Professor Neil MacFarlane, the Oxford University International Relations Russia expert, says Russia’s bloody invasion of Ukraine should not have been a surprise. For years, there have been warning signs and experts saying this war, or something like it, was going to happen. It may not have been ‘inevitable’, but there was a widespread belief it was going to happen.
Russia’s war can be tracked back decades, he maintains, to the period after the Soviet Union broke up. The superpower’s collapse meant the region was written off, strategically, in the West. With Russia in a parlous state and the former Soviet empire fractured, there was little interest in studying the area or in cultivating the country, which was left to comb through its wreckage. Even at the time, as Russia fell off the academic map, Professor MacFarlane recalls feeling sure this was a mistake, ‘At the time I said it was risky to ignore Russia just because of the collapse...the first thing you learn from Russian history is that it always comes back, ready for more.’
I said it was risky to ignore Russia just because of the collapse...the first thing you learn from Russian history is that it always comes back, ready for more
Russia’s launch of a war against a neighbouring sovereign state may appear irrational, he says, with most of the world against them. But, says Professor MacFarlane, it was anticipated. And to understand the war, and what may happen next, it is essential to understand Vladimir Putin’s world view [and that of many Russians], which was honed decades ago.
‘Status and influence are very important to Russians,’ he says. They were a world power, but with the end of the Soviet Union, and the chaos that followed, they were dismissed and ‘humiliated’. Professor MacFarlane adds. ‘It was a mistake to write off the Russians and then kick them while they were down. Back in the 90s, President George HW Bush claimed that “the Cold War was over: we won”. Later, President Obama dismissed Russia as a “regional power”. This hurt. They should have anticipated the return of Russia.’
He continues, ‘The economy collapsed and there was real hunger in Russia. They needed structural assistance, but it was not forthcoming...at the time, all the talk in the West was of the peace dividend [less money on defence] and the resources available for other things.’
There was little attempt to understand the Russian perspective. The difference in world view is a key factor, according to the professor.
The liberal approach was all about democratic politics – and did not understand [Russia’s sense of loss and ambition] and its ambivalence about democracy as a state form
‘The liberal approach was all about democratic politics – and did not understand [Russia’s sense of loss and ambition] and its ambivalence about democracy as a state form...you need to go right back to the historical question of why Russia sees NATO as a threat?’
That is rooted in a Cold War logic and a long historical view that the West is a source of insecurity that the Russian leadership did not abandon.
He says, ‘We made some huge mistakes – for example, NATO declaring in 2008 that Georgia and Ukraine would become members of NATO [at some point in the future] was a grossly irresponsible decision [given that the Russian government viewed NATO expansion into its neighbourhood as a hostile act].’
Every time Russia saw one of the other former Soviet republics getting close to NATO membership or the European Union, there has been a reaction. As Russia grew stronger in the 2000s, the reaction grew stronger. In addition, he says, Russia was clearly not content to remain within its own borders, as was evident in invasions of Georgia and Crimea, and the Donbas, as well as the involvement in overseas theatres (such as Syria). And there was also growing aggressive rhetoric from Putin, who declared last year that Ukraine was part of Russia.
This war has just dotted the ‘I’s and crossed the ‘t’s on the Russian government’s view...They think it’s their space
This war has just dotted the ‘I’s and crossed the ‘t’s on the Russian government’s view,’ says Professor MacFarlane. ‘They think it’s their space.'
Professor MacFarlane has been much in demand since the Russian ‘special operation’ (in other words, invasion) began. He certainly has a longer view than most. He was studying the region when the Soviet Union was very much still on the map, and he has long been warning of the dangers of ignoring Russia and the potentially provocative approach of the international community attitude to the former Soviet empire.
But, while the invasion has underlined Putin’s narrative, what has followed has surprised many experts, who are left wondering about the Russian President’s tactics and abilities.
‘Putin thinks the collapse of the Soviet Union was the single biggest disaster of the 20th century – not World War I or World War II, but the collapse of the Soviet empire.’
