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What are they thinking? – Understanding the Russian academic perspective on Ukraine

Updated: Mar 13, 2023

Boris Kyrychenko, a Blumenfeld Junior Fellow at Science for Peace, is also a recent undergraduate from the University of Toronto, completing his major in International Relations

Contributed article for the Critical NATO Studies Working Group.

Disclaimer: the views expressed in this article are those of the interviewees and do not represent the views of the interviewer or Science for Peace.

In war, the first casualty is the truth. Voices outside national narratives become criticized and discredited, an outside group is formed and individuals are subsequently attacked, regardless of their own personal stances. Such incidents can be seen across Europe and the United States. Criticism of the mainstream narrative is shunned, although not as overtly and ruthlessly as in Russia itself. Threat to civil liberties aside, such control of the narrative inevitably creates powerful echo-chambers, within which the other side becomes ever more vilified, and impossible to comprehend.

It goes without saying that the conflict in Ukraine is a colossal human tragedy. Thus, provided that no one is in favour of extending human suffering for the sake of achieving geopolitical objectives, it must be in the interests of all parties involved to resolve the conflict as soon as possible, and prevent additional loss of life or even worse, nuclear Armageddon. But negotiations, to occur, require an understanding of the perspectives and narratives of the other side, no matter how morally difficult such an undertaking may seem to be (given the many allegations of war crimes, this is an understandable moral dilemma and further underscores the need to make peace).

If we truly want this conflict to end, then we must first attempt to engage in genuine dialogue. It is in this end that I reached out, across the digital iron curtain, to invite any notable Russian academics who seem to generally agree with the Kremlin’s position and share their professional opinions. Specifically, I posed a series of five questions, which were presented to whoever was willing to enter into dialogue. After months of reaching out to dozens of noteworthy scholars, two agreed to respond.

The first was a retired professor by the name of Dr. Vladimir Brovkin, who, after leaving the USSR, studied at Princeton University, and later taught history at Harvard. The second was Dr. Vladimir Kozin, who has held various positions within the USSR’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as well as in the Russian Federation’s equivalent ministry. He is currently a senior researcher and leading expert at the Centre for Military-Political Studies at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations. Although the two differ in their titles, achievements, and experiences, both approach international relations from a uniquely Soviet/ Russian perspective. Here are their answers.

Question 1

To begin, an introductory, historical context-building question was posed: what have been the major mistakes on the part of the West regarding their post-1991 Eastern European strategy?

Dr. Kozin (replying in Russian) responded with the following: “Such mistakes could be summed up as follows: the militarization of Western states; the strengthening of widespread Russophobia; the acceptance of Eastern European states into NATO; the deployment of nuclear missiles onto the territories of Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Estonia on a permanent basis, as well as the deployment of heavy strategic air power by the US Air Force into the region on a temporary basis. And in more recent times, organizing a coup d'état in Ukraine in 2014, creating an ultranationalist regime there and pushing it to unleash a major armed aggression – first, against the Donbass in 2014 and then against Russia in 2022. Such aggression has been intensified qualitatively – because it started from supplying individual hand-grenade launchers to armored vehicles from NATO countries, e.g., all U.S. made MLRS HIMARS are operated by the US GIs. NATO has already sent hundreds of thousands of ammunition rounds for howitzers, MLRS and artillery pieces. Such weapons since 2014 have killed nearly 20,000 civilians in Donbass.”[1]

Dr. Brovkin (answering in English) began by stating that Western strategy post-1991 was less a mistake, but more of a missed opportunity. Specifically, the US’s “victory-mentality” is to blame, as it failed to capitalize on an era of “Russian brotherhood” and hope towards not just the West, but ethnic minorities within the USSR such as the Lithuanians. He also went on to cite the positive personal relations between Putin and various Western leaders, such as with Bush Jr. and Chirac, as proof that a more normal relationship was possible, but was regrettably destroyed by Western advances towards Russia via the NATO admission of the Baltic states.[2]

Such analysis of the 1990s and early 2000s conflicts with other scholars (especially from the Baltics and Eastern Europe), who claim that such ‘hopeful’ sentiments came not from Russian friendliness but from temporary Russian geopolitical weakness. Thus, the acquisition of security guarantees from NATO were seen as vital should Russia revert to its imperialistic foreign policy tendencies of past generations. This scholarly debate aside, both Dr. Kozin and Dr. Brovkin are of the belief that mistakes were made, and that these mistakes have sowed the seeds of today’s conflict.

