Two years after invasion, stakes in Ukraine could not be higher

Four red flowers are seen in front of the cement remains of a multistory buildin
Four red flowers are seen in front of the cement remains of a multistory building in Ukraine
Two years after Russia’s invasion, the stakes in Ukraine could not be higher

Faculty scholars from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies share insights on the state of the current conflict and what’s at stake as support for Ukraine’s cause wavers in the U.S. and elsewhere around the globe

Two years ago, on Feb. 24, 2022, Russia launched a multi-front attack against neighboring Ukraine, the largest military action against a European country since World War II.

The surprise invasion was met with fierce resistance by Ukrainian forces, and talk that Kiev might fall quickly soon gave way to a grim reality-two sides locked in a conflict in which territorial gains have been minimal and the human cost has been astronomical, with well over half a million killed or wounded, by some estimates, to say nothing of those who have been displaced, their homes and lives destroyed.

Here, scholars from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies share their insights on the current state of the conflict and what’s at stake as the war drags on. Their response? A lot.

On the critical need for foreign support

Nora Bensahel , professor of practice and senior fellow at the SAIS Merrill Center for Strategic Studies

A t this point in the war, two things are clear: The will of the Ukrainian people to fight should not be underestimated, and the critical role of Western materiel support cannot be overestimated. The Ukrainians continue to persevere despite two years of horrendous fighting, tactical setbacks, high casualty levels, and gruesome atrocities. Yet they could not have done so without the massive military assistance provided by the United States, the NATO allies, and other partners-especially in ammunition, vehicles, and unmanned systems. Ukraine is a long way from victory, as the recent Russian takeover of Avdviika demonstrates all too clearly. But if the United States cuts off its military aid to Ukraine, as some in Congress advocate, a Russian victory becomes far more likely. And that would legitimize Russia’s brutal efforts to change political borders through the use of force, and make it easier for other states to justify similar invasions in the future.

On the effects on European security

Marina Henke , visiting professor at the Henry A. Kissinger Center for Global Affairs R ussia’s war on Ukraine has undoubtedly shaken the European security order. And yet, despite two years of brutal Russian aggression, not all’European countries agree on how to respond to the Russian security challenge. Two groups have emerged: one composed of mostly Eastern European and Scandinavian countries that view Russia as an existential threat to their national security; a second that does recognize the Russian menace but classifies the conflict as non-existential to their own existence. My country, Germany, falls in the latter camp alongside a number of other European countries such as France, Italy, Spain, and Hungary.

This dividing line weakens Europe and also spills over into NATO. It explains why Europe still has such difficulty mobilizing the necessary military and financial aid for Ukraine; why enforcement procedures of Russian sanctions are often lax; why existing European defense industrial capacities are not being fully exploited; and why there is still so much talk in many European capitals of finding a negotiated solution to the conflict as soon as possible, and no matter what Ukrainians think.

Intra-European disagreements on how to face Russia have the potential to tear Europe apart-but equally the potential to revive the European project and start afresh if a common vision is found. A Ukrainian accession of the EU could breathe new life into a European Union that still has not fully recovered from Brexit and the European financial crisis. The EU would glow in a new light-as the protector of democracy and the rule of law on the European continent.

On the cost of complacency

Sergey Radchenko , distinguished professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies ladimir Putin expected Ukraine to fall within days-at most weeks. Instead, Russia’s war on Ukraine is now entering its third year. The war has already resulted in unspeakable destruction and hundreds of thousands of deaths. Putin does not care. Overcome by imperial hubris, he wants victory at all costs. While Ukraine continues to resist the Russian onslaught, for most of us in the West the war has lost a sense of immediacy. It’s something happening far away, some place we do not know or understand, out of sight and out of mind. Such complacency is dangerous, for the stakes remain high, and not for Ukraine alone. Putin’s victory would embolden Russia, and make it more difficult to push back against the Kremlin. Failing to do what needs to be done today to counter the Russian aggression means that more will need to be done in the future, and at a far higher cost.

On the role of scholars in the conflict

Mary Sarotte , distinguished professor of historical studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies T wo years on, the Ukrainians remain on the front line in this tragic conflict, and their bravery is unsurpassed. Scholars can help them, however, by using the tools of their own craft. The events about which Russian President Vladimir Putin obsesses are not impenetrable mysteries. Instead, there are extensive pieces of evidence from them available and numerous living witnesses to them. Because of that evidence, it is possible to work on these recent events in a serious, historical way, rather than simply accept Putin’s attempt to weaponize this history as a justification for what he is doing. In a sense, the significance of the work of scholars going forward is as a kind of disarmament. If Putin is turning twisted history into a weapon, then the untwisting of his claims is a small but achievable way to disarm him, and scholarship can help to achieve such disarmament.

On the impact on the "rules-based order"

James B. Steinberg , dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies T he Russian invasion of Ukraine has highlighted the limits of the "rules-based international order" to constrain a state determined on territorial conquest and the use of force to coerce its neighbor. Russia’s flouting of the basic principles of the U.N. Charter helped galvanize Europe and many U.S. partners in East Asia to provide substantial military and economic assistance to Ukraine, and to impose unprecedented economic sanctions on Russia. Yet many countries-and not only non-democratic governments like China, North Korea, and Iran-have been far more ambivalent in their response, despite the fact that many of these countries have been the most vocal advocates of the principle of "non-interference" in other countries’ internal affairs. And even among Ukraine’s supporters, there are clear limits as to how far they will go to confront Russian aggression, vividly illustrated by the sharp negative response to French President Macron’s suggestion that NATO might send combat troops. For Ukraine and for others around the world, the lesson seems clear: Reliance on the norm of non-aggression by itself is not sufficient to deter a would-be aggressor.