Professor Mikhail Alexseev on Russia’s War in Ukraine

Dr. Mikhail Alexseev is the Bruce E. Porteous Professor of Political Science at San Diego State University. Dr. Alexseev is a native of Kyiv and has been working at SDSU since 2000. His publications focus on threat assessment in interstate and internal wars, ethnic relations, nationalism, and immigration in Russia/Eurasia, with a special focus on the sociopolitical effects of the war in Ukraine. Dr. Alexseev is the author of award-winning books and dozens of articles appearing in journals like Political Science Quarterly, Journal of Peace Research, Political Behavior, Political Communication, Europe-Asia Studies, Nationalities Papers, Post-Soviet Geography and Economics, among others. His research has been funded by John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and the National Council for Eurasian and East European Research. Dr. Alexeev’s editorial opinion articles on Russian and Post-Soviet affairs have appeared in The New York Times, Newsweek, Toronto Globe and Mail, USA Today, and The Seattle Times.
Celine X. Wang '26 interviewed Dr. Mikhail Alexseev on February 23, 2024.
Photograph and biography courtesy of Dr. Mikhail Alexseev.

It has been two years since Russia declared war on Ukraine, but the conflict does not appear to be de-escalating. Is there an end in sight? What are conditions or scenarios that could lead to an end?

Unfortunately, there is no end in sight. Ukraine’s President Zelensky summed it up well at the recent Munich Security Conference. In one of his interviews, he said, “do not ask Ukraine when the war will end, ask yourself: why is Putin still able to continue it?” I think that's the key to understanding it. 

Most of what will happen depends on the constraints on Putin. Unless Putin sees that he's facing strong military resistance, he's going to continue. He has a long time-horizon. In fact, in one interview early in the war, he made parallels with the Great Northern War that Russia waged against Sweden and Ukraine back in the early 1700s. It lasted for 21 years. So, Putin sees the current war in big geopolitical terms. From his standpoint, this is something that will have an impact for centuries.

You mentioned that Putin needs to see a strong military resistance against him. In an ideal world, what would that military resistance look like? Who would be the actors that lead this?

I am thinking of the United States, the international community, and primarily, the Euro-Atlantic Alliance. First of all, we have not given Ukraine even a small part of what we could have, or what we would have used ourselves if we faced the same direct challenge of external aggression. We delayed even limited capabilities, such as tanks, air defense systems, and fighter aircraft for a long time. Ukraine still doesn't even have F-16 fighter jets that are relatively dated. We are not giving Ukraine, for example, stealth aircraft and F-35s, but we could. To restrain Putin, we would have to signal to him we are not afraid to go back to nuclear brinkmanship of the Cold War style. Putin banks on the fact that we are too fearful of confrontation and skillfully exploits our fears of conflict escalation, so he turned the table on us, saying: I'm going to grab as much territory as I want, and if you try to do something against it, I am going to use nuclear weapons against you. But of course, all of it is the deterrence brinkmanship game. He plays it, but we haven’t responded in kind. This asymmetry could be more dangerous than mutual deterrence by enabling territorial grabs by Russia and others.

There are a lot of other things we can do. The primary capability where we have a decisive advantage is naval power. But it would have to be used globally. It would have to involve a lot of repositioning, and it may involve strategic nuclear retargeting. For example, large exercises with the stated aim of blocking Russian warships and submarines in the Russian Far East, along the lines of Operation Ocean Venture of the 1980s that demonstrated to Soviet leaders that they could not compete with us militarily and gave Gorbachev the rationale to push through arms reductions. Like then, we can remind the Kremlin that their northern ports cannot sustain the naval power we and our allies can project into the Arctic and the Barents Sea. So, there would have to be a global naval strategy change. My sense is that these are the kinds of signals that Putin is looking for in evaluating the West’s resolve. To the extent he sees even a remote possibility of those moves, he would take our resolve seriously and consider stopping his aggression.

With international attention drifting toward new conflicts, most notably the Israel-Hamas war, what are the impacts for Western involvement in Russia’s war in Ukraine? Does the war in Israel hamper U.S. support for Ukraine or does it instead create a way for compromise between Republicans and Democrats in the U.S. Congress?

