Twenty questions (and expert answers) about what’s happening with Ukraine and Russia

As the crisis in Eastern Europe continues to unfold, we tapped our expert network to answer our burning questions about the implications for Russia, Ukraine, and the wider world.

  1. Why is Russia moving so aggressively against Ukraine right now?

This crisis was entirely fabricated by Russian President Vladimir Putin; there is currently no threat to Russian security from NATO or Ukraine that can justify the more than one hundred thousand troops he has deployed to Ukraine’s borders and poised for attack. Ukraine is at the center of this crisis solely because its very existence as an independent, democratic state threatens Moscow’s ability to dominate its neighbors and reverse the changes in Europe since the end of the Cold War—ones that have brought unprecedented peace, freedom, prosperity, and cooperation to all countries (including Russia). For Putin, Ukraine’s progress—despite Russia’s efforts to dismember and destabilize it—represents a dangerous example that could inspire the Russian people to seek the same freedom that Ukrainians enjoy. This would endanger the authoritarian regime Putin has built in Russia over the past two decades.

—Alexander Vershbow is a distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council, former deputy secretary general of NATO, and former US ambassador to Russia.

  1. Why has the United States been so actively engaged in this crisis?

Since at least February 2007, when he gave his infamous speech to the Munich Security Conference, Putin has been pursuing a revisionist foreign policy designed to overturn the global security order that emerged at the end of the Cold War. Putin wants to re-establish Moscow’s hegemony in the area that was controlled by the Soviet Union—including NATO members in Eastern Europe—and to weaken both NATO and the European Union. In pursuit of this objective, Moscow launched a war against Georgia in 2008, seized Crimea and sparked a not-quite-covert war in eastern Ukraine in 2014, and is now threatening to launch a major offensive against Ukraine. If Putin succeeds in Ukraine, he will turn his attention to those NATO members in Eastern Europe. This is the smart place for the United States and its allies to prevent a Putin victory, with supplies of weaponry and economic aid to Ukraine and sanctions against Russia. This does not require American troops. Failure to stop Putin in Ukraine may also give China another reason to challenge the United States over Taiwan. Beijing would take a Putin win as a sign of western and US weakness and become more confident to move on Taiwan.

—John E. Herbst is the senior director of the Council’s Eurasia Center and former US ambassador to Ukraine.

  1. How widespread could this conflict get?

If Russia does conduct some kind of major invasion, then there are risks of it spiraling outside of Ukraine. There would be refugee flows that, at a minimum, could be destabilizing to neighboring countries. Given Russia’s destabilizing activities in the past, it’s even possible that they could try to infiltrate those refugee flows with special-operations forces to cause trouble in neighboring NATO countries. There’s also the possibility of a military accident. In 2015, Russia fired cruise missiles at Syria that ended up landing in Iran. Say the Russians fire a missile at Ukraine but destroy something in a NATO country: It would cause some real dilemmas for NATO leaders on how to respond.

If Putin is really rolling through Ukraine, does he see this as a possibility to go directly at a NATO country? I think he knows that would be risky. But if he could get away with it, that would be an important victory for him. Even taking a small slice of Estonia or Poland would break US President Joe Biden’s promise to “defend every inch of NATO territory.” That’s the big bright line that hasn’t been crossed yet, and if crossed, it does raise a lot of questions about the credibility of the entire Alliance. And that’s what would make it so attractive to Putin.

—Matthew Kroenig is the deputy director of the Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, and a former US Department of Defense and intelligence-community official.

  1. Would American troops be involved in fighting?

It’s pretty unlikely that Biden sends in forces as long as the conflict remains contained to Ukraine. In fact, he has explicitly promised not to send US troops into Ukraine. But if the fight were to spill outside Ukrainian borders for some reason, there is a possibility Americans get involved. There are American troops on the ground in Lithuania and Poland. So if there were Russian “little green men” in NATO countries, perhaps hiding among refugee flows, or if there’s an accidental attack by Russia—or one it claims was an accident—on a NATO ally, there would be the possibility of US involvement.

—Matthew Kroenig is the deputy director of the Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, and a former US Department of Defense and intelligence-community official.

