he is a rotten guy does not mean that he’s wrong about everything or that he doesn’t speak for the majority of the Russian people who regard not only the collapse of the Soviet Union and the expansion of NATO into post-Soviet space as a humiliation, but they also regarded it as a pressing security threat.

I don’t believe that President Putin is ultimately going to invade Ukraine. I think that he’s keeping the pot boiling in order to get concessions. And it seems to me one concession that we could make would be to say that Ukraine will not get NATO membership.

Margaret Fosmoe is an associate editor of this magazine.