What political science can tell us about the Russian invasion of Ukraine

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More than two weeks ago, Russia invaded Ukraine, causing international dismay at this violation of the liberal international order. Omar Shahabudin McDoom examines how we can use political science to better understand the conflict. He writes about what this can mean for the liberal international order, the responsibility of the international community to intervene in such conflicts to end civil atrocities, how Russia can define “victory” in Ukraine and what that means. can mean for Vladimir Putin, and the treatment of Ukrainian refugees compared to victims of other conflicts.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine rightly sparked outrage over an act of outright aggression and sympathy for the plight of ordinary Ukrainians forced to flee their homes and become refugees. I offer five ideas from political science on what the crisis can bring.

  1. Pax Americana and the Liberal International Order

One of the reasons Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has garnered so much attention is that it appears to be an affront to the liberal international order that has been guaranteed by US military dominance since the end of the Cold War. The media is inundated with claims that the invasion marks a weakening of the liberal international order that brings us closer to the world before 1989. In crude theoretical terms, the invasion appears to deal a blow to constructivist advocates, who believe that rules and laws shape the behavior of the state, and a rationale from the realists who believe that interests and power do.

The opposite may turn out to be true. Rather than weakening the liberal international order, Putin may have inadvertently strengthened it. The invasion brought a unified position within Europe; a rapprochement between Europe and the United States on security priorities; and as close to a consensus in the UN General Assembly as supporters of the liberal order could hope. He also brought NATO back to life. Several European members that previously relied on the US security umbrella have now pledged to increase military spending. The military resupply of Ukraine also represents a significant change in the security policy of several European countries. And the willingness of these nations dependent on Russian oil and gas to endure the pain and reduce their future dependence underscores the strength of their political resolve.

The reason for such a remarkable show of unity is that Putin has become a symbol. It symbolizes the antithesis of the liberal international order. The answer is as much a rejection of Putinism as support for Ukrainians. So it’s not so much because Ukraine is a model of liberal democracy. He scores just 3.36 on Freedom House’s 7-point democracy scale and is considered only “partially free.” This is because Putin has openly declared that he wants to see the liberal order torn down and that he despises the values ​​that liberal democratic publics hold dear.

Rather than embolden illiberal leaders, the attack on Ukraine will likely give ambitious autocrats pause. Chinese President Xi Jinping, for example, would not wish to harm his country’s international position in the same way that Putin harmed Russia by risking a takeover of Taiwan. Putin tested the limits of liberal resolve. Illiberals will note that it is still strong.

  1. The responsibility to protect and moral hazard

The Ukrainian resistance is heroic. Yet few security analysts doubt the eventual outcome of a Russian military victory if it maintains air supremacy. Why then does the Ukrainian government not surrender simply to avoid bloodshed and minimize destruction?

The government’s persistence may well be just a matter of nationalist pride. An emotional and non-rational reaction to the situation. But political science suggests there could be strategic logic behind the choice to keep fighting. Since its articulation in 2001, the idea of ​​a responsibility to protect, or R2P, has gradually taken root in international discourse (UN member states committed themselves to this principle in 2005). The idea represents a promise that the international community will intervene to stop the atrocities committed against civilians. For some, this creates moral hazard (when more risky behavior is adopted). Resistance will be offered, even if it means significant loss of life, as hope remains that help will come.

Ukrainian President Zelensky has repeatedly asked for help from the West. And as the Ukrainian resistance continued, Putin stepped up his attacks and committed what appear to be war crimes by targeting civilian populations. As stories and images of these atrocities reach Western audiences, the pressure on their governments to act will mount.

How it ends up ending will depend on how many civilian lives Zelensky is willing to risk, how many Putin is willing to take, and how many the West is willing to see disappear.

“Protests against the war in Ukraine 106 – United Kingdom” (CC BY 2.0) by Amaury Laporte

NATO is unlikely to hear the call for a no-fly zone. The risk of confrontation with a nuclear power will outweigh any consideration for civilian lives. Seen in this light, R2P is at best an imperfect insurance policy against atrocities.

