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Russia-Ukraine war: experts explain

25 February 2022
What you need to know
University of Sydney experts weigh in on the rapidly escalating Russia-Ukraine war.

Updated: 8 March, 2.05pm

After several weeks of diplomatic tensions, on 24 February 2022 Russia invaded Ukraine. Described as a "turning point in the history of Europe" by French President Emmanuel Macron, the invasion has been slammed by Western democracies.

University of Sydney academics from a range of disciplines comment on the war. 

Renewables could create new dawn for EU’s energy needs

Professor Jun Huang from the School of Chemical and Bimolecular Engineering said the war may quickly wean the EU off fossil resources, fast-tracking the development of homegrown industries and renewable energy imports.

“The situation unfolding in Ukraine is shaping up to be a humanitarian disaster. It has also laid bare Europe’s energy vulnerabilities," said Professor Huang, who is an energy and decarbonisation expert.

“This issue could be a strong motivation for the region to develop local renewable energy capacity, as well as move to reliable suppliers, like Australia's green hydrogen.

“Fossil fuels may seem enough, but given many suppliers operate in regions which are at high risk of military adventurism and regional conflict, such as the Middle East, North Africa, and Russia, this can put global energy security at serious risk, with frequent fossil fuel supply issues.

“As one of the EU’s strategic partners, Australia is gearing up to provide clean and green energy on a large scale. This not only addresses the challenge of energy security for the EU, but will drastically reduce emissions – something the entire world will benefit from. It will also naturally promote the development of Australia’s energy industry: given our relative peace, AAA credit rating and long history of stability, it is without doubt we are a trustworthy trading partner.

“The Russian oil and gas supply issues may very well result in the renewable revolution in the EU’s chemical industry, too.

“What many people don’t realise is that oil is used to make the everyday products we take for granted. Currently, a huge amount of Russian oil is used by the world's leading EU chemical companies, like BASF, to produce plastics, wind turbine blades, polymers, organic solar-cells – as well as shampoo, medicine, candle wax, and smart phones.

“The current crisis may quickly wean the EU off its fossil fuel dependency. Instead, it could be what accelerates the development of a sustainable bio-economy using biomass as a raw material for the chemistry of the future, making it far less dependent on fossil resources."

It's 'make or break' for global security

International responses to the invasion of the Ukraine by Russia signify a potential ‘make or break’ moment for the future of collective security in the world, says Dr Eyal Mayroz from the Department of Peace and Conflict Studies

"A series of ‘first time ever’ or ‘first time in decades’ steps taken so far by states, international organisations, and big business are heavily influenced by unprecedented international public opinion, spurred by media coverage.

"These extraordinary levels of will should be understood based on several factors: the ‘European’ location; the 'whiteness' of the victims; that the conflict is occuring in NATO’s back (or front) yard; the unambigious infringement of international law and the UN Charter; the ease of access for international media; the presence of an ‘evil’ man many love to hate; and the unquestionable blamelessness of the victims. 

"While a Russian win in the war could embolden future cases of aggression, in Chinese territories or elsewhere, a failure of the invasion may set an important precedent for future international responses to cross border aggression, and perhaps even for reactions to domestic instances of mass atrocities."

Ukraine's capital, Kyiv as captured by a NASA satellite in 2006.

Cyber warfare should not be underestimated

Dr Suranga Seneviratne is a cybersecurity expert from the School of Computer Science who says cyber warfare is now part of any country's conflict arsenal.

“Cyber warfare is part of any conflict these days. Usually, it begins years before land invasion or combat. Like in the ‘real world’, in cyber warfare there are casualties and collateral damage," said Dr Seneviratne.

“During the last few years, we have seen both Russia and Ukraine launching cyberattacks towards one another. The most notable ones were Russia's attack on the Ukraine power grid and the Petya ransomware attack.”

“With regards to the current situation, it is likely that there will be attempts from both sides to infiltrate critical systems like infrastructure, banking systems, and even health care.”

"It’s possible that attacks will also target allies of Ukraine, as well as ransomware and trojans propagating beyond the countries involved in the crisis. On top of that, already misinformation and propaganda campaigns abound online.”

“As history shows, there will always be some people who try to capitalise during wars and upheavals. Now is the time that, as nations and individuals, we must be extremely cyber aware – this applies even to those not directly involved in the conflict.”