Question 2

Next came the ‘chicken or the egg’ question of what came first, NATO expansion or aggressive Russian foreign policy? Specifically, given the potential entry of Sweden and Finland into NATO as a response to the invasion of Ukraine, an argument is often made that all new members have joined the alliance of their own free will, often out of national security concerns stemming from Russian behaviour.

Dr. Kozin replied, “There have never been any “threats'' from Russia towards the members of NATO, nor to the states currently joining. Aggressive and threatening actions have always stemmed from the foreign policy of NATO, first towards the USSR, and more recently towards Russia. For example, the gradual advance of the NATO military machine towards the Russian frontier practically right after the creation of the bloc in the form of the "Chicago Triad," a mechanism for operational cooperation between nuclear missiles, anti missile defences and conventional weapons – all in the name of alliance “forward deployments.” For reference, he is referring to the NATO summit that took place in Chicago back in 2012, in which it was declared that “NATO is committed to maintaining an appropriate mix of nuclear, conventional and missile defence capabilities for deterrence and defence,” effectively forming a triad between the three. Kozin added that, “There is no invasion of Russia into Ukraine. It is a wrong term invented by Zelenskyy and NATO. Actually, aggression began in 2014 when Ukrainian president ad interim Turchinov signed a decree that ushered in a direct aggression against Donbass that never crossed administrative Ukrainian-Donbass border. On February 14, 2022, Zelenskyy started a direct and combined aggression with NATO against Russia. Moscow had to respond on February 24th.”

Dr. Brovkin challenged the assumption that all NATO countries joined voluntarily and out of fear of Russia, citing Churchill’s observation of NATO’s role in Europe as “keeping the Americans in, the Germans down and Russia out.” Portugal, Spain, Italy and Greece are all NATO members that never had any military issues with Russia, and therefore did not join out of fear. Montenegrin membership, Brovkin claims, was ‘bought’ via generous sums of economic assistance from the EU and the West. However, he conceded that the Baltics, Poland, and Romania have valid historical grievances. Nevertheless, he argues that historical difficulties ought not to have been carried into contemporary contexts, as Russia during the 1990s was hardly a threat to those states.

Question 3

My third question concerned nuclear weapons and their ability to assure defence— Why worry about NATO enlargement if the alliance claims to be defensive, and the Russian nuclear arsenal guarantees that any assault (even via conventional means) would theoretically be unwinnable and therefore will never occur?

Dr. Brovkin had the following to say: “If that is indeed the case, and nuclear weapons ensure security, then why would the US feel the need to station their missiles in Poland and Romania, in addition to their silos in Great Britain, Germany and Italy?” He then referenced Putin’s response to such a question, which essentially came down to time. Specifically, the closer a nuclear missile is stationed, the less time it would take for it to arrive at its target, and therefore its receiver has less time to react and launch counterstrikes. He then stated that this was one of the reasons for Russia’s invasion, citing Zelenskyy’s plea for NATO to station missiles in Kharkiv (a city that is about 40 km away from the Russian border and 300 km from Moscow), which would be an existential threat to Russian national security.[3]

I then followed up by inquiring whether it is not in the interest of Polish/ Ukrainian security strategists to agree to such forward deployments in the hope that said deployments would deter Russian aggression. If Kharkiv indeed had US missile silos, surely Putin would think twice before launching an invasion. Dr. Brovkin responded that while valid, such maneuvers would still threaten Russian security and force a response. He then added as a side note that any Western talk of Russia striking Ukraine with nuclear weapons is sheer “idiocy,” an “absurdity to an absurdity,” and “inventions of American propaganda,” namely because Russia would not want to destroy territory it seeks to capture. If nuclear weapons were to be launched, they would be aimed at US forces and not Ukraine. While such an argument could be contested based upon the sheer amount of destruction already performed by Russian bombings, he concluded by stating his main nuclear worry is the powerplant in Zaporizhzhya, and how indifferent Western media seem to be towards this danger.

Dr. Kozin had the following to say: “The assertion that "...NATO, as a defensive alliance, will never strike first" is unprofessional since the nuclear strategies of both the US and the UK allow a preventive and pre-emptive nuclear strike on Russia. The opinion that NATO has no desire to attack Russia with conventional means is also unprofessional. 100s of billions worth of heavy, non-nuclear and conventional weaponry have been deployed, and dispatching of army personnel from various NATO members under the guise of “mercenaries” to Ukraine, also disproves such an assertion.”

Question 4

The fourth question was divided into two parts. First: “Given the present crisis, a security regime based on military confrontation and alliance blocs has been shown to have its limits, and alternative models such as common security have been suggested instead. What are your thoughts on such arrangements, and could this be incorporated into a future settlement of the war?”

