By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer
Vladimir Putin has sent Russian troops to attack Ukraine in a historic invasion. Hundreds of Ukrainian civilians died in the first 48 hours. It’s the largest conventional military attack since World War II.
Russian troops invaded Ukraine on Thursday, February 24, in an attempt to overthrow Ukraine’s democratically elected president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, and the Ukrainian government. In a pre-dawn television appearance, Russian President Vladimir Putin alleged that Russia was under constant threat from Ukraine, including “Nazis” in its government—claims that have long been made on pro-Kremlin propaganda networks.
The two nations have a long and tumultuous history, going back as far as 1654. However, their conflict has heated up since World War II, leading up to Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. Tensions have remained between Russia and Ukraine since then. The current invasion had been planned for several months.
In an exclusive interview, Dr. Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius, Professor of History and Distinguished Professor in Arts and Sciences at The University of Tennessee, Knoxville, explained the current crisis from 2014 to the present, as well as the international response.
Eight Years Later
Annexing Crimea wasn’t enough for Vladimir Putin. In the eight years since, conflict has continued to simmer.
“In the intervening years, it’s not like there was blessed peace and quiet reigning; the reality was that there was still quite a lot of fighting in the Eastern parts of Ukraine, in particular, around the areas of Luhansk and Donetsk,” Dr. Liulevicius said.
This fighting was used as a pretense for Putin’s current invasion. As Ukrainian forces have become better organized and equipped since 2014, they have struggled with proxy forces supported by Russia, resulting in considerable bloodshed. Dr. Liulevicius described it as “shelling and trench conflict stretching across” Eastern Ukraine.
“That’s been a perennial reality; it never went away,” he said.
So why did tensions finally come to a head now, specifically?
“A lot of commentators are pointing out that Putin used the intervening years since 2014 to start building up reserves economically, to make himself more buffered from international economic pressure, and that’s something that those who advocate robust economic sanctions will have to deal with as a reality,” Dr. Liulevicius said.
Operating on his own timetable, President Putin is also likely taking advantage of irresolution in the West. European powers have not only continued to do business with Russia, but they have become dependent on Russian energy supplies. Further, the United States’ troubled withdrawal from Afghanistan horrified America’s allies, proving to Putin that it was possible to put space between those nations and the United States.
A Legacy of Imperialism
“Also, I think a crucial factor in all this is [one] that all of us have in common, and that’s the human element—and the personality of Putin and his age,” Dr. Liulevicius said. “Here’s somebody who’s reflecting back on his own life; and I think [he] wants to leave a mark as one of the great rulers of the Russian imperial tradition, and there’s a sunset clause on all of us, right? So I think there are many different factors—psychological, economic, political, military—that come into play.”
President Putin’s recent appeals to history in televised appearances support this theory. Again and again in recent days, the Russian president has used history-laden imagery in justifying Russian aggression toward Ukraine, regardless of its relevance. For example, one of the most surprising claims he has made is that he wants to “denazify”—or remove Nazi elements from—Ukrainian government. However, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and his parents are Jewish.
“If you knew nothing at all about the particulars of this crisis, you’d come away [from Putin’s recent appearances] with the impression of somebody who’s transfixed by history,” Dr. Liulevicius said. “His references to history are constant: about ancient Russian land, about the imperial greatness of Czarist Russia, and then of the Soviet Union. The problem is that history is a grab bag of disparate elements that get deployed whenever they seem useful politically.
“Here, I think what Putin is doing is invoking a very powerful memory of the vast suffering of World War II and using it to justify political actions today that are not, in fact, analogous to that situation.”
An Unpopular Invasion at Home…
As President Putin and the Russian government attempt to assert Russia’s sphere of influence over Ukraine, it appears to be a wildly unpopular decision. Modern Russia is known for silencing dissent and murdering journalists, and yet protestors within the country have taken to the streets to denounce a war with Ukraine.
“The courage of those protestors who are out there chanting ‘No to War’ in Moscow and other Russian cities is deeply impressive and worthy of our admiration,” Dr. Liulevicius said. “It’s obvious just from the cursory examination of the reality, that to have Putin making remarks that invoke pan-Slavism and the brotherhood of East Slavs of Russians and Ukrainians at a time when killing is taking place on battlefields, it’s like a vast cognitive dissonance.
“For the parents of recruits who are being sent off on what is not a mission of self-defense, but in fact, is a violation of someone else’s territory in the name of togetherness obviously is and should be deeply disturbing.”
As of Friday, protestors have numbered in the thousands across dozens of Russian cities. According to The Guardian, more than 1,800 protestors were arrested Thursday night alone. Global protests followed over the weekend.
In addition to the unpopularity within its own borders, Russia’s support from other nations has been limited, to say the least. On Thursday, after speaking with the Group of Seven (G-7) leaders, U.S. President Joe Biden announced new sanctions against Russia, stating that all Russian assets in the United States were to be frozen. Late Friday, the White House said it would personally sanction President Putin, as well as Russia itself.
However, several NATO countries were reluctant to remove Russia from the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT), an international financial messaging system. If Russia were removed from SWIFT, it would be cut off from much of the global financial system. Unfortunately, doing so would have complications for those European nations that have become dependent on Russia for oil and other commodities. Over the weekend, several Russian banks were expelled from SWIFT after several days of delay.
This dependence on Russian oil became evident Thursday as oil prices surged to $100 a barrel as news of the invasion broke.
“There might be divergences of interest; a lot of that has to do with the extent of trade that flows back between the European Union (EU) and Russia,”Dr. Liulevicius said. “I think this is something that policymakers are going to have to hash out: Is it really the case that applying piecemeal sanctions and ratcheting up slowly, rather than deploying the most severe measures in order to impress and to really have an impact, is that a wise choice or does it in fact dissipate the impact they might have?”
The hesitancy to remove Russia from SWIFT shocked and infuriated the Ukrainian government, who have since voiced their displeasure with the EU.
Russia, China, Belarus Make Strange Bedfellows
Although the United States and most of the European nations have opposed Russia’s invasion of Ukraine vocally and with sanctions, President Putin has found two notable allies in his crusade: China and Belarus. On Friday, China released its strongest statement, to date, supporting Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It came just weeks after China and Russia released a joint statement opposing NATO expansion.
Belarus, which borders Ukraine to the north, has come under fire since the invasion, as news broke that the ex-Soviet country allowed Russian troops to pass through it in order to attack Ukraine from the north. This access to Belarusian infrastructure was key for Russia to seize and take control of Chernobyl on Thursday, the site of a 1986 nuclear meltdown. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has ruled the country since 1994.
“Belarus is sort of like a territory that’s in a time warp,” Dr. Liulevicius said. “Lukashenko managed to solidify authoritarian rule on the basis of [a] sort of […] backward-looking nostalgic version of a Soviet past that was being preserved or fossilized in that country, while still maintaining some distance from absolute dependence on Russia. In the last years, that’s simply given way entirely and he’s aligned himself with Putin.”
According to Dr. Liulevicius, it’s being said in the international arena that Belarus is not helping the armed invasion of Ukraine, which he called “transparently ridiculous,” because functioning as a launching pad for the invasion makes Belarus just as culpable as if they were actively participating. President Lukashenko even hinted late last week that his own troops may be used to support Russia against Ukraine.
Ukraine’s future is uncertain, though President Putin’s purported interest in peace negotiations fell on deaf ears since he expressed those interests while shelling Kyiv and other cities.
“This is really an obscenity, rather than a good faith offer,” Dr. Liulevicius said.