Student Life

Understanding the Ukraine-Russia War: An Interview with Dr. Michael Jacobs

As we speak, a war is raging in Ukraine that has left many wondering, “what the heck is going on?” Oftentimes, foreign conflicts are messy and complicated, making it difficult to assess all the dynamics. Why is Russia invading Ukraine? What is the history between the two countries? What should NATO do? How should Christians respond to the war? I asked some of these questions and more to Dr. Michael Jacobs, who teaches International Relations, American Foreign Policy, and International Political Economy at Gordon College. Dr. Jacobs received his M.A. from the University of Georgia and his Ph.D. from the University of Nevada, Reno.  

Liam Siegler   

I just want to thank you so much for just sitting down and discussing Ukraine and the war that’s happening right now. I’ll just start by asking this question. What was your first impression when you first heard or read that Russia was invading Ukraine? 

Dr. Michael Jacobs   

I was surprised. And here’s why. A few months prior to the invasion, there seemed to be a consensus among the chattering class that a war would not happen, “Putin would not do this, he wouldn’t go this far.” I was watching Fareed Zakaria’s TV show on CNN and he had Ian Bremmer, the president of the Eurasia Foundation on there and then also Neil Ferguson of Stanford’s Hoover Institution. Zakaria asked each of them if there was going to be an invasion. Bremmer said, no, no way. It’s not going to happen. Maybe something in the Donbass, nothing further than that. But Ferguson said he expects there to be an invasion. And then after there’s a little bit of eye rolling, if you will, from Zakaria and Bremmer Ferguson said, “well, I’m not expecting tanks to roll into Kyiv, but I’m expecting an invasion to happen.” So, Ferguson was right, that there was an invasion, but even he didn’t think it was going to be at the scale and scope of what we’re seeing right now.  

So, this is one where I’d say the blob, as foreign policy pundits are sometimes referred to, got it wrong. They didn’t see this one coming. But with hindsight being 20/20, they probably should have. President Putin issued an essay back in July of this year, where he was saying that, effectively, Ukraine isn’t a real country. It has always been and always should be a part of Russia. And then right before the Olympics started, President Xi of China and President Putin issued a joint statement, where they essentially declared that they’re going to have one another’s backs. And there was this comparison between Xi and China’s “rightful claim,” as President Xi puts it, over Taiwan, to Putin and Russia’s “rightful claim” over Ukraine. They put the foreign policy foundation in place to justify the invasion. President Xi gave Putin the green light to invade Ukraine. People were surprised, but in hindsight, we shouldn’t have been. 

Liam Siegler   

That’s very interesting. I guess the next question would be, what is some background information to the war in Ukraine that is important to know? And is there anything that’s not being highlighted or covered by on the traditional corporate news media? Is there anything people are ignoring?  

Dr. Michael Jacobs   

The real quick summary of the situation is, Ukraine wants to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in the European Union, NATO and the EU, and Russia doesn’t want them to. Ukraine wants to join because the Ukrainian people suffered tremendously under the USSR. For instance, there was the Holodomor, the Ukrainian genocide that happened in the early 1930s at the hands of Vladimir Lenin, where somewhere between 5-7 million people died. That’s an important part of Ukrainian history. And don’t forget that every Soviet Republic voted to leave the USSR in 1991. They all voted to be independent nations. Many Ukrainians don’t want to be a part of Russia. They want to be a part of NATO and the European Union.  

We need to go back pretty far to understand Russia and Vladimir Putin’s perspective as well. We could go back further, but at least going back to WWI is helpful. Russia is in WWI, but the Bolshevik revolution happens in 1917, and the Tzarist regime, the Romanov dynasty falls. Lenin takes power and takes Russia out of the war so he can finish the Communist revolution and create the USSR. Consequently, after the war at the Treaty of Versailles, where the Allied powers were deciding what the international order and what Europe was going to look like after the war, the USSR didn’t have a seat at the table. The post-WWI peace, not only wasn’t to Germany’s liking, but it wasn’t to the USSR’s liking, either.  

