Interview: Neal Jesse on Russia and Ukraine

In 2020, Cambria Press published Learning from Russia’s Recent Wars. Here, drawing from his book, Professor Neal Jesse offers his insights into the situation with Russia and Ukraine.

Could you put Russia’s actions in Ukraine in context? What kinds of interests/ foreign policy lead to and foretold this moment?

Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine can be seen as a continuation of their 2014 invasion.  It is part of the larger Russian goal “to dominate its neighbors to its west” (p. 135).  Specific to Ukraine, it follows the Russian desire to “subdue them by putting in place a proxy government or be incorporating them directly in to the Russian Federation.” (p. 159).  The Russian national interest in dominating Ukraine stems from three fundamental Russian foreign policy goals: 1) “Russia seeks great power status” (p. 17) and a return to its former glory as the the Russian Empire and/or Soviet Union, 2) the “maintenance of friendly relations with its neighbors” (p. 18) and 3) to rebuild and “revitalize the defense of Russia” as part of the long-term goal “to establish a strong armed forces as a tool for foreign policy.” (p. 19).  These goals necessitate that Russia dominance the foreign policy of Ukraine (and other East European states, such as the the Baltic nations) to create compliant and friendly neighbors.  “This goal is so obvious that Russian actions in the region are only thinly veiled and very direct.” (p. 157).  As I wrote in 2020, “At the most extreme and interventionist form, Russia can forcibly integrate the East European nations into either an alliance with Russia or directly into union with the Russian Federation.” (p. 148).

Why is Russia invading Ukraine now? Why, for Russia, is this the moment to escalate the situation?

In 2020 I wrote that Ukraine would be the “flash point” and the “primary concern in Eastern Europe for NATO.” (p. 208).  I suggested that NATO “must be ready with defense, deterrence, and de-escalation” (p. 210) to blunt any Russian threat, including the deployment of the NATO Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF) to Ukraine. The failure of the West to increase sufficiently the defense and deterrent capability of Ukraine following the 2014 Russian seizure of Crimea and interference in the Donbas region left the door open to further Russian aggression.  In short, the failure of the West to defend Ukraine and to deter Russia sufficiently left Russia “with an opportunity to act” further in its quest to subdue Ukraine (p. 157).  While the precise reason for the exact date of Russian action cannot be known at this time, it can reasonably be surmised that Russia could have acted at any point since roughly 2016.  Perhaps a reason for February 2022 could be Putin’s desire to achieve a foreign policy success after losing the recent Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, negative domestic pressure on Putin over his handling of the Covid crisis, a desire to test the resolve of a new American President, or maybe some other reason.  In any case, the overall foundations of Russian foreign policy were pushing for action.  As I wrote in 2020, International and domestic factors support “a foreign policy that seeks to expand Russian influence, control, and domination of its neighbors.” (p. 195).  The Russian situation in Ukraine from 2014-2022 was one that “neither provided it with a clear victory nor a clear path to disengagement.” (p. 198).  Thus, the need for Russia to either leave the Donbas or seek the complete domination of Ukraine has been present the whole time.

What do you recommend Western powers do to curtail Russia’s aggression?

My prescription is not really much different than it was in 2020: “The United States and its Western Allies must respond to acts of Russian aggression through active deterrence, defense, and engagement. The core principle is to demonstrate a readiness to defend security commitments.” (p. 213).  As I write this, Ukraine is heroically defending itself, but it does not appear that it will hold out much longer. Ukraine will most likely become a client state for Russia.  The United States and the rest of NATO must now realize that Russia is indeed the enemy of a free and democratic Europe.  As such, Western nations should isolate Russia and treat it as a rogue state.  The West should remove Russia from most international organizations, lock it out of international sources of financing, and limit technological and strategic exports to Russia (and of course, all of its client states such as Belarus).  NATO should move troops and military equipment into the Baltic nations, Poland, Bulgaria, and other nations close to the Russian border. This might create a new “cold war” between the West and Russia, but that appears to be necessary in order to stop Russia from gobbling up more nations, such as the Baltic nations.

Learning from Russia’s Recent Wars by Neal Jesse is available in hardcover and paperback. It is also available in different ebook formats, which start at $19.99 to purchase and $9.99 to rent. Professors who wish to use this book along with others in the Rapid Communications in Conflict and Security Series for their classes should use the Cambria Book Cloud, which allows for the bundling of ebooks at only $9.99 per title for each student.

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