UC Santa Cruz professor emeritus Peter Kenez.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
UC Santa Cruz

‘Russians are not risk-takers’: Historian Peter Kenez offers another view of the Russia-Ukraine conflict

Peter Kenez, who taught Russian and Eastern European history between 1966 and 2011 at UC Santa Cruz, believes an invasion of Ukraine would not be representative of the Russians’ usual ways.

Peter Kenez is no admirer of Vladimir Putin nor of Joseph Stalin, summing them up simply as “not nice people.” Yet the UC Santa Cruz emeritus historian takes a long and nuanced view of today’s events in Ukraine. His thoughts on potential foreign intervention, Russian tolerance of risk-taking and the value of sanctions are pointed, and somewhat contrarian to the views we might see in CNN’s tick-tock coverage.

Kenez, who describes himself as a longtime lover of Russian culture, believes the chances of Russian invasion are low.

“I would be very disappointed if the Russians, in fact, invaded Ukraine. I don’t think they will,” he told Lookout on Wednesday morning from his Aptos home. “I do not think that what is going on will be a life-changing experience,” he said in his characteristic understated way.

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The reason he gives might be unexpected: risk-taking is not the Russian status quo.

“Oddly enough, Soviet and Russian leaders are not risk-takers. This would be such a significant departure from their usual behavior. Historically, they have taken advantage of opportunities where the risk was close to zero. Here, the risk would be considerable.”

Kenez knows risk. Himself a survivor of the Holocaust as a Jewish child in Hungary, Kenez taught Russian and Eastern European history between 1966 and 2011 at UC Santa Cruz. His classes, former students say, were riveting in their precision and lived experience.

Kenez believes an invasion of Ukraine would not be representative of the Russians’ usual ways.

With a dry wit, Kenez, a realist to the core, shared his current thinking.

His thoughts on Putin’s likely next moves are driven by his understanding of the difference between Russia’s internal politics and what certainties — and uncertainties — it would face with an invasion of Ukraine. He expands on those thoughts in his own words in the companion piece, Ukraine 101: UC Santa Cruz historian Peter Kenez offers seven major, and some contrarian, takeaways.

Putin’s continuing crackdown on democracy, media and the opposition overall is clear to all. With his consolidation of power, he knows he can get away with it.

“Behaving badly at home is not the same as being an aggressor abroad. Behaving badly at home is not dangerous. Putin is not taking risk by having his opponents assassinated or jailed. I Invading Ukraine would be,” he said. “And I don’t mean for him personally, which is of course true, but especially for the country that he represents.”

Kenez explained some nuances he thinks are important for Americans to understand about Ukraine.

Historian Peter Kenez looking at a map of Ukraine on a computer
Historian Peter Kenez looking at a map of Ukraine and its neighbors.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Ukrainians are unable to create a national consensus due to a divide between the country’s east and west that has led to corruption, he says. That conflict has only been worsened by a bad economy, with its black market system and corruption further making matters worse.

“If the east and west don’t like each other, then let each have a degree of autonomy rather than imposing on them,” he said. (While here in the West, we might hear “The Ukraine” used to describe the country of 40 million, it is “Ukraine” that most Ukrainians use in referring to their country. Ukraine, interestingly, means borderlands, situated as it is in the centuries-old territorial battles of central and eastern Europe.)

President Joe Biden has led a Western alliance in threatening major sanctions should Russia invade.

Kenez says they are unlikely to work.

“I can’t think of any [instances where sanctions changed a state’s behavior], but states will continue to do it because the poor dears would like to do something and they can’t think of anything else,” he said. “When rulers lose confidence in the justice of their cause, then they start to behave differently; those are historically changing points. The rulers in South Africa lost confidence in the justice of their cause, the Communists in the late 1980s Russia lost confidence, and we have documented evidence that [Mikhail] Gorbachev said that it was impossible to live like before.”

With the spotlight on Ukraine as the country faces a possible Russian invasion, UC Santa Cruz professor emeritus Peter...

Kenez emphasizes the difference between the American and the Russian psyches.

“Americans have this starting point that when something is wrong in this world, we should do something about it, and then grossly overestimate their ability to make influences here and there. Even when America has the best will in the world, what they’re able to do is very limited,” he said.

“It was a good thing that the Americans saved South Korea in the 1950s, but aside from that, after World War II, I cannot think of any other American intervention that made the world better.

“Vietnam? No. Iraq? No. Libya? No. Guatemala? No, so what are we left with? So America’s role in the rest of the world should be reduced and not necessarily because America is wicked, but because there should be correlation between means and goals.”

Is American conflict with Russia inevitable?

At the end of the day, says Kenez, Russia is the only thing that can change how Russia works.

UC Santa Cruz historian Peter Kenez with some of his books on Russian and Eastern Europe
Historian Peter Kenez with some of his books on Russian and Eastern Europe.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“Ukrainians are unable to create a national consensus due to a divide between the East and West Ukraine that has led to corruption and a bad economy that has not been overcome. If the East and West don’t like each other, then let each have a degree of autonomy rather than imposing on them,” he said.

What Kenez believes is that we must understand how Russians, and other cultures, see the world.

“There must be an ability to look at how other people see the world and at least make an effort to understand it,” he said.

In a perfect world, what would he like to see?

“We’re moving into the realm of dreams,” he said with a slight grin. “But what I would like to see is an American policy that would make the Russians richer. It’s not going to happen, but what I’d like is economically developing Russia’s middle class, who would then demand to be treated differently. And only that can be the basis of democratic politics.”