Tuesday, March 1, The College of William and Mary’s ’s Global Research Institute hosted a panel discussion on the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The event was moderated by GRI Director Mike Tierney and featured Vice Provost for Academic and International Affairs Steve Hanson, government professor Amy Oakes, and Lincoln Zaleski ’20, a junior program manager at the AidData research group. There were more than 600 attendees in the St. George Tucker Theater venue and the concurrent online livestream.
The talk lasted for around 90 minutes and began with the panelists giving prepared presentations before engaging with each other’s analysis and fielding questions from in-person audience members. The live audience included The College’s students, professors, alumni and students from other universities.
Tierney said the event had been organized on short notice, but that it was critical for the GRI to provide the discussion as a service for the wider campus community.
“This is the biggest thing in the world, not just for people who study IR,” Tierney said. “This is the biggest thing in the world for everyone. And so, you know, there’s plenty of commentary on television and on the internet, but there’s something special about being at a great university where you come together as a community to talk about the things that affect your community. ”
According to Tierney, the discussion originated as a spur-of-the-moment idea, and he credited GRI Director of Programs and Outreach Rebecca Latourell with masterminding the logistical effort of getting the event up and running. He also pointed to Zaleski’s inclusion as a way to increase the diversity of perspectives offered by the panelists.
Hanson, a globally recognized expert in Russian and post-Soviet politics, began the talk by speaking to the broader significance of Russia’s invasion.
“This is the biggest war in Europe since World War Two,” Hanson said. “I definitely don’t want to discount that there have been armed conflicts in this period. But the scale of what we’re seeing now is something that none of us in our lifetimes have seen, except for those who really are quite old now. And it will change your life, for sure.”
Hanson also recognized the significance of the attack on Ukraine and the massive numbers of both casualties and displaced Ukrainian citizens.
“Let’s also state really clearly, because unfortunately the Putin propaganda machine tries to say otherwise, that this was an unprovoked assault on Ukrainian democracy by an autocratic imperial power,” Hanson said. “Mass casualties and refugee flows are already underway.”
Hanson identified four possible endpoints that the conflict could approach, referencing the idea that, despite the Russian military’s overwhelming numerical and material advantages, its low morale and tactical incompetence could result in Ukrainian victory.
“At least one argument, and the Pentagon made it today, is that some Russian soldiers are so unwilling to kill their Slavic brethren that they’ve emptied their own gas tanks to block the tanks from advancing,” Hanson said.
According to Hanson, a long and violent occupation is much more likely.
“Already, we’ve seen Ukraine will fight and fight forever as long as that kind of regime is in place,” Hanson said. “I can’t even see a puppet regime of the Lukashenka type being installed because there would be nobody around Kyiv to support such a regime. Of course, the Russian opposition would have to be crushed as well because to do the occupation, you also have to silence any voice in the Russian Federation who would oppose.”
Hanson’s third and fourth options both relied on a domestic backlash to Putin’s aggression.
“One option is that one of the generals says, ‘you know, I’m not marching on Kyiv, I’m marching on Moscow, I’m going to take my dreams and go the other direction.’ Even if it didn’t succeed, it would weaken the regime considerably,” Hanson said.
Hanson raised the possibility that even oligarchs who are unhappy with the Putin regime may join in on such a rebellion.
Finally Hanson outlined the fourth option.
“The other, of course, is that the sanctions and anger at this regime might lead to some serious popular uprising there,” Hanson said. “We have seen protests against the puppet regime in the Russian Far East against particular acts of corruption, against disastrous fires and the like, so that could be galvanized in the future.”
He then went on to explain the role of Western countries in this conflict.
“The key to Western success in any of these scenarios is for us to remember why we are able to contain this at all, and that is the solidarity with the entire West has shown in a remarkable way. That has to be sustained in what could be some really turbulent times ahead,” Hanson said.
Oakes presented a significantly more pessimistic outlook on the Ukraine crisis, which she said was a common theme in her foreign policy talks.
“I’m a security person, and I see my job as trying to think of all the bad things that can happen in the world,” Oakes said. “My talks are depressing.”
She focused her analysis on the scenario of the war turning into a protracted conflict that will test the Western resolve to sustain the kind of extreme sanctions that both the United States and Europe have imposed.
“Sanctions are essentially a game of chicken,” Oakes said. “Who’s going to give up first? For whom are the costs going to be so high that they’re going to make concessions?”
Oakes predicted that, in such a metaphorical game of chicken, the United States would be the first NATO state to give up.
While Oakes and Hanson presented diverging visions of the role Ukraine could play in uniting or dividing the West, Zaleski drew from his experience analyzing data from Russian state media outlets to draw conclusions about the growth of the irredentism.
“We’ve been looking at Russian propaganda for the last six years, specifically focused on all of these countries on its border,” Zaleski said. “Ukraine has six times more mentions than any other country. And that shows that Russia has cared very deeply about what goes on in Ukraine for the entire measured timeframe.”
Many audience members appreciated the variety of perspectives included in the talk.
After the event, Rory Fedorochko ’22 included his thoughts about the panel.
“I thought it was very interesting to see the range of intellectual diversity here, since Professor Hanson and professor Oakes had really different perspectives when it comes to the United States and stuff,” Fedorochko said.
Audience member Ben Navarro ’25, whose father is a first-generation immigrant from Moldova, also appreciated the new ideas each of the speakers presented.
“As someone who had considered myself already very informed about the issue, I’m pleasantly surprised that I managed to find so much useful discourse here,” Navarro said. “I personally had never heard the perspective that it’s possible that Moldova might be the next target. So that was almost kind of a shock and also something that I just hadn’t really considered.”
Navarro ultimately emphasized the significance of presenting analysis in this format.
“I think what’s important about a meeting like this is that the active discourse that you have from questions here is different information than what you’re going to get from a drafted and edited article that’s put out in the news,” Navarro said.