Ukraine / Russia: Understanding the Conflict

Steven Norris

Georgia Tech’s experts shed light and insight into this complex confrontation of nations.

The world is watching while the tensions on the border of Russia and Ukraine escalate before our eyes, and the potential for conflict seems to be looming larger than ever. Georgia Tech faculty and experts in a variety of fields ranging from military and diplomatic advisers to liberal arts and cybersecurity researchers are watching this situation closely. The implications impact every nation on the planet

Gen. Philip Breedlove

One of the people watching the situation most closely is Ret. Gen. Philip Breedlove, a professor of practice in Georgia Tech’s Sam Nunn School of International Affairs. Gen. Breedlove previously served as NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe, leading all operations across the European continent. He led that operation in 2014 when violence broke out in Ukraine over Crimea.

“We empathize with, support, and will continue to work to support our Ukrainian brothers and sisters,” Gen. Breedlove told CNN’s Erin Burnett in an interview regarding the unfolding situation.

But Breedlove says Ukraine is a pawn in a bigger game. He says Russian President Vladimir Putin has provided a document to American officials and threatened to invade Ukraine if the U.S. does not agree to his demands.

“Those documents are all about rewriting the security structure of Eastern Europe. Remember that Mr. Putin said not long ago that the greatest calamity of our time was the collapse of the Warsaw Pact,” said Breedlove.

<<Watch Gen. Breedlove's CNN interview regarding the conflict between Russia and Ukraine.>>

Remote video URL

Dominated by the Soviet Union, the Warsaw Pact was a collective defense treaty established as a balance of power to NATO, and included nations like Poland and Czechoslovakia (Now Czechia and Slovakia). Those nations are now part of NATO, along with the former Soviet republics like Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and of course, the United States. Ukraine has expressed hopes to become a member as well.

General Breedlove expects that American troops will not be deployed and that America and its allies should be seeking opportunities to assist Ukraine in defending its own airspace and territorial waters, now that larger and better equipped Russian forces are lined up at the border.

“Those are things we should be considering as an alliance and as a nation,” said Breedlove. “If Mr. Putin is allowed to invade Ukraine and there were to be little or no consequence, we will see more of the same.”

Bob Bell

Robert Bell is Gen. Breedlove’s colleague at Georgia Tech as well as a distinguished professor of the practice, with more than 40 years of government service with appointments as U.S. defense advisor at NATO and former National Security Council senior director for Defense Policy and Arms Control. Bell also served 18 years on the Senate Foreign Relations and Armed Services Committee. He is an expert on the diplomatic nature of this crisis.

“In light of Ukraine's sustained effort to move towards becoming a genuine, pro-Western democracy over these three decades, it is imperative that the West offer it its full support in this crisis,” said Bell.

How can that support be made clear?

“By providing additional lethal defensive weaponry, enumerating clearly the scale and the scope of the draconian economic sanctions that would be imposed on Russia should it commit further aggression against Ukraine, and impressing on Russia the extent to which any such aggression would result in Russia's complete isolation as a diplomatic pariah throughout the world,” said Bell.

Adam Stulberg

Adam Stulberg is the chair of the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs at Georgia Tech and has been researching and writing about political tensions between Russia and the U.S. for decades.

“The problem is that the United States and Russia don't understand each other's playbooks,” Stulberg said. “We risk escalating conflict because we can't recognize signs of restraint with each other. The danger in this is that it could bring us both into a conflict that we don't want.”

Stulberg recently published a policy memo regarding the effectiveness of the United States’ current economic sanctions against Russia. He says Ukraine is a representation of Putin losing his global leverage.

“Putin’s place at the international table is weakening. He has an election in 2024 and is losing influence with other countries. Therefore, the threat of a surgical strike and resort to more aggressive nonmilitary measures (directed at Ukraine or elsewhere) — which could rapidly get out of hand — is real,” he said.

<<  Go In-depth: 6 Questions on Russia-Ukraine Tensions with Adam Stulberg>>

Stulberg believes the best bet for de-escalating the conflict is to advance a credible plan for negotiations to transform the Euro-Atlantic security architecture.

Nikolay Koposov

Nikolay Koposov is a distinguished professor of the practice in the School of History and Sociology at Georgia Tech. He is the author of several books and publications on Russia and other pertinent topics, including the “memory wars” over Ukraine’s Soviet past, and is currently working on a book about Putin’s Russia. Koposov’s research and writing has led him to several conclusions about this conflict and Putin’s likely goals and actions.

“The current crisis is an outcome of the Kremlin's long-term and carefully calculated strategy and is not about Ukraine but about America, which is Putin's main target,” says Koposov.

<<Read more from Koposov about 'memory wars' and how differing perceptions of a shared history are fueling conflict between Ukraine and Russia.>>

Koposov says a primary goal for Putin is to challenge America's role as a global power — particularly a nation prepared to protect allies in Europe.

"Basically, to undermine America's prestige as a potential and the real defender," explained Koposov.

What could be the next move? Koposov says anything to create an immediate sense of danger for the U.S., like establishing formal operations in a partner nation like Cuba or Nicaragua.

"Maybe to bring his submarines closer to America," said Koposov.

