Student Report: The Ukraine Crisis – A Roundtable Discussion

Reported by Josh Manto, Class of 2024

On the 9th of March 2022, Duke Kunshan University’s Humanities Research Center organized a roundtable discussion to cover the recent 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine. The event saw the participation of four distinguished individuals who engaged in a rich discourse on its causes of the Ukraine crisis, and its impact  on ordinary people’s lives, and the world’s economy. 

Susan Coulborn

Speaker List:
First, we have Professor Susan Coulborn, the Associate Director of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies (TISS) at the Sanford School at Duke University, and an international historian who specializes in strategy and security in the atomic age. She has authored her first book, Euromissiles, which explores the rise and fall of an arms race in Europe and its relationship with the Atlantic Alliance and NATO.

Paula Ganga

Second, we have Professor Paula Ganga, who received her Ph.D. from Georgetown University, and is now a postdoctoral fellow at the Harriman Institute at Columbia University. She specializes in comparative politics with a regional emphasis in the Eastern European region and other post-communist societies.

Ivan Rasmussen

The third speaker is Professor Ivan Rasmussen, who is currently an assistant professor of practice in political science at NYU Shanghai. He was also a Visiting Assistant Professor of Government at Hamilton College and a Research Fellow with the International Security Program at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center.

Jiahua Yue

Lastly, we have Professor Jiahua Yue, who received his Ph.D. from Yale University and is currently an assistant professor of political science at Duke Kunshan University.


NATO’s Expansion to the East: The Cause of Invasion?

The event’s first agenda touched on the topic of NATO’s eastward expansion to Europe. While many find it plausible that NATO’s expansion to the east was the primary factor that triggered the invasion, Professor Susan Colbourn disagrees with this point and provides a more historical explanation of the agenda.

Professor Colburn affirms that NATO did expand eastward to include former members of the Warsaw Pact and even ex-republics of the Soviet Union, however she argues that NATO’s inclusion and expansion is just simply a desire of the participating states to remake their own security arrangements, “to ensure and shore up their own security, and be integrated into other European institutions” – similar to that of the European Union.

She argues that the NATO enlargement process was not designed to exclude the Russian Federation, explaining that the Clinton administration in the 90s was pursuing a “two-track” policy where the goal was not only bringing together the Eastern European states in closer cooperation with NATO but also “strengthening the nascent democracy emerging in the Russian Federation” by bringing including Russia in the enlargement process.

While Professor Colbourn does not discount the involvement of NATO as a possible factor, she is certain that NATO’s expansion is not the sole reason why President Putin decided to widen the war. She raises another important argument that the invasion of Ukraine is not about resisting NATO, but is “ultimately about broader questions on Ukraine’s place in the European security order”, and also a question concerning Ukrainian and Russian historical roots.

The War’s Significance for Nearby European Countries

The second agenda touches on the significance and political influence of the war on Ukraine’s neighboring countries. Professor Paula Ganga gives her thoughts on how the conflict fits into a wider European context, discussing further what she can foresee happening in the neighboring states. In this agenda, Prof. Ganga makes three important points:

First, she agrees with Prof. Colburn, mentioning that NATO is nothing more other than a pretext for Pres. Putin to have free reign over the war.

Second, Prof. Ganga mentions the formation of a united front that actively condemns the actions of Putin. Each of these states that are part of this front has its own history and interests in relation to Russia.

For the western states, Ganga mentions that their actions have been one of support towards Ukraine and deep condemnation of Putin’s actions.

For the Baltic state nations that are included in this front — Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, and Romania –  Ganga mentions that these states have experienced the pressures of Russia for a long time, and have been warning NATO and the European Union about the possibility of a Russian invasion. She makes another important point that there is also a possibility of Moldova being the “next” on Putin’s list since the war has allowed Russia to set a foothold in Transnistria.

Lastly, Prof. Ganga identifies the nations that are not included in this united front – Poland, Hungary, and Turkey, who have all allotted resources to “building a close relationship with Putin”, to pursue either energy-related interests or for ideological reasons. She mentions Recep Erdoğan, the president of Turkey, and Viktor Orbán, the prime minister of Hungary, who have become “pro-Putin” because they find a kinship to Russia’s illiberal tactics. While the leaders of these countries hold a form of ideological affinity to Putin’s ideologies, the actual populations of these countries are not in support of Russia, evidenced either by the war’s open condemnation and acceptance of Ukrainian Refugees.\

Economic Sanctions and the Role of Public Opinion in an International Crisis

Why do political scientists care about public opinion in international crises? In this section, Prof. Yue talks about the connections between public opinion and foreign policy. He establishes two important points:

The first point is on political leaders’ reputation and popularity. Yue mentions that the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, had average polling results during the election but experienced a sort of “rallying effect” where his popularity skyrocketed during the invasion. Yue indicates that public opinion matters because the public’s support for their Ukrainian leader is a source of its “robustness” against the crises.

