Timothy Frye on Russia-Ukraine War

Timothy Frye is the Marshall D. Shulman Professor of Post-Soviet Foreign Policy and professor of political science at Columbia University. He worked on a cultural exchange program for the United States Information Agency in six cities in the Soviet Union in the late 1980s and advised the Russian Securities and Exchange Commission in the 1990s. He directed the Harriman Institute at Columbia from 2009 to 2015 and co-directed a research laboratory at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow from 2011-2022.
Ningqi (Carina) Zhao '24 interviewed Dr. Timothy Frye on on October 27, 2022.
Photograph and biography courtesy of Dr. Timothy Frye.

What is Russia trying to achieve in Ukraine? Have Putin’s objectives shifted throughout the war?

The broad objective is to demonstrate that Russia is a great power, and the great powers can break the rules when they think it serves their interests. It's a way for Putin to show that Russia can stand up to what he sees as the expansion of Western influence. 

The justifications for the war have changed a lot, from getting rid of the Nazis in Kyiv to demilitarizing Ukraine. The initial strategy was to cause the government in Kyiv to collapse and to break the will of Ukrainian army quickly. The expectation was that this would all happen within a week or two. 

However, the Ukrainian defenses  stiffened, the Ukrainian government didn't flee, and the performance of the Russian army on the battlefield has been much worse than people expected, and the objectives have become much smaller. 

Now, it seems that Russia is trying to control territory in the east and south of Ukraine, as well as continuing to create instability throughout the rest of Ukraine to keep it weak and divided. The macro goal of demonstrating Russian power is still Russia’s overall objective. However, since Russia is coming so far from achieving that goal, President Putin had to settle for much more narrow and specific tactical objectives. 

What are the reasons for Russia’s weak performance in the battlefield?

An important thing to remember is that this was not a war that most Russians wanted. If Putin did not go to war with Ukraine, there would have been zero political cost at home. There was very little enthusiasm for the war in Russia prior to the invasion. As a result, the soldiers that are being sent to Ukraine are poorly motivated. They don't see this as their war. In fact, the Russian military is less well prepared, less well-organized, and more corrupt than we realized. 

The other side of the coin is that Europe and the United States have countered Russia's invasion far more aggressively than most people expected, and certainly more than Putin himself expected. For instance, he expected that the domestic problems in the US were so great that this would not be a good time for the country to engage in war. In fact, this is one of the few issues where the Democrats and the Republicans are united. Many other countries also do not support Russia, either because of the votes of the UN or being afraid of the sanctions. Therefore, Putin really underestimated the reaction of Ukraine and the Western world. Putin’s mistake could be explained by the nature of the political system, where people are afraid to contradict the ruler and Putin is surrounded by people telling him what he wants to hear. 

President Vladimir Putin this week acknowledged that his country was experiencing “economic difficulties” because of the different “restrictions” imposed on his country due to the war in Ukraine. What impact have the restrictions and the war had on Russia’s economy? 

Initially, Putin thought the war was going to be over in a week or two weeks, but it is taking a longer time. The economic consequences have been much greater than what he expected. Russia had prepared to weather the economic sanctions by building up the national welfare fund from selling the oil and gas as well as building the reserve fund. 

In fact, the sanctions have slowed economic growth in Russia and caused the country to spend a lot more money. Right now, government revenues are not terrible, but the national welfare fund is at its lowest level as a share of the GDP since 2004. Car production is down by almost 40% because producers can't get access to the microchips, and the import of semiconductors is down 70%. 

In addition, China and India are buying more oil and gas, but Europe has dramatically reduced its reliance on Russian gas. This is a serious problem for Russia. Once European countries find alternative sources of energy, they're going to be reluctant to turn back to Russia when the war is over. This means that the lucrative market for Russia is going away, as Europe turns to green technology and imported liquefied natural gas from other countries, such as the United States and Norway. Therefore, the economic consequences have been dramatic, which made economic life much more difficult. 

Do you think the impact of the sanctions will impose pressure on Russia to end the war? 

