On February 24, 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a “special military operation” – a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. The day before, Konstantin Sonin, John Dewey Distinguished Service Professor at Harris, finished a public lecture in Moscow. A Russian citizen and frequent critic of Putin’s autocratic regime, Professor Sonin cut short a planned sabbatical year abroad and returned to the United States, sharing his story and his expertise in Russian political economy with the Harris community and others around the globe.

With the first anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine imminent, we sat down with Professor Sonin to gain his perspective on the state of the war, Putin’s recalcitrance, and what comes next for Russia’s quest to acquire Ukraine.

Professor Konstantin Sonin
Professor Konstantin Sonin

At the war’s outbreak, you made the bold statement that this war would be “the end of Russia.” One year after the invasion of Ukraine, do you stand by that assessment?

I believe that for the rest of my life and beyond, Russia will have to deal with the consequences of this grievous mistake made by Putin. And the longer the war goes on, the worse it is for Russia and its citizens.  Finding a way out through negotiation is clearly the best course of action, but Putin will try to escalate, add troops, step up attacks – just prolonging a totally inevitable end, which I think will be the withdrawal of Russian troops and reparations paid to Ukraine. And then, I don't know, it’s a very difficult situation inside Russia. And so, every day that the decision to end the war is not made, it's bad for the country and its future prospects.

Do you think that public sentiment within Russia has shifted?

Think about it this way: we know that hundreds of thousands of Russians left Russia and became refugees because they are unhappy, scared of mobilization, and fear political repressions. This is a sign of a huge crisis, one on the scale of the Venezuelan crisis or Syrian crisis, even though there is no actual warfare on Russian territory. There is clearly a a drastic deterioration in the average Russian’s mind of their perceived well-being.

The important thing to remember about Russian public sentiment is that it doesn’t directly translate into any kind of action, either for or against the war. We have not seen large anti-war protests in Russia, even though some 20,000 people have been arrested in anti-war protests. Nor have we seen any indication of mass support of the war. In the summer, there was a huge campaign advertising quartering for the Russian army, offering payments nearly 10 times more than the average salary. But still there were few volunteers, suggesting that public enthusiasm is actually quite low.

Almost a year into this, what do you find to be the most surprising aspect of how it's unfolded?

The acquiescence of the oligarchs who have lost a huge percentage of their wealth as a result of Putin's decision. They have lost so much, yet they're all silent. They are all reacting as if they are different people. At one time, they were brave, active, and resourceful – but now have become total pushovers.  I'm not saying that these people are upstanding human beings, but, at one point, they were brave.  They built businesses, in many cases, by going to meetings with outright criminals, and then cleaning up these criminal enterprises. They would be brave enough to, for example, fight corrupt police or corrupt security officers. They were extremely innovative in many things. But now their businesses are destroyed, and they sit back and do nothing. They could stand up to Putin; they could donate to the Ukrainian army – a concerted effort could have an impact. 

Is no one standing up? 

There are some. 600 Russian doctors, most of them living in Russia, signed a letter insisting that Putin stop the torture of Alexei Navalny in prison. Somehow, this group of doctors was brave enough to sign this letter, and there are also many scientists who have remained in Russia, and they condemn the war. But still, the oligarchs remain silent.

What do you think of how the United States and the other countries around the world, who kind of banded together at the beginning, have behaved? Have they maintained a strong front, or do you see them weakening in any way?

The behavior of the United States has been exemplary. Compared to U.S. involvement in previous crises, this is on par with the First Gulf War, which was recognized as a stellar diplomatic and military response. In Europe, there are countries that are sort of bound to be on the right side of history. For Poland, Baltic countries, Sweden, or Finland, there is no question: they will support Ukraine until Ukraine's last day, because they know that if Ukraine has fallen, they're next. For them, being on the right side of history is a no-brainer.

Meanwhile, many have criticized Germany for its somewhat vacillating response to Ukraine’s military needs. It’s fair to say that Germany is an extremely wealthy country, and that they’re helping much less than other nations. At the same time, they moved to rid themselves of their gas and oil dependence – not swiftly, but very decisively and very consistently. This is important because for many years, Germany tolerated Putin’s bad behavior because it was such a major consumer of Russian gas and oil. Roughly half of German gas 10 months ago was from Russia. Now, it is zero. This is no small feat. In January 2023, they moved forward with supplying Ukraine with modern tanks, but still say that fighter jets are a no-go. It is a big help to Ukraine of course, but they can do more.

