March 2, 2022

Princeton Responds In Shock, Distress To War in Ukraine

By Donald Gilpin

As the Russian invasion of Ukraine continued into its second week, the Princeton community, along with the world, looked on in shock, distress, apprehension, and anger.

More than 100 Princeton University students, faculty, and community members joined a demonstration in front of Nassau Hall on Friday, February 25 to support Ukraine and to demand freedom for the Ukrainians and an end to the war. The Princeton-based Coalition for Peace Action (CFPA) has announced plans for a “Peace in Ukraine” vigil in Palmer Square on Thursday, March 3 at 5 p.m. and has strongly condemned the recent actions by Russia and its President Vladimir Putin.

On February 25, four Princeton University experts on Russia and Ukraine gathered online for a Zoom conference, sponsored by Princeton’s School for Public and International Affairs, to discuss the start of the war in Ukraine and to consider how it might progress in the future.

None of the conference participants had expected that Putin would actually invade Ukraine.

“Many of us were saying, up until Monday night [February 21], that the massing of troops was a bluff. It was designed to increase Russia’s leverage on a bunch of demands it had been making for some time,” said Professor of Sociology and International Affairs Kim Lane Scheppele. “Many people in Ukraine, many people in Russia, and many people who have been experts on these two countries for a long time saw this as a bluff and didn’t think an invasion was going to happen.”

Noting that she has many friends in both Russia and Ukraine, she continued, “Everybody is in shock, because this was not anticipated. Ukraine and Russia are friends. The largest ethnic group in Russia is Ukrainians and vice versa. There are many family ties, many connections. The idea that Russian soldiers would go in and kill Ukrainians to this degree is a shock on both sides.”

Politics Professor Mark Beissinger, who in the past has met Putin, was also surprised. “The expansiveness of Putin’s vision of resuscitating Russian control over Ukraine is just astounding,” he said. “This is not going to go without a lot of dissent within the Russian government and within Russian society.”

Professor of European Studies and History and International Affairs Harold James was also taken by surprise, but he pointed out that Putin had been on this trajectory since 2008, at which point he “didn’t play with the system anymore and became increasingly violent in the way he wanted to disrupt the system.” 

James pointed out that the beginnings of wars are almost always surprising. “We were all shocked and surprised,” he said. “But that is exactly what happened in August 1914. That’s exactly what happened in September 1939. Nobody believed that, even with all the obvious signs in 1939 that war was in the cards, and there was a huge shock when it actually happened.”

James went on to emphasize the vulnerabilities of autocrats in their isolation, noting that the pandemic exacerbated Putin’s inclination towards drastic measures. “This is somebody who isolated himself more and more, didn’t want to communicate, and the COVID crisis accentuated that. You get many reports from Moscow about the isolation of Mr. Putin in the Kremlin because of a fear of infection,” James said.

Politics and International Affairs Professor Andrew Moravcsik emphasized the impossibility of  understanding the motivations or the predicting the future actions of Putin and Russia. “I got this totally wrong,” Moravcsik said. “And almost everybody got it totally wrong, because the tools we use to figure out what autocrats are going to do didn’t work.”

Moravcsik noted, “Putin had a 20-year record of being an aggressive but very risk-averse opportunist. This was a step change in his behavior.” We are also lacking the inside information necessary to analyze where Putin and Russia might go from here, Moravscik said.  “We don’t know where his red lines lie.”

Conference moderator Razia Iqbal, BBC News anchor and visiting lecturer at Princeton University, raised the question of what might lie ahead for Russia and Ukraine and what endgame Putin might envision. 

“The purpose is clearly to establish control over Ukraine, which was lost in 2014,” Beissinger said. “This has been a long-standing goal. Ironically you have a situation where in 2014 only about 30 percent of Ukrainians favored that Ukraine join NATO and today, for obvious reasons, you have 60 percent.”

James suggested that one of Putin’s goals was to drive wedges between the members of NATO, “To split the Europeans from the United States, to split the Europeans from each other.” He continued, “The response at the moment is to produce solidarity, but I think you will see if there’s an occupation, if it goes on, if it’s messy, there will be increasing tensions about how to do sanctions, with divisions between the United States and Europe.”

James also raised the question of China’s position, noting, “that’s a voice that should be increasingly powerful in terms of thinking of what kind of solution to the Russia-Ukraine conflict there might be.”

Suggesting the need for greater flexibility in the West’s negotiating position, Moravcsik stated, “It’s never pleasant to admit that you are negotiating with a gun to your head, and people don’t want Russia to call the shots within NATO, but if you want to resolve this crisis, the way it has to be resolved is by some kind of compromise. For that to happen Western politicians will have to take positions that are a little uncomfortable.”

Moravcsik emphasized the importance of the current situation. “It’s a very problematic moment for global geopolitics because it does drive Russia and China together and it forces them to find practical solutions to problems of cooperation,” he said. “We need to stop and think hard about what direction things might go if we persist in really making this an issue of principle.”

Beissinger went on to enumerate some of the likely effects on Russia as the conflict continues. “The more this resistance prolongs the conflict the more difficult it’s going to be on the Putin administration,” he said. Noting that Russia might become even more repressive, he added, “The longer this lasts the more it’s going to be reflected in Russian public opinion, but Russia is not on the verge of revolt.”

Stating that the Europeans, who are most directly affected by the war and have the most compelling reasons for pragmatic compromise, should take the lead in negotiations, Scheppele argued that the United States should probably step back from those negotiations.

She added, “Neither public, Ukraine nor Russia, wants these deaths. And neither public wanted the military incursion. And the question is whether either public has any say in this at all at this point.”

In a press release announcing the March 3 vigil, CFPA Executive Director the Rev. Robert Moore stated that attendees are encouraged to bring anti-war posters and that a limited number of pre-printed posters and battery powered candles will be available.

“As people of peace and goodwill, we strongly condemn Russia’s abandonment of diplomacy and the initiation of an unprovoked war of aggression,” Moore said. “We will gather to pray and advocate for an immediate ceasefire and withdrawal of the Russian military. We stand in solidarity with the people of Ukraine as they cope with the utter horror of war.”