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Explaining the current situation in Ukraine: Professors weigh in on Russian invasion

| Wednesday, March 2, 2022

On Wednesday evening, students across campus began to hear news of Russia’s invasion of its western neighbor Ukraine. Many stayed awake, glued to television screens and social media feeds watching history unfold. The following morning, in a flash panel held online, director of the Nanovic Institute for European Studies and professor of social ethics Clemens Sedmak said he was “in shock” watching the events develop.

In prayer services at the Grotto and Basilica this past week, Fr. Andrij Hlabse, S.J., a theology Ph.D candidate and Ukrainian Byzantine Catholic priest spoke about the “unprovoked war” occurring in Ukraine and “the suffering of those people who now are under bombs, missiles and an invasion.”

Professor A. James McAdams, a professor of political science, said the history of the former Soviet Union is pertinent to the events unfolding now. Ukraine, the largest country solely in Europe, regained its independence following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991

“I think the best way to think about the Ukrainian situation is about what happened since the fall of communism and the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991,” McAdams, who served as the director of the Nanovic Institute for 16 years, said. “And what we saw at that time was not just a change in the balance of forces, but really an introduction of a lot of questions about who belonged where and whether you could still maintain an empire like the Soviet Union.”

McAdams explained that post-Soviet countries faced a challenge pulling them in disparate directions.

“Do you belong to the long standing Russian Empire, which was always trying to assert itself in terms of its distinctive identity, competing with the West? Or do you belong to the West, whatever that means?” he said.

This was an easy choice for many countries, McAdams said. States such as Poland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Hungary, which were invited to join NATO and the European Union (EU) chose one way. 

“So all of these countries then got the benefit of membership and great economic union in a security alliance. More importantly, what they all identified with in terms of Europe, which was democratic values, religious toleration, free expression and so forth.” McAdams said.

Ukraine did not make that choice. Though established as a democracy, it has been a NATO partner rather than a full member and has not been an EU member, despite recent efforts toward that pursuit.

Ukraine has faced a number of other challenges, McAdams said.

“It has gone through many tumultuous periods. Although I think it’s exaggerated, Ukraine is beset by corruption. I think there are significant internal divisions, ethnic divisions, linguistic divisions within Ukraine,” McAdams said. “For other countries, the decision to join Europe was easy.”

The decision was not as easy for Ukraine, McAdams added, because of NATO and the EU’s ambivalence about the nature of their commitments to Ukraine as well as Russia’s deep opposition to Ukraine’s potential association with EU members.

He said the Russians view themselves as representing a distinct European identity, which they seek to impose on post-Soviet countries.

“The Russians see themselves as Europeans too, but in their own distinctive way,” he said. “They see themselves as representing a culture that is as important but distinct from Western European culture.”

When the Ukrainians initiated talks in 2014 to join the EU, Russia responded by annexing Crimea, a peninsular region, part of Ukraine from 1991 onward, and occupied to this day by the Russian Federation. Because the efforts were “totally unsupportable in [president of Russia] Vladimir Putin’s eyes,” McAdams said this “created a hybrid war in two provinces and in eastern Ukraine.”

Those pre-existing tensions set the stage for the current situation in Ukraine. McAdams said Kaliningrad, a province that contains the home port for the Russian navy, is disconnected from the Russian mainland. 

“At the moment, you can get to Kaliningrad in different ways. If you’re Russian, you can get on a plane, a boat or potentially get a visa and travel through Lithuania,” McAdams said.

He fears an effort to extend the Russian mainland to Kaliningrad might be a next step for Putin after Russia’s attempts at occupation of Ukraine. The desire to expand the mainland could cause Putin to invade potentially both Poland and Lithuania in order to connect the Russian provinces, McAdams said.

“[Putin] could claim that the people of Kaliningrad are suffering under their territorial exclusion from the rest of Russia,” he said.

Russian military involvement in Poland or Lithuania, which are both full NATO members, would require the United States to support the countries militarily with boots on the ground. 

McAdams acknowledged that from a realist perspective Putin’s aggressive actions may not make sense.

“In an authoritarian system, like Russia, an unpredictable, mercurial and savvy politician like Putin can pursue goals that are hard for us to imagine which we just consider improbable, impossible and illogical,” McAdams said. “How could it possibly be in Russia’s interest to see its economy threatened with collapse? From Putin’s perspective, this is a price that he’s willing to bear. He’s not going to be the kind of rational actor that we would like him to be.” 

Putin’s willingness to break international military conventions and risk damage to his military confounds McAdams.

“How is it possible that he could put up with the humiliation of his army and significant military losses? How could he violate the rules of international military engagement and deliberately attack civilian populations? Again, it’s a price that he’s willing to bear,” McAdams added.

McAdams said Putin is driven largely by a “deep psychological grievance,” adding he is like many of the “members of the old Soviet elite who felt that they were wronged by history when the Soviet Union collapsed. And then they were wronged by the Western powers, and particularly the United States who facilitated the expansion of NATO.”

Looking forward, McAdams said there are few ways forward.

“Protests in the Russian streets will have no effect, like protests in North Africa or protests in the old Soviet Union,” he said.

“What really counts is that the governing elite decides that they will no longer put up with their leaders’ policies,” McAdams said. “In a good world, if we’re lucky, there will be enough people who are so horrified by what they’ve supported that they will turn against [Putin] or maybe simply out of their lust to hold on to power and to protect their huge wealth. These people are not angels, but they do like being rich and exercising influence over their societies. And so they’ll make their own calculations, but this is very tricky.”

McAdams said sanctions are important as punishment and that Putin deserves to be punished. He worries that American commitment to Ukraine will dwindle as time goes on.

“What happens when gasoline costs five or six dollars a gallon? But more importantly, and also more frightening? What happens when Russia finally begins its cyber attacks, attacks on US financial institutions, which I expect to happen soon, and Americans go to their banks and are unable to get access to their bank accounts. What will they do?” McAdams said.

Concerned about domestic polarization and tumult in Europe, McAdams criticized those he characterized as “looking for opportunities to exploit this situation for their personal gain,” naming Fox News host Tucker Carlson as one culprit.

“If we don’t punish Putin every other way than [boots on the ground], then we will see this crisis expand,” McAdams said.

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About Isa Sheikh

Isa Sheikh is a junior currently abroad at Trinity College Dublin. In the few minutes each week that he's not writing, he enjoys pretending to read on the disgusting bean bags in the DeBart Lounge, "u know what" at the Windsor Heights Dairy Queen and trying to bring up Joan Didion in each and every conversation. He can be reached at [email protected].

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