  1. What’s NATO’s role?

As the preeminent institution dedicated to European security—one that was established to safeguard Europe from precisely the type of aggression currently on display—NATO is a key player in this crisis. Among other roles, it is a forum for consultations among its allies and partners, an institutional and moral authority condemning the Kremlin’s belligerence, and a conduit for dialogue with Russia. Indeed, the NATO-Russia Council meeting on January 12, the exchange of diplomatic notes between NATO and Moscow, the high-profile leadership of NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, and even this week’s defense ministerial are all indicators of NATO’s centrality as a political actor. In a strategic sense, these activities are ways to convey solidarity and to reinforce the sanctity of the European security order (and the values on which it is built). Operationally, Stoltenberg has stated repeatedly that NATO has no obligation to defend Ukraine and will not send forces to do so. Instead, the Alliance will focus on deterring Russian aggression against NATO territory by increasing the readiness of its forces, supplementing its force posture in the frontline states, and harmonizing command-and-control of those forces. Nevertheless, the routine cooperation which NATO promotes among its allies and partners will enable members to act on behalf of Ukraine bilaterally or through coalitions.

—Christopher Skaluba is the director of the Scowcroft Center’s Transatlantic Security Initiative and former principal director for European & NATO policy at the US Department of Defense.

  1. Could this conflict lead to NATO expansion?

NATO expansion as a direct result of this crisis is unlikely. Despite a 2008 pledge that Ukraine and Georgia would eventually join NATO, Russia’s occupation of territories in both countries has de facto foreclosed that possibility—a fact the current crisis has reinforced. And while NATO has resolutely refused Moscow’s demands to reverse its open-door policy, all parties understand that Ukrainian membership in NATO is currently unfeasible. The possible (if unlikely) cases for NATO expansion involve Finland and Sweden, which are NATO’s closest partners but not yet members. Each has a difficult history with Moscow and shares serious concerns about the trajectory of Russia’s actions in its near abroad. The current crisis has accelerated debates in both countries about the value of NATO membership to the extent that a full-scale attack on Ukraine might push public sentiment toward joining. This may be particularly true in Finland, which shares a long border with Russia and where the experience of the 1939-40 Winter War is still present in the public’s mind. In a recent Atlantic Council event, Stoltenberg affirmed that if Sweden and Finland were to apply for membership, “it is possible to make a decision quickly and for them to join quickly.”

—Christopher Skaluba is the director of the Scowcroft Center’s Transatlantic Security Initiative and former principal director for European & NATO policy at the US Department of Defense.

  1. What would a Russian victory over Ukraine look like?

Russia could aim to depose or displace Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, expand territorial gains in eastern Ukraine to recognize “breakaway republics,” establish a land bridge from the Crimean Peninsula to Odesa and the occupied Moldovan territory of Transnistria—or likely all three. Putin will seek to sow discord and instability in Kyiv, likely with a powerful cyberattack targeting critical infrastructure, including power, heat, and communications. He will continue to use influence campaigns that rely on mis- and disinformation, and he is likely to use special forces to execute destabilization operations in the capital. Russia will seek to establish air superiority within the first two to three days by destroying Ukrainian aircraft and quickly consolidate naval superiority in the Black Sea and blockade Odesa. On the ground, Russian forces are likely to execute three simultaneous offensives: a northern thrust to threaten Kyiv, a western advance from the Donbas towards the Dnieper River, and a southern push from Crimea, likely turning west towards Odesa. But even in this scenario, what’s unlikely is an outright annexation of Ukraine: Even the Soviet Union attempted to maintain some illusion of Ukrainian autonomy. A Putin victory would include a new pro-Russian puppet government that recognizes breakaway republics in the Donbas as well as Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

—The Scowcroft Center’s Forward Defense team.

  1. Is there any chance that Ukraine can put up a fight against Russia?

My numerous discussions with military personnel and commanders show that the overall morale in the Ukrainian armed forces is very high, and they are ready to engage. Ukraine has already managed to stop Russian forces before, and every single battalion has direct battlefield experience. All top commanders of the Armed Forces of Ukraine are battlefield officers. Of course, they do realize that it will be a very tough challenge, particularly because of the overwhelming advantage of Russians in the air. But since they are ready to change tactics, including operating in small-group formations, this advantage will not be decisive. Russians need to acquire territory with land forces moving with tanks and armored vehicles. The number of anti-tank weapons Ukraine possesses exceeds the number of tanks and armored vehicles Russia has gathered around its borders. The armed forces also have popular support, are enhanced by territorial defense, have reserves, are more motivated, and know the area. Based on an assessment of the capabilities, I believe that Russia cannot complete the full-scale occupation of Ukraine with the forces they have managed to gather. They can acquire some specific areas (including cities), but in this case the whole question would be about holding such areas, since they will be constantly attacked by Ukrainian groups night and day.

