Panel Discussion: Reflections from One Year of War in Ukraine

By Alexander Thomas, MALD 2023 Candidate, The Fletcher School

February 22, 2023 marked one year since the start of the largest war in Europe since World War II. After a year of fighting, the amount of human suffering caused by the war has been astounding, and the international security environment has been forever altered. On February 27, the Fletcher Russia and Eurasia Program co-hosted a panel discussion with the Center for Strategic Studies (CSS) to distill some of the most important impacts of the war on the field of international security. The discussion, moderated by CSS Director Professor Monica Toft, delved into the economic, political, strategic, and military lessons of the war, and included four panelists from different academic backgrounds.

The first panelist, Dr. Daniel Drezner, is a professor of international politics at The Fletcher School, who specializes in international political economy and great power competition. The second panelist was Professor Kelly Greenhill of Tufts University, who studies foreign and defense policy, the politics of information, the use of military force, and new security challenges. The third panelist, Volodymyr Dubovyk, is the director of the Center for International Studies at Odessa National University in Ukraine and an expert on Black Sea regional security and Ukrainian foreign policy and security. The final panelist, Pavel Luzin, is a visiting scholar at The Fletcher School, who focuses on Russia’s foreign policy and defense, space policy, and global security issues.

Following introductory remarks by Dean Rachel Kyte of The Fletcher School, Professor Toft kickstarted the discussion with an overview of important data points from the war. She shared that U.S. estimates placed Ukrainian casualties at approximately 150,000, Russian casualties at just over 200,000, and Ukrainian civilian casualties at just over 22,000 at that time. In addition to the staggering loss of life caused by Russia’s brutal war in Ukraine, the economic impacts have also reverberated across the globe. Ukraine’s GDP dropped by 33% in 2022 while Russia’s GDP dropped by an estimated 2.2%, despite one of the history’s most comprehensive sanctions regimes. She also laid out the amount of artillery rounds used by both sides, estimating that Russia is using roughly 20,000 rounds per day and Ukraine is using anywhere from 5,000 to 7,000 per day. Comparing the conflict between Russia and Ukraine to the U.S. interventions in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, Professor Toft reiterated how the “gravity of loss as a result of this war is truly, truly immense.” 

First, Professor Drezner spoke about how the economic impacts of the war have played out vastly differently than everyone expected. Despite the conflict becoming “grinding and protracted,” Drezner pointed out that Russia has endured the Western sanctions better than anyone thought, while Russia’s counter-sanctions have also been ineffective. He argued that Russia had been weaponizing and threatening Europe’s energy dependency for the past 10 to 15 years, an advantage that Russia has now lost due to the sabotage of the Nord Stream pipelines and Europe’s accelerated transition towards green energy. While Russia has been able to export oil to countries like China and India instead, it is doing so at a steep discount that isn’t financially sustainable for Russia in the long run. Drezner theorized that the big question is to what extent the war is eroding the globalized economy and creating one dominated by regional blocs. 

Following Professor Drezner’s comments, Professor Kelly Greenhill spoke about how the war in Ukraine has signaled that the age of “gray zone conflicts,” or competition between state and non-state actors that fall somewhere between peace and war, is out and that conventional conflicts are “back.” She further commented on the fragmented international support for Ukraine, as shown by the two UN General Assembly Resolutions that sought to condemn Russia for the invasion. 

“While much of the world is against Putin in this war,” Greenhill said, “the UN resolutions showed a more complicated picture in which the global South isn’t united in its support.” 

Greenhill spoke about how the future of Western support for Ukraine is up in the air. With 31% of Ukrainians displaced from their homes, the welcome that Ukrainian refugees received from Europe and the West was predicated on the assumption that it would be a short war. However, Greenhill predicted that Russia is unlikely to “roll over” anytime soon, as they see the war as one with existential consequences. 

After Professor Greenhill’s remarks, visiting scholar Pavel Luzin spoke about post-war prospects for Russia. In response to Greenhill’s point about the war being existential to Russia, Luzin suggested that the existentialism of the war is felt by the Russian elite, not necessarily by the people. As such, any bargains to de-escalate the war must ensure the survival, to some degree, of the Russian political elite. Luzin proposed that the West should pursue the denuclearization of the Russian state in exchange for survival of the political elite within Russia. 

To conclude the discussion, Professor Dubovyk offered an overview of the state of affairs in Ukraine. Despite Russia’s best attempts, Russia has yet to find the breaking point for Ukrainians, and national support for Zelenskyy as a wartime leader remains ironclad. Even after the bombing of Ukraine’s infrastructure this past winter, support for Zelenskyy has remained consistent.  According to Dubovyk, this shows that Putin still fails to understand the resilient nature and tenacity of Ukrainians engaged in the conflict even after one year of fighting against Ukraine. 

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