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Baker Institute hosts panel on Russia-Ukraine Conflict

Channing Wang / Thresher

By Lindsey Ran     3/1/22 10:42pm

The Russian invasion of Ukraine is to show that Putin’s sphere of influence is greater and the 21st century is not going to be like the post-Cold War period, Zachary Zwald, international security expert, said during a Baker Institute Student Forum panel. BISF hosted the panel of experts to discuss the Russia-Ukraine conflict on Feb. 24, with an estimated 115 students in attendance, according to BISF Vice President Thomas Kovac. 

The day before the panel, by 6 a.m. Eastern European Time on Feb. 24, Putin announced the start of a military operation in Ukraine, and Russia launched a series of missile attacks that began the Russian invasion of Ukraine, according to the New York Times.

Three professors from the University of Houston’s Russian Studies and Political Science Departments were present at the BISF panel, featuring Zwald, David Rainbow, a modern Europe and Russia historian and Alexey Golubev, Russian history scholar. 

Andrew Wan, president of BISF, said that when they first planned this event, they thought the Russia-Ukraine conflict would be an interesting topic. However, since the Russian invasion, the scope of this event greatly increased, and this event provided the historic and cultural background for Russia’s actions.

“When we were initially planning this event … we obviously didn’t know the invasion would happen, we were trying to give more ... than just the news and the minutiae of the troops and everything, but what the panelists talked about, [which were] the historical and cultural motivations that are underlying this situation,” Wan, a senior from Jones College, said.

Rainbow began the panel discussion by breaking down the common origins of Russian and Ukrainian culture, which went back to the 9th century with the founding of Kievan Rus. 

“When Kievan Rus formed, this was the most powerful Slavic principality based in Kyiv,” Rainbow said. “[But] when the Mongols invaded into eastern Europe in the 13th century after Kievan Rus had become Christianized and became a regional power … the political powers had moved north ... and Moscow had become the most powerful of the Slavic principalities.” 

Golubev said that, until the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, the idea of Ukraine and Russia as one people prevailed, an idea that Putin is greatly influenced by.

“In the 19th century, the dominant imperial ideology was that [pre-Slavic people] are the same people,” Golubev said. “That changes with the Bolshevik Revolution, but I think that’s the key thing about Putin … [he] thinks in imperialist terms, and many of the catchphrases that he is using in his foreign political rationale, they go back to the pre-1917 Russian ideology.”

Zwald said that the previous assumptions of the strategic community are changing due to the Ukrainian invasion.

“Until last night, the general consensus point in policy making in strategic community thinking was this is rhetoric for domestic consumption,” Zwald said during the panel discussion. “This isn’t what’s motivating the strategic calculations ... But now tonight, I am reassessing that completely.”

Rainbow broke down the years of historical defeats that Putin was attempting to negate with his Ukrainian invasion.

“[Putin] is sort of undoing not only the collapse of the Soviet Union, not only the collapse of the Russian empire, but he’s [also] undoing with this move the invasion of the Mongols in 1223 and getting back to the way [he thinks] it ought to have been,” Rainbow said. 

Golubev said that Ukraine’s application for NATO membership ultimately made no difference in influencing the Russian invasion, and it’s important for Americans to understand the significant differences between the American way of thought and the Russian way of thought. 

“The people who became patriots of this Russian year, they draw their ideas of political rationality not from nice classrooms like this one, not from communication, but from the front line where they fight against the Ukrainian army,” Golubev said. “When [the Russians] refer to [the Ukrainians] as nationalists and fascists and Nazis, we keep on discarding the Russian government’s argument  … [Instead], we should treat it as a sensor showing us what’s going on in the heads of the people who are making up Russian political discussion right now. In their heads, they do fight against Nazis because they do operate very differently.” 

Previous actions by Russia did belie this intent to act on Ukraine, according to Rainbow.

“The Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 was, in my opinion, a Rubicon moment,” Rainbow said. 

Rainbow said that one of the reasons for Russia’s invasion is Ukraine’s important geographic location. 

“Russia starts sending troops around Crimea which is a peninsula in the Black Sea on the southern edge of Ukraine,” Rainbow said. “Because Russia has military bases … this is Russia’s access to the Black Sea, and it is a major, major strategic position, so Russia is not going to lose control of this naval asset. There’s just no way.” 

Rainbow said that Russia’s invasion sets a problematic and dangerous precedent, exposing Ukraine as a vulnerable and isolated target. 

“So when [Ukraine] lost its territorial sovereignty in Crimea, and nobody lifted a finger, it immediately meant that no one is ever going to give up nuclear weapons again,” Rainbow said. “From Putin’s perspective, it was proof, it was a test that Ukraine was on its own, so he had a huge vote of confidence from the international committee that if he wants to push more on Ukraine that they’re not going to do anything.”

Yuliia Suprun, a Ukrainian foreign exchange student, said that the Russian invasion has forced her family into shelters. Suprun grew up in the city of Sumy, which is about 30 miles from the border. 

“As soon as Putin declared the special operations, which is basically the declaration of war, [the Russians] started to bomb all the major cities of Ukraine,” Suprun, a McMurtry College junior, said. “The same day [Russia] invaded Ukraine, and you could see tanks moving from the window of my home. There are a lot of people who just live [in the bomb shelters] with suitcases … but my parents … still live at our apartment, and when they heard the air raid warnings, they ran [to the shelters].”

Suprun said that there is a misleading influence of Russian propaganda from the perspective of eastern Ukraine.

“The eastern part [of Ukraine] speaks Russian and the western part speaks Ukrainian. I live in the eastern part, and in my daily life, I speak Russian,” Suprun said. “Even though I speak Russian, I still support Ukraine. [Putin] says most Ukrainians want to join Russia because they speak Russian and like Russian culture. That’s why [Russians] need to invade [Ukraine] and give [Ukrainians] this choice. [Russia] wants to liberate Ukraine from this bad government of neo-Nazis, and wants to give them the democratic choice of joining them … It is ridiculous.”

Suprun said that there should be more awareness overall among the Rice students. 

“I think it is very important to show a clear stand … and that we should condemn these actions because staying silent is compliance,” Suprun said. “The best thing is to be informed, to post on social media … talk about this event [and] fundraise and donate money to the soldiers and civilians.”

Kovac said that BISF tries to put on many events like this about pressing issues, whether it be domestic affairs or international relations. 

“Lots of students, and people in general, know domestic policy a lot more than foreign policy,” Kovac, a junior from Wiess College, said. “So we try to put on events foreign policy-related so this is one of the goals to just talk about a major event happening so it worked out.”

Rodrigo Gonzales-Rojas, a senior at Duncan College, said that he came to this panel to gain contextualization after realizing that world politics would be undergoing significant changes soon.

“I think that right now the U.S. is in a place in the world where our relationship with the global community, whether that is economic or militaristic, is going to be in flux,” Gonzalez-Rojas said. “Over the past several years we’ve had many of our expectations of what stability looks like and what our world looks like shattered, so I came to this because I wanted to know the history of this, and more importantly, what should we do — what are the consequences of our actions from a decade’s perspective.”

Trey Weltens, a sophomore at Duncan College, said that he gained a more comprehensive understanding of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict after the panel. 

“I think I gained an understanding of how Ukraine has historically understood itself as a culturally distinct group, [and] just an understanding of how complex this case is,” Weltens said. 

Golubev said that students should strive to be knowledgeable of world events and resist tunneling into just one event.

“Just as there is a war going on in Ukraine, there have been humanitarian disasters in Yemen [and] Bolivia for years. This world is a conflict-driven world, and we should be aware of that,” Golubev said.

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