Professor MacFarlane continues, ‘He indicated early on that a Russian sphere of influence might be reconstituted, but a lot of Russia’s neighbours don’t want to be reconstituted.... His view of Ukrainians is that they are just Russians, even if they know they aren’t.’
He [Putin] indicated early on that a Russian sphere of influence might be reconstituted, but a lot of Russia’s neighbours don’t want to be reconstituted.... His view of Ukrainians is that they are just Russians, even if they know they aren’t
Professor MacFarlane adds, ‘I used to think Putin was very shrewd, but he has made serious errors with the invasion of Ukraine...He underestimated NATO and Ukraine and he over-estimated the capability of the Russian armed forces. He has got so many things wrong. But Putin cannot now walk away without a semblance of victory.’
But how can this be achieved, given all that has happened?
‘Russia is not popular even among the Russian speakers in Ukraine as a consequence of the war,’ says Professor MacFarlane. ‘In the early days of the conflict, which seems like 20 years ago, although it is only 90 days [at the time of speaking], people in the West talked about a peace deal, giving him a ‘golden bridge’ [as is suggested in Sun Tzu’s Art of War as a way of helping an adversary climb down]. At the moment, some EU and NATO members are pushing Ukraine to make territorial concessions in pursuit of a negotiated settlement. But now there is blood on the ground, it is hard to see how it can end well.’
I used to think Putin was very shrewd, but he has made serious errors with the invasion of Ukraine...He has got so many things wrong. But Putin cannot now walk away without a semblance of victory
The Russian army’s weakness has been exposed and the Ukrainians have shown themselves to be ‘very competent at playing a weak hand strongly’. Professor MacFarlane does not think, however, that Putin will back down or next turn attention to the Baltic States.
‘There is a difference between the Baltic states and Georgia/Ukraine. The Baltic peoples are not Russian or Slavic, and they are now covered by the NATO security guarantee.’
He worries, though, that the war could escalate beyond the borders of Ukraine, ‘For example, I could see a Russian commander, or even Putin, acting against Western supply lines to Ukraine and this could be in Poland. Poland is also covered by the NATO guarantee of collective defence against an attack on an ally.’
Could Putin use nuclear weapons? Professor MacFarlane thinks it unlikely....In terms of nuclear fallout, the prevailing wind is from the west and Russia is downwind
Could Putin use nuclear weapons? Professor MacFarlane thinks it unlikely. Despite his concerns about Putin, he points out, ‘In terms of nuclear fallout, the prevailing wind is from the west and Russia is downwind.’
He also understands that there would be huge political costs. But, he adds, ‘All of these calculations depend on prudence, and there is not a lot of prudence.’
Many column inches and hours of airtime have already been written and filled with news of Ukraine. As the world has scrambled to impose sanctions and embargoes, shock at Putin’s irrational and horrifying war has reverberated among experts in TV studios, think tanks and universities. Comparisons have been drawn to Hitler’s annexation of the Sudetenland, and to his blitzkrieg assault on France.
Professor MacFarlane suggests the comparisons should be with the Soviets in Afghanistan or the Americans in Vietnam. Both conflicts took place over many years and each ended in ignominy for the superpower and internal chaos and destruction on the former battleground.
The Ukraine war, he believes, could also last a very long time, especially if the Russians manage to seize the towns with difficulty, but fail to take the countryside – as happened in Afghanistan.
‘Russia signed these agreements,’ says Professor MacFarlane bluntly. ‘It has a short memory’.
‘What is it about superpowers and small countries?’ he muses. Disturbingly, he adds, ‘The Soviets probably knew two years in that they had lost in Afghanistan, but they kept going for 10 years, because it would have been a humiliation to pull out. So, it lasted for eight more years, at the expense of many Afghan and Russian lives and the more or less complete ruination of the country, its political institutions, and its sense of social community. Of course, the same could be said of the US invasion and despoliation of Iraq in the ten or more years after 2003.’
