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From the Russian Empire to now

The current invasion

Implications for the world

LSA freshman Sasha Goncharko is a Ukrainian citizen currently studying at the University of Michigan. Though she has lived in the U.S. since she was eight years old, she still considers Ukraine to be her home and said it has been devastating to watch the violence unfold from afar.

“I feel a lot of emotions at once,” Goncharko said. “It’s really frightening to think about how there’s a chance that there will be no Ukraine in the end. And it’s difficult to think about how there’s a high chance for Ukraine to have a lost future with lost potential. I would still consider it my home, even though I moved here when I was eight years old. I still feel very much connected to it, having family friends and, of course, family there.”

As Russia continues its attack on Ukraine, members of the U-M community weighed in on the impacts of the invasion. The Daily spoke with U-M experts in the field to discuss the historical, political and economic implications of the invasion and heard from students affected by the attack about their personal experiences and views regarding the ongoing events.

‘We are witnessing an attempted re-colonization of Ukraine’ — From the Russian Empire to now

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The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 resulted in the formation of 15 new states, including Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. Eugene Bondarenko, professor of Slavic languages and Ukrainian culture at the University of Michigan, weighed in on the differences that have emerged among the governments of post-Soviet states.

“It wasn’t obvious in 1991 what kind of country Ukraine would become,” Bondarenko said. “Putin himself has been in power for 22 years now; Ukraine in that time has had five different presidents and countless parliamentary elections … (Representative rule) didn’t happen in Belarus, and (it) didn’t happen in Russia, but it did happen in Ukraine.” 

Ukraine had existed as a colony dominated by Russian and Polish-Lithuanian powers for hundreds of years, dating back to the Russian Empire. Bondarenko described Putin’s actions as an attempt to re-colonize Ukraine, following the Kremlin’s claim that Ukraine lacks sovereignty as a separate entity from Russia.

“It seems that the current Russian leadership, particularly Putin himself, as it increasingly appears, is simply unwilling to accept the idea that Ukrainians are a separate people,” Bondarenko said. “What we are witnessing is not a conflict between two neighbors that can’t agree on something; we are witnessing an attempted re-colonization of Ukraine by Russia.”

The ongoing invasion is not Russia’s first attempt to encroach on Ukrainian territory in the 21st century. In 2014, the Russian Federation invaded and illegally annexed Crimea, a peninsula off the coast of southern Ukraine. Russia had also signaled support for the separatist groups controlling Donetsk and Luhansk, two cities that comprise the Donbas region in southeastern Ukraine.

Donetsk and Luhansk declared their independence from Ukraine in 2014 as the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic. Despite being under separatist control, the regions are not recognized internationally as being separate from Ukraine. According to the Ukrainian government, ongoing conflict between the pro-Russia separatists and the Ukrainian military in Donbas has left over 14,000 dead and forced millions out of their homes.

Political science professor Pauline Jones pointed out the lack of cohesion in the Western response to the events of 2013 and 2014, especially compared to the clear, united response to the current invasion.

“The Western response was pretty flaccid,” Jones said. “There was a division between the U.S. and Europe on how strongly to respond … U.S. President Obama at the time wanted to arm Ukraine, and the Europeans, at that point, withdrew any support from growing further. So there was a disagreement, unlike now.”

Jones continued by saying the response from the West in 2014 was key to understanding Putin’s decision to launch a military invasion of Ukraine in 2022. 

“The economic sanctions that were imposed (in 2014) were not very significant, and they were not enforced,” Jones said. “(Russia) didn’t receive any major backlash from the West for annexing Crimea and fomenting rebellion in the eastern part of Ukraine. And so, I think Putin’s expectation was that the West would again not be able to mobilize a powerful response.”

In the months leading up to the invasion, tensions between Ukraine and Russia had simmered to their highest point in years as Russian troops amassed along the borders between the two countries. On Feb. 16, President Biden said over 150,000 Russian troops had gathered along Ukraine’s borders. 

On Feb. 21, Putin signed a resolution recognizing Donetsk and Luhansk as independent from Ukraine. Three days later, he announced a “special military operation” in Donbas as Russian troops moved into Ukraine. 

‘There’s a chance there will be no Ukraine in the end’ – The current invasion

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Over the past 12 days, cities across Ukraine have been targeted by Russian missiles and bombs, and attacked by soldiers on foot. The capital, Kyiv, as well as the cities of Kharkiv, Kherson and Mariupol have been the primary targets of the attacks.

