Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is a “world changing” break with the international order, and states won’t be immune from the economic and humanitarian upheaval.
That’s the word from three international policy experts who took part in an NCSL International Network webinar to provide an update on the war and how it could affect the states.
“It’s almost unimaginable that tanks would roll across borders, the bombardment of cities, probably war crimes being committed,” said Frederick Mayer, dean of the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. “Probably to (Russian President Vladimir) Putin’s surprise, the West has been galvanized in an increasingly intense response.”
"All of us have an obligation to do what we can to address the stunning humanitarian crisis." —Frederick Mayer, Josef Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver
Mayer cited the far-reaching sanctions by the U.S. and other countries to block exports, end trade, limit Russian energy imports and freeze assets of oligarchs. He noted major companies are withdrawing from Russia of their own accord. And he praised the efforts by states to pressure Russia economically by scouring pension and investment funds to divest from Russian companies and ending procurement of Russian goods.
“You might think that’s just symbolic, but it’s important as part of a generalized recognition that this is not acceptable,” Mayer said.
He said states can play another key role by welcoming refugees and providing assistance. He noted governors in several states have announced they will support refugees, including Colorado, Indiana, New Jersey, New York and California.
Crisis Goes Beyond Ukraine
“All of us have an obligation to do what we can to address the stunning humanitarian crisis,” Mayer said. Nearly 3 million people have fled Ukraine, mostly to border states, and primarily to Poland. “We haven’t seen anything on this scale really since World War II. Obviously, it’s federal policy to determine who can come, but states will play a big role in providing a safe landing for refugees.”
Liz Schrayer, president and CEO of the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition, said the humanitarian crisis goes far beyond displaced Ukrainians, though the millions of people who are adrift in other countries now will need food, housing and medical aid.
The invasion hits the broader world in major ways, she said: inflation, higher energy costs, a lack of Russia’s major exports, including fertilizer, and extensive hunger as food prices climb.
Schrayer, whose organization represents more than 500 businesses and NGOs in every state, said the world has “45 million people on the brink of famine and 223 million people one step away from it.” With Ukraine normally supplying a third of the world wheat supply, U.S. bread prices will climb. Worse, she said, “It’s going to affect the poorest parts of the world that rely on bread the most, with the least ability to afford it.”
Brian Kennedy, NCSL’s vice president and the speaker pro tem of Rhode Island House, asked the panel at what point the horrors of the attacks in Ukraine and the ripple effects on the rest of the world would prompt more direct action.
Risk of Intervention
The panelists agreed that as catastrophic as Putin’s attack on Ukraine is, efforts to shut it down pose dire risks as well, especially since Putin has threatened to use nuclear weapons.
“Putin is somebody who has used chemical weapons, who has killed his opponents, who has poisoned his opponents, used radiation, who is alleged to have bombed apartments killing Russians to justify the invasion of Crimea,” said Rachel Epstein, professor of international relations and European politics at DU’s Korbel School. “We don’t want to make the U.S. vulnerable to attack, so we have to be extremely cautious regarding interventions.”
Schrayer said the administration has understood the U.S. could not be seen leading any crackdown on Russia but has instead demonstrated agreement among allies. She called it a “master class in diplomacy” in such a hair-trigger situation.
And just as countries managed their individual concerns to present a united front, that bipartisanship is demonstrated in the U.S. as well, Schrayer said. Congress has approved aid to Ukraine with bipartisan support, even as members of both parties are pushing the administration to do more. And parties are working across the aisle to develop sanctions in states, too.
“I think this is that moment where we’re reminded again,” Schrayer said, “there’s no time like war, sadly, to enforce that bipartisanship.”
Kelley Griffin is a writer and editor at NCSL.