I would say that the core coalition stands, and in general, it's not getting weaker, it’s actually getting stronger.

What do you make of about half of the Republican Party, in a display of pro-Russia and anti-Zelenskyy sentiment, encouraging policy that sort of limits our aid to Ukraine? What do you think motivates that?

It does not concern me that much. Despite the nation’s history of isolationism, the current political dynamics in some ways favor Ukraine. It’s likely that over the next two years, the Republican majority in the House of Representatives will be fighting the Biden Administration on almost every issue imaginable, but there will be one area in which they will eventually compromise, and this will be the Pentagon budget. Republicans and Democrats can always find common ground on defense, which helps Ukraine. We’ve already seen this in the late Obama years, where there were irreconcilable differences between the parties, the government would be shut down, and there was a lot of dust, but when the dust settled, the only area on which they could agree was on increasing the Pentagon budget.

Is it a surprise to Russian elites, how inept the country has been militarily in this effort?

The Russian military is not and was not inept – Putin’s political decision-making was. I think it was an incredibly incompetent and ill-advised political decision to invade Ukraine. Ukraine has never been a small country: it's a large country, with one of the largest militaries in Europe. Since 2014, the military has had experience fighting Russians. They were trained by NATO, which Ukraine has aspired to join. Against this army and against the incredibly broad goal to occupy one of the largest European countries, the Russian military has struggled. The other miscalculation was how they underestimated the Ukrainian willingness to fight: obviously, it's easier to motivate your soldiers to defend your country than to try to invade and occupy another’s.

Vladimir Putin
Vladimir Putin, President of Russia

How do you think this has affected Putin's standing? Has it affected his standing drastically?

Putin maintains the loyalty of his security apparatus. The top offices are extremely well compensated. The Russian generals are all millionaires or multimillionaires. There are corruption channels geared toward the top of the military hierarchy.

Still, Putin would not win any fair election today. He would lose badly to many possible opponents. But since he maintains the loyalty of the military, he can stay in power.

Unfortunately, this is what we’ve seen from North Korean leadership and the leadership in Iran. In the case of Iran, they have been able to stagnate their country for 50 years and remain in power, because they have so much force in their hands. They’re now in their fifth month of mass protests and they’re still in power, because the guards are still well paid.

This does not mean that the military or the elite actually like Putin. I'm not sure that they have started to think in terms of replacing him, but I think that most people hate him, even among his close subordinates.

Do you think Putin is trying to find a way to negotiate? What do you think would trigger active negotiations?

I doubt that he considers his situation to be dire and problematic. He has very unrealistic requirements for any kind of negotiations. I think he behaves based on this imaginary understanding that negotiations should be about drawing a border across the current territorial gains. I suspect he also thinks he could negotiate Ukraine NATO membership in exchange for lifting sanctions, which is most likely outside of the range of what is on the table.

As we look toward the one-year anniversary, I think Putin and his leaders are preparing a new major assault. The difference now is the Ukrainian army. Although it has suffered casualties, it's better prepared. Their capability has improved, and there is a much better relationship with the West and NATO. There will be a new assault, but I think Ukraine is much more prepared for one.

How does this end, if he doesn't have any reason to end?

If Putin is still in power, the war will end because Ukraine defeats the invasion forces. Whether Ukraine retakes what was occupied in 2014 and 2015 is a more distant question. But if Ukraine defeats the invasion force, then I think even Putin would begin real negotiations.

Next year, there will be elections in Ukraine. What do you suspect will happen?

Ukraine is still a country that is at war, even if it's a democracy. These kinds of elections are a tough place for challengers. I could imagine that the elections in Ukraine will still be democratic, but Zelenskyy will not have any kind of serious opponents. He will be reelected with a high margin against nominal opponents.

I do not suspect that Putin will have Russia-aligned candidates. In 2019, Zelenskyy not only defeated the incumbent in the second round, but in the first round, he defeated Russian candidates in the Eastern part and Ukrainian candidates in the Western part. This turned Ukrainian presidential politics on its head. Before that, there were always these Eastern candidates, the Russia-aligned or Russian-speaking candidates, and Western candidates. Zelenskyy was neither. His support has always been broad, and now his support is around 95% across the country. Even in his election during peace time, he had broad support not related to the East/West division. Perhaps this East/West division in Ukraine was a thing of the past even before 2019. We see a new united nation being forged under our eyes.