Professors contextualize Russian invasion of Ukraine

By Christopher Gillett

The ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine began over a month ago. Youngstown State University academics provided context to the expansion of a conflict occurring since 2014 that has deep historical roots.

Brian Bonhomme, a history professor at YSU, specializes in environmental and Russian history. He explained much of the history behind the conflict between the countries and articulated the inaccuracies in many of Russia’s justifications.

Among Russia’s justifications for the invasion is the claim that Ukraine does not have a history and is appropriating Russian history. While both countries’ histories originate with the Medieval Kievan Rus, a Slavic-Viking kingdom which converted to Orthodox Christianity, Ukraine is not appropriating Russian history, Bonhomme explained.

“Over many centuries, [Ukraine has] been a part of Austria, Poland, [Poland-Lithuania, and] Russia. It’s one of these areas that’s struggled for a long time to create and articulate a national identity. It’s had a national identity for a long time. It clearly is a state. It clearly is a nation, but it’s only been an independent state for about 30 years,” he said.

During the First World War and the Russian Civil War, Ukraine had a brief independence but was brought into the Soviet Union, as Bonhomme put it, “kicking and screaming.” Under the Soviets, Ukraine dealt with a government-manufactured famine, which was known in the Ukrainian language as the Holodomor, translated as “famine-death.” According to Bonhomme, the U.S. Senate recognized the famine as a genocide in 2018. Both the Russian Empire and Soviet Union left bad memories for Ukraine.

Russia has also justified the invasion with the claim of “denazification.” Bonhomme explained the historical context. 

“When the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, they came through Ukraine in many places, and some Ukrainians cooperated with the Nazis when they came in, seeing the Nazis as potential liberators from the horrors of the Stalinist Soviet Union that they were living under. That alliance didn’t go very far and didn’t last very long, but there is a clear tendency in Russia to see those Ukrainians who collaborated with the Nazis in an extraordinarily negative light, and I think a lot of conflation of modern Ukrainian nationalism with that World War II-era Nazism,” he said.

Like many countries today, Ukraine has Neo-Nazi groups. Azov Battalion is one of the largest Neo-Nazi groups in Ukraine, and, according to The New York Times, is currently fighting in Mariupol against Russia.

Before 2014, many former communist countries were joining NATO, which made Russia nervous. When Ukrainians overthrew the pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych in 2014, this was enough pretext to go to war.

“From the point of [view of] Russia, [NATO’s expansion] has always looked like a creeping invasion,” Bonhomme said. “This isn’t something where Putin got up in a bad mood one morning and decided to invade Ukraine. This has been coming for a long time.” 

Paul Sracic, a professor of politics and international relations who focuses on East Asia, expanded on this and gave his thoughts on Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

“I think that Zelenskyy has done a very good job using the media to gain sympathy for Ukraine, and this has helped to unify the West against Russia.  Zelenskyy and NATO can perhaps be criticized for pushing too hard on making Ukraine a part of NATO, something that Russia felt was very threatening,” he said.

YSU history professor David Simonelli specializes in contemporary and European history. His study has given him an understanding of the current conflict. He explained his worry around tactical nuclear weapons. According to Simonelli, these are atomic bombs of similar caliber to those dropped on Japan, which can now be carried in a backpack with some difficulty. 

“[Russia] may lose their patience and use one, and the use of one nuclear weapon is enough to bring dramatic climate change to this planet that could have an impact on Youngstown — or frankly just the entire world — in throwing up dust, ash, everything else into the atmosphere. It may come back to your life, if an atomic bomb is dropped there,” he said. “The chances of it happening are slim, but slim is not good enough. It has to be zero percent, and we have not been vigilant about this the same way we were during the Cold War.”

He also explained how the invasion is affecting Germany and NATO.

“Germany is rebuilding its army for the first time since the Second World War began, beginning to take itself seriously as a military power — which, of course all ought to be a little bit concerned about considering the Prussian past — but also, at least in terms of the German future, could and likely will be a boom to the United States in that Germany will begin pulling its weight a lot more in NATO than it has been in the past,” he said.

He also highlighted the similarities between Putin and Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany before World War I.

“Whenever I am talking [with a class] about the First World War and we discuss Kaiser Wilhelm II as a personality, I always tell them that if they really want to know what he was like to take a look at the way that Putin operates in the world. [Putin has a] very similar desire to project himself as being overly masculine. [He is] determined that Russia be consulted in whatever diplomatic issue is going on because they’re Russian. A good example of that is our issues in Syria,” he said.

For readers interested in keeping up with the war, Sracic recommended The Financial Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal. For more historical context, Simonelli recommended the book “Lenin’s Tomb” by David Remnick, which details the fall of the Soviet Union.