LSA freshman Ihor Pavlenko, a Ukrainian citizen who was born and raised in Ukraine, said he is devastated by the invasion and the damages it has caused to his homeland.

“My friends cannot sleep,” Pavlenko said. “They collect the info and they constantly wake up because of the shootings outside the city and into the city … My parents have everything in Ukraine, in Kyiv.”

LSA senior Noah Streng, president of the U-M chapter of Young Democratic Socialists of America (YDSA), said he supports any actions that will de-escalate the invasion.

“I think it is an awful travesty whenever war breaks out and I think we must be explicitly anti-war in such a devastating situation where so many Ukrainians have their lives being put on the line due to aggression by NATO, the U.S. and Russia,” Streng said. “The working class in Ukraine and Russia do not benefit from this war, and millions of people are going to be displaced and killed because of it.”

LSA junior Julia Schettenhelm, co-president of College Democrats, said the organization supports Ukraine and citizens in Russia who oppose the invasion.

“In light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the thoughts and prayers of the College Democrats at U-M are with the Ukrainian people who are being displaced and harmed,” Schettenhelm wrote. “In addition, we support the citizen-led protests happening in Russia and around the world against these acts of violence. Finally, we send a message of support to the members of our campus community who are being impacted by these events.”

LSA senior Ryan Fisher, president of College Republicans, added that he also opposes the invasion and urged the worldwide community to support Ukrainian communities.

“It’s a terrible, unprovoked attack, led by a megalomaniac in Vladimir Putin,” Fisher said. “The world should look to help the Ukrainian people and its territory.”

A number of NATO member countries have committed to supplying Ukraine with weapons and arms to fight against Russian troops. On Feb. 26, the Biden administration approved a $350 million military aid package for Ukraine. The U.S. also offered to evacuate Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky but, according to a tweet from the Ukrainian embassy in Britain, he turned down the offer and instead opted to remain in Ukraine.

Russian citizens have also rallied in opposition to the invasion of Ukraine. Since protests first began on Feb. 24, thousands of demonstrators across the country have been arrested for participating in anti-war protests. On March 4, Putin signed a law criminalizing the spread of “false news” about Ukraine which would punish individuals who support sanctions against Russia or are in opposition to the invasion with jail time of up to 15 years. 

Public Policy professor Melvyn Levitsky, retired career minister in the U.S. Foreign and former political officer at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, told The Daily the protests would put pressure on Putin.

“There have been demonstrations, and it’s something the Russians don’t like because the regime wants to have stability and not have any kind of instability in the general population,” Levitsky said. “So this is something that must affect them in the same way that sanctions do — in other words, putting pressure on them to cease and desist.”

A Russian international student, who asked to remain anonymous due to fear of retaliation from the Russian government, said Russian voices across the world are being silenced and they fear for her own safety and the safety of her family. The student will be referred to as Sam for the rest of the article.

“The last three years, the (Russian) government has been working to make Russian people very apathetic,” Sam said. “The leader of our opposition was sent to prison on made-up allegations and after that, all of the opposition politicians have been banned from elections. Every time people would protest people would just get beat up. Even worse, they would get sent to prison. And all this makes people believe that their voices will not be heard no matter how loud they’re being.”

Sam said thousands of Russian people have been detained and are being physically and verbally abused. Sam explained that the citizens should not be blamed for the invasion, and many outside of Russia do not understand what it’s like living under a dictatorship where misinformation is widespread.

“I’m just so heartbroken that a lot of people around the world feel like Russians are not doing enough, not protesting as hard as they should, but no one really understands how the system, over around ten years, has repressed people into thinking they can’t change anything, and if they try, there will be severe physical, legal and financial consequences,” Sam said. “I think it’s really easy for the world right now to decide that all Russian people are villains, where in reality we are victims of a dictatorship. Even people who support this (invasion) have been systematically misinformed by the television or just have to work multiple jobs to keep afloat because of the corruption in the country and don’t have any will left to really look at what’s happening.”

Sam also said she wants to make sure the public knows that most Russian citizens are opposed to the invasion. She said Russian news outlets that have spoken out against the government in the past have been punished and censorship laws have made it difficult for people to obtain accurate information.

“The only people who really support the decision are people who are living in very rural areas, who don’t have access to any non-government owned publication,” Sam said. “It’s almost impossible for a lot of people to know what’s really going on.”

Pavlenko said there is a lack of access to information about the invasion in Ukraine, and he is focused on making sure his friends and family are safe on a daily basis.

