Q&A: St. Thomas professor discusses Ukraine and Russia conflict

On Thursday afternoon, FOX 9 Anchor Tim Blotz sat down with Renee Buhr, a political science and foreign affairs professor at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota, to discuss the history of tensions between Ukraine and Russia. 

Buhr said a 2004 election was Ukraine's first demonstration of declaring its own independence and self-governance. The rigged election led to the Orange Revolution – an uprising by Ukrainian people that lasted several months until the pro-Ukranian candidate Viktor Yushchenko won in a new election replacing pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych. Years later, she says Yanukovych ran again and won fairly.

"In 2004, Ukraine starts to pull away in a much more noticeable way from Russian control. Putin takes that personally because he does believe that Ukraine, Belarus and Russia should be very closely allied," Buhr explained to FOX 9's Tim Blotz. "We have no question that Putin is very concerned about gaining control of as many pipelines as possible. But starting a war with Ukraine is going to not only be exceedingly costly, but also the flow on effects of sanctions are going to make it harder for him to reap the benefits of that oil wealth."

On Thursday afternoon, FOX 9 Anchor Tim Blotz sat down with St. Thomas political science and foreign affairs professor Renee Buhr to discuss the history of tensions between Ukraine and Russia.

According to Buhr, long-term issues include economic impacts. 

"I think that if this turns into a full occupation of Ukraine, we'll have to think very seriously about Ukrainian refugees. And if this spreads into the Baltics, refugees from the Baltics as well," Buhr said.

"That will be a major follow-on effect that won't happen immediately, but it's likely to be something we have to think very seriously about as well."

Blotz spoke further with Buhr to discuss what might happen next as tensions continue to escalate.

Q: Joining us is Rene Buhr, a political science professor with the University of St. Thomas. This is your wheelhouse, your area of expertise is foreign affairs. So tell us in your estimation, why is Russia invading Ukraine?
Why is Putin invading Ukraine at the moment? That is the question that people who have been observing Putin for 30 years are still trying to figure out. So there's no doubt that Russia, and the Putin administration specifically, has really been trying to control Ukraine since 2004.

It's the 2004 election that ultimately was the first demonstration of Ukraine declaring its own independence and self-governance.

This led to what's known as the Orange Revolution, and the Orange Revolution was an uprising by the Ukrainian people, and it lasted several months and ultimately resulted in a new election where Yushchenko won.

In about 2013, after walking a line, engaging with the EU and engaging with Russia, he rejects the EU turns towards Russia and this triggers what's called the Maidan. There is this movement in late 2013, early 2014 where Ukrainian people rise up. They opposed Yanukovych's decision and his increasingly authoritarian behavior. He eventually flees to Russia, and a new government is later elected that is independent again of Russia under Petro Poroshenko. Shortly after that, that's when Russia invades Crimea.

Q: So there's been this tension, this push and pull between nationalism with inside Ukraine about whether they want to align with Russia or become more western like in enjoying more of the European economic system.
That's absolutely right, and the big challenge for Ukraine is that there are good reasons why they want to be connected to the EU, and there are good reasons why they want to be connected to Russia.

For years they followed what was called the multi-factorial foreign policy, which engaged both with the EU and with Russia. There's someone in Ukraine who is going to benefit from being pulled farther in one direction and another person who is going to suffer as a result of being pulled in one direction. So it makes for a very difficult balancing game for the Ukrainian president to stay engaged in both sides. Most of the reasons are economic, honestly.

So east Ukraine's economy is very closely tied to Russia. West Ukraine's economy is very closely tied to the EU. And then you have a linguistic aspect to this. It's important to begin by saying the vast majority of people who live in Ukraine are ethnically Ukrainian, but in the West, they tend to prefer to speak Ukrainian as their first language. Though they can speak Russian fluently and in east, they prefer to speak Russian as their first language, and they are also fluent in Ukrainian.

Q: How much did Putin's annexation of Crimea serve as a wedge between the pro-Russian population in Ukraine and the population that really wanted to become more tied to the EU?
I think it's hard to say what role Crimea may have played in that. Crimea is in terms of international law, part of Ukraine. So whether Russia believes there's a historical claim there or not – in terms of the law, Crimea is Ukrainian. That being said, a lot of former Soviet military like to retire to Crimea because it's pretty and it's on the water. So there was a sort of domestic population in Crimea proper that is ethnically Russian, ethnically Belarusian. Whereas Donbas, that's much more Ukrainian, but separatist politicians and military paramilitary essentially were responsible for the division there.

Q: There is an excellent analysis that I read last night from a former Wall Street Journal reporter who spent a number of years reporting in Ukraine who basically said this is all about energy and oil because so much of Russia's economy is coming from Ukraine. What's your take on that?
It's absolutely true that oil and gas are essential to Putin and oil and gas revenues.