Fast forward to WWII. One of the big diplomatic issues was deciding the post-WWII order. And really important, from the USSR’s perspective: what is Eastern Europe going to look like? FDR really pressed Stalin to make sure that the countries in Eastern Europe were going to have democratic elections, and they were going to get to be able to choose their own path. Stalin wanted to make sure that they were a part of the Communist Bloc, that they were going to be a part of the USSR’s orbit. This time around, Stalin and the USSR had the upper hand, because at the end of the war, they had hundreds of thousands of troops stationed in Eastern Europe. So consequently, those countries either became a part of the USSR part of the Soviet Bloc.  

So then fast forward again, the Cold War ends, and the communist bloc starts to fall apart in 1989. The Berlin Wall falls and Germany is reunited; Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, all those countries turn away from Communism and leave the Warsaw Pact. And then in 1991, all of the Soviet Socialist Republics, including Russia, and also including Ukraine, decided to dissolve the Soviet Union, go their separate ways, and become independent countries. 

When the USSR dissolved, it was really weak. It was in an economic and political crisis, and it couldn’t prevent these various Republics from all going their separate ways. This is a similar situation compared to what happened at the end of WWI. The post-war order at both the end of the Cold War and the end of WWI happened at a time of Russian or Soviet weakness. Vladimir Putin refers to this, the collapse of the USSR as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.” Understanding that ebb and flow throughout the 20th century is important to be able to understand Vladimir Putin’s motivation, and worldview, for when it comes to dealing with Ukraine in modern times.  

Why does Putin want Ukraine to be in Russia’s sphere of influence, to prevent it from joining NATO and the EU? There are three or four basic reasons. One is that cultural/historical point that I mentioned earlier that Vladimir Putin wrote about in that essay he published in July. This is the idea that the Kyiv is the birthplace, if you will, of the Russian people. Russians see it as an important part of their tradition, and they see Ukrainians as naturally being a part of Russia.  

The second one is security. Multiple European armies, from Napoleon, to Germany in WWI/WWII, attacked Russia, causing millions of deaths. Russia and Vladimir Putin now see that part of Eastern Europe, and Ukraine in particular, as an important buffer that at least needs to stay neutral.  

Next there are the political/economic reasons. If Ukraine joins the EU, then its political systems and its economic systems are going to be oriented towards the West, away from Russia, and brought into the EU’s orbit. Putin is trying to prevent that from happening. He doesn’t want Ukraine to be a free market, Western style democracy. Putin doesn’t want those values leaking into Russia. He is worried they might cause a colored revolution to happen in Moscow.  

Just to be clear, that’s Putin’s logic. That’s just trying to understand the way Vladimir Putin is thinking. It is not a defense of Russia’s invasion. This is an invasion that in no way is justifiable, for instance, according to the just war tradition. It’s a violation of international law, and it’s being conducted in an immoral way, especially with the indiscriminate attacks on civilian populations. However, it’s still important to understand the historical context and the thinking of Vladimir Putin.  

Liam Siegler   

Yeah, that’s very insightful. I know one thing that commentators like to do on both the left and the right, and one thing it’s little discouraging to see, especially considering just the humanitarian implications; everyone wants to blame somebody for what is happening. And there’s really no particular like political party or disposition that isn’t guilty of this, because some people on the right see it from a more nationalistic perspective. And they say, well, NATO aggression is the reason why this is happening, like it’s their fault. And people on the left also have a similar, more cynical type of analysis that also blames NATO, but for different reasons, and they’re more focused on things like imperialism and perhaps like the monetary implications that surrounds this situation, kind of like “the US only cares about this because they want some Ukrainian oil.” How would you say we should parse out those claims and kind of like, who to blame? What the cause and effect is? What, at least for you, is helpful in kind of parsing through those details? 

Dr. Michael Jacobs   

That’s a good question. Let’s be clear: there were celebrations in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, when they joined NATO. They wanted to join NATO. The people of Ukraine, they put this in their new constitution; they want to join NATO and the European Union. So, it’s pretty difficult to argue some form of imperialism, when it’s the countries that actually want to join the institution.  

