Harvard Kennedy School Faculty Perspectives on the Crisis in the Ukraine


Concerns continue to mount over the future of Ukraine following a rapid series of events involving the fate of Crimea, a region of the country that Russia has now formally claimed.

Several Harvard Kennedy School faculty members are weighing in on the crisis, providing perspectives on the prospects for diplomacy and on the cultural cleavages within Ukrainian society. A sampling of their comments is below.

Marcela X. Escobari, Center for International Development executive director
"Ukraine’s Real Problem, in Four Graphs"
The Boston Globe
June 8, 2014

"Which way will Ukraine turn? With Russia’s recent military aggression taking so much of the spotlight, it’s easy to forget that Ukraine’s political unrest this year began with domestic protests over a question key to the future of its 45 million people: whether to tie their fortunes more closely to Russia, or to Western Europe.”

Graham T. Allison, Douglas Dillon Professor of Government
"Ambassador Tefft Would Upset Russia, and That's the Point"
Newsweek
May 14, 2014

"Since the Ukrainian crisis, all meaningful diplomacy with Russia is now conducted not at the ambassadorial level but between senior government ministers and officials, Tefft still “has an opportunity for much bolder diplomacy to drop in.”

Meghan O'Sullivan, Kirkpatrick Professor of the Practice of International Affairs
"Why Aren’t Sanctions Stopping Putin?"
The Daily Beast
May 13, 2014

The Obama administration and its allies are placing high hopes in the ability of sanctions to sway Russian actions and generally contest Russia’s annexation of Crimea and meddling in the Ukraine. Yet, if lessons gleaned from other sanctions episodes are any indication, the sanctions in place today have little hope of reversing Russian aggressive or curbing Putin’s drive to re-establish Russian dominance of the country’s “near abroad.”

Nicholas Burns, Professor of the Practice of Diplomacy and International Politics
"Where’s the US on Ukraine?"
The Boston Globe
May 8, 2014

Russia’s intervention in Ukraine has thrown Washington’s relationship with Moscow into a deep freeze. The Obama administration has tried working with a troublesome Moscow to curb Iran’s nuclear program, secure Syria’s chemical weapons, resupply America’s army in Afghanistan, and stop Muslim terrorists.

Graham T. Allison, Douglas Dillon Professor of Government
"Could the Ukraine Crisis Spark a World War?"
The National Interest
May 7, 2014

The thought that what we are now witnessing in Ukraine could trigger a cascade of actions and reactions that end in war will strike most readers as fanciful. Fortunately, it is. But we should not forget that in May 1914, the possibility that the assassination of an Archduke could produce a world war seemed almost inconceivable. History teaches that unlikely, even unimaginable events do happen.

Harvard Kennedy School
"Historical analogies fall short in Ukraine"
The Boston Globe
April 20, 2014

"The use of historical analogies by policy makers was so common and so fraught with danger that Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government has for decades offered a course now called 'Reasoning from History.'”

Tad J. Oelstrom, National Security Program director and adjunct lecturer in public policy
"Is Snowden Putin’s puppet?"
The Hill
April 18, 2014

“This is not unlike what we’ve seen from Putin for some time,” said Tad Oelstrom, the director of the National Security Program, noting that the other countries engage in similar types of stagecraft.

“We can turn these things around and look at leaders from around the world and you can see that same staging for the purpose of ulterior motives.”

Kevin Ryan, Defense and Intelligence Project, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs director
"Putin's Dilemma After Crimea"
The Moscow Times
April 17, 2014

To put ourselves in Putin's shoes, Western observers and analysts have searched history for analogous moments in time. Historians tell us that if we can find similar historical circumstances, we might be better able to predict what will happen next. Some experts look to 1914 and the run-up to World War I for clues and insights.

Nicholas Burns, Professor of the Practice of Diplomacy and International Politics
"Three myths about Putin’s Russia"
The Boston Globe
March 26, 2014

In Putin’s eyes, the Russian people were “robbed” and “plundered” as victims of the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Russian nation, he said in his speech, may be “the biggest ethnic group in the world to be divided by borders.”

