Understanding the War in Ukraine

Professor of Russian and European History Ben Tromly helps to make sense of the ongoing conflict.


Ben Tromly
Professor Ben Tromly

It’s complicated, but if there’s one main reason for the invasion, says Tromly, it’s that Vladimir Putin sees Ukraine as being part of Russia. “There’s this Russian imperial idea that these are ‘one people’ who have been divided,” says Tromly. “The narrative is that Ukraine has been pried away from Russia and corrupted by Western powers.” Although the war started when Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, one motivation to invade Ukraine could be a reaction to Ukraine’s decades of independence from the Soviet Union. Having a more democratic neighbor might feel like a political threat: Could the Ukrainian government set an example and eventually influence Putin’s authoritarian system?

Foreign companies closing up shop in Russia will lead to massive unemployment—but will it stop the war?  Probably not anytime soon, explains Tromly: “It’s easy to say that sanctions will severely damage the Russian economy, but their purpose—longer term—is harder to define.” In fact, the sanctions may even strengthen the regime’s political beliefs, since Putin already blames the West for the war. As for the yachts being seized? Tromly says the oligarchs don’t have as much power as the rest of the world thinks; in many cases, Putin has already pushed them out.

Early on, tech giants like YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter blocked Russian disinformation and propaganda on their platforms. The decision led to Russia unplugging itself from huge parts of the internet in order to control the information its citizens could access. Adds Tromly: “We’ve realized how much power these tech companies have.”

In an imperial war—one instigated to expand, rather than defend, a country’s borders— there’s a need to uphold the notion that nations are equal and borders are firm, says Tromly. That’s why the United States and its allies have gotten involved. “What’s been really interesting in all of this,” he says, “is that the U.S. has gone back to a sense of its role in the world—to help maintain world order.”