A Conversation with Professor Thomas Schwartz about the Ukraine Crisis


Michael Gallego, Contributor

This December, Russia issued several security demands to American diplomats, calling on NATO to halt its eastward expansion of alliances, to remove troops from former Soviet territories, and end Western military assistance for Ukraine. Presumably, unless Moscow’s demands are negotiated diplomatically, Russia is willing to use military force to achieve its goals. Vladmir Putin has amassed over 100,000 troops on the border of Ukraine and in neighboring Belarus as well as armored vehicles, tanks, artillery and warplanes. The United States has threatened severe economic sanctions if Russia chooses to encroach on Ukraine’s sovereignty and the Biden administration is considering deploying troops to eastern Europe. The crisis over Ukraine is causing an extreme amount of friction between two of the world’s most powerful countries and offers a substantial risk to peace on the European continent. 

I sat down with Professor Schwartz to talk about this ongoing crisis. Thomas Schwartz is a Distinguished Professor of History, Professor of Political Science, Professor of European Studies, and the Director of Undergraduate Studies for the History Department. He is a historian of American foreign policy. His most recent book is Henry Kissinger and American Power: A Political Biography.  

Below is a transcript of my questions and his answers. This interview has been edited for content and clarity. 

Gallego: Can you provide some context on what’s occurring at Ukraine’s eastern border?

Schwartz: The context is this: the Russian Federation, according to U.S. intelligence-gathering, has stationed some 100,00 soldiers close to the border of Ukraine. The Russian leader Vladmir Putin has made a set of demands on the West that seem to indicate that he will use military force if those demands are not met or negotiated in a credible fashion. This buildup of Russian forces has been going on for a month and a half. It has been accentuated by the stationing of Russian forces in Belarus, the country that borders Ukraine to the north. It seems like there is a threat of military action against Ukraine in the event the West is not willing to concede to Russian demands. 

Do you see this as an extension of what occurred in 2014 in Crimea?

It is connected to that, but it’s also a clear escalation. The annexation of Crimea occurred in a situation in which it could be done almost bloodlessly because Crimea itself is heavily Russian-speaking. The Ukrainian government’s disorder, corruption, and chaos at the time had produced a significant amount of discontent in Crimea that allowed for that type of military action. Coupled with that was the ouster of a pro-Russian president. This made Crimea a low-hanging fruit for the Russians. In the Donbas region, the gains were less significant for Russia than in Crimea and a somewhat frozen conflict has spawned that has killed more than 14,000 people. Today’s actions are clearly being pursued at a much higher level.

Do you think it is likely that Russia will invade Ukraine? If so, in what capacity would this intrusion take place?

I’ll borrow a phrase from Yogi Berra: “predictions are hard, especially about the future.” If I had to speculate, I would rule out an invasion that seeks to secure all of Ukraine. In fact, a far more likely scenario would be a type of division of the country—not unlike what happened in Germany, Korea, Vietnam, or other divided countries of the Cold War. Essentially a divided Ukraine where Russia would only recognize one half. This would diminish Ukraine and make it a source of contention but Russia would not try to absorb the entire country. The idea behind this is to make difficult the types of reforms and developments in the rest of the country that would allow for efficient western integration. Using military force, dividing the country, setting up another government, even attacking Kyiev would be a way of damaging and discrediting Ukraine and creating a weakness that could allow the absorption of the entire country into the Russian sphere of influence at a later point. In that sense, not going full-throttle, but doing enough to damage Ukraine and undermine Western credibility in the short-term can create a situation where the rest of Ukraine might fall into the Russian sphere in the future. 

In recent days there’s been a lot of conflicting information about the crisis in Ukraine. Fyodor Lukyanov, a foreign policy analyst who advises the Kremlin, said this of Putin’s intentions toward Ukraine: “who the heck knows?” What do you think Putin’s goal is? What’s the strategic significance of Ukraine and the rationale for invading? 

I’m going to borrow from Fiona Hill, who just wrote an excellent op-ed in the New York Times. I think Putin would like to deliver a blow to the West on the anniversary of the collapse of the Soviet Union. He’s trying to drive the United States out of Europe by undermining the credibility of NATO, undermining the defense the United States presents, and, in effect, using Ukraine as a wedge against America’s European allies—particularly Germany. By doing this, Putin will diminish the rivals to Russian power in Europe. A display of Russian power in Ukraine could accomplish this. If the western response is weak, Russia will clearly look like the strongest power in Europe. 