Here is the reality he did not mention — the Russian Federation inherited the bulk of the USSR’s assets when it collapsed on Dec. 25, 1991. Of the 15 new countries that emerged, Russia became in legal terms the “continuation state.” It thus secured the powerful UN Security Council seat, eventually all the nuclear weapons and major military assets, nearly all of the Soviet Embassy properties, the space program, and significant gold reserves. The White House, where I worked on Soviet affairs at the time, supported a strong Russia as the best guarantor of future stability.

Stephen M. Walt, Robert and Renee Belfer Professor of International Affairs
"U.S. to the rescue in Ukraine — what’s in it for us?"
Dallas News
March 25, 2014

It’s one thing to offer verbal support, but a concrete security guarantee is something else again. Indeed, one of the more disturbing aspects of the current debate is the widespread assumption that if Ukrainians really, really want to be part of the West, then the United States and Europe are obliged to lend them money, offer them trade deals and eventually let them into NATO.

Linda J. Bilmes, Daniel Patrick Moynihan Senior Lecturer in Public Policy
"America Is Too Broke to Rescue Ukraine"
The Atlantic
March 17, 2014

If America and Europe have failed to adequately defend Ukraine, it’s not for lack of guns. It’s for lack of money. Over the last year, the real contest between Russia and the West hasn’t been a military one (after all, even McCain knows that risking war over Ukraine is insane). It’s been economic. In part because of two wars that have drained America’s coffers, and in part because of a financial crisis that has weakened the West economically, the United States and Europe have been dramatically outbid.

Nicholas Burns, Professor of the Practice of Diplomacy and International Politics
Topic: Crimea [Watch Video]
Bloomberg TV

March 17, 2014

Professor Nicholas Burns discusses the latest news on the crisis in Ukraine and Crimea on Bloomberg Television's “Bloomberg Surveillance."

Graham T. Allison, Douglas Dillon Professor of Government
"A 'Belgian Solution' for Ukraine?"
The National Interest
March 15, 2014

After Crimeans vote on Sunday to secede, but before Putin annexes Crimea, President Obama, Chancellor Merkel, and other European leaders should take a page from history and propose a "Belgian solution"...internationally-guaranteed neutrality for Ukraine. From the 16th century until the early 19th, armies repeatedly marched through the territory that is now Belgium. When Belgium declared independence from the Kingdom of the Netherlands in 1830, its future was uncertain. France proposed a partition of Belgium in which it would annex the strategic city of Brussels. But others had a better idea. In the Treaty of London, the UK, France, Prussia, Russia, Austria and Holland agreed to respect Belgium's territorial integrity and permanent neutrality. As a result, Belgium enjoyed nearly a century of peace that ended only with the outbreak of World War I.

Nicholas Burns, Professor of the Practice of Diplomacy and International Politics
"In Ukraine, the end of Act One"
The Boston Globe
March 13, 2014

Obama didn’t cause the problem; Putin did. Obama’s critics are wrong to blame him for Putin’s aggression. That charge didn’t add up when Putin ignored George W. Bush during the Georgia War, and it doesn’t now. It may be a quaint notion, but shouldn’t politics stop at the water’s edge on Ukraine? We won the Cold War in part because we were united at home. Republicans really should stand with Obama as he duels with Putin.

Meghan O'Sullivan, Kirkpatrick Professor of the Practice of International Affairs
"A better energy weapon can push back Putin"
Chicago Tribune
March 11, 2014

The Ukraine crisis has spurred calls for ramping up U.S. liquefied natural gas exports to Europe in the hope of translating our new-found energy prowess into geopolitical influence. It's a nice idea. But if the goal is to put pressure on Russian President Vladimir Putin's regime, a more considered proposal might be to lift the ban on the export of U.S. crude oil.

Stephen M. Walt, Robert and Renee Belfer Professor of International Affairs
"US plan for Crimea crisis still a mystery"
Al Jazeera America
March 11, 2014

“So far, the U.S. rhetoric has been all about condemning Russia’s actions and expressing support for the government in Ukraine, and we haven’t given much indication about what we regard as an acceptable settlement, other than reversal of everything that’s happened since [deposed President Viktor] Yanukovich fled,” said Stephen Walt, a professor of international relations at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. “And that isn't likely.”

