Katelynn Singleton, news editor
Last Wednesday, professors in the history and international affairs departments hosted a Cultural Event aimed at helping students understand the war between Russia and Ukraine. The discussion focused on Ukrainian and Russian history and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin’s mindset, as well as what some of the causes of the war are in general.
Matthew Stanard, a professor of history, explained that Russia as a country emerged because of expansion. Russia has previously expanded into the area that is modern-day Ukraine.
“Not justifying what happened, but just saying that it’s not surprising, or in a way it’s sort of more of the same,” Stanard said. “It’s Russia expanding, in this case, to the south and to the southwest around the Black Sea area that falls in line with Russia expansionism that dates back many centuries.”
Stanard also discussed the humiliation that a lot of Russians felt following the Cold War and how that may impact the current war in Ukraine.
“From the U.S. western perspective we look at what happened after 1989, 90, and say ‘this is Russia’s halting steps toward democracy and capitalism,’ basically following a western model,” Stanard said. “But for the Russians it was in many ways, at least the first 20 years after the Cold War, it was a lot of humiliation. The population declined, and economically Russia was pretty poor off, and these sorts of things. The very fact that countries like the US sent assistance to Russia was kind of a humiliating thing.”
Kelsey Rice, an assistant professor of history, said that in Putin’s 22 years in power, he has consistently used wars as a way to try and raise his popularity levels. According to Rice, in 2000, during his first year as President, Putin engaged in war with Chechnya, a country in Eastern Europe near the Caspian Sea. In 2008, there was a small war in Georgia that Russia engaged in, and between 2014 and 2015 the Russian military began putting their full support towards Bashar al-Assad in the Syrian Civil War.
“Putin knows that war is a good way to boost popular support at home, he did it with Chechnya, he did it with Georgia, and when we look at what he did in Chechnya and what he’s done in Syria we can see some of the same tactics,” Rice said. “The Russian military has had practice before with what they’re doing in Ukraine.”
Rice said that the full-scale invasion that is currently occurring in Ukraine deviates from past wars. Explanations that many have used are the numerous protests against Putin’s government in recent years, and his popularity decreasing slightly. Putin has also been very isolated during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“There’s a bit of a concern that he’s not being the rational actor he used to be,” Rice said. “22 years in power, he’s gotten to the point that he no longer listens to anybody. He has eliminated any dissenting voice from his inner circle, he’s completely surrounded by ‘yes’ men.”
Professors of International Affairs, Kirsten Taylor and John Hickman, also talked at the event. Taylor discussed the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and it’s expansion eastward and how that eastward expansion has made Russia defensive. Multiple students asked about the possibility of the United States or NATO getting involved in the conflict, and Taylor said that NATO does not want to get involved. NATO doesn’t have a history of becoming involved in military conflict, because if one country were to be involved, the remaining 29 members would also become involved, Taylor said.
Hickman discussed the news coverage of the war, calling the coverage “a mile wide and an inch deep.” Russia and Ukraine grow a large amount of the world’s wheat, and the war may increase the price of wheat just as it has gas.
“There’s a great deal that’s missing from our news coverage and that’s unfortunate because I think it gives us a distorted perception of what’s happening here,” Hickman said.
Hickman presented the possible ways that the war could end. The first would be that Russia loses the war and as a result there is a regime change in Russia. Russia could realize the effect of the war is too great and withdraws from Ukraine and begins negotiations. Another possible end would result in Ukraine becoming a neutral space, similar to Germany following World War II. The last possibility that Hickman presented was that NATO and the U.S. get involved somehow, which would likely result in the use of nuclear arms.
“The best outcomes are not necessarily the happy outcomes here, as the most likely outcomes and that’s I think a de facto partition in Ukraine or a Russian government,” Hickman said. “That’s what I think is most likely.”
Another possible end would result in Ukraine becoming a neutral space, similar to Germany following World War II.
A common theme that both Rice and Stanard noticed in questions that students asked was what comes next. Multiple students asked about the possibility of military intervention on the part of the U.S., what if China provided direct military assistance to Russia and how big a part nuclear arms will play in the war.
“Maybe I noticed that in particular, because I’m a historian and I look at things sort of retrospectively, and also because those are the sort of questions that are impossible to answer because we don’t know what’s going to happen next,” Stanard said.
Students also asked how social media plays into the war. Stanard said that the constant stream of information tends to make people more anxious.
“The truth of the matter is, for many Americans, you should not be any more anxious about your own existence or your future because of what’s happening there than we were a month ago,” Stanard said. “I dont think it’s going to make a significant difference to most Americans, and yet I think it ratchets up a lot of anxiety.”
Both Stanard and Rice said that taking classes and gaining experiences that help students deepen their knowledge of the world are great ways to understand what’s happening, not just in Ukraine but in any conflict or global area.
“Because people in power are obsessed with history, and if people in power are obsessed with history then you should want to know history too and have the availability to seek truth in our collective past,” Rice said.