The Ukraine war, Professor MacFarlane believes, could also last a very long time, especially if the Russians manage to seize the towns with difficulty, but fail to take the countryside – as happened in Afghanistan
Professor MacFarlane’s approach to the field of international relations is eclectic. As he says, there are at least two general perspectives in the field: one theory-driven, and one problem driven. He is firmly in the latter category. But he believes that one’s perspective in understanding problems can be fruitfully informed by the various theoretical approaches (realist, liberal constructivist, and critical). ‘To my mind it depends what you’re looking at. It may be that different approaches are useful. With Russia, there are many perspectives which are useful – and complementary.’
His interest in Russia began very early – when Leonid Brezhnev was still in the Kremlin, although it was great Russian novels, rather than politics which attracted the professor. Born in Montreal, the young Neil was sent to boarding school in the US state of Massachusetts (Andover) for high school. Under school rules, pupils had to take a foreign language. The Canadian teenager explained he was fluent in French, but the school insisted he take a foreign language – which was when he came up with the idea of Russian.
‘I’d read War and Peace,’ he laughs. ‘And I liked it, so I did Russian.’
Showing early strategic considerations, after school the high school graduate opted to go to Dartmouth College in the US, because it was mid-way between his parents in Canada and Boston, which he had come to know well. His chance decision to take Russian led him to study the country for his degree and he spent six months in what was still the Soviet Union, in Leningrad (now St Petersburg again).
‘It was very interesting,’ he says, of his close-up look at the Cold War colossus. His main interest, though, was still Russian literature – now with the addition of history. What to do next was something of a problem – there was not much call for Russian literature experts.
Winning a Rhodes scholarship solved the problem and he came to Oxford in the late 1970s to take another degree – PPE, at Balliol. His interest in International Relations developed from there under the mentorship of Professor Hedley Bull, he says, and he remained in Oxford to take an MPhil and a DPhil in International Relations.
‘My doctorate was on the completely unwieldy topic of ideologies of national liberation and Western, Soviet, and Chinese responses to these challenges to colonialism in what was then called the Third World,’ he says, mentioning the many international conflict areas from Mozambique to Cuba and Angola in which the Soviets (and Chinese) were involved in their long phoney war with the West. It may have been known as the “Cold” War, but many Global South conflicts were really quite hot.
After completing his doctorate, the new Dr MacFarlane left Oxford and returned across the Atlantic for an academic career. He started at Harvard and UBC in post-doctoral positions, followed by an assistant professorship at the University of Virginia and he eventually returned home to Canada, with an appointment to Queen’s University. During this time, the academic had found himself increasingly in demand. The reason at that time, he says, was Ronald Reagan – 40th president of the US and a Cold War warrior.
‘When I completed my doctorate, there were no openings in Soviet foreign policy, since that problem had been solved by détente. In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan reopened the Cold War. Suddenly, there was a lot of demand for Soviet specialists, and very few early career scholars trained in the field. Somewhat uncomfortably, ’ reflects Professor MacFarlane, ‘I had a lot to thank Reagan for.’
In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan reopened the Cold War. Suddenly, there was a lot of demand for Soviet specialists... Somewhat uncomfortably, reflects Professor MacFarlane, ‘I had a lot to thank Reagan for.'
He had no intention of leaving Canada, but in the mid-90s, the Professor, by then married with four young children, was approached about his current role in Oxford, ‘At that stage, Queen’s had four scholars working in international relations; Oxford had 70 or 80 in the combination of History, Politics, International Relations, Development Studies, and Area Studies. It was, and is, a very rich interdisciplinary concentration here –we have been very happy in the department and in Oxford ever since.’
Plus, he says, ‘It was a lot easier to reach the areas I was studying, Russia, the Caucasus and Central Asia, from Heathrow than from Canada.’
Renewed interest in the subject will see me all the way to retirement
Professor MacFarlane says, sadly
In his early career, Russia was seen as a total basket case.’ Interest waned again and he shifted into research on international organization and regional conflicts, which was very broadening.
But now, Russia is back again. Professor MacFarlane says sadly, ‘I think renewed interest in the subject will see me all the way to retirement.’