To acquire wisdom, one must observe

Expert panelists contextualize Russia-Ukraine conflict in CGES webinar

In a recent webinar organized by the Center for German and European Studies, panelists Stephen Lloyd Wilson, Assistant Professor of Politics, Simon Pirani from the University of Durham and Marcel Roethig from the Friedrich Ebert Foundation in Kyiv, Ukraine contextualized the war between Russia and Ukraine. The conversation was moderated by Brandeis professor of German Studies (GER) and Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies (WMGS), Sabine von Mering. 


Mering notes the drastic and sudden impact of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, citing how within four weeks, there have been thousands of deaths, millions fleeing and multiple economic strains. This webinar, titled “Contextualizing the Ukraine Crisis,” explains the political, economic and global impact of the escalating tensions between the two nations. 


Wilson detailed key information about the political history of Ukraine and Russia. Due to its unique geographic location at the intersection of Europe and Asia, Wilson refers to Ukraine as the “West-East junction.” Ukraine’s proximity to both Europe and Asia have invited the juxtaposition of both Western and Eastern cultural influences. As such, Ukraine is made up of diverse ethnic, linguistic and political identities. 


Wilson further explains Russia’s motivation for perpetuating the current war, describing how Putin subscribes to the belief that Russia is a central power that protects Slavic countries from the “abuse of foreign countries.” Wilson explains how this ideology bolsters Russia’s tendency to pressure Ukraine imperialistically, describing how as a historical power, Russia does not believe in the sovereignty of neighboring Slavic countries. Ukraine’s attempt to join NATO and the EU therefore contradict Putin’s vision for Russia and its power over neighboring Slavic nations. Wilson adds, “I think it’s critical to understand that Putin’s perspective here isn’t irrational; you might not agree with it [and] it might be evil, but it is not irrational. It is not the actions of a madman.” 


Wilson also addresses the future outcome of this conflict. Since Putin is determined to establish the legacy of great Russian power during his leadership, Russia is unlikely to step back from asserting control over its Slavic buffer states. “From a certain perspective, that means that there are not any easy ‘off-ramps’… in terms of minimizing human suffering,” Wilson explains. Putin’s extreme efforts towards achieving his vision for Russia make it difficult to mitigate the conflict with monetary negotiations, causing other nations’ leaders to look to other solutions. 


Pirani offers a historical and current summary of Russia’s economic strengths and constraints and how they connect with the ongoing conflict, emphasizing the gas trade that has been central to Russian relationships with Europe and particularly Germany. When Russia was incorporated into the world economy at a larger scale after World War II, its main purpose was to be a supplier of raw materials such as oil, gas and minerals. This puts an economic constraint on Russia and Putin’s goals include moving away from the over-reliance on revenue from the export of raw materials, Pirani explains. Ukraine is important in Russia’s economy because the export of raw materials occurs through a pipeline in Ukraine. 


While the gas trade is crucial to Russia’s relationship with Europe and Germany, Russia’s buyers of gas have been on a steady decline for the past 30 years. With growing tension between Russia and Ukraine in the past, gas imports from Russia to Ukraine have stopped completely. A goal of European nations is to cut off dependence on Russian fossil fuels by 2030. Pirani states that while this may be feasible, it would also cause economic strain for European countries. Putin is currently attempting to counteract economic strain with military strength. 


Lastly, Roethig spoke about the connection between Germany and Ukraine in this conflict. In the past, Germany has seen itself as a “mediator” of conflicts within Ukraine itself. For example, the Minsk agreement in 2014 marked the end of the war in the Donbas region of Ukraine. Roethig explained how the Germans plan to aid Ukraine in modernizing its economy and developing the Ukrainian military. While Ukraine was not prepared for a large-scale invasion, Germany is helping by providing arms to Ukrainians. Roethig explains that this poses the question of whether this will provide enough help to Ukraine to defend themselves. 

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