Examining the war in Ukraine, one year after Russian invasion

UChicago scholar discusses Putin’s ‘grievous mistake’ and the future of the conflict

On Feb. 24, 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a “special military operation” – a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. The day before, Konstantin Sonin, the John Dewey Distinguished Service Professor at the Harris School of Public Policy, finished a public lecture in Moscow. A Russian citizen and frequent critic of Putin’s autocratic regime, Sonin cut short a planned sabbatical year abroad and returned to the United States.

With the first anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine imminent, the Harris School talked with Sonin to gain his perspective on the state of the war, Putin’s recalcitrance and what comes next for Russia’s quest to acquire Ukraine.

At the war’s outbreak, you made the bold statement that this war would be “the end of Russia.” One year after the invasion of Ukraine, do you stand by that assessment?

I believe that for the rest of my life and beyond, Russia will have to deal with the consequences of this grievous mistake made by Putin. And the longer the war goes on, the worse it is for Russia and its citizens.  Finding a way out through negotiation is clearly the best course of action, but Putin will try to escalate, add troops, step up attacks – just prolonging a totally inevitable end, which I think will be the withdrawal of Russian troops and reparations paid to Ukraine. And then, I don’t know, it’s a very difficult situation inside Russia. And so, every day that the decision to end the war is not made, it’s bad for the country and its future prospects.

Do you think that public sentiment within Russia has shifted?

Think about it this way: We know that hundreds of thousands of Russians left Russia and became refugees because they are unhappy, scared of mobilization, and fear political repressions. This is a sign of a huge crisis, one on the scale of the Venezuelan crisis or Syrian crisis, even though there is no actual warfare on Russian territory. There is clearly a drastic deterioration in the average Russian’s mind of their perceived well-being.

The important thing to remember about Russian public sentiment is that it doesn’t directly translate into any kind of action, either for or against the war. We have not seen large anti-war protests in Russia, even though some 20,000 people have been arrested in anti-war protests. Nor have we seen any indication of mass support of the war. In the summer, there was a huge campaign advertising quartering for the Russian army, offering payments nearly 10 times more than the average salary. But still there were few volunteers, suggesting that public enthusiasm is actually quite low.

Almost a year into this, what do you find to be the most surprising aspect of how it’s unfolded?

The acquiescence of the oligarchs who have lost a huge percentage of their wealth as a result of Putin's decision. They have lost so much, yet they're all silent. They are all reacting as if they are different people. At one time, they were brave, active, and resourceful – but now have become total pushovers. I’m not saying that these people are upstanding human beings, but, at one point, they were brave. 

They built businesses, in many cases, by going to meetings with outright criminals, and then cleaning up these criminal enterprises. They would be brave enough to, for example, fight corrupt police or corrupt security officers. They were extremely innovative in many things. But now their businesses are destroyed, and they sit back and do nothing. They could stand up to Putin; they could donate to the Ukrainian army – a concerted effort could have an impact. 

Is no one standing up? 

There are some. 600 Russian doctors, most of them living in Russia, signed a letter insisting that Putin stop the torture of Alexei Navalny in prison. Somehow, this group of doctors was brave enough to sign this letter, and there are also many scientists who have remained in Russia, and they condemn the war. But still, the oligarchs remain silent.

What do you think of how the United States and the other countries around the world, who kind of banded together at the beginning, have behaved? Have they maintained a strong front, or do you see them weakening in any way?

The behavior of the United States has been exemplary. Compared to U.S. involvement in previous crises, this is on par with the first Gulf War, which was recognized as a stellar diplomatic and military response. In Europe, there are countries that are sort of bound to be on the right side of history. For Poland, Baltic countries, Sweden, or Finland, there is no question; they will support Ukraine until Ukraine's last day, because they know that if Ukraine has fallen, they’re next. For them, being on the right side of history is a no-brainer.

Meanwhile, many have criticized Germany for its somewhat vacillating response to Ukraine’s military needs. It’s fair to say that Germany is an extremely wealthy country, and that they’re helping much less than other nations. At the same time, they moved to rid themselves of their gas and oil dependence – not swiftly, but very decisively and very consistently. This is important because for many years, Germany tolerated Putin’s bad behavior because it was such a major consumer of Russian gas and oil. Roughly half of German gas 10 months ago was from Russia. Now, it is zero. This is no small feat. In January 2023, they moved forward with supplying Ukraine with modern tanks, but still say that fighter jets are a no-go. It is a big help to Ukraine of course, but they can do more.

I would say that the core coalition stands, and in general, it’s not getting weaker; it’s actually getting stronger.

How do you think this has affected Putin’s standing? Has it affected his standing drastically?

Putin maintains the loyalty of his security apparatus. The top offices are extremely well-compensated. The Russian generals are all millionaires or multimillionaires. There are corruption channels geared toward the top of the military hierarchy.

Still, Putin would not win any fair election today. He would lose badly to many possible opponents. But since he maintains the loyalty of the military, he can stay in power.

Unfortunately, this is what we’ve seen from North Korean leadership and the leadership in Iran. In the case of Iran, they have been able to stagnate their country for 50 years and remain in power, because they have so much force in their hands. They’re now in their fifth month of mass protests and they’re still in power, because the guards are still well paid.

This does not mean that the military or the elite actually like Putin. I’m not sure that they have started to think in terms of replacing him, but I think that most people hate him, even among his close subordinates.

Do you think Putin is trying to find a way to negotiate? What do you think would trigger active negotiations?

I doubt that he considers his situation to be dire and problematic. He has very unrealistic requirements for any kind of negotiations. I think he behaves based on this imaginary understanding that negotiations should be about drawing a border across the current territorial gains. I suspect he also thinks he could negotiate Ukraine NATO membership in exchange for lifting sanctions, which is most likely outside of the range of what is on the table.

As we look toward the one-year anniversary, I think Putin and his leaders are preparing a new major assault. The difference now is the Ukrainian army. Although it has suffered casualties, it’s better prepared. Their capability has improved, and there is a much better relationship with the West and NATO. There will be a new assault, but I think Ukraine is much more prepared for one.

How does this end, if he doesn’t have any reason to end?

If Putin is still in power, the war will end because Ukraine defeats the invasion forces. Whether Ukraine retakes what was occupied in 2014 and 2015 is a more distant question. But if Ukraine defeats the invasion force, then I think even Putin would begin real negotiations.

This story originally appeared on the Harris School of Public Policy site.