  1. Occupation and insurrection

While winning the war may be relatively simple for a militarily superior Russia, keeping the peace will be less so. The lesson to be learned from the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 is that forcing regime change is only the beginning of a long engagement with the country you occupy. There will almost certainly be continued resistance if a pro-Russian government is installed. The ensuing insurgency would once again be supported from outside and would likely again attract foreign fighters. At least in the case of Iraq, the United States has bolstered the Shiite ethnic majority. Ethnic Russians, on the other hand, make up less than a fifth of Ukraine’s population.

Putin will be aware of this risk. If he feels confident, he may still try to overthrow the Zelensky government and set up a puppet. If he is risk averse, however, he may seek to define winning differently. Russia can be content with inflicting damage unless there is regime change in Ukraine, but enough to signal to any border state that asking for NATO membership would be foolish. Russia would annex all areas with an ethnic Russian majority before withdrawing and leaving a rump Ukrainian state.

  1. Hearing Costs and the Autocrat’s Dilemma

Claiming some form of victory is important for Putin’s national survival. His invasion resulted in extreme penalties. In Putin’s favor, however, is the ability to claim, at least for a domestic audience, a stronger-than-US strategic rationale for its invasion of Iraq. Ukraine borders Russia and is home to ethnic Russians, and has considered joining a security alliance that would place new troops and weaponry right on the Russian border. In Iraq, by contrast, there were never any weapons of mass destruction that threatened the United States, the invasion shifted the regional balance of power in favor of Iran, and regime change unleashed transnational jihadist forces that have come to pose an even greater threat to global security. And consider the analogy. If the Soviet Union sought to convince Mexico or Canada to join the Warsaw Pact, the United States would never have stood idly by. The Cuban Missile Crisis proved that it would not tolerate the positioning of weapons of mass destruction 90 miles from its border. Putin can then rightly point all this out to the Russians. The decision to invade, he said, was justifiable.

Yet that is not how his decision is perceived outside of Russia. Instead, he demanded an almost universal reprimand. Like all autocrats, Putin fears either an elite-organized coup or a widespread mass protest. He avoided the former out of favoritism and appealed to Russian nationalist sentiment to avoid the latter. Yet if his national credibility wanes, he will have to rely increasingly on the other tool in the autocrat’s toolbox: repression.

There are limits to the degree of coercion an autocrat can use against his own citizens. Too much for too long is unsustainable. This is Putin’s dilemma. Color revolutions in former Soviet states and Arab Spring uprisings bode ill for dictators who have come to rely too heavily on repression. If Putin loses in Ukraine, it could mark the beginning of the end for his regime. It may be a protracted end given the strength and loyalty of its internal security apparatus, but still an endpoint finally in sight.

  1. Cultural biases and inconsistency in the treatment of refugees

The exodus of Ukrainians fleeing the war has generated well-deserved international empathy. Yet the welcome they have received in Europe contrasts sharply with that accorded to refugees from countries such as Syria and Afghanistan. The inconsistency is eroding the already strained protection regime put in place for refugees after the Second World War. It is in this sense that the Russian invasion weakens the liberal international order. It exposes the culturalist bias in the treatment of refugees around the world. Journalists covering Ukraine who have emphasized ‘civility’, ‘Europeanness’, ‘development’ and even the color of the country’s refugees to communicate their shock at what they are witnessing are betraying this party taken. The bias is all the more glaring when one considers who is responsible for the break-up of Afghanistan and the fact that Russia was also responsible for the aerial destruction of Syrian cities.

  • For more LSE expert commentary on developments in Ukraine, please click here.

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Note: This article gives the point of view of the author, and not the position of the USAPP – American Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics.

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About the Author

Omar Shahabudin McDoomLSE Ministry of Government
Omar Shahabudin McDoom is Associate Professor of Comparative Politics in the LSE Department of Government. His research interests focus on the study of conflict, in particular on the how and why of divisions between groups defined in ethnic and religious terms within societies.


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