Karen Alter has two important reasons to pay close attention to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
First, as the Norman Dwight Harris Professor of International Relations at Northwestern University, studying and analyzing major world events is her job.
But second, her 25-year-old newphew is currently in Ukraine, and, along with his Ukranian girlfriend, is trying to get out.
When Evanston Now spoke with Alter late Thursday afternoon, the couple was heading for the Polish border.
Alter says until recently, she could “not convince” her nephew that “Putin was serious” about invading.
But, Alter added, “you don’t need 150,000 troops for two breakaway regions,” the areas in eastern Ukraine which Putin recently recognized as independent.
“Those two regions will not be enough for him,” Alter said.
Putin, Alter noted, is trying to re-create the former power and glory of the Soviet Union, by attacking Ukraine. While he may not occupy that nation, she said, he would likely try to install a puppet regime which would do Russia’s bidding, and also recognize Putin’s 2014 annexation of Crimea.
Putin once said the breakup of the Soviet Union was “a major geopolitical disaster,” and, Alter said, the Russian leader now “has a view of himself on a higher plane – Lenin, Stalin, and him.”
“Russia,” Alter added, “is scary, imperial, and delusional.”
Ironically, Alter notes, Putin “issued a set of demands that were a complete non-starter in the West,” such as rolling back NATO and never admitting Ukraine, and has served to unify the United States and its European allies.
“Putin just reminded everyone why we need NATO,” she added.
Alter said there is a clear difference between military resistance and economic and political sanctions.
In a situation such as this, she said there is really no way Ukraine could win a military war against the far larger and more advanced Russian forces.
But sanctions, she said, “are a different kind of tool, which can help turn the tide in a longer war.”
Economic and political weapons, Alter added, “could stop Putin from making Ukraine a permanent client state.”
Of course, it won’t be easy.
President Joe Biden is blocking Russian access to Western financing, as well as cutting technological exports and sactioning certain Russian elites.
“The sanctioning strategy will be a wave, a cascade,” she explained, which keeps “tightening the noose.” around the Russian leader.
But while some have called for targeted sanctions against Putin himself, Alter is not sure that would have much impact.
“You can bet he has his assets in crypto-currency, or in Switzerland,” she said.
One potential sanction which has not been implemented, at least not yet, is to block Russian access to the SWIFT currency transfer system, which allows money to cross borders from one account to another.
Based in Brussels, SWIFT sanctions require European nations to go along.
Alter also said that China is watching the Ukraine invasion very closely, because if Russia gets away with it, China may go after Taiwan.
On the other hand, if China sees the Ukranian incursion as a failure, it may tell Putin it’s time to stop.
Even if Russia does take over Ukraine, however that may happen, Alter said there is still a way the Ukranians can fight back.
“Asymmetric, guerilla warfare” can take its toll on Russian troops.
“The only military strategy that can work,” she noted, “is to send a lot of Russians home in body bags.”
Add Russian casualties to the invasion, Alter said, “and the Russians will say why are we doing this?”
“The more costly this gets,” Alter added, “the more the Russian people will say has our leader lost his mind?”