As Ukrainian civilian casualties rise and the Russian military quickly approaches Ukraine’s capital of Kyiv, UCLA faculty with deep knowledge of the region are predicting the military conflict could continue for months and would ultimately end with some form of gains for Russia.
To help provide clarity about the rapidly evolving situation in Ukraine, the UCLA Center for European and Russian Studies on March 1 held a discussion with Michael Mann, distinguished professor of sociology in the UCLA college; Daniel Treisman, professor of political science; and Jared McBride, assistant adjunct professor of history. Gail Kligman, distinguished professor of sociology, moderated.
“This is the worst refugee crisis in Europe since World War II, and I want to acknowledge that and encourage everyone to find ways to support these refugees,” said McBride, who opened his 15-minute reflection with a message of solidarity for Ukrainians in the UCLA community and pointed attendees to resources for counseling and support.
During the virtual event, which lasted for more than 90 minutes, each panelist began by taking 15 minutes to offer their perspectives and insights on the Russian invasion. This was followed by them asking questions of each other and then taking questions from attendees.
All three experts predicted that the war would continue to play out for months, causing irreparable harm to Ukraine and its people. Treisman and Mann foresee a Russian victory but aren’t yet able to predict what that will look like or how much of Ukraine Russian President Vladimir Putin will seize. While Ukrainian resistance to the invasion was lauded by the panelists, they pointed out that Ukrainian insurgence groups could incite violence long after the official military battles have ceased.
“We’ve seen in recent years what well-equipped and motivated insurgencies can do,” McBride said.
While McBride observed that it was difficult to comment on the rapidly changing situation on the ground in Ukraine, he provided historical context about Putin and flagged the questionable claims the Russian president has been making about Ukraine. McBride said that such narratives condemning Ukrainians as fascists or Nazis had been routinely used throughout the Soviet period and have survived as the worldview of many Russians today.
“We should acknowledge that there are bad actors today in Ukraine — far–right-wing organizations, paramilitary groups — but the idea that they represent the majority or even a significant portion of Ukrainian society is just not true,” McBride said.
Treisman, who is a renowned and oft-quoted expert on Russia, echoed McBride’s concern and sympathy for Ukrainians on the ground and within the UCLA community before turning the conversation to Russia. Treisman discussed the three motives Putin used to justify the invasion and shed light on Putin’s ideological agenda to revise history through war.
“He talks about this idea of a Russian nation — a kind of primordial, historic Russia which includes not just people who think of themselves as Russians but Ukrainians and Belarusians as well,” Treisman said.
Other motives from the Kremlin include the “strange” cry for de-Nazification and the unfounded claim that Ukraine was seeking nuclear weapons as NATO expansion was taking place in Eastern Europe, he added.
Treisman addressed the areas he thinks Putin seriously miscalculated, including the strength of the Ukrainian resistance, the immediate censure of Russia by nations around the world and the reaction among Russians, who have demonstrated against the invasion while earning Putin the disapproval of the Russian elite.
Nevetheless, Treisman said that Putin and Russia have the military advantage.
“Most military analysts whom I trust believe it’s far from the end and that Russia has far more forces it can throw in,” Treisman said. “Eventually, it’s more likely than not that they will succeed in taking Kyiv.”
Mann spoke about the conflict in terms of the history of war, pointing to the notion of “revisionism,” similar to the term “history war,” as a driver of the current conflict. Mann defined revisionism as an instance when a ruler believes the nation has been deprived illegitimately of territory it once held, which then results in a war fueled by their conception of righteousness.
“The war will get more horrible, and now, having underestimated the characteristic of the enemy, Putin is pausing and moving towards bombing the hell out of them before sending in the ground troops,” Mann said.
Ukrainian resistance was also a surprise to Putin, said Mann, who believes that Ukrainian fighters’ ability to halt a full-blown invasion gave the West time to respond. Nonetheless, Mann is pessimistic.
“I think the massive buildup of Russian forces at the moment around Kyiv will produce battlefield victory for the Russians, but they will then have the problem of how to rule a country without loyal clients,” said Mann, who pointed to the ambiguity of the scope of Putin’s plans to infiltrate in Ukraine.
“The end game is not clear.”
When the floor opened for questions from attendees, inquires poured into the Zoom chat for the panelists, who were asked about de-escalation between the two countries, nuclear threats from Russia, China’s reluctance to take a stance on the conflict, sanctions for Russia, the prior influence of the Trump administration and the role of the Russian media.
“Maybe the only silver lining is that the rest of the world has seen that war is the very worst thing that human beings do to each other, so perhaps it may be some kind of help towards the peacemakers of the world,” said Mann, who delivered the final address of the program.
“On the other hand, I have no great faith in human rationality,” he said. “That’s why there are so many wars.”