Putin became president after an almost 10 years long, horrific economic depression. His main source of legitimacy has been stabilizing the economy and providing the Russian people with a comfortable life, not one where they have a lot of rights or democratic powers, but comfortable and stable. A big part of that was the stabilization fund that Putin developed. That is where they draw in oil and gas revenues, and they save it for a rainy day. When there is an economic crisis or a shock of some kind, then he can divert that money into the Russian economy in ways that maintain stable prices and stable cost of living and such. That was his main source of legitimacy throughout most of his presidency and ironically, the annexation of Crimea and the sanctions that followed did serious damage to that legitimacy.

Q: In Putin's mind does securing these energy routes and sources in Ukraine sustain at least a level of income to keep Russia paying its bills and him in power?
It very well could, but I think then that he is not taking into account the impact of sanctions on that right? You can refuse to purchase Russian oil. On the one hand, yeah, make sure you have control of the infrastructure that is definitely in Putin's interest.

We have no question that Putin is very concerned about gaining control of as many pipelines as possible. But starting a war with Ukraine is going to not only be exceedingly costly, but also the flow on effects of sanctions are going to make it harder for him to reap the benefits of that oil wealth.

Q: Let's talk about the sanctions and use of power in this particular conflict, because President Biden has vowed not to send any U.S. troops to defend Ukraine and without any military intervention from either the United States or NATO – is Putin basically free to do whatever he wants? Whether there are sanctions or not.
I would say he isn't free to do whatever he wants. The biggest challenge he's going to face, first and foremost, are Ukrainians. If there's one thing the Ukrainians have learned since 2004, it's that they have to fight for their independence and that Russia is very often the main actor behind any attempt to rob them of that independence. At the very least, we're going to see Ukrainians who are willing to dig in. And that is not going to be an easy conflict.

You also have the Baltic states, which are not only trying to support Ukraine and members, but also have a stake in this because the Putin administration's people at the U.N. lately have been accusing the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, - accusing them of mistreating their Russian minorities. So they're laying a rationale and a groundwork to defend the Russian people in the Baltics as well. The Baltics have a good reason to fight this tooth and nail.

Q: I'm often reminded in the past week or so about the old quote that my old political science professor used to drill on us and that "power comes from the barrel of a gun," according to Mao Zedong. It seems like this is what Russia is wanting to exercise right now.
I would agree. Unfortunately, it does seem to me that the attempts to control Ukraine indirectly through messing with Ukrainian elections through working through these proxies in Donbass that Putin is just not satisfied with those indirect methods anymore.

One of the theories going around is maybe he wants to install a friendly government in Kiev, and that would be in keeping with his past behavior.

There is a little speculation that he could have just lost his mind because we have been able to predict his behavior very consistently for 30 years based on a sort of cost-benefit analysis, and he always went for the cheap wins and this is not a cheap win.

Q: One of the ultimate questions is how could America get drawn into this?
That’s very difficult to speculate. Ukraine is a fellow democracy, right? It is a transitional democracy. It's fighting tooth and nail to be a fully-fledged democracy. This does mean that there is a community of democratic states, the United States included, that has some interest in trying to help Ukraine stay independent. Would we get engaged at this point? My my short answer is I don't think we're going to. We pulled Americans out of harms way, which is fairly standard practice, so I don't want to make it sound like that's unusual.

In security studies there's a strategy that we refer to as a trip wire. You keep some of your soldiers, usually people who have signed up for potential conflict. You keep them in harm's way so that if an enemy attacks, then you are committed to avenging the deaths of your troops, right? Those Americans, by pulling the Americans and the Brits specifically out, we removed the trip wire, which does seem to make it less costly to Putin to invade, right?

He still has to worry about Ukrainian resistance and other NATO members, but by not having that American troops trip wire in there or the British trip wire, we did change his calculus a little, I think. That being said, he seemed so determined he may have just killed a whole bunch of Brits and Americans and not given a second thought because this doesn't seem like a person who is thinking clearly about the costs of what he's doing.

Q: How can this affect every day Americans?
In the short term, we're very far away from this. Globalization is the main reason why we'll feel any impact. Obviously the stock markets are already taking a hit. That's not surprising, given how globalized trade is, how globalized the economy is, how much our own production depends on oil and gas. Thankfully, we have enough for our own consumption. We're not dependent on Russia the way that Germany is. We have a layer of insulation from that.

The longer term issue, there'll be economic impacts. I think that if this turns into a full occupation of Ukraine, I do think we'll have to think very seriously about Ukrainian refugees. And if this spreads into the Baltics, refugees from the Baltics as well.

Q: Is there an endgame here for Putin at this point?
Sadly, no.

My worry is that this this could mean a replacement of the Ukrainian government by a friendly Russian regime that could go as far as the Baltics because of the things that the Russian government has been saying at the U.N. and the rationales they're using for the need to protect Russians.

It's a very similar rationale to what we've seen in Ukraine since 2013 and even before that, but 2013 is where it became much more high stakes.

The endgame probably this doesn't stop at Ukraine. This is really costly for him, and like in Georgia in 2008, if he decides it's not worth it – that would be the best case scenario.