UChicago Professors Weigh in on the War in Ukraine

Four professors discuss Putin’s motivations and goals, the effects of sanctions, and possible ways for the war to end.


By Arjun Mazumdar

On Thursday, February 24, President Vladimir Putin launched a multi-pronged invasion of Ukraine with the stated intention of “demilitarizing and denazifying” the country. This assault is the latest escalation of Russia’s longstanding conflict with Ukraine, dating back to the 2014 annexation of Crimea. While estimates vary, conservative counts project that  the recent invasion has claimed over 8,000 lives and displaced 6.5 million people

UChicago has made efforts to aid faculty and students affected by the crisis, including full tuition scholarships and streamlined application processes for Ukrainian students. The Center for East European and Russian/Eurasian studies has also held charity fundraisers and lectures to raise awareness. 

Several prominent members of UChicago’s faculty have commented on the ongoing crisis through op-eds, podcasts, interviews, and viral twitter posts. In exclusive interviews with The Maroon, these professors of politics, history, and international relations detailed their diverse and sometimes conflicting perspectives on the invasion of Ukraine. 

NATO’s Responsibility 

The motivation behind Putin’s attack has been a point of significant scholarly debate. “Many people were of the opinion that Putin would not do this, that the costs of this invasion were so enormous that it would be irrational,” said Scott Gehlbach, a professor at the Harris School and Department of Political Science, told The Maroon.  

Faith Hillis, a professor of Russian history at the College added that sanctions have hit Russian civilians the hardest. “They can’t get insulin. I can’t even pay my research assistant in Russia,” she said. The conflict has cost Russia the lives of roughly 7,000 troops, and sanctions have depreciated the Russian ruble’s value by 40 percent. 

To John Mearsheimer, the R. Wendell Distinguished Service Professor in the Department of Political Science, Putin’s motivation is clear: Putin’s invasion is a response to provocation by Western nations. Mearsheimer is a prominent international realist, meaning he believes that countries act in anticipation of conflicts from adversaries to secure regional dominance. Since 2014, he has argued that “the United States and its European Allies share most of the responsibility” for Ukraine’s troubles with Russia.  

In an interview with The New Yorker, Mearsheimer explained that “If Ukraine becomes a pro-American liberal democracy, and a member of NATO…the Russians will consider that categorically unacceptable.” NATO has maintained friendly relations with Ukraine for decades and offered them membership in 2008, as they’ve done with 14 other ex-Soviet nations since the late ’90s.  Mearsheimer said of Russia, “if you take a stick and you poke them in the eye, they’re going to retaliate.”  

Other professors disagree. “NATO as a monocausal explanation is problematic,” said Hillis. “It was Putin who decided to invade. It was Putin that decided to commit war crimes.” Similarly, Gehlbach mentioned that “We don’t give Hitler a pass just because there might have been some problems with the Treaty of Versailles.” Both place the ultimate blame on Putin and caution that portraying NATO’s expansion as the primary catalyst of the conflict absolves the autocrat from responsibility.  

Putin’s Imperial Ambitions 

Assistant professor of political science Paul Poast believes the invasion is driven by Putin’s admiration for 19th century Russian imperialism and his desire to make Ukraine a part of Russia once more. “Putin invaded Ukraine because he wanted to recreate a version of the Russian empire,” he told The Maroon.  

Hillis believes Putin’s aggression stems from a denial of Ukraine’s independence. “We see this very intense Russian nationalism that is driving this campaign, that sees Ukrainians as an integral part of Russia.” Under Poast and Hillis’ interpretation, Putin sees the conflict as a liberation of Ukraine, seeking to bring its people back under the rightful rule of Russia. 

Mearsheimer believes this explanation to have little merit. In his interview with The New Yorker, he explained that when the conflict exploded, “we had to assign blame…so we invented this story. Putin is interested in creating a greater Russia, or maybe even re-creating the Soviet Union.” He thinks that arguments which attribute Putin’s invasion to his imperial ambitions distract the public from NATO’s culpability.  

Despite Mearsheimer’s dismissal, Poast thinks that the Russian expansionist explanation for the conflict actually agrees with Mearsheimer’s realist philosophy. “Mearsheimer explains that great powers want to dominate the region. Russia is doing exactly what you expect a great power to do. They want to influence neighboring countries, and eventually conquer them. That’s actually consistent with the early arguments of my colleague John Mearsheimer.” 

Effects of Ukrainian Resistance and Sanctions 

Regardless of Putin’s motivations, the professors agreed that his goals have evolved as a response to the unexpectedly fierce resistance posed by the Ukrainians. “Putin was told this conflict would be over very fast,” said Hillis. Gehlbach agreed, “It’s clear that Putin was poorly informed, and told Ukrainians would not fight for their country.”  

The sweeping sanctions imposed upon Russia also took Putin by surprise. Gehlbach thinks their effects are currently incalculable, but certainly devastating. “Russia and its people are going to suffer for a long, long time. Russia will be set back decades economically.”  

Gehlbach noted that despite heavy losses and sanctions, there is a “rally around the flag effect” which is driving the war’s popularity. Recent polls estimate that as much as 71 percent of Russia’s population support the ongoing invasion. He also added that Putin's disinformation and propaganda campaigns are likely misleading the public, minimizing losses, and embellishing victories. “The Kremlin has real control over the media. Censorship and propaganda are doing a lot of work at the moment.” 

However, Poast explained that the sanctions and Ukrainian resistance have alarmed Putin and altered his aims. “The initial goal was regime change or annexation of the entire country. The new goal is the partial annexation of the eastern provinces.” Poast believes that Putin has settled for the provinces of Luhansk and Donetsk, two eastern Ukrainian regions controlled by pro-Russian separatists.  

Deterrence and Concessions 

Eventually, Poast predicted, “the two sides will reach an agreement. There will be some sort of concession made on the part of Zelenskyy,” the current Ukrainian president. Likely, the concession will be a territorial one, where Zelenskyy agrees to recognize certain provinces as independent, pro-Russian regions. However, Poast worries about the long-term consequences of such a compromise. “What is stopping Putin from coming back every few years to try and seize more land?”  

Hillis considered different paths available to prevent Russia from returning for more land. “We could arm Ukraine to the teeth, making them one of the most heavily armed nations on Earth. We could offer Ukraine security and economic protections by incorporating them into the EU.” Both options would provoke Russia even further and run the risk of future invasions. “Our deterrence capacity is a series of not great options,” said Hillis.  

The Western Response 

The Russian invasion of Ukraine evoked significant attention and anger from the American public, a response Hillis expected. “Americans love to hate Russia, and it feels easy for Americans to hate Russia,” said Hillis. In her mind, it is impossible to separate old, Cold War era anxieties regarding Russia from the outpouring of media attention that the conflict has received. 

Poast noted the difference in responses to the war in Ukraine and other global conflicts. “Part of the reason this conflict has gotten so much attention is because it is happening in Europe. There are ongoing wars in Syria and Yemen. The University has held events on these, but they haven’t gotten the same attention.”