—Andriy Zagorodnyuk is a distinguished fellow at the Eurasia Center and the former Ukrainian minister of defense.

  1. How does this crisis play into Vladimir Putin’s internal politics?

Putin’s autocratic and kleptocratic regime feels threatened by the existence of stable and transparent democracies on its borders. In this case, however, Putin’s decision to manufacture and instigate a crisis with Ukraine is not primarily driven by domestic political considerations—but by his recognition of an opportunity to advance his longstanding geopolitical goal of reestablishing Moscow’s control over key areas of the former Soviet space, specifically Ukraine and Belarus. The last time Putin invaded Ukraine, it resulted in a sharp rise in his popularity; but if he launches a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, it will most likely not be a “small victorious war.” Instead, there is a strong probability that it will result in a Ukrainian insurgency, a high level of Russian casualties, and severe economic pain due to Western sanctions. Therefore, Putin could be taking on significant domestic political risks by pursuing his geopolitical ambitions.

—Brian Whitmore is a nonresident senior fellow at the Eurasia Center.

  1. How has the Ukrainian public reacted to this crisis so far?

Ukrainians have been divided in their response to the crisis and the possibility of a full-scale invasion. While many people have engaged in impressive acts of collective defense and preparation, many others seem to be ignoring the situation completely. I have lost track of the number of times I have been told that, “We have already been at war for eight years,” or that, “Nothing is going to happen, I assure you.” Around half of Kyiv seems to believe the latter. Of course, there are regional differences in terms of people’s thinking. For instance, one colleague recently told me: “In Kharkiv it is stoic preparation; in Kyiv it is a mixture of delusion and denial; and in Odesa it is always party time as if nothing is happening.” The stoicism and resilience that has allowed the Ukrainian people to weather the trauma of eight years of war is, at once, helping them deal with the current situation and also allowing many to avoid even thinking about it.

—Vladislav Davidzon is a nonresident fellow at the Eurasia Center.

  1. What does the future look like for Ukraine and the region after an invasion?

If Putin strikes Ukraine again, I expect five things to happen:

We will see a massive refugee crisis in Europe. If Putin rolls in and seizes everything east of the Dnieper River, including the capital Kyiv, Europe will be flooded with refugees. Experts from the Kyiv-based nonprofit The Right to Protection say that two to three million Ukrainians will seek refuge in Poland if Putin takes a large chunk of Ukraine. The good news is that Putin will not be able to hold one-third of Ukraine. Ukrainians will resist. According to a recent poll from the Razumkov Centre, 45 percent of Ukrainians said they would defend Ukraine with weapons if Moscow moves in again. 
Ukraine will survive but in a smaller form. Putin may successfully pry away more of Ukraine through force, but Ukraine’s sovereignty remains and its Western aspirations only grow by the minute. 
NATO will admit Ukraine promptly. The West knows that it should have admitted Ukraine and Georgia in 2008, rather than leaving the door open for Putin to drive tanks through. Even if Russia occupies Crimea and parts of the Donbas, Ukraine can be admitted into the organization. There is no legal prohibition.  
Finland and Sweden will gladly and finally join NATO. 
The crisis breathes new life and purpose into NATO, and we see more NATO forces permanently stationed in Eastern Europe. 

—Melinda Haring is deputy director of the Eurasia Center.

  1. If Russia occupies parts of Ukraine, what would happen to foreign nationals in those places?

Third-party nationals in Ukraine would face a stark choice once the shooting stops. Diplomats have a measure of protection: While they can be expelled, their lives are less at risk compared to ordinary Ukrainians. Private citizens with non-Ukrainian passports will need to choose between staying or leaving. Most Western governments will begin to impose sanctions, and a Russian-controlled government could use third-party nationals as leverage to bring pressure, either directly or subtly, to get those sanctions lifted; arbitrary arrests could become a real concern. Western sanctions will also make it harder for those third-party nationals to pay for goods and services in Ukraine (with possible exceptions for occupations like journalists and aid workers). Leaving Ukraine will start to look like a better choice for most, as economic activity between Russia and the West starts to dry up. Until air service is restored—expect flights to Moscow to be restored first—people will need to find their way overland to NATO territory (Poland, Romania, Hungary, or Slovakia), a journey that will be adventurous, if not outright perilous, for the next several months.