Dr. Brovkin stated that theoretically, it is possible to create a system of collective security that regulates state behaviour. The biggest obstacle towards such a system, however, is that states have different interests and perceptions, such as Ukraine wanting independence and sovereignty over the Donbas, while the Donas wants independence from Kiev. He then drew an analogy to the independence movements in Spain and said to imagine the reaction if Putin began arming Barcelonians with weapons against Madrid. He then argued that the Ukrainians should not have abandoned the Minsk Accords, which would have kept the Donbas within Ukraine, albeit with some autonomy. Furthermore, he argued Kiev should have accepted Putin’s pre-war deal, which would have meant no NATO in Ukraine, yes to Ukrainian entry into the EU and a UN supervised referendum in the Donbas. But because the US gave a categorical no, it transformed the situation from a potential compromise into a zero-sum game, which then escalated to war. The only solution, Brovkin concludes, would have to be some sort of autonomous and neutral status for Ukraine, ideally achieved via peaceful means.

As a follow up, I asked whether a settlement that could satisfy everyone’s security needs is even possible at this stage– what would realistically satisfy Russia? To this, Dr. Kozin responded with the following: “Such a resolution is not possible at the moment for all the previously stated reasons. Russia would be satisfied with the elimination of all the negative tendencies regarding its relationship with NATO and the nuclear sphere– a complete removal of US tactical weapons from both Europe and Asia, as well as a halt to NATO’s Baltic Air policing operation and the practice of creating Russia-hostile states and endlessly arming them with offensives weapons, such as Ukraine.”

Question 5

The fifth and final question focused on the future. Specifically, I asked how both academics viewed the long-term impact of the war on Russo-Ukrainian relations and Russia’s broader relationship with the West, and whether they had any hope.

Dr. Kozin summarized his many earlier points and concluded with “Yes, unfortunately, it [the conflict] will have a negative impact. With the current political and military leadership in the leading NATO countries and against the backdrop of a harsh anti-Russian policy, there is no hope. The world has arrived at the most dangerous confrontation since the end of WW2.”

Dr. Brovkin concluded with the following: “It’s always hard to project into the future, and different parts of Ukraine will have different expectations.” He argues that the Donbas, Odessa, and Ukrainians east of the Dnieper will enthusiastically accept Russian victory. Central Ukraine’s response will depend on how well the Russians rule, and whether Russian investment in infrastructure and reconstruction successfully raises their standard of living. However, western Ukraine (such as Lviv) will carry a great resentment against Russia for many years to come. He then spoke about the many family ties between Russians and Ukrainians (mentioning that his own mother was born in Ukraine)[4] and how such familial and historical ties will likely help reconciliation efforts. Overall, Brovkin noted, the longer the war lasts, the bigger the rift will be and the more difficult it will become to overcome said rift. Thus, the sooner peace is signed, the sooner Ukrainian neutrality can be affirmed, and the sooner West Ukraine can join the EU, and the East join Russia.

Final Remark

Many of the claims made by the respondents are controversial to say the least, especially in Canada and the West. Regardless, genuine dialogue was held, which was ultimately the main objective of the exercise. As of the 1-year anniversary of the conflict, despite early Ukrainian gains it appears both sides are at a stalemate, with hundreds of lives being lost on a daily basis, and potentially hundreds of thousands since the beginning of the war. With no clear military end in sight, one ought to consider any avenue towards peace, especially negotiations. Thus, we ought to begin by understanding the opposing viewpoint in order to entice the other side to the table. Whether the powers that be are ready for such conversations remains to be seen.

[1] In reviewing this article, Dr. Kozin requested that we provide the following additional information: [2] The interview with Dr. Brovkin was done over zoom and exists in a video format. To watch the full recording of the interview, please go to our YouTube channel: [3] While it is true that some Ukrainian officials implied nuclear rearmament in the lead up to Feb 24th, including Zelenskyy, I was unable to find a direct quotation mentioning that Zelenskyy requested pre-war nuclear missile deployments in Kharkiv. [4] Upon review, Dr. Brovkin offered the following clarification: “There are millions of people who were born on the territory called Ukraine that do not and did not consider themselves Ukrainian. In the Soviet Union, every person had an item in his passport called nationality which was based on the ethnicity of one's parents. Moreover, what today we call Eastern Ukraine was not called as such in 1922. Before that, it was called Novorossiya, or New Russia. So, my mother was Jewish by nationality and was born in Novorossiya, which was defined as part of the Ukrainian Soviet republic. That does not make her Ukrainian at all.”


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