What political science can tell us about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has rightly stirred outrage against an act of naked aggression, and sympathy for the plight of ordinary Ukrainians forced to flee their homes and to become refugees. I offer five insights from political science on what the crisis may bring. 

Pax Americana and the Liberal International Order 

One reason Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has generated so much attention is that it appears to be an affront to the liberal international order that has been underwritten by American military dominance since the end of the Cold War. The media is awash with claims that the invasion marks a weakening of the liberal international order and a step closer to the pre-1989 world. In crude theoretical terms, it is a blow to constructivists, who believe rules and laws shape state behaviour, and a vindication of realists who believe interests and power do. 

The opposite may prove true. Rather than weakening the liberal international order, Putin may have inadvertently strengthened it. The response is a galvanized Europe, a rapprochement between Europe and the US on security priorities, and as close to a consensus within the UN General Assembly as anyone could hope for. It has also breathed life back into NATO. Several European members have increased their military spending and NATO co-operation.  

Re-supplying Ukraine militarily also represents a significant departure in security policy for several European nations. And, the willingness of those nations dependent on Russian oil and gas to endure pain and to reduce their future dependence underscores the strength of their political resolve. 

The reason for such a remarkable display of unity is what Putin is seen to represent. He symbolizes an antithesis to the liberal international order. The response is as much a rejection of Putinism as it is support for Ukrainians. It is not because Ukraine is a model liberal democracy. Ukraine scores 3.36 on Freedom House’s 7-point democracy scale and is considered only ‘partly free’. It is because Putin has openly said he wishes to see the liberal order torn down and scorns the values liberal democratic publics hold dear. 

The Responsibility to Protect and moral hazard 

Ukrainian resistance is heroic. Yet few security analysts doubt the eventual outcome, a Russian military victory. Why, then, does the Ukrainian government not simply surrender to avert further bloodshed? 

Political science suggests there may be a strategic logic behind the choice to fight on. Since its articulation in 2001, the idea of a Responsibility to Protect (R2P) has slowly become more embedded in international discourse (UN Member States committed to the principle in 2005). The idea represents a promise that the international community will intervene to stop atrocities against civilians.  

For some, this creates moral hazard — an incentive for more risky behaviour, such as continued resistance. Resistance will be offered, even if it means significant loss of life, because the hope remains that help will come. 

Ukraine’s president, Zelensky has repeatedly asked for help from the West. And, as Ukrainian resistance continues, Putin has intensified his attacks and committed what appear to be war crimes by targeting civilian populations. As the stories and images of these atrocities reach Western audiences, the pressure on their governments to act will mount. 

How it will eventually end will turn on how many civilian lives Zelensky is willing to risk, how many Putin is willing to take, and how many the West is willing to watch be lost. 

It is unlikely NATO will heed the plea for a no-fly zone. The risk of confrontation with a nuclear power will outweigh any consideration for civilian lives. Seen in this light, R2P is at best an imperfect insurance policy against atrocity. 

Occupation and insurgency 

While winning the war may be relatively straightforward for a militarily superior Russia, keeping the peace will be less so. The lesson from the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 is that forcing regime change is only the beginning of a long engagement with the country you occupy. There will almost certainly be continued resistance if a pro-Russian government is installed. The insurgency that would follow would again be supported externally and again attract foreign fighters. At least in the case of Iraq, the US empowered the Shia ethnic majority. Ethnic Russians in contrast represent less than a fifth of Ukraine’s population. 

Putin will be aware of this risk. If he is feeling confident, he may try to topple the Zelensky government and put in place a puppet. If he is risk-averse, however, he may define victory differently. Russia may be content to inflict damage short of regime change in Ukraine, but enough to signal to any bordering state that seeking NATO membership would be foolish and to annex all ethnic Russia-majority regions before withdrawing. 

Audience costs and the autocrat’s dilemma 

Claiming victory is important for Putin’s domestic survival. His invasion has drawn extreme sanctions. In Putin’s favour, however, is the ability to claim to domestic audiences a stronger strategic rationale than, for example, the US had for its invasion of Iraq. Ukraine borders Russia, is home to ethnic Russians, and contemplated joining a security alliance that would place new troops and armaments right on Russia’s border. Like all autocrats, Putin fears widespread mass protest and the possibility of an elite-engineered coup.  

He avoids the latter through patronage and appeals to Russian nationalist sentiment to avert the former. Yet, if his domestic credibility weakens, he will rely increasingly on the other instrument in the autocrat’s toolkit: repression. There are limits to how much coercion an autocrat can use against his own citizens. Too much for too long is unsustainable. This is Putin’s dilemma. The colour revolutions in former Soviet states and the uprisings of the Arab spring bode ominously for dictators who come to rely too heavily on repression. If Putin loses in Ukraine, it may mark the beginning of the end for his regime.  

Cultural bias and inconsistency in the treatment of refugees 

The exodus of Ukrainians fleeing the war has elicited much-deserved empathy internationally. Yet the welcome they receive in Europe is in stark contrast to the welcome given to refugees from places such as Syria and Afghanistan. The inconsistency erodes the already-strained protection regime put in place for refugees after the Second World War.  

It is in this sense that Russia’s invasion weakens the rules-based liberal international order. It exposes the culturalist bias in the world’s treatment of refugees. The journalists covering Ukraine who have emphasized the ‘civilizedness’, ‘Europeanness’, ‘developedness’, and even the colour of the country’s refugees to communicate their shock at what they are observing betrays this bias. The bias is all the more glaring when one considers where responsibility for the breaking of Afghanistan lies and that Russia was responsible, too, for the destruction of Syrian cities. 

The views expressed in this piece are those of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Institute or the United Nations University, nor the programme/project donors.