—Thomas S. Warrick is a senior advisor with the Council’s Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative and a former deputy assistant secretary for counterterrorism policy at the US Department of Homeland Security.

  1. What kind of sanctions would the West impose on Russia in response to an invasion?

They will be tougher than those imposed after the first Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2014: tight restrictions on state-owned banks, export controls (not technically a sanction, but a painful economic hit), and personal sanctions against the corrupt circle that runs Russia. The Biden administration has said that it will not be gradual or incremental, but will hit Russia hard if it attacks Ukraine again. The difficult part will come when Russia retaliates, as it will, or if Putin does not attack Ukraine with overt military force, but through cyber offensives or by recognizing the independence of the Kremlin-controlled territories in eastern Ukraine.

—Daniel Fried is the Weiser family distinguished fellow at the Council and a former US ambassador to Poland.

  1. Why didn’t previous rounds of Russia sanctions deter Putin?

The 2014 sanctions were designed to impose longer-term constraints on the companies targeted, create leverage to halt the Russian advance, and provide room for a diplomatic off-ramp to the fighting. At the time, those sanctions helped achieve those goals. But in the intervening years, Russia has not shown any inkling to fulfill any of its commitments under the Minsk agreements, while diplomacy had stalled out long before this most recent Russian troop build-up (in part because there were no consequences to Russian failure to comply). If, by some stroke of good fortune, there is a drawdown by Moscow, it’s clear that a new path is needed to implement the Minsk accords—one that includes a sustained US presence in the diplomatic engagement and that threatens (and imposes) costs on Russia for continued inaction. A frozen conflict cannot be allowed to persist.

—Brian O’Toole is a nonresident senior fellow at the Council’s GeoEconomics Center and former US Treasury Department official.

  1. How would a Russian-Ukrainian conflict affect world trade?

The uncertainty over Russia’s actions has already taken a hatchet to the Ukrainian economy. This week, Group of Seven (G7) nations promised financial support, including a one-billion-dollar loan guarantee from the United States to support domestic markets and the hryvnia, the Ukrainian currency. Part of Russia’s long game may prove to be economic attrition as well as military threats, because it knows that such pressure is low risk and asymmetrical. Internationally, however, financial markets (and these days the algorithms that run them) are not historically gun shy and rebound remarkably fast after a crisis.

This suggests that sanctions, not the threat of invasion itself, may be more of a tangible risk factor for the international economy. Escalating measures on Russia, as telegraphed by the United States and its partners, will make waves if they target major Russian financial institutions and debt markets, impacting both Russian markets and their Western creditors. The architects of these sanctions will calibrate the rollout of these measures to minimize the impact on US and European stakeholders, but if the Biden administration responds forcefully to Russian behavior, it will be asking global citizens as well as firms to share the burden. Russia’s major exports, hydrocarbons and minerals, are internationally traded commodities. Restrictions of supply (or anticipated restrictions) will send fuel prices upward, whether this is due to the sanctions themselves or, more likely, Russia’s retaliation. This will be felt at the pump and, shortly thereafter, in the prices of everyday goods, as shippers pass operational costs onto consumers.

—Julia Friedlander is the C. Boyden Gray senior fellow and director of the Economic Statecraft Initiative in the GeoEconomics Center, and a former US Treasury Department official.

  1. Would an invasion cut off gas supplies to Europe?

Possibly, but not necessarily. If Russia invades Ukraine, gas transit through Ukraine would likely be interrupted. But the United States and Europe have been working well together to plan for that contingency; US liquid natural gas, as well as that from other sources, would likely compensate for that shortfall. But if Russia—even for the short-term—cut off all gas to Europe, the move would have serious ramifications across the entire continent, particularly in Central and Eastern Europe.

—Richard Morningstar is the founding chairman of the Council’s Global Energy Center and a former US ambassador to the European Union.

