Insights & Expertise
The Crisis in Ukraine: 3 Major Questions Answered
Early in the morning on Feb. 24, Russian troops poured over the border of Ukraine, launching the most significant European war in almost 80 years.
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Ukraine became a sovereign, independent country. As a former Soviet state, they were in possession of nuclear weapons and worked through the United States to broker an agreement with Russia to turn them over. In return, Russia would guarantee the protection of Ukraine’s borders and officially recognize it as a sovereign state.
What's happened since has been a bit more complicated.
Recently, Saint Joseph’s faculty Lisa Baglione, Ph.D., professor of political science, Tetyana Berezovski, Ph.D., professor of mathematics, and Melissa Chakars, Ph.D., associate professor and chair of the department of history, joined together for a panel discussion on what provoked the current crisis in Ukraine, how it originated and what world leaders can do to help.
WHY IS ALL OF THIS HAPPENING NOW?
CHAKARS: Russia invaded eastern Ukraine in 2014 and really has continued to fight; 15,000 people have died already. It hasn’t really ended. So while this is an escalation and a new invasion, it isn’t a new conflict.
BAGLIONE: Also, something that is important to realize is that Putin is putting this idea out there that this invasion is being executed as a means to prevent Ukraine from joining NATO. Well, Ukraine isn’t eligible to join NATO. Ever since the last Russian invasion in 2014, Ukraine’s borders have been insecure and that in and of itself prevents Ukraine from joining NATO. Which means Russia is manifesting this crisis all on their own.
BEREZOVSKI: Just the other day, Putin announced that they found a mass grave of men and women who had been killed by Ukrainian nationalists. There is no evidence of this. It’s all just more propaganda to fuel the fire. But it means everyone in Ukraine is just waiting and anticipating the next move.
WHY IS IT SO IMPORTANT TO RUSSIA TO TAKE UKRAINE?
BEREZOVSKI: Russia is thought to be the last imperial society that exists, so they only exist if they expand. Every year, they do something called crawling, where they claim two or three miles of new territory and nobody stops them.
If Ukraine were to totally separate from Russia, then Russia would have no more European roots. And Ukraine would flourish on its own, which would be quite embarrassing for Russia.
BAGLIONE: Putin wants to show that democracy cannot work in a post-Soviet society. And Ukraine’s independent success undermines his leadership. You could argue that Ukraine has a variety of different assets that he’d like to attach to Russia in an imperialist manner. Back in 2013-2014, Putin was reacting to the potential loss of Ukraine as a member of his Eurasian Union, an economic organization that would link Russian-aligned states. Given Putin’s speech on Monday and his actions in starting this war, he appears to want more than close economic ties. Instead, Putin has laid the groundwork for and is taking the steps to incorporate Ukraine into Russia.
Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia have already joined NATO, so it isn’t going to happen with them. And Ukraine is much, much larger than all three of those countries, so taking Ukraine would be a great way to secure his stake in a Eurasian Union.
HOW CAN OTHER WORLD LEADERS HELP?
CHAKARS: I think imposing economic sanctions, even imposing them before Russia had invaded, would’ve been highly effective. There’s also a pipeline that Russia built to Germany which bypasses Ukraine, and they’re just waiting to turn it on. But I know the Biden administration is asking the German Chancellor not to turn it on at all if Russia invades.
BEREZOVSKI: When it comes to support from Europe and support from NATO, I think Ukrainians feel a little let down. But Biden actually supplied weapons to Ukraine, which was a massive gesture. It was so helpful and the Ukrainian people would not be feeling nearly as confident and unified as they are today without that.
I would say that one thing Putin himself has done for Ukraine is bring about a great feeling of unity. Everyone has a common enemy in Putin now instead of feeling divided. When I speak to my family there they say there is a great feeling of calm. There is food on the shelves in the stores and everyone is just … ready. My colleagues in Ukraine want everyone in America to stay informed and listen only to trusted and validated news sources. It is well known and documented that the Kremlin is using social media and the internet to spread false information about what is really going on.
BAGLIONE: What’s important to note is that there was an enormous amount of damage done to NATO from 2017 to 2020 that the Biden administration is now going to great lengths to mend. In other words, Putin likely doubted the U.S. commitment to NATO. Moreover, European NATO member states became disillusioned with U.S. reliability, too. Instead of being met by a divided NATO, however, Putin’s faced with the United States, the United Kingdom and the other NATO states all working together trying to make the cost of this war too exorbitant for Putin to take it on. Given that Putin attacked, either the cost wasn’t high enough, Putin doubts that the allies can stay committed to challenging him or he doesn’t care about these costs. And Tetyana is right — Ukrainians will fight. Even though Russia likely has them outnumbered and out-weaponed, they will fight for their country. And even though Russia has the upper hand and can likely take Kyiv pretty quickly, we know as Americans — and I’m thinking about the Iraq War here — that just because a territory has been occupied, that doesn’t mean the war will end.
On the morning of the invasion, shortly before 7 a.m. local time, Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, declared martial law and asked people to remain at home and stay calm.
Though Putin’s claims are unsubstantiated, he has described the invasion as “a special military operation” rather than a war, and Russia ensures that civilians will not be attacked. The Russian president has also gone on to warn other countries that interfering with this invasion would bring about “such consequences as you have never before experienced in your history.” Some analysts wonder whether those words amounted to a nuclear threat.
The United States has vowed its allegiance to supporting Ukraine in its time of need.
Baglione and Chakars joined Matt Leon on KYW Newsradio's In Depth podcast for an episode about the ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict. The episode is available for listening online.