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‘Sabre rattling’ over Ukraine highlights the region’s complicated past

Media Contact

Becka Bowyer

The Biden Administration appears on the cusp of sending American troops to NATO allies in the Baltics and Eastern Europe as tensions mount with Russia over concerns that Moscow is planning to invade Ukraine.

Sarah Kreps

Professor of Government

Sarah Kreps is a professor in the department of government and Brooks School of Public Policy. Her research focuses on the intersection of international politics, technology and national security. Kreps says the deployment would continue the tit-for-tat escalation seen by both sides.

Kreps says:

“All of these developments are worrisome not least because both of the major actors – the U.S. and Russia – are nuclear armed, but that's also why both sides are likely to tread cautiously. Neither side has any incentive for serious escalation because neither side would win.

“Russia is unlikely to conduct a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, deterred both by the prospect of escalation with a nuclear-armed country like the U.S. but also because it would mean trying to govern a territory of people who are hostile to their rule. This could mean some form of counterinsurgency they would have to contend with, likely supported by U.S. resources. 

“Instead, both sides will likely continue to rattle sabres and probably engage in behind-the-scenes offensive cyber activity. The key in the ongoing diplomatic negotiations will be to give both sides a way to de-escalate while saving face, which would mean both sides suggesting that they had made concessions to resolve the crisis peacefully.”

Cristina Florea

Assistant professor of history

Cristina Florea is an assistant professor at Cornell, and historian of Central and Eastern Europe. She says Ukraine has been the site of disputes for centuries between different imperial powers with NATO and a post-Soviet Russia the latest to seek influence in the region.

Florea says:

“Eastern Europe and Ukraine, in particular, have a long, complicated history of multiple sovereignties and overlapping imperial projects – a history of which the present moment is a continuation. Recently, Russian president Vladimir Putin wrote a historical piece denying that there was ever such a thing as a distinct Ukrainian national identity given the two countries’ intertwined histories going back to the Middle Ages and Kyivan Rus’. Ukrainian nationalists in turn have overlooked or suppressed aspects of Ukraine’s pre-national history to emphasize its current integrity and distinctiveness.”

“This is not to say that Russia is justified in violating Ukrainian sovereignty, but to underscore the importance of understanding the region’s multilayered past precisely so we do not fall prey to simplistic arguments about where it should or should not belong.”  

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