“I have no clue what’s happened to my home,” Pavlenko said. “I constantly try to reach out to my friends. The first question I always ask them is ‘How are they?’ because that’s the main thing that matters now … I only care about the lives of my friends. About the lives of my family.”

On Monday, Russia announced yet another limited ceasefire to allow civilians to escape following two breached ceasefires over the weekend. Russian and Ukrainian representatives also met Monday for negotiations. Following the negotiations, a Ukrainian negotiator reported some “small positive shifts” in the pursuit of setting up humanitarian corridors.

Goncharko said she has family who have been unable to leave Ukraine because they lack a visa or green card.

“My grandma was able to come here to America and live with us and I am so really grateful she had that opportunity,” Goncharko said. “Not many people have somewhere else to go, which is what’s very frightening for our family, friends and even our aunt and cousins, who don’t have a visa or green card right now.”

In a follow up email with The Daily, Streng said he was able to get in touch with his family in Ukraine and learn about their living situation.

“I just got an update from my family in Kyiv and they’re spending most of their days in their basement with sandbags protecting vital areas,” Streng wrote. “A few of my family members are joining the citizens’ militias to fight the Russians and are witnessing the destruction of their country.”

“We need more pressure on Russia” – Implications for the World

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In response to the attack, the Biden administration and European officials have imposed heavy economic sanctions on Russia. These sanctions aim to block Russia’s largest banks from the global financial system as a means of putting pressure on Putin. Furthermore, an increasing number of companies have distanced themselves from the Russian market, with corporations such as Apple and IKEA suspending sales of their products to Russia. 

Paolo Pasquariello, a professor of finance at the Ross School of Business, said in an interview with The Daily these sanctions will likely result in short-term financial consequences for Americans in the form of increasing gas prices, limited oil supply and greater domestic inflation. Long-term, Pasquariello said investors may move their savings out of the stock market and into safer assets, such as government bonds. According to Pasquariello, this would push interest rates down at a time when the Federal Reserve is trying to push interest rates up to control domestic inflation.

“In the last few days, we have seen trillions of dollars of capital flows moved out of the U.S. stock market, out of stock markets around the globe and into the safety of bonds,” Pasquariello said. “We see this happening every time during (a) financial crisis or times of distress.”

Two days after Russia first attacked Ukraine, the European Union, the U.S. and a number of Western allies announced plans to exclude a number of Russian banks from the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, a secure messaging system that allows banks to execute secure cross-border transactions at a rapid pace. The ban limits Russian banks’ access to international financial markets, making it harder for Russian entities to pay for imports and invest money overseas.

The Russian economy has experienced significant impacts as a result of the sanctions and bans levied against the country. On Feb. 28, the London stock listings of several Russian banks fell by more than 50%. In addition, the value of the Russian ruble fell more than 30% as unemployment fears have spiked in Russia.

Adam Casey, a postdoctoral fellow at the Weiser Center for Emerging Democracies, recently co-authored a Foreign Affairs article about Putin’s personalist rule and its influence on Russian foreign relations. In an interview with The Daily, Casey said the sanctions were significant, in part because Putin had risen to power on the basis of economic growth in Russia.

“Putin justified much of his rule based on the stability and economic growth that he brought,” Casey said. “(Under Putin), Russia has had an expanding economy and expanding middle class, relative economic stability … (These sanctions) do hurt Putin.”

Javed Ali, an associate professor at the Ford School of Public Policy, said he believed economic sanctions would have a serious effect on the Russian economy beyond those in Putin’s circle and Russian billionaire oligarchs. 

“I think that part of our campaign plan is to make things so difficult inside Russia for everyday Russians, (but) not from a military perspective,” Ali said. “Because (the U.S.) doesn’t want to harm (Russian citizens) physically, but we can make their lives miserable on the economic front, and (the citizens) will blame Putin for that, not the United States.”

However, Casey said that despite heavy sanctions and anti-war protests within Russia, it would take significant action from a small group of elites in positions of power to overthrow Putin’s regime.

“That being said, the oligarchs, the people who are really losing a lot of money from (these sanctions) and have real incentives to moderate Russian foreign policy … these individuals don’t have the capacity to remove Putin if they’re dissatisfied,” Casey said. “The only ones really capable of getting rid of him are the heads of the security services, and there’s no indication that losing access to some of their foreign holdings means that they’re going to take the extremely risky step of trying to get rid of Putin.”

On March 7, President Zelensky called for harsher sanctions on Russia, proposing an international boycott on Russian oil and halting exports to the country. Jones said a total embargo would cause critical harm to the Russian economy. 

