Q&A: Political science chairperson stresses importance of understanding Russia-Ukraine conflict
After the Russian invasion of Ukraine began Feb. 24, many Americans find themselves wondering what started the conflict and how to stay updated on the situation—especially a busy college audience.
According to David Jesuit, chairperson of Central Michigan University’s Political Science and Public Administration Department, the complicated conflict stretches back hundreds of years and cannot be summarized by the past week’s events.
The area that is now modern Ukraine, Jesuit said, has almost always been contested through history by different empires and countries laying claim to parts of its territory. He said Ukraine was part of the former Soviet Union along with Russia. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) stood in opposition to the Soviet Union, Jesuit said.
Jesuit said he believes President Vladimir Putin wishes to restore some of Russia’s former Soviet empire, with Ukraine as a part of it. Combined with this and the “insult” of Ukraine’s wishes to join NATO, Jesuit said Putin feels entitled to invade Ukraine and regain control of the country. He said the Russian government has likely been planning the invasion for a long time.
After earning his Ph.D. in political science, Jesuit specializes in international relations and comparative politics. He wrote his dissertation on European politics and teaches a class called “Europe and the European Union.”
Central Michigan Life spoke with Jesuit to discuss why it is important for Americans to understand the Russia-Ukraine war and why it is relevant, even to a college campus.
CM Life: Why has Russia chosen to invade Ukraine now?
Jesuit: (Russia) has been building on this for a while, so I think this is a culmination of what is anticipated as (Putin’s) objective. Many experts are saying that Putin was waiting until the Olympics were over. In 2008, when (Putin) invaded the country of Georgia, the Chinese were upset that he upstaged the Olympics. That’s one reason. Others were saying the ground had to be sufficiently frozen so all the heavy equipment could roll over the ground, like tanks and heavy trucks.
…Putin was planning this for far longer as part of his objective to restore a Russian Empire and reverse what he has called the greatest catastrophe of the 20th Century: the collapse of the Soviet Union.
How can people stay up to date with quality information?
You need to refer to multiple sources, which includes international sources. That includes the BBC and Deutsche Welle from Germany.
…Don’t go to the source that just reinforces your political biases. We know that Fox is going to give you Republican spin. We know that MSNBC is going to give you Democratic spin. Go ahead and read those sources—opinion journalism is important, but go beyond that.
What is the likelihood of the U.S. going to war over this situation?
I don’t think it’s likely, but there are a couple of scenarios. One would be a successful cyber attack on United States military capabilities that leads to rapid escalation. That’s a world war three scenario. Another is the invasion of a NATO country if Putin is crazy enough — I’m sorry —irrational enough to think that he could get away with invading Estonia, for example. It’s been very clear to me from the beginning that the U.S. cannot allow an attack on another NATO country.
If the U.S. goes to war, should young people be worried about getting drafted into military service?
No, they don’t want you. I’m serious, the all-volunteer army is far superior than the conscript or draft army. They’re committed, they’re well trained and they want to be there, generally speaking. The use of technology, in particular, is much more advanced. They don’t really want a drafted army in the modern battlefield. There are possibilities, but I think they’re very, very unlikely. Having said that, if you had asked me three years ago if we would have a two-year pandemic, I would have said ‘no, that’s very unlikely.’
What are sanctions and how will Americans see the effects of them?
Sanctions are a very broad term for the use of economic punishments. In this case, they’re targeted. A sanction could be not importing more oil or vodka. These are targeting individuals — part of the ruling elite — and trying to go after Putin’s money.
…We haven’t seen the real effect of (American sanctions). I’m not aware of any sanctions yet that cut off any oil or gas exports. It’s just the instability—markets don’t like instability. It doesn’t really have to do with the actual supply of oil, it has to do with fears about the future supply.
How does this conflict affect people that are directly impacted by it?
If you have friends or family in Central or Eastern Europe, particularly Ukraine, I mean just the level of tragedy that’s occurring—there’s just no doubt that lives are being destroyed. I just feel horrible. I have friends in Poland and they’re very concerned. I had a discussion with a reporter—her parents are in East Germany and she’s very concerned.
How can we support people on CMU’s campus that are feeling the effects of the war?
Just be very sensitive. (Political Science faculty member) Prakash Adhikari is a great person to talk to because he deals with people who have been forcibly displaced. If you know a person who has family over there, sometimes I think it’s almost better to allow them to bring it up, rather than saying, ‘oh my gosh is your family okay?’ Don’t assume they want to talk about it. Allow them to bring it up, at least until there’s a little bit more certainty because that could bring up trauma that they might’ve experienced.
Follow the news and remember that if you’re paying higher prices to fill up a tank of gas, that’s a minor inconvenience compared to what’s happening to people in Ukraine.
How has the war affected politics in Washington D.C.?
Typically, during an international crisis, we’ve seen a rally around the flag phenomenon where the president’s approval rating goes up. We’re so polarized as a country that there won’t be a rally around the flag. Republicans see it one way and Democrats see it another.
We’ll see the state of the union (March 1) and of course President Biden is going to address the situation. There’s a chance for some bipartisanship there, but I’ve also seen (the war) used for partisan advantage.
The narrative is so baked in. We’re in our tribes and it doesn’t matter what the truth is. Politics are about your emotional attachment right now to a political party or candidate. (The war) is just being used to heat up the partisan debate, and that’s unfortunate.
What are the best and worst case scenarios coming out of this?
The best-case scenario is Putin loses power and somehow there’s a new government in Russia that has willingness and desire to move in a direction of a freer market. Worst case is world war three; an attack on Estonia or Putin being this messianic megalomaniac like people have depicted Hitler, which isn’t necessarily true, but that’s certainly evil that he can’t be deterred.
…It’s disturbing that (Putin) has been far too quick to allude to—and not even allude but to specifically reference—the nuclear arsenal that Russia possesses. These are thermonuclear fusion bombs. I mean these are like end of the world bombs. You don’t mention those things lightly, and he’s been far too flippant. You don’t need to remind us. Why are we talking about your nukes? Some have said he’s doing that to take attention so now we’re talking about his nukes and not talking about military difficulties that the conventional Russian military is having in defeating the Ukrainian army.
Do you think the peace talks between Ukraine and Russia will be productive?
Not now. You have got to let these things work out. Don’t be surprised if there’s no progress on the peace talks until some things change on the ground. It’s important that they are talking, though. I was very happy to see that. Just because there isn’t progress that we would point to, doesn’t mean that it’s not important that they speak. Even just agreeing on some basic parameters of where they’ll meet and what they’ll discuss—that’s not going to make any headlines, but talking is definitely good.
What outcome do you hope to see in the near future?
I’d hope for the best case scenario that I outlined but I think that’s very unlikely. I just hope that any escalation is managed — that there’s no invasion of a NATO country. I think Putin is almost certainly going to be able to occupy Ukraine, despite the real heroic activities of Ukrainians. I’m just hopeful that Putin comes to his senses sooner rather than later and sees that this is not working.