Edited by David Forner
“This is a dismal anniversary, which we are marking, not celebrating.” –Professor Mary Sarotte
On February 23, 2023, a panel of experts gathered for SAIS’ Dean’s Speaker Series to mark the one-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The panel was moderated by SAIS Dean Jim Steinberg and featured four experts on the conflict in Ukraine:
- Anne Applebaum, SAIS Senior Fellow of International Affairs; Senior Fellow at the SNF Agora Institute
- Michael Kofman, Research Program Director, CNA Russia Studies Program; Senior Adjunct Fellow at Center for New American Security
- Thomas Rid, Director of the Alperovitch Institute for Cybersecurity Studies; SAIS Professor of Strategic Studies
- Mary Sarotte, SAIS Marie-Josée and Henry R. Kravis Distinguished Professor of Historical Studies
Dean Steinberg began the discussion by asking Applebaum for her thoughts on the conflict, particularly if there was anything throughout the past year of fighting that surprised her. Applebaum said that she did not expect the magnitude of Russian failure – a sentiment with which each panelist agreed – as well as the overall unity of the Western alliance in comparison, with special attention to the way that many Western nations shifted their policy towards arming Ukraine.
The panelists highlighted Russian incompetence in terms of both leadership and individual troops and noted the Russian military’s technological incapability, explaining how each of those shortcomings led directly to the violence and brutality witnessed across the Russian-occupied territories in Ukraine. Applebaum praised the innovation of the Ukrainian army, the unity of the country, and the willingness of the Biden administration to support a conflict which, according to Applebaum, wasn’t expected to last more than a few weeks—much less more than a year.
Professor Rid agreed with Applebaum’s comments on the shift in Western countries’ outlook and policy towards the conflict, adding that Germany in particular had surprised him. He recalled German media pundits joking about how many bags Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy would bring with him when he fled to Berlin; one year later, Zelenskyy still remains in Kyiv, and Germany has become Ukraine’s third largest military donor. Rid emphasized the gravity of the conflict, predicting that it may take years to resolve, and said that the conflict will almost certainly be discussed for generations.
Kofman added that Russia, a year into the conflict, continues to lack good rules of engagement and is still deluded about its own success. He noted that from the early stages of the war, there was very little in the way of visible systematic preparation and that “there was never really any Plan B.”
Professor Sarotte recalled the world’s surprise a year ago and its lack of understanding that major land wars were returning to Europe. She also noted an interesting pattern she’d observed in Putin: that he often takes aggressive and frequently violent action on anniversaries, such as the murder of journalist Anna Politkovskaya on Oct. 7 (also his birthday) and the hacking of the U.S. presidential election on the 25th anniversary of Soviet collapse. In late 2021, in line with this pattern, she predicted that something major was coming to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Soviet Union’s fall. Weeks later, Putin launched his “special military operation” and invaded Ukraine.
Overall, the panelists largely agreed that Zelenskyy and the Western alliance deserve praise, while the Russian military’s aggression, incompetence, and horrific performance have been shocking. While these experts agreed it might take years to resolve the conflict in Ukraine, they emphasized the importance of continued global attention and diplomatic efforts toward ending violence and promoting peace in the region.