U professors weigh in on situation in Ukraine and Russia

Euromaidan in Kiev on 1 December 2013–Courtesy of Nessa Gnatoush Colby Patterson

U professors watching the situation in Ukraine saw the protests in February coming.

“It wasn’t so surprising,” said John Francis, professor of political science. “But I was struck by how quickly the events moved.”

Francis pointed out that Russian president Vladimir Putin had been expressing interest in the region for years.

He clarified that the Crimea has long been closely connected with Russia, especially when Josef Stalin was in power during the Soviet Union, when Russians who were seen as disloyal to Moscow were often relocated to Crimea. As a result, many who are sympathetic to Russia and Russian culture now live in Crimea.

Francis also said Ukrainians have a distinct cultural and linguistic identity, even if it is not far from Russian. Francis and others said the situation in Ukraine brings up important questions students should be asking themselves, such as “to what extent should a country have the right to intervene with another if they share cultural identity?”

Right now, the west is not calling for the Crimea to be restored to Ukraine, professors say.

Other U professors said they do not believe Russia will attempt to reclaim the Baltic states further to the north.

“I think if they were to do that, they would run the risk of war,” Francis said.

He stated that since Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are members of NATO, such an invasion could bring the involvement of western European countries and possibly the United States.

Peter Von Sivers, who teaches a course on the Ottoman Empire, said the situation is reminiscent of when politics were decided by ethnic majorities and minorities in the 19th century.

Von Sivers was born in Germany during the Cold War and immigrated to the U.S. in 1968. His family has roots in Estonia, one of the Baltic States that Von Sivers said “has no desire whatsoever to return to the Russian orbit of space.”

Francis thinks the most important question on the table is what will happen with Ukraine.

He said the ethnic aspects of the conflict may be difficult for U students that come from the American paradigm to understand.

In America, ethnicity is “considered part of folklore” said Von Sivers.

“We paint the streets green when we have St. Patrick’s Day, or when there’s Oktoberfest people go up to Snowbird and drink a stein of beer,” he said. “That’s how we treat ethnicity in America.” He stressed that students “should be aware how strong the passions of language and religion can be” since they can be “direct enem[ies] to democracy.”

U professors described Putin as “macho” and a “student of realpolitik” whose goal is to build Russian power and spread Russian culture, an image to which the Russian people have responded.

“He seems closer to the tsars than to anything else” said Francis.

Von Sivers added that Putin does not believe in democracy.

Amos Guiora, a professor of law, criticized President Barack Obama’s administration’s handling of the situation, citing the president’s ignored warning to Putin. He said such warnings must be backed up.

“This was a serious miscalculation by the president,” he said.

He also felt that Secretary of State John Kerry’s meetings with his Russian counterparts were unsuccessful.

“I think we’re far from [a resolution],” he said.

j.peterson@chronicle.utah.edu 

@JohnStuartPeter