Skip to Content, Navigation, or Footer.
Wednesday, April 24, 2024
The Observer

Notre Dame community weighs in on Russia, Ukraine tensions

1644246427-2de7b3336366761-700x467


Since signing the Charter of the United Nations in 1945, the only violation of Article 2, Paragraph 4 of the charter, which declares that no state can use military force to conquer another state’s territory, was in 1990 when Iraq invaded Kuwait.

Russia had about 130,000 troops stationed at the Ukrainian border, as of Feb. 4. If Russia invades Ukraine, this would be the second ever violation of this section of the charter.

To Notre Dame law professor Mary Ellen O’Connell, this is a massive threat to an essential norm of international law.

“We can’t really lose the rule, but boy it gets weaker if we let Russia invade Ukraine,” O’Connell said of Article 2(4). “The U.S. has a real interest in stopping this kind of aggression to save the world order.”

Notre Dame international relations professor Michael Desch disagrees. “We’ve overstated our interest [in Ukraine],” he said. “It’s not trivial, but I don’t think it needs to be as big a deal as it’s become.”

Instead, Desch predicts that Russian president Vladimir Putin is threatening an invasion of Ukraine to force the West into giving Russia something. “My own view is that the Russians are not likely to invade,” Desch said. “That they’re putting on the pressure to try to achieve some diplomatic objectives.”

Demands on NATO

Many of those objectives relate to the expansion of North Atlantic Trade Organization (NATO).

In 1996, Desch visited Boris Yeltsin’s quasi-democratic Russia and met with Andrei Kozyrev, Russia’s minister of foreign affairs at the time. In a small group meeting with Desch, Kozyrev told him, “If we cared anything about the future of democracy in Russia, the last thing we do is expand NATO.”

Since that meeting, 15 states, mostly in the Eastern European region have joined the alliance. This, Desch argues, is the cause of recent Russian aggression on the Ukrainian border.

Desch attributed NATO expansion to the common assumption in the West that NATO is a defensive alliance of “peace-loving democracies.” The issue, he said, is that in politics, one state’s security is another state’s insecurity.

“It ignores everything we know about great power politics 101,” Desch said. “Great powers think about their security first and foremost and are very sensitive to developments that might undermine that security.”

O’Connell also took issue with NATO expansion as a means of security. Whereas NATO is simply a military alliance that was designed during the Soviet era, O’Connell hopes to see more diplomatic institutions used.

“Either the U.N. or the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe are the way to go, not NATO,” O’Connell said, because they “take first and foremost the lead of peace.”

Frustration over broken promises

Taras Dobko, a visiting scholar at Notre Dame’s Nanovic Institute and senior vice-rector at the Ukrainian Catholic University (UCU) in Lviv, Ukraine, doesn’t think Ukraine neutrality is enough.

In 1994, Ukraine gave up nuclear weapons inherited from the Soviet Union in exchange for neutrality and security.

“But in 2014, Russia invaded and annexed part of Ukrainian territory. Neutrality didn’t help,” Dobko said of the Russian invasion of Crimea.

Sophomore Anastasia Matuszak, who was born in Ukraine, also is disappointed in Ukraine’s 1994 deal.

“The fact that a lot of countries are kind of being hesitant is very frustrating. It’s not a question of whether to help this other country, it’s that a deal was made,” she said.

Since Russia’s 2014 invasion of Crimea, Ukraine has more actively pushed to join NATO.

“The government saw that neutral status doesn’t protect from Russia’s appetites,” Dobko said.

Matuszak describes the situation less as a new worry, but one that has been continuous since 2014.

“It’s something that is really horrible, but it’s been going on for such a long time. This is just the newest peak in it,” she said. “There’s not a threat of war in Ukraine, there’s already been a war going on since 2014.”

Putin’s interest

Dobko described anxiety and uncertainty in Ukraine about the conflict.

“If we would attribute to Russia’s president's rational thinking, then I would conclude that there will not be full scale war. But as we know well, wars start not from rational thinking but are often caused by emotions,” he said.

The emotions he pointed to specifically rest in Putin’s claim that the fall of the Soviet Union was the “greatest catastrophe” of the 20th century. “There is also emotional thinking in Moscow of dreams to restore empire,” he said.

O’Connell also argued that Putin holds domestic motivations for his aggression.

“One of the real reasons behind all of this is the Russian economy and the need for President Putin to have some kind of foreign crisis to distract from the problems he’s having at home,” she said.

Dobko predicts that Russia will most likely make strategic military statements, destroying Ukrainian military capacities with quick operations.

“This would show the West that its attempts to strengthen Ukrainian security through providing weapons to Ukrainian army was in vain,” Dobko said.

Desch thinks attacking Ukraine is not in Russia’s interest, because a resistant Ukrainian citizenry would be ungovernable. “They understand that they could easily defeat the Ukrainian military in conventional military operations, you know, but then what do you do with it?” Desch said.

Worries for Ukrainian culture

In an email Friday, former director of the Nanovic Institute A. James McAdams explained the Institute’s strong connection to Ukraine and specifically the UCU in Lviv. The institute regularly hosts UCU scholars like Dobko as visiting scholars and often visits the University.

McAdams said in the email that there is “so much to learn from a university that is committed to defending democracy and Catholic values in a context in which vestiges of the communist and Soviet past are ever-present threats to the principles that we sometimes take for granted at Notre Dame.”

Senior Max Chuma is writing his capstone research essay for global affairs on the history of the Ukrainian military and how that could impact the outcome of a Russian invasion.

Chuma, whose grandparents fled Ukraine in World War II, worries most about Ukrainian culture being destroyed in the case of a Russian invasion. “I think it would impact our culture tremendously because the Russians would just be incredibly aggressive,” he said.

Matuszak, who attended Ukrainian Saturday school and did Ukrainian dance growing up, holds the same worry.

“I very much still feel connected to Ukraine through talking to my grandma and all of Ukrainian culture,” she said. “It’s very much part of my identity here.”

On social media, however, Chuma notices life moving on as usual for friends in Ukraine despite the current events.

“My one cousin from Ukraine yesterday posted his workout routine,” he said. “People go about their lives. There’s still university to go to, jobs to be done. Life moves on.”

Chuma also doesn’t think there will be an invasion, partly due to the impact of sanctions for Putin’s cronies.

“But on the flip side, we’ve been wrong before in predicting how these players will act in history,” Chuma said. “There’s always the chance and I just think that would be incredibly devastating.”

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story said that Matuszak did Russian dance, instead of Ukrainian dance. The Observer regrets this error.