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April 3, 2023

One year later: Surprises, disappointments in Ukraine war

UC Riverside experts weigh in on what was predictable and what was not following Russia's invasion

Author: UCR News
April 3, 2023

This is a partial reprint from a UC Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation, or IGCC, retrospective on Russia's war in Ukraine. The retrospective featured UC Riverside faculty members Paul D'Anieri and Jana Grittersova, among other experts from the UC system. D’Anieri, a political scientist, is author of "Ukraine and Russia: From Civilized Divorce to Uncivil War"; a revised edition of the book is imminent. Grittersova is an associate professor of political science and cooperating faculty in the Economics Department. She is a former central banker at the National Bank of Slovakia and worked as an economist at the European Commission in Brussels. 

Paul D’Anieri on the Continued Surprises of the War

The roots of Russia’s aggression in Ukraine run deep. Russian elites have insisted on controlling Ukraine since before the Soviet collapse in 1991. That, rather than NATO expansion or some development in Ukraine, is the reason Russia invaded.

Paul D'Anieri

I was surprised by the decision to invade in February 2022. I believed that the post-2014 status quo served Russia’s interests. The world seemed accustomed to Russian control of Crimea and the West seemed increasingly tired of sanctions. I believed that Putin was not only shrewd, but risk averse. The invasion of 2022 demolished those beliefs: Russia does not merely want to take Crimea or the Donbas, or even to conquer all of Ukraine, but to extinguish the very idea of a distinct Ukrainian people. And far from being risk averse, Putin appears to regard the loss of Ukraine as so damaging that he is willing to take immense risks to reverse it. The Russian leadership’s rhetoric implies ambitions that extend even further westward.

The surprises continued throughout 2022. Ukraine’s resilience, the ineptitude of Russia’s military, and the West’s unity were all unanticipated. Two further surprises deserve more attention, for they have profound implications for the future of the conflict. First, Russian domestic opposition to the war did not materialize. Russians either support the war or are intimidated by ramped-up repression. Second, Putin and his leadership team are much less sensitive to the costs of the war than we hoped.

Even though the invasion validates much of what I have been writing for years, it is sobering as a scholar to have not anticipated the invasion. Unfortunately, such failures are not unusual—almost none of us predicted the collapse of the Soviet Union, either. Far more troubling to me has been the fate of my friends in Ukraine who are displaced, impoverished traumatized, and often cold.

Many hope that a stalemate could lead Russia to accept a compromise and bring about some kind of peace. But peace based on stalemate is unlikely to endure. Extensive research in international conflict shows that many wars are driven by the same states going at it again and again and that wars that end in stalemate, rather than in victory for one side, are more likely to restart. This points to the sobering conclusion that western aid to Ukraine must be aimed not at facilitating stalemate, but at ejecting Russian forces from Ukraine. A peace that leaves both sides dissatisfied and neither feeling defeated will be unlikely to last.

Jana Grittersova on the Disappointment of Sanctions

One notable aspect of the Russia-Ukraine conflict is the remarkable scale of sanctions that the United States and its European allies have deployed to isolate and weaken Russia’s economy. The goal was to hinder Russia’s military efforts and encourage the population and wealthy elites to protest against the government’s actions. The aim was also to deter other potential adversaries—particularly China—from pursuing similar actions. Although some of the sanctions, such as freezing the assets of Kremlin insiders, are not entirely new, the extent to which they are being implemented is unprecedented. The new measures include strategies to isolate Russia from the global financial system, such as banning commercial banks from using SWIFT messaging and freezing $300 billion in central bank reserves. Furthermore, export bans had previously targeted individual companies rather than entire countries.

Jana Grittersova

The enforcement of these sanctions is proving to be challenging. Large banks often decline to transfer funds on behalf of questionable entities if these entities are at least 25 percent under the control of sanctioned individuals. In contrast, smaller fintech and cryptocurrency firms tend to be less scrupulous. Many Russian oligarchs have concealed their offshore wealth by creating a complex network of shell companies in locations such as the Cayman Islands and Jersey.

The exclusion of some Russian banks from the SWIFT network, initially referred to as a “financial nuclear weapon,” has caused inconvenience. Alternative payment methods, such as telex, tend to be cumbersome and slow. However, some banks that process significant amounts of Russian fuel purchases, like Gazprombank, are still permitted to use SWIFT. By contrast, conducting transactions without using dollars is more complicated. For instance, despite being a major purchaser of Russian oil, India is still exploring feasible options to pay for it in rupees. China appears to be more successful, as demonstrated by the increase in payment volumes through CIPS, the Chinese alternative to SWIFT.

The effectiveness of trade sanctions has been reduced because only half of the countries worldwide comply with them. Countries friendly to Russia, like Turkey, Kazakhstan, India, and China, facilitate the import of goods that Russia needs but are restricted by the sanctions. Moreover, these countries now account for a significant share of raw material exports (at a substantial discount) that Russia once supplied to Europe.

Russia has so far been able to avoid an economic disaster, but it does not mean that sanctions have failed. The skilled Russian technocrats managed to prevent a bank run from escalating into a severe financial crisis and stabilize inflation, thus securing the ongoing war. It was surprising to observe how these technocrats, including Elvira Nabiullina, the highly respected governor of the Russian central bank, complied obediently as the conflict intensified. Despite the ongoing conflict, Russia’s GDP contracted by only 2.2 percent in 2022, far less than initial predictions of a double-digit slump. Unemployment has remained low. The International Monetary Fund predicts that in 2023, Russia will grow by 0.3 percent, which is a higher growth rate than that of the United Kingdom and Germany.

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