Interview by Margo Kissell, university news and communications
Concerns are rising around the world that Moscow is planning to invade Ukraine. It is estimated that Russia has put 100,000 troops near Ukraine in recent weeks. Miami University professors who have studied Russia, Russian history, and the region share insight into the unfolding situation.
Stephen Norris, Walter E. Havighurst Professor of Russian History and the director of the Havighurst Center for Russian and Post-Soviet Studies, is an expert in Russian history.
Norris is available to talk about the longer-term historical arguments that play a significant role in this escalating situation. He can explain “why Putin’s reading of history matters, why it is a very narrow and often propagandistic view of history, and how Ukrainians today see their own history — one that has many commonalities to Russia’s, but one where they definitely understand themselves as different and distinctive.”
What does Norris think about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s actions?
“Putin often fancies himself a historian, making frequent references to the past and peppering his speeches and writings with ‘historical lessons.’ So, in one sense, Putin’s actions follow the ‘logic’ he has presented in them. Putin has consistently argued that Ukrainians and Russians are ‘one people’ and that Ukraine’s leaders — backed by the West — have sought to undermine this unity. In March 2014, when he announced the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula, Putin justified it by stating ‘Crimea speaks to our shared history and pride’ and ‘Crimea is an inseparable part of Russia.’
“Putin has continued to sound these notes ever since 2014, even going so far as to publish a much-discussed 5,000 word essay this past July, ‘On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians.’ (Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, when asked about the essay by a journalist, sarcastically commented that it must be nice to have so much time on your hands). In it, the Russian president writes that Ukraine’s political leaders, backed by the West, have turned the country into ‘a barrier between Europe and Russia.’ Putin sees this alleged division as artificial, one that separates the supposed historical unity of Russians and Ukrainians. He decries how ‘our spiritual unity has also been attacked’ and concludes that ‘true sovereignty’ in Ukraine can only be through a partnership with Russia because ‘we are one people.’
“This is all a very one-sided view of history, one that echoes Soviet-era textbooks and one that voices Russian grievances that have built up over the last three decades. At one point in the essay, after criticizing how the Bolshevik Party gave away ‘Russian’ territories to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist republic when it was created in 1922, Putin writes ‘one fact is crystal clear: Russia was robbed, indeed.’ Here Putin refers to the Donbas region, where Russian-backed separatists have been fighting a war with the Ukrainian army since 2014. One conclusion Putin reaches is stated plainly toward the end of the essay: ‘Apparently, and I am becoming more and more convinced of this: Kiev simply does not need the Donbas.’
"In Putin’s reading of history, the Donbas region is historically a part of ‘Russia’ and the Bolsheviks gave it away. The current Ukrainian government has continued to drive this separation of supposed unity, necessitating Russia’s ‘help.’
“It’s a view of the past and the present that assumes Ukrainians have been duped and are not really capable of articulating their own ideas about national identity and independence. And it’s the one-sided vision of history that has laid the foundations for the current crisis. The historian Kathryn David has perceptively said that in these speeches and writings, Putin ‘is denying Ukraine’s sovereignty by denying its history.’”Hannah Chapman, assistant professor in the department of Political Science, is an expert on the Putin system.
The United States and its NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) allies are preparing for possible war there, with the U.S. ordering 8,500 troops on higher alert to potentially deploy to Europe.
What does Chapman think about the latest standoff, in which Russia is demanding guarantees that NATO would never let Ukraine join and that the alliance would curtail other actions, such as stationing troops in former Soviet bloc countries?
“The pressing questions are: Will Russia invade Ukraine? What is the reason behind Russia’s amassing troops on the Ukrainian border? We ultimately do not know Russia’s intentions, but there are a couple of likely explanations. Russia has long objected to NATO membership of countries in its proclaimed ‘sphere of influence,’ such as Georgia and Ukraine. Russia’s military buildup along the border shows that, at the very least, Russia is serious about getting guarantees that Ukraine will never join NATO.
“NATO has an open door policy, which allows current NATO members to invite European states to join the alliance. This policy allows sovereign states, such as Ukraine, to have self-determination over their relationship with NATO. NATO has consistently opposed changing this policy to exclude the option for Ukraine to one day join the alliance. It is unlikely to completely change course. Despite this open door policy, it remains highly unlikely that NATO will extend this option to Ukraine in the near future.
“It is essential that policymakers in the USA and Europe take this threat seriously and continue to engage in diplomacy in an effort to avoid potential military conflict with Russia.”Liza Skryzhevska, associate dean for Academic Affairs in the College of Liberal Arts and Applied Science and an associate professor of Geography at the Miami Regionals’ Hamilton campus, is an affiliate with the Havighurst Center for Russian and Post-Soviet Studies and a native of Ukraine.
She was born in Ukraine and earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Odessa National University there. Her mother and her mother’s two sisters live in Odessa. She last visited them in 2017.
“I have been planning my next trip this coming summer,” she said. “If the situation with Russia will worsen, the elderly people, like my mother and my aunts, will suffer the most. They are the least protected segments of the population.”
What does Skryzheva’s think about the situation?
“I am extremely concerned about the escalating situation in Ukraine. It is hard to say at this point how the situation will evolve. Russia’s demands for guarantees that Ukraine will never join NATO are unacceptable. Ukraine is a sovereign democratic country capable of defining its own future without any interference from outside.
“From my recent conversations with my mother and my Ukrainian friends, I learned that there is a divide in Ukrainian society with regard to the current developments at the border with Russia. Some people don’t think that the threat of invasion is real, while others truly believe that war is inevitable. I also learned that many Ukrainians are thankful for the support of the United States and other countries, and they believe that this support will prevent this situation from deteriorating and lead to a more stable future.”
[Update] Ask the Expert: Russia and Ukraine's religious history
Scott Kenworthy, associate professor in Miami University's Department of Comparative Religion, has co-authored a new book that is a general introduction to the history, beliefs and practices and current role of Christianity in Russia. Read more here.