Chris Miller is an assistant professor of international history at The Fletcher School at Tufts University and co-director of the school's Russia and Eurasia Program. He is the author of Putinomics: Power and Money in Resurgent Russia (2018) and The Struggle to Save the Soviet Economy (2016).
What do you think about the situation in Ukraine? Do you believe there is a possibility of actual invasion there?
I hope not, but it does seem Russia has assembled the military capability you need if you want to undertake the large-scale invasion. So, either Russia is trying to coerce Ukraine into making concessions or serious about the attack. Either way, it is a bad option, and Russia deserves to be pushed back for threatening Ukraine.
I know you held one of the Fletcher School of Diplomacy panels a week ago, mentioning three crucial interrelated US-Russia, NATO-Russia, and Ukraine-Russia crises impacting the current situation?
That's right, and that's what makes this situation so complicated is that Russia is having different but interrelated crises with all three parties and demanding concessions from all of them simultaneously. So it is hard for the rest of the world to know the true wishes and priorities that it tries to negotiate. Or Russia is just making lots of demands preparing for negotiations to fail so that it could better justify an attack against Ukraine. And at this point, it is difficult to say with confidence what Russia wants.
If we look at the Russian ideological approach, they never considered Ukraine as a state but as part of the Russian sphere of influence. Do you think they aim to divide Ukraine, taking part of it under its control?
There are different views within Russia. But it seems that there is a pretty widespread view among the Russian elites about the necessity of control over Ukraine. Over the last couple of decades and especially since 2014, Russia has been willing to spend lots of resources trying to achieve this control over Ukraine. Russia's challenge is that Ukrainians do not want to be controlled by Russia. So it has been difficult for Russia to achieve this. Hence, they are turning to the last tool they got left, which is the military tool. And the goal is to try to force Ukraine to recognize some greater degree of Russian control.
How can they maintain control over such a large territory if they use conventional military force afterward?
It certainly seems it would be difficult. It is always difficult to predict how it starts and develops. But I think it wouldn't be a straightforward process to hold much territory, especially since Ukrainians have routinely shown they do not want to be part of Russia.
Ukrainian Constitutions has provision on the strategic course towards NATO membership. Shouldn't Ukraine pursue neutrality status instead?
I think Ukraine's foreign policy strategy is a question primarily for Ukrainians, not me per se. But the way I would frame the problem is how Ukraine finds itself in a situation where it can enhance its security and territorial integrity. There are many ways you can get there, but to get there, it has to involve either deterring Russia from pressuring you militarily or getting Russia to agree not to do so. How you guarantee Ukraine's security is the key question in the crisis. One of the ironies is that Russia demanded security guarantees from western countries, but Ukraine is the country that requires credible security guarantees. Hence, the critical question is how we get to when Ukraine feels confident in its security.
I find shocking Russia's continuous referral to verbal security guarantees given to Gorbachev never to expand NATO to post-Soviet bloc countries. But they were never given formal assurances.
You can also put it next to the Budapest Memorandum in 1994 signed by Russia. It has been violated by its actions in 2014 and afterward. If we go back to the historical record, no country has perfect adherence to the set of deals they signed. But there is one country currently occupying another, and that's Russia occupying Ukraine's territory. And it seems inconceivable we are going to have peace in Eastern Europe unless that gets reversed.
And do you think the West has done enough to support Ukraine?
The West has done a lot to support Ukraine in the last couple of years. If we compare current western support versus the 1990s and 2000s, there is an order of magnitude more support from western countries.
What should Ukraine do now to strengthen itself militarily?
It is challenging because Russians got one of the most powerful militaries in the world. It is a country that is substantially larger than Ukraine. I do not think that Ukraine is going to develop new military capabilities over the next couple of weeks or months that can shift the balance. But over the medium term, Ukraine building up a more credible deterrent vis-à-vis Russia would be meaningful. The challenge is that Russia is committed to preventing Ukraine from building its military. And as part of its strategy and demands over the last couple of months has been to say that Ukraine shouldn't be able to improve its military defenses. That's the challenge Ukraine will have to deal with in the near future.