"We need to be careful of cyberattacks propagating our critical systems. Cybercriminals may also take this opportunity to target distracted and unsuspecting individuals and companies. In the coming days and weeks, I expect a big increase in phishing attempts, as well donation scams, and ransomware attacks.”

Banking: What is SWIFT and why does it matter?

According to Associate Professor Eliza Wu, who is the Head of the Discipline of Finance in University of Sydney Business School, says that financial measures will hurt Russia's bottom line.

“Russia’s international trade and its access to cross-border financing and investment is now hamstrung as banning targeted Russian banks from accessing the SWIFT system severely restricts Russia’s means to make and receive payments from the rest of the world and will no doubt have damaging effects on the Russian economy.”

“The package of financial sanctions imposed by the world on the Russian government and Russian financial and non-financial firms (especially the state-owned ones) will hit hard with international financing severely disrupted and the Russian rouble losing value, having immediate effects on the Russian economy. The financial sanctions are critical to counter Russia’s attack on Ukraine.”

European security and transatlantic relations

The war will have deep, long-term repercussions, according to Dr Gorana Grgić.

“The brazen aggression and breach of international law by the Russian Federation has shaken up the security architecture of Europe. Russia’s turn against the West can be best explained by status concerns rather than military threat perceptions," said Dr Grgić, who is a 2021 NATO Defense College Fellow and Senior Lecturer at the Department of Government and International Relations & United States Studies Centre.

"This security crisis will have a long-term and profound impact on West-Russia relations. NATO’s and the EU’s mission and effectiveness have been put to the greatest test this century. NATO is back to its original settings focusing on defence and deterrence, while the EU is realising that geopolitical strength is not just a product of one’s economic power, but equally one’s ability to withstand economic pain.

What will Putin do next?

Russian politics expert from the Department of International Relations, Professor Emeritus Graeme Gill says it remains to be seen what Putin will do to Ukraine, listing numerous possibilities. 

“No one knows what Vladimir Putin has in mind for Ukraine, with options ranging from full incorporation into a combined Russian-Ukrainian state; the incorporation of Donetsk and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine into Russia; to replacement of the Ukrainian government, the disarmament of Ukrainian forces and the purge of ‘so-called’ nazis from Ukraine," said Professor Gill.

"His speech suggests the third of these options, but this will be a very difficult task to pull off.”

Russian oil and gas supply issues may only be short term

The Russia-Ukraine war has triggered oil and gas supply issues in Europe, with oil rising to US$110 a barrel after Thursday's attack.

As the world's largest natural gas and second largest crude oil exporter, there is no doubt that Russia leads when it comes to energy, but as the world shifts to renewables, could this signal a longer-term power shift?

According to Professor Yuan Chen from the School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, the rise in renewables is set to improve energy security and could undercut the old energy powers.

“The current oil and gas supply chain issues and increased electricity prices in Europe are a short-term problem. Europe’s winter is almost over and with it, its seasonal energy needs," said Professor Yuan Chen, who is an expert in carbon materials and their sustainable energy and environmental applications.

"If the current issues continue, there is plenty of liquified natural gas produced in the US and the Middle East that can be shipped to Europe – but at a higher cost than those imported from Russia.”

With more renewable energy being incorporated into daily consumption, the reliance on fossil fuels will decline in coming years and with it, reliance on the ‘old world’ energy systems.
Professor Yuan Chen

“Globally, there are more than enough fossil fuels (coal, oil, and gas) the world and Europe can use. The real issue is that if we continue getting most of our energy from fossil fuels, CO2 emissions will continue rising, which is the far bigger, long-term problem.”

“No doubt; with more renewable energy being incorporated into daily consumption, the reliance on fossil fuels will decline in coming years and with it, reliance on the ‘old world’ energy systems. Despite our long dependence on fossil fuel exports, Australia is already in a much better position than Europe.”

“We have abundant renewable energy (solar) and we can harvest these sources much more efficiently than in Europe. There are two technical issues for us to resolve: (1) how to store renewable energy more efficiently so it can be better used locally and (2) how to find a cost-effective method to export our renewable energy to other countries.”

What will the long-term impact be?

Dr Olga Boichak is an expert in the role of the media in military conflicts. She says the war may set dangerous precedents.

“Allowing Russia to step away from its international obligations and re-invade a sovereign state sets a dangerous precedent for new independent states that aspire for democratic governance and NATO membership," said Dr Boichak.

