Statement on Russia-Ukraine crisis

7 02 2022

I have been conducting research in Ukraine, intermittently, since 1989. This period encompasses at least two ‘revolutions’ (three, by some counts), one short-lived military coup (in 1991), one declaration of independence (later that year), a boundary war that has now gone on for the last eight years, and confusing and varied accounts of relationships between U.S. political figures and Ukrainian and/or Russian ‘oligarchs’ and political advisors (such as Paul Manafort). I recognize that news about Ukraine can wear thin on people. But I am also aware that my academic colleagues, friends, and family in Ukraine are deeply concerned about the likelihood of a military incursion, and potentially an invasion, of Ukraine by Russia. The following statement is intended to help us think about what western scholars and citizens can do to help.

Peace with Sovereignty

Russia and Ukraine, we are told, are poised on the precipice of war. Russian armed forces have gathered on Ukraine’s eastern, northern, and southern borders, purportedly to prevent Ukraine from joining Nato and/or the European Union, or otherwise moving away from the Russian “sphere of influence.”

It is important to understand that Ukrainian opinions about their country’s foreign policies — i.e., whether to embrace their western (EU, Nato) or Russian neighbors — have varied greatly over the years, but that those opinions have more recently shifted toward the West and away from Russia. Recent surveys confirm that significant majorities of Ukrainians support joining the EU and/or Nato, the latter primarily to help with defending against the kind of foreign incursion that is now being threatened. And a survey conducted in December by Ukraine’s most respected sociological institute, the KIIS Institute of Sociological Research, showed that 33.3% of Ukrainians are prepared to take up arms against a Russian invasion, another 22% are prepared to resist through demonstrations, marches, boycotts, and other nonviolent means, and another 15% are prepared to move to a safer region of the country.

An invasion and takeover, military coup, or greatly expanded war would therefore not be taken lightly by Ukrainians. On the contrary, it would result in severe human costs. It would also place many other Eastern European countries – which have themselves joined Nato precisely to protect themselves against potential Russian military aggression – on high alert. In global terms, it is also likely to result in destabilization of other zones of relative stability (such as Taiwan, which would feel threatened by China as a result of China’s and Russia’s recent statement of solidarity with each other’s territorial ambitions).

To prevent the world from sliding into global war, at a time when our hands are full with the Covid pandemic, climate change, and other global challenges, requires concerted action by citizens and by governments to apply pressure on all the relevant players. 

You’re probably wondering: but what can we do? Here are a few things:

1) Support peace: Make it known, including to your political representatives, that the power of diplomacy and sanction should be maximized to prevent war, which itself could threaten the stability of the world at a time when the challenges we face (social, environmental, et al) are already momentous enough. 

2) Support Ukrainian sovereignty: Make it known (to the same representatives) that you care about Ukraine and wish to support its national sovereignty. Why care about Ukraine? It is the first country to have unilaterally disarmed of a huge nuclear arsenal, third largest in the world (at the time) , in exchange for security guarantees that its borders and sovereignty would not be violated. One of the signatories of that agreement, known as the Budapest Memorandum, has now violated its boundaries and is threatening more dramatic violation. The precedent this sets up for global security is frightening and should be avoided at all costs.

3) Support the Russian anti-war movement: As with the late Soviet movement for “people to people contacts” between citizens across the Cold War divide, professionals and academics could reach out to their Russian colleagues to let them know that a military invasion of Ukraine would be disastrous, both for Russia and the world. There is a growing anti-war movement in Russia, and while many academics rightfully fear their government’s ability to curtail their professional opportunities, international solidarity with academic colleagues can ultimately strengthen their resolve to work with us for peaceful, negotiated solutions to conflicts. 

Some would say that these three goals contradict each other: that supporting peace might mean “sacrificing” Ukraine, or that defending Ukraine’s sovereignty might mean supporting one side of a growing global arms race (e.g., the Western side versus the Russian side). They do not. Sacrificing Ukraine means placating Russian militarism and placing other countries at risk, leading to an enhanced arms race in Europe. Supporting Russian militarism gives fuel to other forms of expansionism across the world. Long-term peace is only possible with sovereignty, dignity, self-determination, and the rule of law, applied everywhere equally.

There are no “angels” and “devils” here; the U.S., Russia, China, and other powers have all played the bully in international affairs. The way to build a world of peace and prosperity is by supporting institutions that would keep such bullying in check wherever it may arise. Today it is arising on the borders of Ukraine. Ukrainians themselves know this; it is time that their views be recognized and supported.

For further information on the background to the current situation, see the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute’s web site on the crisis. And please read and, if you agree, share this “Open Letter to the Russian Leadership” from the Russian Congress of Intellectuals.



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