Fordham Professor Talks Escalation of Situation in Ukraine


Austin Wood, an American living in Moscow, poses on a barricade in Kiev. (Courtesy of Austin Wood)

Austin Wood, an American living in Moscow, poses on a barricade in Kiev. (Courtesy of Austin Wood)

For the past few weeks, American media has been buzzing with pictures of bloody protestors in Ukraine, and it seems it can only get worse with the recent involvement of the Russian and Ukrainian militaries. The question on many Americans’ minds is whether the United States should be intervening in the situation.

Before understanding America’s place, though, it is important to understand that the situation in Ukraine has been a process. Ukrainians began protesting three months ago in order to demand political change. Olena Nikolayenko, a native of Ukraine and assistant professor of political science here at Fordham University, explained the situation, stressing that the protests were not solely aimed at the Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych, but really the entire Ukrainian regime. “Ukrainians wanted to live in a free, democratic state,” Nikolayenko said. Presently, deposed President Yanukovych is supposedly in contact with Russian President Vladimir Putin as a new Ukrainian government continues to form in Kiev. President Putin announced on Tuesday that he was not planning to order the Russian military to use force, and that the anti-government protests in Ukraine have been nothing but an “orgy” of “radicals and nationalists,” but according to The New York Times, this “version of the crisis [is] almost entirely at odds with the view held by most officials in Europe and the United States.”

With Russian troops stationed in Ukraine, Nikolayenko fears the situation will be “destabilizing” for the entire region, but for Zhenya Zotkina, a 25-year-old Russian living in Moscow, Russian involvement is justified. “Crimea requested to rejoin the Russian Federation,” she said, “and for that they need Russia’s help.”

Most Americans do not consider the Russian involvement as help. Last week, President Obama issued a statement discouraging the use of Russian military force. Ignoring this request, Putin opened the door to more American criticism. Nikolayenko views the blatant disregard shown by Putin as a strong symbol of Russian-American rivalry.

“President Putin has been quite consistent in his desire to establish the so-called Eurasian Union on the territory of the former Soviet Union, reasserting Russia’s domineering position in the region,” she said. “As a former KGB officer, Putin seems to be heavily influenced by the Cold War period, and he views the United States as a rival in the international arena.”

Similarly, Glib Bruneko, a Ukrainian student at the University of Odessa, also felt that that most Ukrainians do not support Putin’s military action and welcome the international response to the situation. “I think many people support the efforts from outside to stop Russian military forces,” Bruneko said, “but we haven’t seen too much of a result so far.”

Professor Nikolayenko believes America should be more involved with the situation. “U.S. President Obama appears to be unwilling to take bold action in foreign affairs,” Nikolayenko said. “When at least 100 Ukrainians were killed and more than 1,000 injured by the riot police, U.S. government issued a statement, expressing ‘grave concern’ over the situation in Ukraine.

Similarly, President Obama stated that he was ‘deeply concerned’ over recent Russian action.”

According to Nikolayenko, such a response is not enough: “Public rhetoric is never sufficient to stop a dictator from belligerent action.” On Tuesday, Secretary of State John Kerry offered $1 billion in loans to Ukraine, which will assuredly make the presence of the United States more visible in the region.

Still, according to Bruneko, “the situation is very disappointing.” For him, there has been no noticeable change in the population around him and his university has been functioning as normal, but he was very clear to in expressing the difference between his city, which is in the west, and the rest of the country. He also added that more than 1,000 people were obligated to join army forces and the currency has become more and more devalued. Possibly the most disconcerting change, though, is the fear. “Fear is spreading among the population,” Bruneko said.

And with the new involvement of Russian troops, many believe the fear is warranted. The Russian response to the violence is a bit more nuanced. “We empathize with Ukraine,” Zotkina said of the Russian population, “but we are not scared.”

This Russian empathy may be hard for Americans to understand because of differing political opinions of the situation in the Ukraine. As Nikolayenko’s statements show, Americans see the violence as a response to the desire to become democratic. In Russia, this desire is not  the norm. Austin Wood, an American working as the director of an English language program in Moscow, explains that much of the population is indeed in favor of socialism, “and even quite nostalgic for the days of communism.”

He recounted a conversation with a Russian gentleman who explained to him a common Russian belief. “I think democracy is a great idea,” he said, “but you can’t just force that onto a country that’s just come out of almost a century of communism…At this stage we still need a strong leader who will tell us what to do, even if we don’t always agree.”

It is possible that Russian citizens may not emphasize with Ukrainians’ desire for democracy, but rather they empathize with the shared controversy. For some Americans like Nikolayenko, this lack of democratic empathy may be why it is necessary for the United States to intervene.

Nevertheless, lives are being lost due to a Ukrainian thirst for change. Nikolayenko believes that Americans have a responsibility to put pressure on our politicians to take a firmer stand in bringing an end to the death toll.

She also suggests raising awareness of the situation through social media, which can be an invaluable tool in influencing political action. It is impossible to know what the outcome of the situation will be, but as Nikolayenko reminds us, it is possible to change it.

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