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Panel discussion provides historical and contemporary context on Ukraine War

Since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, the Ukrainian people have been praised in the West for their spirit of resistance against the invading Russian forces. In her March 24 talk at Worcester State, “100 Years of Russian Interference and Ukrainian Resistance,” visiting instructor Erin Redihan, Ph.D., illustrated how this spirit is nothing new.

When the Soviet Red Army rolled through Ukraine in 1930–31, it was met by Ukrainian citizens armed with pickaxes, hatchets, and farm equipment—whatever they had on hand that could be used as a weapon. Stalin responded to this resistance with brutal repression that led to the man-made famine known as the Holodomor, causing the deaths of three to five million Ukrainians.

This suffering only bolstered Ukrainian resistance, which remained strong throughout the Cold War, despite Russia’s efforts to stifle it. The United States recognized the strategic importance of Ukraine, and, as a result, the CIA built up a network of resistors in the late 1940s and 1950s.

Ukrainian nationalism and desire for more autonomy increased in the 1960s and 1970s. Russia responded with a “pretty heavy-handed Russification campaign,” said Redihan, that involved efforts to rewrite Ukrainian history to glorify Russia and efforts to replace the Ukrainian language by rewriting the nation’s laws in Russian.

Redihan’s talk was part of a panel presentation and discussion organized by Worcester State University’s History and Political Science Department. Also presenting were adjunct faculty Megan Sethi, Ph.D., and visiting assistant professor Thomas Wood, Ph.D.

In his talk, “Why Can’t Ukraine Be Kyrgyzstan: Russia’s Response to Democratization in Former Soviet Areas,” Dr. Wood said that the newly independent countries faced “massive challenges” regarding identity, the legitimacy of government, reorganizing their economies, and constructing their foreign policies.

“One of the major impacts of the Soviet experience,” he said, “was to cement these national identities. No matter how much the Soviets perhaps felt threatened by them, they also did a lot of things with unintended consequences that ended up making them extremely firm and enduring.” The fact that Ukraine has been “extremely successful” in its democratization has been “a huge threat to Moscow, because you have a country which has a large free Russian speaking media, you have a country which has a large number of Russian speaking people.”

In her talk, Dr. Sethi answered the question “Are We in a New Cold War? America, Russia, and the Nuclear Threat.” She traced the Cold War from its origins in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to the collapse of the Soviet Union, highlighting that U.S.-Russian relations have been fraught since World War I, when the U.S. sent 15,000 troops to support anti-Bolshevik insurgents and then blocked Russia’s participation in the Versailles Treaty.

Sethi drew parallels between the rise of authoritarianism and anti-democratic regimes in the 1920s and 1930s and in recent years and said that Vladimir Putin, with his “explicitly nationalist and implicitly white supremacist ideology,” is closer, ideologically, to Mussolini and Hitler than to Stalin. So, Sethi argued, World War II might serve better as a model for our understanding of Putin’s goals than the Cold War does.

Sethi addressed the current situation in Russia and Ukraine. “If the Cold War was largely a contest for hearts and minds, in this current conflict,” she said, “the West is winning.”

“Putin’s disinformation war does not appear to be working as well as he might have hoped outside of Russia. The Ukrainians, on the whole, have been remarkably skillful in their war of propaganda and public opinion and shaping the global political narrative, and I don’t think [Putin] really anticipated this.”

U.S. and NATO responses to Russia thus far have been treading a fine line between supporting Ukraine and avoiding escalation that could lead to the use of nuclear weapons. Although the likelihood that Putin will employ nuclear weapons is “relatively low,” Sethi said, because the global response would be devastating to Russia, “it’s not nonexistent.” She also pointed out that there’s a threat of nuclear meltdown if power plants are attacked or mishandled, as Chernobyl was when Russian troops occupied it one day after the invasion started.

After Sethi’s talk, panel facilitator Charlotte Haller, Ph.D., said “I was hoping you were going to relieve all my anxieties and fears about nuclear annihilation.”

These difficult conversations are important, though, as Russ Pottle, Ph.D., Dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Worcester State, said, “Any grave issue deserves better than simple-minded thinking, and no issue more than war. We ourselves can’t stop what’s happening now in Ukraine, but we can examine the context and seek to understand the complexities that surround and inhabit it, so that, when we discuss the situation in our own communities or make demands for action of our elected politicians, we will be able to do so with the advantages of expert information.”

Photo by Jo Kassis at Pexels