Lawrence Summers, Mossavar-Rahmani Center for Business and Government
"How to provide the best aid to Ukraine"
The Washington Post
March 9, 2014

First, immediate impact is essential. New governments will not last unless they deliver results that are felt on the ground. Any conditions placed on assistance, intended to ensure progress toward reform, need to recognize political and economic realities. Assistance must be delivered promptly and in a way in which its impact is immediately visible.

Paula Dobriansky, Future of Diplomacy Project, Belfer Center
"Ukraine a victim of weak Western allies"
USA Today
March 6, 2014

The world seems to have forgotten that Ukraine began its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 as a major nuclear power, possessing the world's third largest nuclear force, more powerful than Chinese, British and French forces combined. That capability gave Ukraine great foreign policy leverage with Russia and other countries.

No doubt, Ukraine probably wishes that leverage was still available today to resist the aggression of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Joseph S. Nye, Harvard University Distinguished Service Professor
"Putin Is Soviet Still Mad It Dissolved"
Bloomberg Businessweek
March 6, 2014

Cold War-style containment of Russia would also be expensive, blowing a hole in the defense budget at a time when the Pentagon is attempting to wind down the war in Afghanistan, shrink the size of the U.S. Army, and turn attention to the rise of China.

“It would be costly in terms of military preparation and military risks, and costly in terms of some issues where we need a degree of Russian cooperation,” says Joseph Nye, a professor of political science at Harvard University and a former assistant secretary of defense. “We are going to find there are areas where, in a realpolitik way, we’re going to need to negotiate and bargain with them even if we don’t see eye to eye.”

Stephen M. Walt, Robert and Renee Belfer Professor of International Affairs
"No Contest"
Foreign Policy
March 3, 2014

There's plenty of room for finger-pointing and blame casting here, but the taproot of the debacle in Ukraine was a failure to distinguish between power and interests. Power is a useful thing to have in international politics, but any serious student of foreign policy knows that the stronger side does not always win. If it did, the United States would have won in Vietnam, would have persuaded India, Pakistan, and North Korea not to test nuclear weapons, and would have Afghan President Hamid Karzai dancing to our tune. In the real world, however, weaker states often care more about the outcome than stronger states do and are therefore willing to run more risks and incur larger costs to get what they want.

Nicholas Burns, Professor of the Practice of Diplomacy and International Politics
"Putin's clever game of chess"
The Boston Globe
March 4, 2014

Obama cannot and will not confront Russia militarily — not in the nuclear age. That would be unwise and potentially catastrophic. But he is beginning to piece together a long-term strategy as the chess showdown with Russia moves into its next phase. Obama and his team worked the phones over the weekend to rally world opinion to denounce Russian aggression. Obama is also sending Secretary of State John Kerry to Kiev today in a major symbolic move to show support for the embattled new Ukrainian government. And the White House is combining sanctions and diplomatic pressure on Putin to regain the initiative. The United States may shut down all major economic negotiations underway with Russia. None of this will stop Putin’s army but is designed to weaken and isolate him over time.

Pippa Norris, Paul. F. McGuire Lecturer in Comparative Politics
“Ukrainians are not that divided in their views of democracy”
The Washington Post
March 3, 2014


One way to examine attitudes is through using a 0-10 point scale, where respondents were asked to assess the importance of living in a country which is democratic….Ukrainian speakers rated the importance of democracy marginally higher than Russian speakers. Ukrainian speakers are therefore located a bit closer to political attitudes found in Poland, while Russian speaking Ukrainians express values which are slightly closer to Russian attitudes. But the gaps within Ukraine were extremely modest.

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Marcela X. Escobari, Center for International Development executive director

Marcela X. Escobari, Center for International Development executive director

"If Ukraine abruptly turns away from the Russian market—or, more likely, is abruptly shut out—it will be its most advanced and valuable industries that suffer most. ” -- Marcela X. Escobari in The Boston Globe

Meghan O'Sullivan, Kirkpatrick Professor of the Practice of International Affairs

Meghan O'Sullivan, Kirkpatrick Professor of the Practice of International Affairs

"the sanctions in place today have little hope of reversing Russian aggressive or curbing Putin’s drive to re-establish Russian dominance of the country’s 'near abroad.'” -- Professor Meghan O'Sullivan in The Daily Beast