Central Michigan Life – Q&A: Political Science Chair Stresses Importance of Understanding Russian-Ukrainian Conflict

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After the Russian invasion of Ukraine began on February 24, many Americans are wondering what started the conflict and how to keep up to date, especially a busy college audience.

According to David Jesuit, chair of the department of political science and public administration at Central Michigan University, the complicated conflict dates back hundreds of years and cannot be summed up by the events of the past week.

The region that is now modern Ukraine, said a Jesuit, has almost always been contested throughout history by different empires and countries claiming parts of its territory. He said Ukraine was part of the former Soviet Union along with Russia. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) opposed the Soviet Union, a Jesuit has said.

The Jesuit said he believed President Vladimir Putin wanted to restore part of Russia’s former Soviet empire, of which Ukraine would be a part. Combined with that and the “insult” of Ukraine’s desire to join NATO, the Jesuit said Putin felt entitled to invade Ukraine and regain control of the country. He said the Russian government had probably been planning the invasion for a long time.

After earning his Ph.D. Doctor in political science, Jesuit specializes in international relations and comparative politics. He wrote his thesis on European politics and teaches a course entitled “Europe and the European Union”.

Central Michigan Life sat down with a Jesuit to discuss the importance for Americans of understanding the Russian-Ukrainian war and why it is relevant, even for a college campus.

CM Life: Why did Russia choose to invade Ukraine now?

Jesuit: (Russia) has been building on this for quite some time, so I think that’s the culmination of what is intended as (Putin’s) goal. Many experts say that Putin was waiting for the end of the Olympics. In 2008, when (Putin) invaded the country of Georgia, the Chinese were upset that he eclipsed the Olympics. This is one of the reasons. Others said the ground had to be frozen enough for all heavy equipment to roll on the ground, such as tanks and heavy trucks.

… Putin had been planning this for much longer as part of his goal to restore a Russian empire and reverse what he called the greatest catastrophe of the 20th century: the collapse of the Soviet Union.

How can people stay up to date with quality information?

You should refer to several sources, including international sources. This includes the BBC and Deutsche Welle from Germany.

… Do not go to the source which only reinforces your political prejudices. We know Fox is going to give you a Republican touch. We know MSNBC is going to give you a Democratic touch. Go ahead and read these sources – opinion journalism is important, but go beyond that.

What is the probability that the United States will go to war because of this situation?

I don’t think it’s likely, but there are a few scenarios. One would be a successful cyberattack on US military capabilities that would lead to a rapid escalation. It’s a World War III scenario. Another is the invasion of a NATO country if Putin is crazy enough — I’m sorry — irrational enough to think he could get away with invading Estonia, for example. It has been very clear to me from the beginning that the United States cannot allow an attack on another NATO country.

If the United States goes to war, should young people fear being drafted into the army?

No, they don’t want you. I’m serious, the all-volunteer army is far superior to the draft or draft army. They are committed, they are well trained and they want to be there, generally speaking. The use of technology, in particular, is much more advanced. They don’t really want an army recruited from the modern battlefield. There are possibilities, but I think they are very, very unlikely. That said, if you had asked me three years ago if we would have a two-year pandemic, I would have said “no, it’s very unlikely”.

What are sanctions and how will Americans see their effects?

Sanctions is a very broad term for the use of economic punishments. In this case, they are targeted. A sanction could be to stop importing oil or vodka. These target individuals – part of the ruling elite – and attempt to go after Putin’s money.

… We haven’t seen the real effect of the (US sanctions). I am not aware of any sanctions at this time that would have halted oil or gas exports. It’s just instability—markets don’t like instability. It doesn’t really have to do with actual oil supply, it has to do with fears about future supply.

How does this conflict affect the people who are directly affected by it?

If you have friends or family in Central or Eastern Europe, particularly in Ukraine, I mean just the level of tragedy that is happening—there is no doubt that lives are being destroyed. I just feel awful. I have friends in Poland and they are very worried. I had a discussion with a journalist – her parents are in East Germany and she is very worried.

How can we support people on CMU campus who are feeling the effects of war?

Just be very sensitive. (political science faculty member) Prakash Adhikari is a great person to talk to as he deals with forcibly displaced people. If you know someone who has family there, I sometimes think it’s almost better to allow them to talk about it, than to say, “Oh my God, is your family from OK ?” Don’t assume they want to talk about it. Allow them to talk about it, at least until there is a little more certainty, as it might evoke a trauma they may have experienced.

Follow the news and remember that if you pay higher prices for refueling, that’s a minor inconvenience compared to what happens to Ukrainians.

How did the war affect politics in Washington DC?

Typically, during an international crisis, we have seen a rally around the flag phenomenon where the president’s approval rating increases. We are so polarized as a country that there will be no rallying around the flag. Republicans see it one way and Democrats another.

We will see the state of the union (March 1) and of course President Biden will address the situation. There’s a chance for some bipartisanship there, but I’ve also seen (the war) used for partisan advantage.

The story is so ingrained. We are in our tribes and the truth doesn’t matter. Politics is about your emotional attachment right now to a political party or candidate. (War) is just being used to heat partisan debate, and that’s unfortunate.

What are the best and worst scenarios resulting from this?

In the best-case scenario, Putin loses power, and somehow there is a new government in Russia that has the will and the desire to move towards a freer market. The worst case is World War III; an attack on Estonia or Putin being this messianic megalomaniac as people portrayed Hitler, which isn’t necessarily true, but it’s certainly wrong that he can’t be deterred.

… It is troubling that (Putin) was far too quick to allude – and not even allude, but specifically refer – to the nuclear arsenal that Russia possesses. They are thermonuclear fusion bombs. I mean, they’re like doomsday bombs. You don’t mention these things lightly, and he was way too flippant. You don’t need to remind us. Why are we talking about your nuclear weapons? Some said he was doing this to get attention, so now we are talking about his nuclear weapons and not about the military difficulties that the conventional Russian army is having in defeating the Ukrainian army.

Do you think the peace talks between Ukraine and Russia will be productive?

Not now. You have to let these things work. Don’t be surprised if there is no progress in the peace talks until some things change on the ground. It’s important that they talk, though. I was very happy to see that. Just because there’s no progress doesn’t mean we’d point out that it’s not important that they talk. Even just agreeing on some basic parameters of where they will meet and what they will discuss – it won’t make the headlines, but talking is definitely a good thing.

What result do you hope to see in the near future?

I’m hoping for the best-case scenario I’ve described, but I think that’s highly unlikely. I just hope that any escalation will be managed — that there will be no invasion of a NATO country. I think Putin will almost certainly be able to occupy Ukraine, despite the true heroic activities of the Ukrainians. I just hope Putin comes to his senses as soon as possible and sees that this isn’t working.


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