Given American divisions and political polarization and swings in its foreign policy in recent years, an invasion without American intervention is not out of the question. Putin can make Europeans feel like the United States is not a reliable protector in Europe and they have to rely more on themselves for their security and negotiate with a dominant Russian presence on the continent. 

The American role in Europe has consistently caused problems for Russia. The idea of the U.S. being the hegemon in Europe is something that is seen as unnatural. While, to some extent, there are many in Europe who would like to see their own countries be less reliant on the United States for their security, Putin is trying to force their hand and compel them to negotiate with the geopolitics of a much stronger Russia and a weakened America. 

In a realpolitik sense, should the U.S. back Ukraine if Russia invades? What would support for Ukraine look like? 

I think the United States should support Ukrainian independence and its territorial sovereignty. Do I think any Americans should die for Ukraine? No, but I think we can do an awful lot to support the country’s legitimate claims. We should bring this issue to the United Nations, which supposedly stands for territorial sovereignty and political independence. Sending troops to eastern Europe makes some sense because we have commitments to countries like Poland, Romania, and countries in the Baltics which border Russia or Ukraine and we need to sustain those commitments and demonstrate our support. 

Would I favor an agreement with Russia, for example, that would treat Ukraine like Austria in the Cold War, namely a neutral state? I think I could live with that, if it was similar to the Austrian agreement because Austria was able to be independent, maintain its territorial integrity, and develop its economy, just without alliances. Ultimately, Austria integrated with the rest of Europe. If this is something the Ukrainian people want, they should be able to do it. If it requires an imposition of neutrality in order to protect its sovereignty, that’s an agreeable outcome. 

It’s dangerous, however, for the United States to concede Ukraine in a fashion that appears to be an appeasement of Russian aggression. This precedent could embolden other adversaries. China would be more inclined to invade Taiwan. Iran and North Korea could also become more aggressive. We can’t think that Ukraine is the only issue at hand here. People look up to the United States, and we have commitments around the world. Allowing actors to embrace an aggressive view of international relations, will ultimately come at the expense of our credibility and geopolitical stability. 

Do you think Russia is calculating that America is in a state of decline and does not have the political wherewithal to assert its influence any more, motivating Putin to act boldly? 

Yes, I do. Their analysis of our politics is probably not wrong. There is a solid calculation that America is incapable of acting in a unified and directed way toward the defense of its allies. The American people, after this long period of conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan, simply do not see foreign policy issues as important enough to warrant strong action. The Europeans, moreover, are also tied to the United States. Thus, in the absence of American leadership they are also less inclined to act. It is a very unpleasant situation. As dangerous as it is to make historical parallels, there is so much in this case that resembles the Axis aggression of the 1930s—of chopping away territory, and intimidation by military force. It’s a bad set of markers for the future. 

I don’t think Putin is out to conquer Europe, but he’s certainly out to reassert Russian power over large portions of the continent. This is something that we, as a country that believes in self-determination, should resist. 

Last question, imagine for a second that you’re President Biden. What would you do and why? 

Biden came of age during the anti-Vietnam movements and with the sense that the U.S. was overextended. His argument of getting out of Afghanistan very much resembles this line of thinking—get out, just as we did in Vietnam. If I were Joe Biden, I would address the nation and try to explain why a strong stance on Ukraine without direct military involvement, but with American support is in the national interests. I would try to explain to the American people that the danger of aggression, unchecked, is something that would ultimately come to be damaging to America’s national, political, economic, and ideological interests. For that reason we have to take a very strong stance. I think if he made a speech where he showed that he was giving up something, in terms of Democratic party ideals or reversing some policies, he could gain some credibility and have people recognize how serious the situation is. 

What I fear is that we are so polarized that any attempt to do that would be viewed cynically by the right and as an abandonment by the left. I do think the decision to send troops to eastern Europe is a step in the right direction and could catch Vladmir Putin’s attention. You’ve got to hope that Putin is scared of conflict and sustaining casualties—it would stand to reason that he may have more limited goals in Ukraine.

Image Credit: Photo by U.S. Army Europe on Flickr