East Lansing, Mich. — The conflict between Russia and Ukraine seems to be reaching a boiling point, but this is nothing new for those who are familiar with the region.
6 News sat down with a Michigan State history professor who previously served in the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine to break down how things got to this point and spoke with a number of students in the Michigan State Ukrainian Student Organization to get their reactions to the crisis.
Tensions have been high in Ukraine since the annexation of Crimea in 2014, but it didn’t start there. There was a famine in the 1930s and the Chernobyl crisis in 1986, but MSU professor Matthew Pauly says the reason Putin is choosing to do this, now, is because of the opportunity and the capability.
“Russia is engaged in an effort to enlarge the territory of the Russian state and to push back the idea of NATO,” Pauly said. “Putin revealed in his speech (Monday) to undercut the soverignty of Ukraine.”
NATO is a treaty between dozens of European countries, the U.S. and Canada. It was formed after the conclusion of World War II to stop the expansion of the Soviet Union. Ukraine is not a part of NATO and while the ally countries want it to join, Putin, does not.
“Russia, and Putin specifically really doesn’t believe Ukraine is a real place,” Pauly said.
That’s been the case for years, though, so again the question is, why now?
“I don’t think any analyst has a real good answer for that beyond this is an opportune time for him (because) the world is distracted by the COVID pandemic,” Pauly said. “And now Russia has the strength to do so when it didn’t have the strength to do so in the 1990’s when NATO was first expanding East.”
As for why American’s should care, the list is rather long.
“Because millions of people might be slaughtered, innocent people,” Pauly said. “I do think it matters that Ukraine is a democratic state and it’s worthy of U.S. support and U.S. protection.
“Russia controls an inordinate amount of energy resources and I don’t think we should be in a position of just letting Russia take advantage of those resources to implement the foreign policy.”
Then, there’s what happened in Crimea. It used to be a part of the Soviet Union, but in 2014 Russia invaded the region and annexed it from Ukraine, claiming those who live there predominantly spoke Russian and had Russian culture.
“Just because we speak English, that should give no excuses for Canada to invade the United States, right?,” Pauly said.
And keep in mind, this is affecting many in the Mid-Michigan area whose families come from Ukraine.
MSU’s Ukrainian Student Organization was formed three years ago, but in recent weeks and months has gotten more active.
“This is not a new development in Ukraine’s history with aggression from Russia,” said Yuri Tomkiew, President of the student organization.
“It is a constant pattern,” said Mason Harvath-Gerrans, a Ukrainian MSU student. “We have seen it throughout our history in the 20th century.
Just because the aggression isn’t new doesn’t mean it’s not terrifying, especially for those who are still close with many who live in the country.
“(Many people I know) are only a few hundred kilometers from occupied Crimea,” Harvath-Gerrans said. “That of course worries me.”
They say Putin’s goal is to occupy all of Ukraine and his decision to acknowledge two break-away regions as independent entities, is terrifying.
“I see this recognition of legitimacy of these organizations that have inflicted so much terror and evil,” Harvath Gerrans said, “It’s not just worrying, it’s outrageous.”
As far as what the students want to see done, their answers have varying levels.
“It’s important to sanction them before any aggression or major aggression begins in Ukraine,” Tomkiw said. “We’re the next step into the rest of Europe.”
“Sanctions only do so much. What has to happen is real support, send troops to Ukraine to help them against Russian aggression,” Harvath-Gerrans said. “For those who think this is an ocean away, this is a conflict that will set the precedent for how nations deal with one another.”
“If Putin invades Ukraine, who is he going to come after next?” asked Ethan Newman, a historian for the organization. “Is it Poland? Is it Finland? People like him, they don’t stop nd say, ‘oh I’m good now,’ that’s not the way these people work.”
“It could be Poland, if they get pulled in, the entire world could be pulled in. It’s hard to describe how momentous this moment is.”
Students say the best way to help locally is to become aware and read legitimate news organizations. The student organization will have a presentation on March 3, which will include a speech from former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine, Bill Taylor.