  1. How would an invasion affect global energy prices?

A Russian invasion of Ukraine would likely send already high oil prices over one hundred dollars per barrel and trigger a jump in global gas prices, with a particular shock in price-weary Europe. Tight oil and gas markets have created a situation where geopolitics can have a magnified impact. Russia, which is the second largest oil producer and gas producer globally, has leveraged this situation to create a near-crisis in European gas markets, which would be exacerbated if gas flows were to be cut during a cold snap. Similarly, the oil market has been following the ups and downs of Ukraine-related diplomacy. While the Biden administration and its allies and partners are working to avoid disruption in energy markets under an invasion scenario or due to sanctions, it is inevitable that outright conflict would have a large impact and even the most nuanced sanctions would touch Russian energy.

—Randy Bell is senior director of the Global Energy Center; Reed Blakemore is deputy director of the Global Energy Center.

  1. Why has Germany played such a controversial role in this crisis?

Germany’s role in the ongoing crisis with Russia is complicated, to say the least. Newly elected Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who is a member of the Social Democrats and served as previous Chancellor Angela Merkel’s finance minister, did not run as a candidate promising to bring transformative change to Germany. He’s a middle-of-the-road politician facing real constraints at home, including divisions within his own party, hawkish Greens on his left who want a more forceful response to both Russia and China, and Germany’s business community who are closely monitoring his moves. The primary issue dictating Germany’s response is the Nord Stream 2 pipeline (running under the Baltic Sea directly from Russia to Germany), which is complete but approvals remain stuck with Germany’s regulatory agencies, so gas isn’t flowing yet. The big question has been whether Scholz will commit to nixing Nord Stream 2 as part of a broader Western sanctions package in the event of further escalation. Western leaders have pushed him on this, and the fact that he won’t clearly say “yes,” has become almost a parody. It’s led to Germany’s role as a reliable ally being questioned, and Scholz has been accused of putting business interests ahead of Western resolve. Although Biden clearly defended Scholz at their White House meeting, and pushed back on the idea that Germany wasn’t reliable, we’ll have to wait and see what happens.

—Rachel Rizzo is a nonresident senior fellow at the Council’s Europe Center.

  1. What could a conflict mean for flights to and from Europe?

As long as the United States and NATO stay out of the conflict, there will be no interruption of civil air traffic in Europe, except in Ukraine and likely Belarus. If the West is staying out, Putin would not want to risk bringing them in over another MH-17-type incident. The insurance industry will not be concerned enough about an accident to halt coverage of flights in Europe, even Eastern Europe, meaning civil air traffic outside of the conflict area will be pretty unaffected.

—Lt. Col. Tyson Wetzel is the senior US Air Force fellow for 2021-22 at the Atlantic Council. The opinions, conclusions, and recommendations expressed or implied here are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Department of Defense or any other US government agency.

  1. How would China respond to Russian escalation in Ukraine?

The 5,300-word joint statement released by Chinese President Xi Jinping and Putin earlier this month leaves little doubt that China and Russia have a much deeper strategic partnership today than when Russia annexed Crimea in 2014. In recent weeks, Beijing has shown greater willingness to offer rhetorical support for Moscow’s “security concerns” regarding Ukraine and opposition to NATO expansion—in the Xi-Putin statement, during a call with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and before the UN Security Council. This all might suggest that China is ready to offer unequivocal support for a Russian escalation in Eastern Europe; in reality, it’s likely to adopt a more neutral position, with the specifics of its response dependent on the circumstances and scale of Russian escalation, the plausibility of Russia’s pretext, and the effectiveness of the US and allied response. In any scenario, Xi will avoid direct criticism of Putin while disparaging the United States and its European allies for prompting the crisis. He will not, however, openly back a Russian invasion. To do so would undermine Beijing’s claim that its respect for sovereignty, non-intervention, and stability set it apart from the United States—not to mention rupture China’s productive relations with Ukraine and potentially complicate ties with the rest of Europe. Ultimately, the most significant Chinese intervention may come in the weeks and months after an invasion, when overt or indirect assistance to Russia could help blunt the effects of strong Western economic sanctions or export controls.

—David O. Shullman is the senior director of the Council’s China Hub and a former US intelligence official

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