GVSU experts discuss the invasion of Ukraine

Grand Valley experts provide insight on the factors surrounding the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the wide impact.

Heather Tafel, professor of political science

Posed head shot of Heather Tafel

Tafel, who has studied Russia and post-Communist Europe, said initially Vladimir Putin’s strategy was to keep Ukraine from joining NATO, but he may have a broader motive as well.

“In recent months, it appeared that Russia was amassing military forces to use coercive diplomacy to achieve certain goals,” said Tafel. “These goals included making sure that Ukraine never became a NATO member and that Russia would effectively have a veto over that membership. 

“A broader goal seemed to be that Russia’s leadership wanted to be included as an equal to the U.S. in international diplomatic talks of all kinds, very much like the Soviet Union was seen as a superpower.”

While it remains too early to tell, the strategy could backfire on Putin, but it’s a gamble he appears prepared to take, said Tafel.

“Internationally, Putin is likely to become a pariah,” said Tafel. “He knows this, and also realizes that such a status has not hurt other personalist dictators like Kim Jong Un. 

“Plus, Russia is a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, which means that the U.N. is likely to be paralyzed here.”

While large segments of the Russian population disapprove of its government’s action against Ukraine, Tafel said Putin would need to lose the support of the nation’s elites to face internal repercussions.

“For this to backfire on Putin, high-level elites in Russia would have to turn their backs on him and orchestrate his ouster,” said Tafel. 

“As far as I can tell, this appears unlikely right now, especially after Monday’s televised meeting of Russia’s Security Council, during which leading officials gave their support for Russia’s recognition of Donetsk and Luhansk.

Paul Isely, professor of economics and associate dean in the Seidman College of Business

Posed head shot of Paul Isely

Isely said prices on everything from gasoline to corn and wheat will likely be impacted. 

"There will likely be increases in commodity prices: oil, plus corn and wheat because of the amount generated in Ukraine and Russia," Isely said. "These effects will be small if the conflict and sanctions end quickly. But as this drags on, the bigger the impact will be. This could easily add 2 percentage points to the inflation rate and we could have $4 per gallon gasoline in a few weeks."

Isely also predicted how the Federal Reserve will react, either increasing or decreasing interest rates.

"This puts the Federal Reserve in a sticky place as the conflict will increase prices, but also slow the economy. Given the Fed’s dual mandate of low unemployment and steady prices, their policy solutions will make one of these better and one of them worse. Likely the Fed will need to show that there is liquidity and this might slow increases on the front end and speed them up at the end of the year."

Scott Lingenfelter, adjunct professor of history

Posed headshot of Scott Lingenfelter

Lingenfelter, a Russian history expert, said he was struck earlier in the week by Putin's speech, where "he assumed a role beyond president of the Russian Federation to be the one who rights the wrongs of the past."

He noted that Ukraine has often clashed with Russia over its autonomy and independence, particularly after its role in the breakup of the Soviet Union.

"For Putin, losing Ukraine is losing too much," Lingenfelter said. "Ukraine is critical to the region, but not because they are one people with Russia. Its place in eastern Slavic history, its geopolitical centrality, its economic heft and its religious significance as the carrier of Eastern Orthodoxy to the region is profound, but it’s fiction to claim that Ukrainian history and sovereignty is seamless with Russia’s."

He noted that while the United States saw the former republics and Warsaw Pact nations as independent after the Soviet Union collapsed, Putin and bureaucratic elites see them from an imperial perspective.

"These countries have been in Russia’s geopolitical orbit for centuries, they argue, and the collapse of the Soviet Union did nothing to change this legitimate sphere of influence, which Putin equates with its security sphere," Lingenfelter said. "All this means that we should think about the collapse of the Soviet Union as a long-term process. It is still collapsing, 30 years on. The current crisis, along with those before, such as Estonia and Georgia, and after are of a piece. Other flashpoints could follow." 

He also said he believes that Ukrainian resistance will be stronger than Russia expects. And he urged the world to keep an eye on the unfolding humanitarian crisis.

"That’s going to reshape life far beyond the borders of Ukraine," Lingenfelter said. "Clearly, once this is over, there will be a crying need for a comprehensive security agreement that goes beyond anything we’ve got right now."

Brian Vernellis and Michele Coffill of the University Communications staff contributed to this report.