CU Denver Professor Shares Analysis on Ukraine-Russia Tensions

February 22, 2022

As tensions in Eastern Europe continue to build, and a Russian invasion of Ukraine seems imminent, we enlisted faculty expert Dr. Christoph Stefes, a professor of political science in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, to help explain what the crisis means for Russia, Ukraine, and the world. Stefes has personal and professional interest in the topic: he’s from Germany and has friends and family members in countries bordering the crisis, and he teaches courses at CU Denver on European and post-Soviet politics. He and Betcy Jose, associate professor of political science, are currently co-authoring their second paper on Russia as a norm entrepreneur in international relations.

Why Did Russia Send Troops to the Border of Ukraine?

Russia has deployed 150,000 troops to Ukraine’s borders in an ongoing conflict rooted in a decision made in the early 1990s to dissolve the Soviet Union. At the time, Ukraine, a former Soviet republic, had the third largest atomic arsenal in the world. The U.S. and Russia worked with Ukraine to denuclearize the country, and in a series of diplomatic agreements, Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, gave its hundreds of nuclear explosives back to Russia in exchange for security assurances that protected it from a potential Russian attack, media outlets report

Dr. Christoph Stefes

Putin has since been determined to reclaim Russia’s power lost by the breakup of the Soviet Union, which was essentially a colonial empire under Russian control. In 2014, Russia already invaded and annexed the Ukrainian peninsula Crimea, and it has provided Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine with weapons. Experts say the current events indicate a much larger problem of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian leadership, which could have implications worldwide.

“This is not about Ukraine. There’s little in Ukraine that Russia needs or wants,” Stefes said. “It is really about the European security structure that Russia agreed on in the 1990s. Putin is trying to bring us back to the 19th century when the sovereignty of smaller countries was largely ignored. Yet this is the 21st century, and Russia’s threats are unacceptable.”

How is the United States involved?

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is a military alliance between 27 countries, founded in 1949 to safeguard countries’ freedom and security by political and military means. While Ukraine is not part of NATO, Russia’s military presence has prompted NATO members to deploy troops to Eastern Europe and send weapons and other aid, the Washington Post reports. The United States is part of NATO, prompting conversations between President Biden and Putin. In remarks from the White House last week, Biden warned Putin if Russia invades Ukraine, the U.S. is prepared to respond in unison with NATO allies.

Today’s diplomacy looks much different than the relationship between Putin and former President Trump, Stefes pointed out. President Biden has reassured Europe that the old transatlantic relationships, which suffered under Trump’s leadership, would be revived. “Biden is not willing to let Putin determine central Europe’s security structure without the U.S. being consulted,” Stefes said. “For Biden, it’s clear that all of these states enjoy sovereignty, and Biden is absolutely not willing to cave in or to give into any of Russia’s demands.”

How could the impacts of an invasion affect Colorado and the U.S.?

Stefes named a few scenarios that could impact the U.S. directly. If Russia invaded Ukraine, prompting a buildup of U.S. military in the region, and an American citizen was accidentally killed, the U.S. would likely have a hawkish response, he said. In addition, an invasion will hurt the United States’ economic development, which has suffered greatly through the pandemic, causing a spike in energy prices, and potentially tank the international stock market.

Stefes said that what we are seeing is the rise of powerful autocratic regimes such as Russia and China and the simultaneous decline of democracy worldwide, which is something everyone should care about. The question individuals should be asking, Stefes said, is: “Are we in the West willing to give into the rise of authoritarian states around the world?”