How will the Russian invasion of Ukraine end? And at what cost?

Northeastern faculty whose expertise in global politics includes European foreign and security policy, the humanitarian toll of the conflict, its historical underpinnings, and the emerging refugee crisis in Eastern Europe, hosted a wide-ranging conversation this week about the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

This report is part of ongoing coverage of the Russia-Ukraine war. Visit our dedicated page for more on this topic.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine likely will end in one of three ways: a protracted cold war, possible World War III, or a nuclear war, said Mai’a Cross, Edward W. Brooke Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at Northeastern.

“It’s a really precarious situation that we’re in right now, globally,” Cross said. “There are two things I would pay attention to: the danger of miscalculation and human error, and the question of how far [Russian President Vladimir] Putin is willing to go.”

Cross delivered the sobering assessment during a discussion on the Russia-Ukraine conflict Tuesday evening that was attended by dozens of students, faculty, and staff in-person on Northeastern’s Boston campus, as well as countless more who watched a livestream of the event. Cross was joined by a host of other faculty from the College of Social Sciences and Humanities whose expertise in global politics includes the humanitarian toll of the conflict, its historical underpinnings, and the emerging refugee crisis in Eastern Europe.

Their conversation—moderated by Thomas Vicino, associate dean of graduate studies and professor of political science, public policy, and urban affairs—covered a range of issues that have emerged from the invasion.


And indeed, while the world waits to see just how far Putin is willing to push his invasion of Ukraine, citizens of Russia’s neighboring country will continue to pay the price.

“The toll that this war has already taken on the Ukrainian population is immense,” said Ekaterina Botchkovar, associate professor of criminology and criminal justice, whose current research seeks to understand the human effects of long-term exposure to war, specifically in Ukraine.

The United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, estimates that more than 2 million people have now fled Ukraine to nearby countries, and an additional 1.8 million people have been displaced from their homes but are still within Ukraine’s borders. Many of these people, Botchkovar said, are being forced from their homes for a second time in just the last decade: Russia annexed the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea in 2014, setting off a military conflict in the Donbas region of Ukraine. The dual trauma, Botchkovar predicts, will create a spike in post-traumatic stress disorder and violence among Ukrainians.

“Aside from the direct war trauma [of being injured or watching someone else be injured or killed], there’s also indirect trauma that comes from the stories of war being told to loved ones,” she said. “People who’ve been traumatized either directly or indirectly experience PTSD, depression, anger, and heightened levels of violence.”

The displacement of so many people from their homes has also created a refugee crisis “unlike anything we’ve seen in recent history,” said Serena Parekh, professor of philosophy, who has written extensively on refugees and the ethics of forced displacement.

“The refugee crisis that the invasion of Ukraine has created has been one of the most troubling aspects, to say the least, of the invasion. It’s only been going on for a little over 10 days, and in that time, more than 2 million people have been displaced from their homes and able to cross a border into another country,” she said. “The sheer number of people leaving the country is nothing that we’ve seen in recent history.”

To put the figure into context, Parekh compared it to the Syrian refugee crisis that touched off in 2011 when civil war broke out in the country. “The number of refugees who came from Syria into Europe was claimed to be an overwhelming number,” she said. “But in fact, 2 million is how many refugees came from Syria over the period of three years—keep in mind that’s the same number of people who’ve left Ukraine in 10 days.”

It’s not just the people in Ukraine and Russia who’ve been stunned by the recent turn of events; Uta Poiger, dean of the College of Social Sciences and Humanities and a professor of history, described her own shock as she watched the conflict unfold from Germany.

“You can probably hear that I sport a German accent and indeed I grew up in Germany,” Poiger told the crowd on Tuesday, adding that she’d just returned from a trip to her home country the Sunday prior.

“I was there when the invasion started and like all of you, I’m sure, I’m very struck by the quick shifts we’re seeing, as well as the many references to history, and the incredible amount of suffering.”

Her colleague Simon Rabinovitch, the Stotsky Associate Professor in Jewish Historical and Cultural Studies at Northeastern, offered additional insight on the role that history plays, even now. The historical context of the region, he said, has played “a surprisingly central role in the conflict itself.”

“Historical interpretation is really driving the conflict, and that’s true for both Russian and Ukrainian sides,” Rabinovitch said.

In what was received by historians and political experts alike as naked propaganda, Putin claimed that the goal of invading Ukraine was to “demilitarize and denazify Ukraine.”

“That has a resonance to Russians, whose historical experience of World War II is still very much alive,” Rabinovitch said. “It’s still the case that newly married couples will visit their local [World War II] monument on their wedding day to place flowers there as a token of respect for the dead.”

History is shaping decisions on the Ukrainian side as well, he said.

“Among Ukrainians, especially Ukrainian speakers, the association of the Soviet historical experience is one of political repression, famine, genocide, and general victimhood. Naturally, that’s an experience that’s shaping their own decisions about Ukraine’s future,” Rabinovitch said.

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