Historically, sanctions by themselves have not been enough to get countries to either stop engaging in war or to prevent them from going to war in the first place. This is because when countries really want to do things, they're willing to pay the economic costs. On the other hand, the fact that Russia has had to rely on Iran for drones that they're using to bomb in Ukraine, that tank production in Russia has declined dramatically, and that Russia is spending down its missiles without being able to replace them at a high rate are all due to sanctions. In that way, the sanctions have helped to degrade Russia's military effort, which is likely to influence the course of the war.

Russia has accused Ukraine of preparing to use a dirty bomb. Do you have insight into this claim? Is this a pretext created by Russia for launching a nuclear weapon?

Some people have argued that this is a tactic that the Russian government has used in the past, where it accuses the other side of doing something that Russia plans on doing in advance, such as breaking a ceasefire. The fact that both the Defense Minister of Russia and President Putin mentioned this has made people very concerned about this possibility. 

Most people view it as a device to signal to the West, that Russia could cause a lot more damage than currently, if the West continues to supply Ukraine with the kinds of weapon systems that have been very effective against Russia. However, it is unlikely that Russia would use a nuclear weapon, given that it would also cause a lot of damage to Russia. 

In this way, the action is more of a threat, and it is important to make it credible in international politics. This is why Russia’s Defense Minister and President Putin keep talking about it, as they're trying to demonstrate their resolve to take actions if they’re being pushed too far.

At the start of the war, China and India refused to condemn Russia’s invasion in the UN and elsewhere. Has their position evolved during the war in any significant ways?

India has become the second largest purchaser of oil from Russia, so India is playing a helpful role to Russia. However, this is much smaller than the amount of energy than what was lost by sales to Europe ending. 

This September, Russia and the Central Asian states met at the Shanghai Cooperation Council that took place in China. Prime Minister Modi made a public statement saying that he had encouraged Putin to find an end to the war. President Xi did not talk at all about Ukraine in public. Therefore, people took that as a sign that China was not as supportive of Russia's war on Ukraine, in part because the war crimes and the human rights violations that Russians are committing make them a very unattractive coalition partner for China, a country that wants to promote a different national image. China is also very supportive of international stability. Therefore, China's position has evolved, and it has not been as supportive as what Putin would have liked. 

I have a Russian colleague who says that, for Russian-Chinese relations, the countries are not always together, but they never stab each other in the back. The notion is that they may have disagreement, but they're not going to take steps to really undermine each other. 

Could Russia wage this war without Chinese acquiescence?

Yes, I think so. Putin sees this war as an area of Russia's sphere of influence. As a sovereign state and a great power, Russia could wage the war regardless of another country’s support. 

Does Putin want Chinese support? Absolutely. Would he take into account Xi's wishes about how to prosecute the war? Probably. I think this is a decision that Putin took without consulting more broadly in the Russian elite, and certainly not with the Russian public. Both Russian elites and the mass public were very much caught off guard by the invasion, as well as China. 

Is there a way to resolve the war? 

The fundamental problem to resolving the war is that Putin is not willing to give up, unless he gets recognition for the new territories that have been seized since February 24, 2022. Ukraine, on the other hand, is unwilling to grant that recognition, regardless of what the West does. Therefore, the scope for an agreement is absent right now. 

Moreover, given Russia's political system, the unprovoked nature of the attack, and Russia's broken promises towards Ukraine in the past, there is a great deal of skepticism in Ukraine about a ceasefire that the Kremlin might offer, with the expectation that the Kremlin would just use this as an opportunity to get some breathing space, and then to attack Ukraine again in the future. In this way, Putin’s credibility for offering a compromise is very low in Ukraine and in the eyes of the West. This makes it also very difficult for Ukrainians to take any Russian hints about possible negotiations seriously, and we haven't really seen those hints yet.

I am worried that there will be much more destruction and loss of life until the two sides exhaust themselves. Unless the Ukrainians have a big breakthrough, that's the one way that the war could end more quickly, but that is also very difficult to see. Therefore, we're likely to see continued fighting for some time.

Ningqi (Carina) Zhao CMC '24Student Journalist

Markus Spiske from Forchheim, Bavaria Upper Franconia, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

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