The question “What keeps you up at night?” was one of the main themes of the final Dean’s Discussion of the fall semester, which tackled the difficult topic of global policy challenges raised by Russia’s war on Ukraine. 

Stephen Walt.Panelist Stephen Walt, the Robert and Renee Belfer Professor of International Affairs, said the most vexing issue, in his opinion, was imagining how the war—which has already cost the lives of an estimated 200,000 soldiers and 7,000 civilians—might end without the situation getting much worse. The conflict is now in its 11th month.

“The obstacles to an actual political settlement are going to be enormous,” he said. “The thing that keeps me up at night, of course, is that until the war ends, there is the possibility it could escalate, particularly if Russia thinks it's losing and believes that it would be a catastrophic defeat. And that's something that should worry all of us.”

Walt was joined on the panel by Matthew Bunn, the James R. Schlesinger Professor of the Practice of Energy, National Security, and Foreign Policy, and Erica Chenoweth, the Frank Stanton Professor of the First Amendment at Harvard Kennedy School and a Susan S. and Kenneth L. Wallach Professor at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Matt Bunn.Studies. The discussion was moderated by Sarah Wald, the dean’s chief of staff and an adjunct lecturer in public policy. 

Bunn said he agreed with Walt about escalation, but was also worried about “the basic functioning of global governance, and particularly nuclear governance.”

“It's not obvious at all that we'll have a U.N. Security Council that’s able to function with Russia as a veto-wielding member,'' he said, adding that escalating tensions between the United States and Russia and the United States and China are also a concern. “When you have really intense hostility between nuclear armed powers, you have more chances for crises, more chances that crises will escalate to conflict, and more chances that conflicts will escalate to nuclear wars.”

Erica Chenoweth.Wald then asked the panelists how “we got to the point of an active war in Europe.” Chenoweth answered that Russian president Vladimir Putin may have wanted to “make an example” of democratic-minded Ukraine to other neighboring nations it considers part of its sphere of influence. “It's kind of his enemy number one,” Chenoweth said. “The more a country tries to express its independence and demand democracy, the more threatening that is.” Chenoweth, who studies the efficacy of mass protest movements, also said Putin may have a desire to foster better relations with other countries with authoritarian countries fighting democratic social movements, such as Iran and China.

Bunn said he believes Putin “deeply sees the world as a place where there are a few big powers and they should run the world, and they should each have a group of obedient states surrounding them as a security buffer.” An independent Ukraine threatened that vision, he said, but so did the expansion of NATO over the past two decades. Walt also cited NATO expansion, but said there have been other western policy decisions that antagonized Putin, including the U.S. withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002 and the 2011 NATO intervention in the Libyan civil war that helped overthrow Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi. “My line is that Putin is guilty, but the West is not utterly blameless in creating the political conditions that made this conflict more likely,” he said.

In terms of when the conflict might be resolved, the panelists shared a common lack of optimism. Chenoweth said wars “often take a long time to come to an end, especially when both sides think that they're winning.” Negotiated settlements, they said, generally happen when both sides think continuing a stalemate is more harmful to their interests than ending it—a point neither side appears close to reaching. Walt said Russia and Ukraine now have a deep mutual enmity that will make any negotiations “tremendously difficult ... even if both sides were starting to look for a way to bring it to an end.”

Photo by Yasuyoshi CHIBA / AFP via Getty Images

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