Dina Khapaeva

Dina Khapaeva from Georgia Tech’s School of Modern Languages is also exploring the memory politics of Russia and the former Soviet Union, and the ideology behind some of the moves being made by Putin and his government. Khapaeva says there’s little doubt Putin has plans to try and expand an empire, and many researchers have not only had their eye on Russia’s relationship with Ukraine but also with the Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania) and the Caucasus nations (Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan).

“Very little attention is paid to what order is going to be established,” Khapaeva said. “If this happens, what kind of challenges will democracy face in these countries’ progression?”

Khapaeva speculates that Russia wants to return to medieval times in a sense, restoring feudalism with a theocratic monarchy.

“Kind of built around the idea of military glory. They want the Russian church to be in charge of culture and education,” explained Khapaeva.

Khapaeva further explained that Russia may plan to bring this ideology to the rest of the world by building the spaces they potentially want to conquer.

Nadiya Kostyuk

In the 21st century, though, conflict takes new forms in highly technical spaces. Nadiya Kostyuk is an assistant professor in the School of Public Policy and School of Cybersecurity and Privacy.

Her research suggests that while Russia might levy cyberattacks on Ukraine, doing so in lieu of traditional military strikes.  

“Russia spent the last eight years experimenting with cyberoperations as a stand-alone means to weaken Ukraine without the costs and risks of using military force,” Kostyuk said. “Why should Russia go through the trouble of deploying massive numbers of troops, incurring both the costs and the risks of escalation that come with such deployments, only to then use capabilities it already had that can achieve the same goals?”

Kostyuk believes that Russian cyberoperatives are already working behind the scenes to collect intelligence from Ukrainian networks. If Russia does attempt to seize any territory, cyberattacks might be used to disrupt Kyiv’s attempts to recover.

John McIntyre


John McIntyre is founding director of the Center for International Business Education and Research (CIBER) at the Scheller College of business with a joint appointment in international relations in the Georgia Tech’s Sam Nunn School of International Affairs. As an expert in international political economy, McIntyre notes that sanctions have been an effective tool for America in times of global tension.

"We have seen that U.S. sanctions can be effective, for example, U.S. export controls on Huawei Technologies Co, the Chinese telecom giant," said McIntyre.

Over time, sanctions imposed on Russia could be crippling.

"In the case of Russia, the applications of country-wide U.S. export controls would hit critical Russian sectors such as aerospace, artificial intelligence, and computing in all its forms. Russia cannot easily replace or substitute high-tech components through different supply networks."

McIntyre believes NATO nations would follow suit with the sanctions and Russia’s industrial economy in time, would be hit quite hard. 

<< In-Depth: Read McIntyre's observations on the international economic impact of the Russia-Ukraine crisis>>

Diane Alleva Cáceres


Diane Alleva Cáceres is a lecturer at the Scheller College of Business and the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs at the Georgia Institute of Technology.  She is also the founder and CEO of Market Access International, Inc. (MAI), an international trade, investment, and enterprise growth consulting practice.

Keeping an eye on this crisis, Alleva Cáceres says that some EU members may be wary to act too swiftly or strongly against Russia due to their own economic impacts.

'The biggest threat for EU countries wanting to protect Ukraine would be Russia’s potential retaliation in the form of restricting access to oil and gas and cyber-attacks," said Alleva Cáceres. 'Germany is Russia’s largest trading partner so it will have more at stake. Other EU and non-EU member countries would have to calculate the switching costs related to shifting to other suppliers in similar industries and products."

She believes this crisis could speed up the introduction of renewable energy across Europe.

The Nord Stream 2 pipeline is also a key sticking point. Russia is a primary supplier of petroleum and natural gas to European nations.

"Now we see EU member countries questioning the potential over-dependence upon Russian oil and gas should the Nordstream 2 oil pipeline be activated," said Alleva Cáceres.

<< In-depth: Alleva-Cáceres' insight into sanctions and the Nord Stream 2 pipeline.>>

Georgia Tech's experts along with their counterparts around the world will continue to watch this crisis and the impacts it will have on the U.S. and the entire world.

“We need leaders in international affairs who can understand not only the ends and means of conflict but also navigate the challenges and policy tradeoffs presented by the interaction among states that possess very different strategies for waging long-term competition,” says Stulberg.

And we’re helping to prepare those leaders and experts right here at Georgia Tech.

Kate Pride Brown

Kate Pride Brown is a political sociologist and an assistant professor in the School of History and Sociology whose research focuses on a range of issues, including activism in Russia. Media outlets have shown what appear to be anti-war demonstrations inside Russia's borders, but whether these protests will influence the Russian government to end the war remains to be seen,

Brown says this may be wishful thinking. She explains that activism relies on social trust, of which people living under authoritarian regimes tend to have little. 

"There are high levels of distrust amongst the public in general, so activism itself has been a fairly rare thing in Russia," Brown says. Russian citizens endure high levels of instability, corruption, and media censorship, all of which stack the odds against action.

"To expect a large anti-war movement to blossom immediately in response to this invasion is wishful thinking on the part of Western countries, but I don't think that it's impossible. It's just that there's a habit of the heart, a habit of mind that works against activism in Russia," Brown says.

<<Read more about the challenges to activism in Russia from Georgia Tech's Kate Pride Brown.>>


Reach out to an expert

Steven Norris

Director of Media Relations & Social Media 
Institute Communications
(404) 281-3343

Mike Pearson

Media Relations Representative 
Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts
(404) 894-2290

Siobhan Rodriguez

Media Relations Representative 
Institute Communications