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Understanding the War in Ukraine

AUBURN, Ala. (EETV) - Tuesday afternoon, Auburn University's Department of Political Science and the Office of International Programs hosted a panel discussion titled "Understanding the War in Ukraine." Panel members Drs. Pellumb Kelmendi, Matt Clary, and Peter White, faculty in the Department of Political Science, shared their expertise and offered their analysis and perspective on the unfolding war in Ukraine.

Dr. Peter White and the Military Situation

Dr. Peter White drew upon his expertise in global militaries to discuss the military aspect of the Ukrainian-Russian situation. When discussing the Russian strategic goal from a week ago, he stated that "Russia wanted to end this quickly and quietly. But instead, it is fighting very slowly, and it is not quiet." The mass, worldwide coverage of the event hurts Russia. To highlight this, White brought up the Ghost of Kyiv, a rumored Ukrainian pilot that is speculated to have shot down six or more Russian planes. White asked the audience if they knew who the story of the pilot, dozens of hands shot up across the room. White stated, "the fact that almost everyone in this room knows who the Ghost of Kyiv is, means that Ukraine is winning the information war. They have our sympathy, they have our respect, Russia is very flat-footed."

There is also a large difference between the two countries' military forces. White referenced the Russian invasion into Crimea in 2014 to compare the situation then to the situation now. "This is not the same Ukraine military from 2014," White stated. Following the Crimea incident, the United States and western countries spent considerable time and resource modernizing and training the Ukrainian military. Additionally, White claimed there to be a lot of misinformation within the Russian military, given its authoritarian structure. "Lots of Russian soldiers did not know they were invading Ukraine." He again warned of misinformation near the end of the discussion. "Be a bit skeptical of what we are seeing", White stated. "Everything we see is from a self-interested party."

Dr. Matt Clary and the Global Impact

Dr. Matt Clary spoke on the United States, and other nations', reaction to the invasion, as well the global effects. Every nation around the world is involved somewhere or another. Switzerland, which is known for its neutrality amongst global conflicts, joined Europe and Western countries by imposing sanctions on Russia. On top of sanctions, Clary said the United States is "going to do everything short of sending military forces to Ukraine." It has also been recently announced that the United States will be closing its airspace to Russian planes. Many Governors, including Governor Ivey, are calling on stores to remove Russian-made vodka and alcohol from their shelves.

President Putin "is still very rational, very deterrable," according to Clary. The failure of the quick invasion and the immense sanctions imposed on Russia has crippled their economy. "Every indicator of a successful modern economy has gone out the door." When asked if the Russian economy would return to pre-invasion levels, Clary conclusively said no. "I'm no economist, but no. They are not going to come back from this. They are decoupling Europe from Russia."

Not all countries are distancing themselves from Russia; Belarus passed a referendum that would pave the way for closer ties to Russia Tuesday morning. Russian forces had previously invaded Ukraine through Belarussian lands, although President Alexander Lukashenko has denied Belarus's involvement so far. According to Clary, "China is trying to play both sides. They are trying to be pro-Russia without being pro-Russia." On a United Nations vote Wednesday morning, 141 of the 193 member states voted to deplore the Russian invasion and call for the withdrawal of Russian troops. 35 countries - including China, India, Iraq, Iran, and Pakistan - abstained from the vote. The 5 countries that voted against the resolution are Russia, Belarus, Syria, North Korea, and Eritrea.

Many have speculated that China will move on Taiwan in a similar fashion, but Dr. Clary does not think that will happen. "China can't survive the economic isolation Russia is facing." He built upon this statement when the floor was open to questions. "President Xi in China won't do anything to destroy his economy. Putin obviously did not care about that [Russian economy]... I am not worried about it [an invasion of Taiwan], but we can't dismiss it. China does want Taiwan." Dr. White also chimed in to say, "what I expect to see in China is a period of increased modernization, reform, and training [of the Chinese armed forces] to try and learn from Russia's mistakes."

Dr. Pellumb Kalmindy and the Balance of Power

Dr. Pellumb Kalmindy began his portion of the panel by focusing on empathy. "It is important to state the obvious. There are tens of millions of Ukrainians facing violence... many, many are dying every day." The casualties are speculated to be in the thousand, but the exact number is unknown as reports are easily manipulated by both sides.

The bulk of Kalmindy's discussion came from the causes of invasion, something politicians and foreign affairs have debated. Kalmindy said one of the biggest reasons is Russia and Putin are seeking a "balance of power... Russia wants to reassert its dominance in Europe." Following the end of the Cold War, and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Russia was severely weakened and the United States became recognized as the sole global superpower. In recent years, experts have come to consider China as starting to encroach on superpower status. Kalmindy speculated that "Perhaps messy withdrawal of US troops in Afghanistan shows weakness in Western forces overseas" in the Russian mind.

The institutions of Democracy, the European Union, NATO, etc. could also be reasons. We are seeing "civic nationalists" in Ukraine fighting "ethnic nationalists" from Russia, said Dr. Kalmindy. Russia has threatened an invasion of Finland and Sweden. A statement from the Russian Foreign Ministry stated there would be "serious military-political consequences" from Moscow, should the two countries join NATO.

Kalmindy also discussed the mindset of President Putin. He quoted that, "Putin stated that that the division of Russia into separate states created artificial countries and he has the right to incorporate them into a larger Russia." This has sparked fear in many former USSR-controlled nations. President Gitanas NausÄ—da of Lithuania, for example, has declared a State of Emergency, as preparations in case they are invaded as well.

Closing Remarks

The audience was encouraged to ask questions about the ongoing situation. One comment brought up from the crowd was that there were seemingly a lot of similarities between the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the German invasion of Czechoslovakia and Poland in the 1940s. Dr. Clary responded by stating, "it's not that there are a lot of similarities, there are. There are also a lot of major differences... World War II was a racial war." When questioned about appeasement he responded, "how you might deter Putin is not how you would deter Hitler."

As the panel wrapped up, each professor gave their closing remarks. Dr. Clary is of the opinion that Russia will likely come out on top of this situation, but "it's going to be ugly... We will likely see what happened in Belarus in Ukraine." Here, Clary is referencing the Russian-friendly government that was installed in Belarus. Clary is not without hope for the Ukrainians however. "I think the best hope we have is that someone in Russia gets some sense and convinces Putin to negotiate its way out of this... The post-Cold War era is over." Multiple global superpowers could be coming back, but nobody really knows.

Dr. White on the other hand disagreed with how this invasion will end. "Putin is in a really bad situation... I think he is looking for an off-ramp." White offers the escalation of attacks as a way of getting Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to the discussion table to end this diplomatically. Dr. Kalmindy seemed to agree more with Dr. White. "The economic pain we discussed is going to play a big factor... Putin is in a difficult situation."