Escalating tensions along the Russia-Ukraine border have led to worldwide worries of an imminent Russian invasion.
University professors and Ukrainian students who lived through Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea discussed the historical roots and modern implications of these conflicts with The Herald.
In October 2021, Russia began moving troops, heavy weaponry and military equipment to its Ukrainian border. In December 2021, the Russian foreign ministry issued a set of demands which included a ban on Ukraine joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. These demands were rejected by NATO, which did not rescind its 2008 commitment that Ukraine would eventually become a member.
“You have to go back to the fall of the Soviet Union” to find the origins of this conflict, said Joe Colleyshaw GS, who is working towards his PhD in Slavic Studies.
The Soviet Union was a multi-ethnic state, Colleyshaw explained. After its fall at the end of the Cold War, “you did not just have the collapse of a country … (but also) the transition from authoritarianism or hybrid systems to a more democratic system.”
Colleyshaw, who specializes in contemporary Russian memory and cultural identity, believes that Russia’s history is tightly intertwined with that of Ukraine.
“If you look at Ukrainian history from 2000 onwards, … it’s like a pendulum oscillating between taking more Western approaches to integration with Europe or taking stances more toward Russia,” Colleyshaw said.
Language plays a large role in this connection. “In the 1990s, a huge proportion of the Ukrainian population (was) either Russian-speaking or ethnically Russian (and) had a shared sense of identity” with Russia, he added.
Fabrizio Fenghi, assistant professor of slavic studies who specializes in contemporary Russia with a focus on the connections between art, literature and political activism, explained that links between culture and politics are separate.
“Having a connection to Russia and Russian culture … doesn’t necessarily mean one feels connected to Putin or Putin’s policies,” Fenghi said.
Michael Kennedy, professor of sociology and international and public affairs, added that a significant part of Ukraine does not identify with Russia.
“When President Putin of Russia says that it is impossible to imagine Russia and Ukraine (as) separate states, I understand the logic of that resting in the image of Kievan Rus’,” Kennedy said. Kievan Rus’ was an East Slavic state that existed from the 9th to the 13th century under the reign of the Rurik dynasty and encompassed parts of modern-day Russia and Ukraine.
“But Ukraine has been divided for a long time,” Kennedy added. “In the 19th century, … a significant part of Ukraine was a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and (a part) of Poland after World War I.”
Ukraine and the Crimean Peninsula hold particular importance to Russia beyond the regions’ shared culture and history, according to Colleyshaw. The Peninsula “is an integral part of Ukraine and strategically important to Russia” due to its access to the Black Sea, he said.
In 2014, the Russian military occupied the region. A referendum held in the same year determined that a majority of Crimean citizens supported secession from Ukraine and joining Russia. The referendum was declared illegal by the Ukrainian government and its validity was questioned worldwide but on March 18, the Treaty of Accession of the Republic of Crimea to Russia was signed by representatives of both countries.
“Ukraine wants to be a part of NATO because Russia didn’t respect its borders,” Kennedy said. “Russia has objected to NATO’s expansion since the 1990s … We should reinterpret Putin’s objection right now (as) trying to redraw the conclusion of the Cold War.”
Fenghi believes that the Russian buildup of troops is more of a “diplomatic move” and that Putin’s goal is not to invade the country.
Kennedy echoed this sentiment, adding that the threat of invasion affects not only the stability of the region but the entire world.
“One of the things Putin is testing is whether states can invade other states and get away with it,” Kennedy said.
Fenghi added that Putin is trying to utilize the image of Cold War legacies of conflict between the United States and Russia. “I feel like the main advantage Putin derives from this conflict is creating an image of the enemy, and the enemy is not Ukraine … (but) capitalist United States,” he said.
Both Fenghi and Kennedy emphasized the importance of not viewing the conflict as strictly NATO versus Russia. “One should avoid the frame of mind of binaries and polarizations, and of good versus evil,” Fenghi said.
“Why don’t we listen to the people whose lives are being threatened right now — and that’s the Ukrainian people,” Kennedy added.
Artem Agvanian ’25, who is from Mariupol, a city in eastern Ukraine, and whose family still lives there, was present during the 2014 occupation.
“It’s not something that I read in the news,” Agvanian said. “It’s actually something that came into my life.”
The emerging conflict today might be different from the attempts of the past, Agvanian said.
In 2014, “the presence of pro-Russian military seperatist forces was minimal in my everyday life, … but people were scared about what might come next,” he said. In Mariupol, the pro-seperatist movement was contained due to swift action by the Ukrainian army.
Artem Kyrylov ’24 was born in Kyiv, Ukraine and moved to Vilnius, Lithuania when he was 11. Kyrylov participated in the 2014 Euromaidan protests that led to the ousting of former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych.
Kyrylov’s family “thought that the regime at the time was very corrupt,” he said. “The president was mostly a Russian marionette and was just going to drag us into becoming a Russian client state.”
Kyrylov has been following the politics around this issue ever since.
Both Agvanian and Kyrylov are optimistic about Ukraine becoming a member of NATO.
“In a sense, the incline in Ukraine to join NATO is a direct concession to the Russian government,” Agvanian said. “If we want to create security and long-lasting peace in Ukraine, Ukraine has to cooperate strongly with Western powers, … including but not limited to NATO.”
Kyrylov echoed Agvanian. “We see it as a security guarantee on our side because we are far more afraid of Russia than of NATO,” he said.
Agvanian added that while Ukrianians have been dealing with the conflict with Russia since 2014, people from other countries forget about it after the end of the news cycle.
“You just get used to it,” he said, “because although the chances of a military intervention have allegedly increased now, the Russian military has been present in nearby regions the whole time.”
Agvanian feels that the Russian military’s presence has led to a sharp decline in support for the Russian government among eastern Ukrainans.
“Although a lot of people share Russian language and Russian culture, … people perceive themselves as Ukrainian and distinct from Russia — not necessarily in a cultural way but a political way,” he said.
Bridging these divides and “helping people from Eastern Europe to, despite their political differences, find common ground within their cultures and histories” is the goal of Kyrylov’s Brown Eastern European Society, which he founded this semester.
Both Kyrylov and Agvanian feel supported by the University community.
“People here know that we’re not our governments and … (one’s) nationality does not mean that (they) stand for the same values that the government (their) country does,” Kyrylov said. “As long as we keep that in mind, I don’t think there should be any tensions on campus in that regard.”