How do Ukrainians feel about Russia?

Anastasiya Byesyedina, a PhD candidate researching Ukrainian identity and revolutions at the University of Sydney said: "Ukraine is a diverse society that has diverging experiences as well as different political opinions."

"Activist Ukrainians have been protesting locally and overseas (diaspora). There is an overarching sense of fear and a will to fight for sovereignty. Ukraine has a complex relationship with Russia that dates to the Russian empire. Ukraine has experienced cultural and sovereign suppression from the Russian empire, Soviet Union and current Russia.

"If we look at the history of the revolutions in Ukraine in 2004 and 2013-14, we can see the resilience of Ukrainian people demanding democracy internally. Events of 2013-14 show Ukraine’s ability to stand against corruption and Russian influence. We see this momentum of righteousness in the actions of volunteers and volunteer fighters today," said Ms Byesyedina.

"Russia views Ukraine as part of itself, i.e. an 'imaginary' state. This historical rhetoric foreshadows Russia’s desire to rebuild the Soviet legacy and stand against the hegemony of US and NATO."

Never forget: memories of a Russian empire 

Senior Lecturer in Modern European and International History, Dr Marco Duranti says that Putin's ambitions may be fuelled by long-held resentments and a desire to reinstate the grand Russia of old.

Official pictures of meeting of Stalin, Churchill, Harriman, in August of 1942. Image: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA

“Russia’s invasion of Ukraine illustrates how history is driving the decision making of Vladimir Putin as much as Russian strategic interests. Putin sees himself as restoring Russia’s rightful place in European affairs, much like the Russian tsars and Soviet leaders of old," said Dr Duranti.

"His resentments against the West are fuelled by his long memory of the past: Memory of the Russian empire as a Great Power, of the West’s appeasement of Hitler in the 1930s, of the Soviet sphere of influence, and the alleged betrayal of Russian interests at the end of the Cold War.”

Sanctions create game of Russian Rouble

In addition to the invasion's impact on global financial markets, Associate Professor Eliza Wu, Head of Discipline of Finance says that sanctions will also hit Russian financial markets, with immediate effects on the rouble.

“The package of financial sanctions imposed by the world on the Russian government and Russian financial and non-financial firms (especially the state-owned ones) will hit hard with international financing severely disrupted and the Russian rouble losing value, having immediate effects on the Russian economy. The financial sanctions are critical to counter Russia’s attack on Ukraine," said Associate Professor Wu. 

How will China respond?

Will China remain steadfast in its universal position of not getting involved in other countries' affairs, or will it have its hand forced? Professor of International Relations and Comparative Politics and Regional Security Program Leader at the Centre of International Security Studies Professor Justin Hastings said:

“China is facing a complex task in the Russia-Ukraine conflict. China’s primary instinct in its foreign policy has long been to support the territorial integrity of sovereign states, and a Russian invasion of Ukraine is obviously at odds with that," said Professor Hastings.

"China generally has good relations with Ukraine and has no particular reason to support Ukraine's dismemberment. Despite its recent partnership with Russia, China is extremely worried about the precedent that support for Russia recognising breakaway regions of Ukraine as independent would set for Taiwan.”

Military outcomes

Dr Thomas Wilkins, Senior Lecturer in International Security from the Department of Government & International Relations said the military outcome of the Russian invasion of Ukraine is dependent upon Moscow's final objectives, which are not known at this time.

"Options might include (i) "teaching Ukraine and the West a lesson" through a short sharp shock (as per China's 1979 attack on Vietnam), followed by a swift withdrawal, (ii) a physical or political "annexation" of the Eastern half of the country, or (iii) a "full-scale occupation" of the entire country," said Dr Wilkins.

What will make Putin withdraw?

Professor James Der Derian, Director of the Centre for International Studies, said at the heart of the many reasons given by Vladimir Putin for invading Ukraine is a principle that might give him cause to leave – ‘indivisible security’.

"The idea that no state should strengthen its security at the expense of another is set out in the 1975 Helsinki Act, repeated in the 1997 Founding Act on Mutual Relations, and confirmed by the 1999 European Security Charter (all documents signed by Russia as well as the US and most European states).  Without confusing explanation for justification, what would it take to turn that principle into a reality acceptable to all parties of the conflict?” 

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