A more helpful way of framing it is with two valid positions:  viewing whether or not NATO expansion should have happened. The more realist perspective, you know, authors like John Mearsheimer, Stephen Walt, and even going back to Henry Kissinger and George Kennan. They really frown upon NATO’s eastward expansion into the post-Soviet space. They thought that it would make Russia feel less secure. It was done when, like Vladimir Putin said, Russia was in a state of weakness, and it would cause repercussions in the future. It’s a valid position to take and we can see it coming to fruition.  

At the same time, it’s equally valid to make the point that when the USSR, now Russia, joined the UN and signed the UN Charter, it signed on to a system saying that countries get to choose their own treaties and their own partnerships, and their own future. They have sovereignty. Additionally, when the United States and the USSR were negotiating these things in the 1970s, they came to the Helsinki Accords, where they agreed that even in the Eastern Bloc, countries would be able to democratically choose the direction they wanted to go. Now, immediately that didn’t happen. But that’s what the USSR signed on to. In the Budapest Memorandum of 1994, when Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons, the United States and Russia at that point agreed to maintain Ukraine’s sovereignty and protect its borders. And then in 1997, the NATO Russia Founding Act on Mutual Relations, something that Boris Yeltsin signed, then president of Russia, stated that can countries choose their own path, including in the post-Soviet space.  

According to international law and when we think in a moral way about this, countries should be able to choose whether or not they’re in the European Union, whether or not they join NATO, and Russia shouldn’t have a veto over those decisions. Now, I think this is the complexity of the situation. From that moral side, it’s absolutely true. But from the strategic side, that can also be true as well. And this is the difficulty in foreign affairs. It’s possible for a series of just policies, moral policies, to potentially lead to a catastrophic outcome. That could apply to expanding NATO. It should be in those countries’ rights, but Russia has a different view. This threatens them, in understanding the security and being invaded by foreign powers, you can understand that. In other ways there are less legitimate concerns that I went over. But Russia views NATO expansion and European Union expansion as threatening. It is the same conversation with President Zelensky of Ukraine arguing for NATO to have a no-fly zone over Ukraine. And again, it’s their sovereign space, immoral actions are happening by the Russian military conducting an unjust war, but by creating a no-fly zone through NATO forces, that risks a catastrophic outcome.  

The hard truth is, that there isn’t some overlooked policy that could easily solve the situation. All the policies that are on the table here have tradeoffs, and President Biden really has to think about what risks the US is willing to take for what potential benefits. This is the nuance that we need to embrace. We have these moral, principled foreign policy goals and positions, but there has to be some practicality in pursuing them. Because like I said, a minute ago, you can have a series of just policies that could lead to a catastrophic outcome and that’s what we want to avoid in this situation. 

Liam Siegler   

Is there any truth to the claim that Putin desires to remake or reclaim Russia’s influence during the Soviet era? And some people when talking about that possibility, refer to Putin as either a madman, some others talk about him as how he has this highly calculated purpose, or I read that some people speculate whether he’s acting out of desperation, because he’s suffering from health problems, and he wants to see something happen within his lifetime. What do you think we can reasonably infer or speculate based on what we know about Russia, based on what is happening? And that could potentially be insightful for what may happen? 

Dr. Michael Jacobs   

So, in other words, what’s Putin’s endgame? I don’t think Vladimir Putin himself had a clear idea how it was going to play out. There may have been some goals, but he’s been very pragmatic in taking what he can get. Now, if things get really bad, the sanctions really bite, and the regime looks unstable, what is he willing to do? We don’t know. We hope that he’s not that unstable, but could dramatically escalate in various ways, like cutting undersea internet cables, or cyber-attacks, or even nuclear war. These things are all within Russia’s capabilities.  

But it looks like he went into this with at least three stages in mind. The first stage was that initial military buildup on Ukraine’s border. Before he invaded, Putin gave Zelensky an ultimatum. He said, alright, if you sign a treaty committing Ukraine to never join NATO, to never join the EU, and to sign over Crimea and the Donbass region to Russia effectively, say that they’re independent, then Russia won’t invade. Now, would Putin have stopped with that, had he gotten it? We don’t know. Maybe that would have been enough to prevent this war. But of course, this was in no way acceptable to President Zelensky. He couldn’t go back to his own people and say, “yeah, you know how we put in the constitution that we wanted to join the EU and? Well, I just signed a treaty saying that we’re not going to now so that Russia wanted invade us.” Just politically, it was a non-starter.  