In terms of national security interests and potential for conflict, it could create a lot of synergy because there is a similarity in the type of challenge. There is a lot of terrorist-style aggression in both cases, and in both cases, the aggression is directed at some of our primary allies and very important regions of the world. That is why, for example, the Biden administration proposed to put together an all-in-one aid package. Unfortunately, there is a split between the isolationist, America-first, impulse and the internationalist impulse. The Gaza conflict in itself is not necessarily hampering or helping internal dynamics in Ukraine. However, it may serve Putin's interests because it could distract the West’s military capabilities and public attention. There could be the argument that naval power should be used in Israel and the Red Sea or that limited supplies of the ammunition should be sent to Israel instead of Ukraine. Meanwhile, Russia is forcing Ukraine to use an awful lot of ammunition. This is a big challenge since the Russian military industrial complex is producing large amounts. 

Another reason why the Gaza conflict serves Putin's interest is that it solidifies the position of Putin's allies in the region—namely Iran. In the war in Ukraine, Russia depends on Iranian drones. There are a dozen to two dozen daily Iranian drone attacks on Ukraine. And you have to ask yourself, what has Russia offered Iran in exchange for this kind of military support. We don't quite know, but in terms of building capabilities, since Iran is also invested in Hezbollah and Hamas, that's where Russian assistance can help Iran. If the entities Iran supports are involved in a military conflict distracting the West, then Russia’s value for Iran rises. This also makes these conflicts harder to solve. It also increases the likelihood of them spreading, which we see from the Houthis who are also dependent on Iran. So, we have this nexus of conflicts and there is the potential that Russia is at least indirectly spreading the conflict in Gaza through its relationship with Iran. As it spreads it, it affects us and distracts us by creating new areas of concern and violence. Overall, I would say that is when one has to ask if of the risks brinksmanship-style containment might be paradoxically lower than the risks of prolonged persistent warfighting and Russia’s expansion. 

President Biden recently called attention to Putin’s unpredictable behavior that led to this war. Has Putin “gone mad” or is he still a rational actor?

I had that question asked a lot about two years ago right after the war started because what Putin did was so outrageous, so horrific, that it looked like it was bordering on crazy. However, just because it seems outrageous and inhumane does not mean that he is acting irrationally. From his standpoint, he is acting rationally in the sense that just like you and I, he prefers to be rich rather than poor, healthy rather than sick, and alive rather than dead. With his objectives to increase Russian controlled territory, to rebuild the Soviet type of Russian imperial domain, and also given his country’s history of violence and autocracy, it is a perfectly understandable trajectory. It is rational within his imperial, autocratic system of preferences. Look at how he came to power. He came to power by restarting the massive war in Chechnya. Thousands of people died at his orders to restart that conflict. We can go on and on about how he used violence to suppress opposition inside Russia, how he went into Georgia, how he annexed Crimea and instigated the Donbas war, how he helped Bashar al-Assad, a very repressive dictator in Syria. So, for somebody who is an aggressive challenger to the international order, what Putin is doing is actually very rational.

In terms of Putin's own cost-benefit analysis for Russia, it seems that he went into the war thinking that he would be able to succeed much more quickly and easily than he is doing right now. Do you think that Putin acknowledges the costs that are getting larger and larger both in terms of casualties and spending? Has he already gone too far to stop?

First, if you look at Putin's track record, he is usually planning for contingencies. To say that all he hoped for was to take two weeks and have Ukraine under his control through some form of puppet government doesn’t tell the whole story. While that appears to have been the primary objective, it doesn't mean that Putin did not have a backup plan. When the Blitzkrieg failed, Putin regrouped, fell back, and retooled Russian military industries. He created a new system to draft people from prisons and poorer regions of Russia, creating a flow of people to the front. Instead of trying to go for the center of power in Kyiv, he started to pursue territorial grab through long-term salami tactics. This kind of strategy makes it harder for international actors to see the reason to support Ukraine because each territorial advance is rather small. In that sense, even though Putin is often ridiculed because he used to say everything is going according to his plan whereas it clearly seemed that Russia was being kicked out of 50% of the territories that they had occupied, it doesn't mean that there was only a Plan A. Plan B is what Putin is carrying out right now, and he feels that he is actually succeeding. 

