As the world watches the Russian attacks against Ukraine, professors at Washington State University and the University of Idaho gave presentations Wednesday putting the conflict into context and explaining Russian President Vladimir Putin’s motivations.

Russia’s actions in Ukraine should not come as a surprise to anyone who has followed Putin’s career, WSU political science professor Tom Preston said during a presentation for the WSU Foley Institute.

Preston said Putin is a strong nationalist who believes bringing Ukraine into Russian control would cement his legacy as a great Russian leader. Additionally, Putin believes the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s potential expansion to include Eastern European countries like Ukraine is an existential threat to Russia’s security and influence.

“He has been angry for years and he’s been expressing this view and feeling that it has been ignored,” Preston said.

Preston said Putin is fueled by fear of Western encroachment and believes the West is working to undermine his regime.

More about Russia’s war on Ukraine


Florian Justwan, UI associate professor of political science, said a country that joins NATO turns away from Russia and aligns itself with the European Union and U.S.

“Ukraine has historically been the political backyard, or part of the political backyard, of Russia, and the Soviet Union before them,” Justwan said. “This idea that such a big country directly next to Russia is explicitly turning away from Russia toward the West is deeply concerning to Putin for a variety of reasons.”

Erin Damman, clinical assistant professor for the UI international studies program, said Putin is making false claims to suggest that what he is doing is protected under international laws. For example, he claimed Russia is acting in self-defense against NATO and Ukraine, that Russia is protecting Russian-speaking Ukranians from genocide and that Ukraine is not a sovereign state.

“They are designed to spread these little sprinklings of doubt over whether what he is doing is actually in line with international norms and legal under international statutes,” she said about these claims.

Justwan said Russian misinformation is often picked up by American media outlets, so it is important for Americans to fact check what they read.

Putin is also afraid of democratic revolutions overthrowing pro-Russian regimes, also known as “color” revolutions, Preston said. This is what happened when Ukraine protesters — with U.S. support — overthrew pro-Russian Ukrainian leader Viktor Yanukovych in 2014.


“(Putin) saw this as a Western-supported coup attempt against a democratically elected pro-Russian leader,” Preston said.

While Russia’s attacks against Ukraine are not surprising, Preston said it may not work in Putin’s favor.

“It may well be a big miscalculation,” he said. “I think this is a hornet’s nest that he has stirred up that is going to have a lot of second-, third-, fourth-order effects that he has not necessarily thought through completely.”

The conflict has led to European countries and the U.S. imposing economic sanctions on Russia, but Preston said Putin believes he can weather that storm.

“I don’t think any degree of economic sanctions is enough to change Putin’s mind on this,” he said, adding that this may be a miscalculation on Putin’s part.

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Charles Dainoff, a UI clinical assistant professor of political science, said the U.S. has the ability to gather information on Russian financial transactions, freeze assets on Russian accounts and lock Russians out of the financial system.

“Right now, the steps that the Biden administration took today were to freeze out the two largest banks in Russia that are responsible for, I think, over half of the financial transactions in Russia,” Dainoff said.

Preston said it is not a viable option to send U.S. troops into Ukraine, but he would not be surprised to see military forces deployed in other Eastern European countries to support NATO members. Another reason for this is to help countries accepting millions of Ukrainian refugees.

Preston also expects there to be a Ukrainian insurgency against Russia, even if Ukraine’s military falls.

Here in the U.S., Justwan said Americans should expect increases in the price of gas and inflation if this conflict continues, as Russia is a major exporter of oil.