Then we got to stage two, which was an attempt by Russia to quickly remove Zelensky’s government from power through a light-footprint war. The goal was to quickly take key sites, like the airport outside of Kyiv, and either kill or capture Zelensky and make him sign a capitulation treaty, and maybe install a pro-Russian regime, we don’t know exactly what Putin was planning. But the Russian military was unable to do that. And they met surprisingly stiff resistance from the Ukrainians. 

Then that took us into stage three, where Putin turned to what we might call the Grozny approach. Grozny is a city in Chechnya. When the people there were resisting and wanted to become independent, Putin’s strategy was just to level the place. And so that’s where we’re at right now in Ukraine. We’re in this tragic part of this war, where Russia is shelling indiscriminately, bombing indiscriminately, attempting to just beat Ukrainians into submission. How does this end? We don’t know. Will Zelensky be forced to negotiate? There have been multiple rounds of negotiations in Minsk. They haven’t gotten anywhere. What would that outcome look like? We just don’t know. But it appears to be this war of attrition that’s happening right now. 

Liam Siegler   

Yeah, I guess kind of shifting over to how the West should respond and kind of how it already has responded, you mentioned this a little bit earlier, one of the big questions is, what should NATOs involvement be? Should they take every measure possible to prevent Ukraine from being taken over? I know, some people are worried that this could potentially wind up into World War III. And that’s whenever a major conflict happens, kind of that’s how we process conflict, like, “oh, this is going to be catastrophic for the entire world.” I guess I’m wondering how valid that fear is? And how does that type of like realism play into how the West should approach Russia right now? 

Dr. Michael Jacobs   

Yeah, I don’t think a WWIII is an immediate fear right now. And that’s because the Biden administration has decided not to escalate militarily. They have denied Zelensky the no-fly zone he’s requested and instead they stuck to the economic sanctions. One thing that could really affect the outcome and Russia’s ability to wage a long war are those economic sanctions. It’s pretty clear that they caught Putin’s regime off guard. Leading into the conflict the chattering class was saying quite frequently that Putin has sanction-proofed to the economy. he built up this $600 billion foreign exchange reserve and they have adjusted the domestic economy so that Russia is less susceptible to sanctions from the West. But Russia sanction-proofed its economy to protect them from the level of sanctions that happened in 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea, which were a lot less severe than what we’re seeing now. Sanctions on Russia’s Central Bank, their two largest banks, cutting those Russian banks from the SWIFT system, the tech sector, so exporting of high technology, high tech gadgetry to Russia is now illegal. Western countries are also preventing Russia’s state owned media companies from operating in the West. And even though these aren’t part of official sanction packages, you have companies like Boeing, Airbus, automobile manufacturers, Nike, sports leagues, all putting pressure on Russia. And that had to catch Vladimir Putin off guard. That sent a major shock through the economy, and you can look at the latest numbers, but their stock market has fallen, the value of their currency has fallen, their interest rates have more than doubled or even tripled.  

So, the sanctions from the West, led by the Biden administration, have been quite severe. It’s been really astonishing to see countries like Germany, that was reluctant to put harsher sanctions on Russia after its invasion of Crimea, to see them go along with the sanctions and then go even further and commit to build up their military forces. And for Switzerland and Sweden, and other countries that normally try and stay out of these sorts of things, to join in the sanctions, too. Whether it’s because of social media, or whether it’s because we spent the last five-plus years with Russia in the news and talking about Russia involvement in elections and Russian assassinations on Western soil, the public has clearly been in support of dramatic sanctions against Russia, and the Russian economy is certainly feeling it. 

Liam Siegler   

I guess one more dimension to the situation. I’m curious if you’d have anything to say about how the oil industry plays into the conflict. I believe Ukraine has some of the largest untapped natural gas deposits in the entire world that they just haven’t been able to extract because they’ve lacked the sufficient infrastructure to do so. In what level is this significant to how this is maybe playing out and how Putin is approaching the war, maybe even how the West is as well? 