“Russia’s economy is highly dependent on oil and gas reserves,” Jones said. “About 50% of its revenue comes from the sale of those exports. Now, its exports are already being affected by the current economic sanctions. There is a reluctance, to put it mildly, to buy, sell or transport Russian oil right now … and that’s great because that’s having a profound effect on Russia’s economy. But a total embargo would be devastating.” 

Several American lawmakers have backed a ban on Russian oil imports to the U.S.. In 2021, approximately 3 percent of crude oil imports to the U.S. came from Russia. The United States engaging in an embargo could lead to international compliance with a boycott on Russian oil and gas exports.

On March 8, President Biden announced a total ban on U.S. imports of Russian oil and gas. On the same day, the E.U. committed to phasing out its reliance on Russian energy by 2030. Russia accounted for 45% of imported gas across the European Union in 2021.

Pavlenko said he also supports the current sanctions in Russia and would like to see more sanctions in the coming weeks to deter Russia. He also said he supports the enforcement of a no-fly zone in Ukraine.

“We need way more sanctions, we need more pressure in Russia,” Pavlenko said. “We all know that Putin wants blood — he wants to capture Ukraine. And this means that we need more weapons. We need NATO and the U.S. to help us … We need NATO to make the no-fly zone in Ukraine, because the ballistic missiles from Russia and Belarus are destroying our cities, killing innocent people.”

Streng, on the other hand, said he believes it’s important not to enforce sanctions or a no-fly zone because Russia might view it as an act of war and escalate things further in response.

“I think actions that other countries should take, especially NATO and the U.S., should be diplomatic and de-escalatory,” Streng said. “Russia is a nuclear-armed power, and any escalatory actions … would only heighten these tensions, increase violence and ultimately spell disaster for the people of Ukraine, Russia and the world.”

On Feb. 27, Putin ordered Russia’s nuclear forces to stay on high alert and threatened an escalation of current tensions to nuclear warfare, likening the West’s sanctions on Russia to a declaration of war. Russia currently possesses the highest number of nuclear weapons in the world. 

Pavlenko said he thinks the U.S. must support Ukraine, as he believes this invasion will set a precedent for Putin to invade other surrounding countries.

“We want to build our future as we want to,” Pavlenko said. “And we want the United States of America and the entire world to help us to do this, because if Ukraine falls, who’s going to be next? Putin wouldn’t stop on Ukraine only. We need to stop this now. Not only because we need to help this country, which has been fighting for democratic values for decades, but to protect the entire world. Peace in Ukraine equals peace in the world.”

Levitsky said Russia’s invasion of Ukraine could be a danger to international order if NATO does not continue to provide strong support for Ukraine, as other countries with imperialist goals might follow in Russia’s footsteps.

“If you think about the international principle and look at countries around the world that have kind of not so friendly neighbors if the principles established that it’s okay to do what the Russians have done, that’s going to create a lot of chaos around the world,” Levitsky said.

Ali said he believes it is unlikely the U.S. will take military action against Russia because no legal argument can be made for the U.S. to invoke Article 51 of the United Nations Charter, which invokes a right to self defense if a U.S. interest is attacked. 

“Ukraine is not a NATO country, so it doesn’t trigger any NATO Treaty obligations from the U.S. side,” Ali said. “President Biden has said he does not want to engage in combat operations against Russia. There’s no standing approval from Congress to do it. From a UN Security Council perspective, (it) doesn’t have a lot of ability to shake things on the ground because Russia and China have veto authority in the Security Council, so there won’t be a Security Council resolution that either condemns what Russia is doing or mobilizes a UN peacekeeping force to bring some stability.”

Levitsky said this invasion has done significant harm to Russia’s reputation overseas.

“They’ve broken so many international laws,” Levitsky said. “And again, I go back to the UN Charter where this is so specifically prohibited that it’s such a clear break with their obligations under the Charter. You know, there’s no doubt about that. And they’ve decided to go forward. Now maybe they will be forced into a negotiation. We’ll see. We’re still not there yet.”

In a follow-up email to The Daily, Streng emphasized the importance of preventing further military escalation in Ukraine.

“I urge everyone to stand in solidarity with the anti-war movements in Ukraine and Russia,” Streng said. “I call on the Biden administration and other countries to do whatever it takes to achieve a diplomatic solution and avoid more war.”

Daily Staff Reporters Vanessa Kiefer and Irena Li can be reached at vkiefer@umich.edu and irenayli@umich.edu. Daily News Editor Kate Weiland can be reached at kmwblue@umich.edu.