Ukrainian Scholars Discuss Current Crisis with Russia

An Elliott School audience hears perspective from researchers and experts about escalating tensions in Eastern Europe.

February 6, 2022

Ukrainian scholars

Ukrainian scholars offered perspectives on the current crisis between Ukraine and Russia during an Elliott School virtual event. (William Atkins/GW Today)

By Nick Erickson

Even the brightest minds at or strongly connected to the heart of the conflict are having a hard time figuring out what is happening and what comes next. Will Russia, with troops set up at Ukraine’s eastern border, invade? Or is it a very organized intimidation game?

Basically, there’s enough evidence to suggest either is possible, but not enough evidence to sway one way or the other.

“What we've seen in the recent weeks or even months actually falls under both of those scenarios,” said Volodymyr Dubovyk, associate professor of international relations and director of the Center for International Studies at Odessa’s Mechnikov National University. “But it is certainly a crisis. And the timing of it has also been puzzling.”

Dubovyk was one of five Ukrainian scholars who joined an Elliott School of International Affairs audience Friday to share their perspectives of the current tensions between Ukraine and Russia. More than 180 people tuned in at its peak. Elliott School Professor Henry Hale, co-director of the Program on New Approaches to Research and Security in Eurasia (PONARS Eurasia) and moderator of Friday’s event, believed it was important and necessary to add to the diversity of voices given to this ongoing situation in eastern Europe.

“We've heard Ukrainian people on the street, Ukrainian government officials, lots of American voices and lots of Russian voices,” Hale said. “But what we wanted to do here was to present to you a variety of leading voices from Ukraine's own experts on not only politics in Ukraine, but also Russia/Ukrainian relations and broader concepts that they research as part of their careers.”

The scholars each gave rundowns of their assessment of the crisis. They discussed the origins of the conflict, possible outcomes, structural reasons behind the tensions and the reaction of Ukrainian society to a potential war.

Baylor University Associate Professor of Political Science Sergiy Kudelia said that the conflict in Donbas is central to understanding the current conflict between Ukraine and Russia.

He said that a conflict between the two countries on the Donbas region has continued since 2014 and has created favorable conditions for military escalation. A Russian invasion of Ukraine would be triggered by intensified violence in Donbas, he said, adding that Russian diplomats have expressed concern in recent weeks that Ukraine’s push for NATO membership could lead to military cooperation with the West. 

Kudelia said that economic and political costs may be a reason to downplay the likelihood of the Russian invasion, but it would be dangerous to ignore the threat.

“There needs to be an open recognition of the fundamental drivers behind the tensions and a serious effort to address them,” Kudelia said.

Tetyana Malyarenko, professor of international security and Jean Monnet Professor of European Security at the National University Odessa Law Academy and non-resident fellow at the Uppsala Institute for Russian and Eurasian Studies Sweden, discussed such economic costs and noted Ukraine’s economy has suffered during its eight-year conflict with Russia. She said that, despite an increase in military spending, it would still be a fraction of Russia’s defense budget.

“It's very useful to analyze the direction of Ukrainian society, economy and leadership on the crisis and predict how they will react in the case of real war,” she said.

Olexiy Haran, research director at the Democratic Initiatives Foundation and professor of political science at the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, believes it would not be in the interest of the Ukrainian government to start a military offensive and that most Ukrainians prefer peace because it has emerged into a democracy. Oxana Shevel, professor of political science at Tufts University, noted that even with this mindset among many Ukrainian citizens, there’s a concern that Russian President Vladimir Putin operates in his own unchecked bubble in regard to Ukraine, especially with COVID-19 restrictions limiting the amount of people around him.

She does believe, though, that it would be difficult for Putin to achieve control over Ukraine’s foreign policy by force, especially with other countries such as the United States threatening sanctions and cutting Russia off from the international community if such actions were taken.

Dubovyk is hopeful that Western intervention can provide some sort of unity and that, generally speaking, Ukrainians are happy to have the support from the United States, which just committed 3,000 troops to eastern Europe.

“Ukrainians are really pleased to see that we're not thrown under the bus and that the West
 actually is ready to stand strong for us,” Dubovyk said.