Dr. Michael Jacobs   

Yeah, energy is a part of it and I think most of all energy affected the timing. Coming out of COVID, European economies came back to life more quickly than expected. They didn’t refill their strategic reserves for natural gas and they tried to move too rapidly towards green alternatives for energy. And so long story short, they left themselves strategically vulnerable to Russian gas. Particularly Germany, it refused to build the port infrastructure to import, for instance, US natural gas. Lithuania and a few other countries did, but Germany in particular didn’t. At the same time, they’re closing nuclear power plants and trying to move towards a greener, more sustainable future. But their position was geopolitically unsustainable.  

Given the direction Europe is heading with green energy, this was probably the height of energy leverage that Russia was ever going to have on Europe. And so I think what made Vladimir Putin think, one, given the very tepid response from the 2014 annexation of Crimea and how the Europeans really didn’t do much in the grand scheme of things to respond to it. And then also, given the economic leverage they had because of the oil and gas dependency on Russia. If Putin was going to pressure Ukraine to pivot away from the EU and NATO, this was going to be the time to do it.  

Liam Siegler   

I suppose my last question, just curious to people who maybe aren’t invested a whole lot into foreign politics and are looking at this from kind of like a Christian perspective, how should Christians respond to war? From a Christian perspective, what is a healthy way of approaching this? I know it’s very easy to get trapped into cultures of fear. So, I know you’re very involved in learning more about the geopolitical dimensions to this and how it relates to your discipline. I guess just yourself as a believer, as a Christian, what has helped you in being able to process what’s happened? Because I think it’s really shook the world and it has kind of made a lot of people wake up to the reality that pain and suffering do exist, that we’re not going to live in the stable geopolitical climate for the rest of our lives, that there are things that can shake it. What do you have to say? 

Dr. Michael Jacobs   

Yeah, that’s a good point. Yeah, especially for your generation, people that really have no recollection of the 9/11 attacks. Your generation witnessed the Arab Spring, but that was sort of out there on the periphery, not covered as closely, not as much in our conversation as this is. And so it is your generation’s first real brush with geopolitics and like you said, people are coming to the awareness that this this post-Cold War liberal international order, isn’t quite as rule based and liberal as we hoped it was.  

I was sort of hinting at some of these things earlier. As Christians, it’s good to avoid both despair and idealism. We need to live in that messy in between area. Hopefully that nuance will shape our expectations for policymakers, too. We want our policy makers to care about justice, but we don’t want to push them to overly-idealistic and ideological solutions that might just make matters worse. Like I said earlier, it’s possible to execute a series of completely just policies that lead to a catastrophic outcome. We need to remember that sometimes the best that we can do is just to make the world a little bit safer and a little bit more stable, even if it doesn’t completely conform to our standards of justice and how we think things should be. 

And then also when assessing the Biden administration’s policies, there can also be a tendency among analysts to assess a President’s foreign policy by thinking there’s this one policy that could solve everything. We need to avoid hubris and to realize that the United States can’t control every event that’s happening in the world. There are other countries and people that have their interests and perspectives, some of them are better than others, and they’re going to be involved in determining outcomes as well. And so, we need to live in that complexity, to live in that messiness, to seek what’s better, and what’s good.  

Liam Siegler   

Well, thank you, a lot of that was just personally helpful to me, just as I weigh out the different dynamics, because I think it’s very easy to get carried away with, like idealistic solutions, but also, when realizing that some of the idealism is fake, and it’s just imaginary, to kind of fall into despair about like, oh, we can’t do anything, everything is falling apart. And it’s helpful, kind of what you were saying, to just live in that messiness, to realize that we live in a fallen, broken world and that our expectations don’t lie in what can happen in the present or in the future, or in some possible stability, but our future as Christians is in Christ. Christ’s kingdom. To me there’s a lot of hope there. 

Dr. Michael Jacobs   

Yeah, yeah, for sure. We need to remember that we are working in a fallen, broken world, and while we shouldn’t shy away from engaging the world, even with clever policies, we’ll never fix it. As Christians, our ultimate hope is in Jesus Christ and his coming kingdom. 

Liam Siegler   

Thank you so much for being willing to have a conversation and talk on some of the very complex things happening in the world. I appreciate it.  

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The peoples of the Soviet Union didn’t vote to break up in 1991. That was decided against their will.