“Bad action is definitely better than no action”. In a similar manner, the democratic state leaders of western countries are compelled to demonstrate their competency in large-scale international crises. The argument Yue makes is that by remaining in a state of inaction, leaders risk their popularity and reputation.

Prof. Yue makes another point that has been missed by many: western imposed sanctions manipulate public opinion by increasing anti-American sentiments. After the 2014 annexation of Crimea, researchers looked into Russian public opinion data and found that the sanctions imposed on Russia during that time did not backfire and affect Russian public opinion at a significant level. The researchers also uncovered that negative economic impacts are not sufficient enough to change the public’s stance on Putin’s regime. Yue concludes by saying that the Russian population “has already taken their sides”, and that western imposed sanctions and negative economic impact are not enough to sway Russian public opinion away from Putin.

While it has been established that economic sanctions have little impact on Russian public opinion, Prof. Ganga makes a few important points on how western economic sanctions are affecting the conflict: first, any escalations in conflict and war would require an increase in economic sanctions. While there was an increase in economic sanctions in Russia during the crises, the sanction strategy was different from before: the sanctions made in 2014 were designed to target specific individuals in the Russian leadership as well as the closest oligarchs to the regime. But the sanctions today were not designed to hurt the average Russian citizen but were rather designed to weaken the economic basis that sustains Putin’s action in foreign affairs. This was done by making the whole Russian banking system more sensitive to the conflict and preventing Russian banks from accessing their foreign reserves. Banning oil imports was an additional escalation in the sanctions.

Another point that Prof. Ganga makes is asking whether or not these economic sanctions will deter Putin’s actions, and she believes that these sanctions do not seem effective at all. While the sanctions have escalated to the point where the ordinary Russian citizen is affected, she mentions that the war is a matter of Putin’s own “resolve” – on how long he will let the Russian people suffer under the sanctions, because at the end of the day, the citizens of Russia will bear the brunt of the conflict.

China’s Pro-Putin and Anti-American Sentiments

When five Chinese professors from the top universities in China wrote an open letter condemning the invasion, the letter was quickly censored on Chinese media. Why does it seem like majority of the Chinese population are fascinated by Putin and are in support of the invasion? Prof. Yue explains that pro-Putin Chinese public opinion is caused by two reasons:

First is state media censorship and the stance taken by the Chinese government. The Chinese government’s open advocacy of its friendship with Russia and the censorship of any anti-Russian propaganda result in a “selection effect”, which is when all content in the Chinese media is biased toward a specific entity (in this case Russia). All these factors play a significant role in influencing Chinese public opinion and preferences. Prof. Yue surmises that the second reason may simply be because of anti-American sentiments – that there are just simply a lot of Chinese people who hate America.

Prof. Rasmussen offers more insight by mentioning that anti-American sentiment in China is primarily because of NATO’s involvements with Taiwan.

Parallels between Russia-Ukraine and China-Taiwan

The final agenda draws on similarities between the Russian-Ukrainian invasion and the forced reunification of China with Taiwan. Prof. Rasmussen mentions three critical similarities:

First is the military operation: by most accounts, the situation features a country with vastly superior military capacity – Russia and China –  and a country that does not hold the same capacity – Ukraine and Taiwan. The country with superior military capacity faces challenges and is quite “literally and metaphorically bogged down”. While Prof. Rasmussen draws similarities between the Russian-Ukrainian war and the Soviet-Finnish War of 1939, he states that there is also a difference in terms of geographical military operations: in Ukraine, it will primarily be a war on land, while a potential Taiwan scenario would feature conflict in waters.

The second parallel that Prof. Rasmussen considers is Prof. Ganga’s mention of a united front and Prof. Yue’s mention of the rallying effect. A similar situation might take place in a Taiwan scenario: other states offering support to Taiwan, forming a united front, and a Taiwanese population that bolsters support for their leader, similar to the rallying effect in Ukraine.

The third parallel is on the impact of sanctions: how economically debilitating they can be, and the responses that can be made and similar narratives in Russia that can be replicated in China: the narratives of “Peace operation versus reunification”, the narrative in Russia about liberating a population that is being manipulated by Nazis, hence being called an “anti-Nazi operation”, whilst in China it can be replicated to be about the liberation of a country manipulated by a democratic/ ”pro-indepence” group.

After a brief introduction of HRC’s upcoming events, this event successfully ended with writing feedback of key takeaways. It was an inspiring and informative roundtable discussion on the situation of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the cause of the war and the role of NATO, the economic impact of sanctions, the relations of public opinion and public policy, and similarities between Russia-Ukraine and China-Taiwan.