Another thing is time horizon. The premise of the question of Putin’s success is when. That is very adjustable for Putin. As I mentioned before, he takes a long view. For him, if he doesn't achieve success in two years, he can achieve it in five years, so what. Asking about Putin’s rationality was in part wishful thinking. We just do not want to deal with this kind of war. We are so horrified by what is going on there, and that is exactly what Putin counts on—that people would just give up resisting.

Last week, Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was killed. What does his killing tell us about Putin’s Russia today? What implications does his death have on the future of anti-Kremlin forces?

It basically illustrates that Russia is following the typical trajectory of autocratic regimes and dictatorships. As Winston Churchill said, being a dictator is like riding a tiger; you cannot get off the tiger or you will be destroyed. The fear of being destroyed then causes you to destroy others. So instead of being destroyed by the tiger, you will direct the tiger to destroy others more brutally. Therefore, once you suppress some opponents, you don't stop, you keep suppressing others. There is a fear that if you stop, you may be reevaluated, put on trial, and challenged. But as long as you keep the momentum, nobody can really challenge you. Putin in that sense started with a hybrid democratic regime, then transitioned to authoritarianism and consolidated authoritarianism. Now it's in the totalitarian range. Navalny’s death was just the tip of the iceberg because there has been a whole wave of repression. There were estimates of nearly 20,000 people arrested for protesting Russia’s war against Ukraine in 2022, and many more since then. It’s a harsh, oppressive system and we saw people arrested just because they posted something on Facebook, or Instagram, even for spreading the word privately. 

On a more individual level, how do you think Navalny’s killing impacted the psyche of the general public and anti-Kremlin forces specifically?

We don't have opinion polls that provide the whole view of Russia, but I've watched some interviews of Russians in the street on international media. A lot of people don't care, and some say that Navalny was against Russia. There were also comments about how the last hope for freedom was dashed. I'm sure there is a lot of anger and strong resentment, disgust, and disdain of the system that Putin built. In terms of collective action, Navalny’s killing certainly undermined any prospect for meaningful opposition that you can expect. The trajectory leads Russia to be like North Korea or Turkmenistan where you have a very tightly controlled regime. Russia has a lot of natural resources so it can generously fund the police and the repressive apparatus to sustain itself. It means that I wouldn't put my hopes on domestic unrest upending Putin’s rule.

China is arguably Russia’s most important partner, but at the same time, China has been very firm on its foreign policy of “non-interference.” It has declared its “neutral stance” on the war, but to what extent is China really neutral? Could China come to serve as a mediator in a peace deal? 

China has a huge impact on the war, but a lot of it is not direct. If Putin could not have the energy markets that he has in China, I don't think Putin would have started his aggression on Ukraine. He had the West-East Pipelines built that pump natural gas to China from Siberian oil fields. They also have natural gas exported to China from the Arctic. In building major pipelines across the Black Sea and the Baltic Sea around Ukraine, and then ones to China, Putin basically economically fool-proofed Russia against meaningful Western sanctions. So “staying neutral” in this situation actually means helping Russia. 

China is also not neutral in terms of the messaging to its own people on Chinese state media. It is mostly following the Moscow narrative of the war. It blames NATO for the conflict and promotes the idea that Russia's bid to conquer Ukraine could be legitimate because it counters the NATO security threat. Also, media reports indicate that it has provided Russia with a lot of military-related assistance, particularly military clothing, body armor, and drone equipment.  

Another way that China could support Russia more militarily is through North Korea. North Korea essentially is a Chinese satellite, as it would not be sustainable without Chinese support. The shipments of weapons from North Korea to Russia happened on a large scale and there were reported sightings of some Chinese equipment reported by Ukrainian military observers, including possibly artillery systems and ammunition, though these sightings have been few and hard to verify. It’s a positive fact that China has not massively and directly supported Russia militarily. But at the same time, it is certainly leaning toward Russia. They even refer to Russia’s war of aggression as “the Ukraine crisis.” If you also read the Chinese peace plan, it emphasizes the Russian stance. It talks about stopping hostilities, but it doesn't talk about restoring Ukraine's territorial integrity as a condition of peace. In essence, the kind of peace deal that China would push forward would simply be the legitimation of Putin's territorial conquest in international legal language.

Celine X. Wang '26Student Journalist

Oleksandr Ratushniak, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

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