By , Published: Sept. 26, 2022

As Russian President Vladimir Putin takes steps to accelerate his invasion of Ukraine, this deadly conflict has entered uncertain and scary new terrain, said CU Boulder’s Sarah Wilson Sokhey.

Wilson Sokhey, associate professor in the Department of Political Science, has spent 20 years traveling to and studying the politics and economics of Russia and former nations of the Soviet Union. And there has been plenty of news out of this region in recent weeks: Ukrainian troops kicked off a successful counteroffensive, in some cases retaking territory that had been occupied by pro-Russian forces since 2014. In response, Putin announced last week that his regime would mobilize an additional 300,000 reserve troops to send to Ukraine. People living in four regions of the eastern part of the country are also currently voting in referendums that will decide if those lands become part of Russia—a move that most experts outside of Russia have labeled a sham.

“Putin appears to be determined to take down as many people with him as he can in whatever time he has left in power,” Wilson Sokhey said.

She spoke to CU Boulder Today about the state of the war in Ukraine, and why Putin seems to still have a firm grasp on power, despite embarrassing losses.

There has been a lot of news out of Ukraine and Russia these past two weeks. What have you found surprising?

How well the Ukrainian military has done. Most people did not predict that the Ukrainian military would use its support from the West as effectively as it has. The fact that they took over more territory is just remarkable and has very certainly made Putin extremely angry.

Can you talk about the referendums happening right now?

The referendums are being held from last Friday through Tuesday in four regions of Ukraine: Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia. Russia is asking people in these territories if they support becoming part of Russia, if they support becoming an independent state, or if it's hard to answer. 

Sarah Wilson Sokhey headshot

Sarah Wilson Sokhey

Vladimir Putin sits next to Sergei Shoigu

Vladimir Putin, right, with Russian Minister of Defence Sergei Shoigu. (Credit: CC photo via Wikimedia Commons)

Notably, there appears to be no option to stay part of the Ukrainian state. These votes will not be free and fair and will not be indicative of true public opinion.

Given how poorly the war is going for him, is Putin facing political risks at home?

It's very hard to predict, but it does look like Putin is facing increasing challenges and risks domestically. When he announced this mass mobilization, what Russia is calling a ‘partial mobilization,’ there were protests in 38 Russian cities. At least 1,200 people have been arrested and likely a lot more.

Since this announcement, we’ve also seen thousands of Russian men who are eligible to be drafted trying to leave the country. Still, there are limited places Russians can go right now without visas because of sanctions.

Has his popularity in Russia taken a hit?

Officially, the survey data suggest that Putin’s approval ratings are still high. But we have increasing questions about how reliable those data are in Russia. And it’s very likely if his regime continues to mobilize Russian men, and continues to send those men to war, the Russian public may not support those efforts.

But there's also every reason to think that Putin is going to take this to the bitter end. He is very ideologically committed to taking over Ukraine, and it's not clear that public opinion ever drove his decision to accelerate this war in early 2022, or would now alter his commitment. 

Are sanctions from nations like the U.S. and U.K. having an effect?

Initially, economic sanctions produced a big shock in Russia, and then the effect leveled off. Since then, the Russian economy has weathered the sanctions reasonably well. But in the long term, projections for the Russian economy are not very positive. Russians are facing much greater restrictions on their ability to travel. Their bank cards aren't going to work outside of the country even if they can get outside of the country.

Is there a chance that Putin could be deposed?

Putin has been in power since 2000. He has been remarkably resilient at staying in power, and there is no indication that he's going to voluntarily step down anytime soon.

If he does lose power, I don’t think we’ll know until the day after it happens. In the short term, we're likely to see a lot more fighting and a lot more deaths.

Even if Ukraine wins this war, or there’s somehow an end to the fighting, the country has still experienced devastating losses. What is the outlook for Ukraine and its people?

It will take decades of work to rebuild Ukraine, especially in the areas that have been the hardest hit by fighting. That means rebuilding the local infrastructure, schools, roads and access to heat, which is an immediate concern for the coming winter. 

The positive part is that Ukraine has a great deal of international support. There are good reasons to be optimistic that, if or when the fighting stops, Ukraine will rebuild and be stronger than ever.