Why is Russia invading Ukraine?

As Ukraine braces for escalation of invasionthe United States and its allies have launched sanctions against Russia in the hope of convincing Russian President Vladimir Putin to withdraw his forces.

Putin seeks to capitalize on territorial gains from his 2014 annexation of Crimea to Ukraine, says Khushal Safi, a former US intelligence officer who heads the office of international security at Northeastern. As the Russian leader considers his next moves after ordering Russian troops into Ukraine’s eastern Donbass region, it is clear to Safi that Putin is weighing the West’s response.

Khusal Safi, associate director of public safety and security at Northeastern. Photo by Ruby Wallau/Northeastern University

“I think they will gradually take territories until they are stopped,” Safi said of the Russian forces.

No members of the Northeast community are known to be in the conflict zone, says Safi, who monitors how Allied sanctions may affect Northeast students who are Russian. It also analyzes the possibility of the conflict spreading to neighboring countries, which could affect those associated with the university.

Safi spoke on Wednesday with [email protected] on the crisis in Ukraine and its threat to Europe, the NATO alliance and the global refugee crisis. His comments have been edited for brevity and clarity.

What is the current state of the conflict?

We haven’t seen open warfare yet.

What we have seen is that Russian separatist forces in the Donbass region engage militarily with Ukrainian forces. European Watchdog, Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine, had reported hundreds of daily violations of the ceasefire agreement – explosions, gunfire through a line of control and missile attacks. Over the past two days, the watchdog has started reporting thousands of daily violations. This is a significant increase and a harbinger of what this area could face as Russian forces enter the region.

Why is Russia invading Ukraine?

Historically, the Russians controlled the region as part of the Soviet Union. Ukraine was one of the first signatories of the pact which created the USSR. This area is close to the Russian borders, with many Russian speakers and people who identify culturally as Russians. And it’s also a pretty big economic powerhouse with a ton of agricultural wealth. This gives Russia more capital resources and access to a powerful port.

The Russians want a land bridge to Crimea. I predict their immediate goal is to establish a land bridge connection that will link their territory. Then Putin will reevaluate the West’s response to determine if he can take more Ukrainian territory.

Putin’s long-term goal is probably to restore the territorial borders of the USSR. His speech on Monday made clear his goal of bringing people who consider themselves Russian under one banner. He also used language very similar to that used by Lenin when he started tinkering with all these different states under Russian rule a century ago, such as calling the dissident sections of Ukraine “the People’s Republic of Luhansk and Donetsk”.

How likely is a full-scale invasion of Kiev, the capital?

The wild card is, are they entering Ukraine from Belarus? If they do, then Kiev is sacked.

If you look at a map, the only objective is to go to Kiev if you invade from Belarus. If that’s what they do, then I think you’ll see them stop there — they’ll leave the western part of the country free under Ukrainian control, which will leave Ukraine divided.

How did the United States react?

It was a really successful intelligence operation, where we watched in real time the report from the intelligence community of the United States and NATO that Russia intended to invade using multiple sources of information.

We saw the images that the Russian army was massing along the border. The intelligence community said the Russians were going to invade after the Olympics, and that’s what happened.

Never in the history of the world have we been informed in real time of these kinds of things as they happen.

What could be the fallout from a full-scale war in Ukraine?

The refugee crisis in the rest of Europe could worsen depending on how far Russia has traveled into Ukraine. If Kiev is hit, you will see people fleeing west. Poles, Slovaks, Hungarians and Romanians already have a refugee crisis from Syria, Afghanistan and North Africa.

Now you can make that worse with the internal displacement of Europe, and that’s going to be pretty big because we can also face an energy crisis [based on sanctions against Russia’s export of oil].

The instability works in Putin’s favor because Putin has already protected his economy with a firewall. He knows his economy is going to be hit by sanctions. He is prepared for this. He decided he could weather the storm. In the meantime, the US is already talking about $5 a gallon gas prices as a result of this dispute.

The United States shares weapons and technology with Ukraine. What are the chances of NATO and US forces being drawn in?

According to some estimates, up to 60% of Russian combat forces are currently in use around Ukraine. If they drag NATO and the United States into the fight, the Russians risk losing a significant portion of their power.

But I don’t think that will happen. I don’t think there is a will on either side to fight against this.

How does the rest of the world view this conflict?

Other major powers are watching this closely. If there is an incursion into Ukraine and the United States does not respond militarily, will China consider its own military incursion into Taiwan? Knowing that they only risk penalties?

Regional powers, such as Iran, could argue that Ukraine made a long-term strategic mistake when it gave up its nuclear weapons as part of the 1994 Trilateral Agreement.

This is a true test of NATO’s commitment to mutual defense [as part of the 1994 Partnership for Peace]. The good thing is that NATO looks strong right now. But how will it play out? And what could this mean for the proliferation of nuclear weapons?

For media inquiriesplease contact [email protected].

Christi C. Elwood