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Countries are Built on Stories: Professor of Political Science Dominic Tierney on the Russian Invasion of Ukraine

When Russia invaded Ukraine at the end of February, many predicted it would be a short conflict and Ukraine would be quickly overwhelmed and defeated by one of the world’s foremost military powers. 

“We don't know exactly what Putin intended, but it's clear that he didn't intend this to be a war,” says Professor of Political Science Dominic Tierney in a new video. Putin wanted to carry out a quick coup in Ukraine but failed, “first and foremost because of the heroic resistance of the Ukrainian forces supplied by Western allies, but also because of extraordinary mismanagement in the Russian military and incredible overconfidence by Putin. Partly this is because Putin is living in a bubble. He, at this point in his regime, having been in power for two decades, is surrounded by ‘yes’ men. He's not getting the critical voices that you need before you launch a military operation.”

Tierney, an expert in modern “unwinnable” wars, explains how the nature of conflict has changed and the World War II model of unconditional surrender with a clear peace treaty is a thing of the past. War and peace often blur together.

“In the run up to the war, Russia paid Ukraine to transship Russian gas across Ukraine to Europe. So Ukraine received a fee for allowing this pipeline to send gas to Europe,” explains Tierney. “And remarkably, Russia is still paying Ukraine today to send that gas across the country to Europe. Even as Russia is leveling Ukrainian cities, Russia is handing millions of dollars over to Ukraine to pay for this gas that Ukraine then uses to buy weapons to kill Russians. Russia has concluded that keeping the gas flowing is important for Russia's broader interests, and while it probably doesn't want to have to pay Ukraine, that's actually a price it's willing to pay. Ukraine is willing to take the money that it can use to buy weapons.”

As Moscow announces it will reduce military activity near Kyiv and other northern Ukrainian cities and signals it may be willing to negotiate, the Russian invasion of Ukraine seems to be entering a new phase. Tierney argues that in the words of Sun Tzu, Ukraine and Western allies should think about building a “golden bridge” on which Putin can retreat. 

“This is going to involve some concessions to Russia. Most likely Ukraine will agree it will not join NATO. There may also be some token compromise on ‘denazification,’ which is actually easy to compromise on because there aren't very many Nazis in Ukraine, and perhaps also some compromise on demilitarization of Ukraine.” Tierney continues, “Ukraine might agree it won't host foreign military bases or certain kinds of weapons. As long as Ukraine can keep the defensive weapons that will deter a future Russian invasion, then that might be acceptable. And so Putin may see these types of face-saving compromises as enough that he can sell a story to the Russian people.”

Putin’s previous and more limited attempts to manipulate the West–like encouraging Brexit and the election of President Trump in 2016–were quite successful because they played on internal divisions in foreign countries. But the clear-cut aggression involved in invading  Ukraine has strengthened bonds between European countries.

“We've actually seen an extraordinary response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, where the European Union has really got its act together. Germany, for example, has transformed its foreign policy in a matter of weeks and is now intending to be a much more serious player on the world stage with military resources to match,” notes Tierney. 

No matter the outcome, Tierney believes this conflict will be the story which defines Ukraine in the modern age.

“This war is going to be the founding event in modern Ukrainian history. People are going to be building statues to Zelensky and reading out his famous line, ‘We need ammo; we don't need a ride,’ for a long time. Countries are built on stories, and there are so many powerful stories here that for all the devastation that Ukraine is suffering, this I think will be their great patriotic war.”

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