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ISU historian: Russian invasion of Ukraine carries ongoing risks for the West

Vladimir Putin speaks with his hand on the Constitution during his inauguration ceremony as new Russia's president in the Grand Kremlin Palace in Moscow, Russia, on Monday.
Alexander Astafyev
Russian President Vladimir Putin has badly miscalculated the effect of the invasion of Ukraine, according to ISU historian Ross Kennedy.

Observers of the Russian invasion of Ukraine worry the conflict could broaden through folly, error, or inadvertent escalation. Some compare the network of allied countries in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to alliances that contributed to the cascade of events that lead to World War I.

Finland and Sweden have asked to join NATO, which would reduce a geographical buffer between Russia and NATO and, some worry, increase a likelihood of conflict between two nuclear powers, through U.S. commitments to mutual defense in NATO.

Some scholars also see both World War I and the Russian invasion of Ukraine as symptoms of pullbacks from separate waves of globalization that created economic and social instability.

Illinois State University History Department Chair Ross Kennedy studies World War I. Kennedy said he has concerns about the Russian invasion spreading to other countries than Ukraine but is leery of drawing direct parallels between the pre-World War I network of alliances or anti-globalist sentiment and the present-day environment.

Kennedy said colonialism had more to do with Germany's reason to enter what became World War I than societal and economic pushback against a global economy.

“There was a surprising amount of talk prior to World War I that time was running short, that you were going to be one of the real powers of the next century, or you weren't. The British had a massive Empire. The United States had a continental empire. Russia was a huge empire. Germany missed out, to a large degree, on the colonization of Asia and Africa. There was a sense their time was running short and unless they did something to solidify their position in Europe they would slip into a second tier of powers,” said Kennedy.

Kennedy acknowledged Russia might be feeling precarious in its place as a world power now because of a weak economy and the resistance of some former satrapy states to staying under the Russian umbrella, and the ascendancy of China. But a comparison of present-day Russia to pre-WWI Austria-Hungary is more apt than to Germany.

“There was a perception prior to 1914 that Austria-Hungary was kind of a doomed state. It was this multiethnic state with 11 nationalities. Nationalism was the ideology in the 19th century. Italy got unified. Germany got unified. There's this whole view that Austria-Hungary is kind of doomed to fall apart. It was economically weak relative to the other great powers. In some ways Russia today is crudely similar. There's a sense of it in decline, a perception of it on the part of other powers that it's a petroleum state, dependent on exports of natural gas and oil. It has nuclear weapons, but that's about it,” said Kennedy.

He noted Russia’s population is falling and its Gross National Product (GNP) has not been growing.

The network of alliances prior to World War 1 is essentially different than the NATO alliance, Kennedy also said. Pre-1914 there was a lot of independence of action among those allies.

“During the July crisis, that followed the assassination of the Archduke, and preceded the war, the Austrians began in some of their behavior, to get beyond what the Germans wanted. The Germans got cold feet, so to speak, and began to give indications they wanted to draw back and cut a deal with the Russians. The Austrians wouldn't listen. And Germany went along with them, because they felt that if they let Austria go under or if the Alliance fell apart, they'd be too vulnerable. The political scientists have a great term for this. They call it being chain-ganged to a weaker partner, who's nevertheless still important to you, and still has autonomy to do some things that are risky and provocative that you might not want them to do,” said Kennedy.

Because NATO is a defensive pact, Kennedy said member nations are limited in their military policies and independent provocation that would suck other alliance members into war is less likely now than in 1914. He said countries like Finland, the Baltics, or Poland don’t really have fully independent foreign and military policy.

Yet, there are risks the Russia-Ukraine War could topple over into a broader conflict in Europe. Kennedy said because Ukraine has done so well in resisting Russia, the United States appears to be increasing its ambitions in regard to an outcome.

“When the expectation was that Ukraine was going to lose, we had a responsibility, and it was in our interest, to make the Russians pay for it. Given the Ukraine, performance militarily, American officials have increasingly talked about victory, even if they don't use that term,” said Kennedy.

He said as more American and NATO weapons flow into Ukraine, and the Ukrainian army has the ability to go after the Russians rather than playing defense, the Russians could choose to retaliate by going after staging areas for the weapons going to Ukraine, which are in NATO countries.

“The Russians would justify it, as we're not going to provide a safe haven for those weapons that are being used offensively against us. Now, that would be a very, very provocative action. But that's dangerous, that's a risk,” said Kennedy.

Kennedy said such strikes could trigger mutual defense provisions in the NATO treaty. Another potential for broader conflict comes because NATO forces in surrounding countries and Russian forces in Ukraine are close to each other. He said there's a danger of inadvertent escalation because of accidents which may rise the longer the conflict continues.

Kennedy said tension inside NATO is also rising as the invasion wears on.

"You can see some of the European countries have not joined the Americans in this kind of more ambitious language the Americans have been using. In public, the French and the Germans are much more restrained, and much more desirous of having some kind of ceasefire than the Americans,” said Kennedy.

Yet Kennedy said overall, the invasion of Ukraine has made NATO more coherent. During the Trump presidency American policy placed a lower value on NATO than historically was the case. Now, Kennedy said the member countries including the U.S. realize there is a threat, and Russia is not a status quo country that has accepted the verdict of the Cold War. He said NATO is not only good for European nations, it is good for Russia.

“The alliance, the way the Americans have conceptualized it, is kind of an American security guarantee that dampens down security competition in Europe. If the Americans were gone, there would be a much more intense security competition between, say, Germany, and Russia,” said Kennedy.

“From a Russian point of view, one of their worst nightmares is a Germany that's independent, cut loose from NATO, caring for its own security and able to develop its own nuclear weapons.

Kennedy said America made that argument to Russia during talks over German reunification.

“President Trump often portrayed NATO as a free ride for the Europeans. That's never been the way the Americans have viewed it from the late 1940s onward. We've always seen it as a way to avoid nuclear proliferation, which successive American administrations as perceived as very important to American interests,” said Kennedy.

He also said given Europe’s history and American involvement in two World Wars, the view has been European stability is in the national interest.

The tensions created by the Russia-Ukraine conflict are not limited to Europe, though. Economic fallout is global with inflation, rising fuel prices, havoc in the energy markets, and complications in navigating the pandemic. Kennedy said it affects American foreign relations outside of Europe as well.

“Straining the American relationship with countries like India and Brazil that have not have not really joined the coalition … they've tended to stay more on the sidelines to try to maintain their relationship with the Russians as much as they can. Those are big, important countries,” said Kennedy.

He said from that standpoint it would be better for the U.S. to try to wind down the war instead of expanding objectives.

And though everyone loses in war, Kennedy said Russia may have already lost the most.

“This one's gonna rank as a big-time miscalculation. Everything the Russians can't stand and that they see as threatening to them, they are provoking,” said Kennedy.

Buffer nations have applied for NATO membership. The west is moving to sever energy and other economic ties with Russia that may not be easily rewoven. And Kennedy said the Germans dramatically increased their defense budget and Germany is central to Russian thinking about Europe.

One of Putin’s distant predecessors, Nicholas II, the last Czar of Russia, once remarked that what his people needed was a "short victorious war." The Russo-Japanese War did not go well for Russia either.

“Wars almost they never go according to plan, ever,” said Kennedy.

WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.
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