CARLISLE — As a special panel on the crisis in Ukraine met Thursday evening at Dickinson College, an international showdown between Russia and Ukraine was dominating international news, with shadows of old East-West Cold War tension looming.
Rather than trying to heighten interest in Eastern European politics, at least some of the panelists provided a packed house with an opposite message: Don’t panic — at least, not too much.
Panelist R. Craig Nation, a Dickinson and U.S. Army War College professor, said he rejects “hawkish rhetoric” that claims Russian President Vladimir Putin is beginning an attempt to reconstruct the Soviet Union.
“That seems to me to be way over the top,” Nation said. “Russia is reacting to events in Ukraine ... using means it has to strengthen its position.”
Even taking over all of the Ukraine is probably not in Putin’s best interest, especially given Ukraine’s economic problems, panelist and Dickinson College associate professor Karl Qualls said.
“He wants to do as little as he possibly can to maintain the influence that he has,” Qualls said.
It’s that possibility that has Nation still holding out hope that Russia and Ukraine can avoid an open conflict.
“I don’t think anyone wants a shoot out, and that’s hopeful, but it’s in no one’s interest to go to war,” he said.
Still, panel moderator and Dickinson College professor Russell Bova said what happens in Russia should matter to Americans. Russia is an important partner in American dealings with Middle Eastern countries like Iran and Syria, he said, and damage to the Unites States-Russia relationship as a result of the conflict could reduce the potential for Russian cooperation in the Middle East.
Also, any time a country invades a sovereign territory — as Russia is doing to Ukraine — it’s a concerning violation of international law, he said.
The panelists began the evening by reviewing the history of Ukraine, events leading to current tensions, and Russia’s perspective on recent events.
A series of protests in Ukraine beginning last November led to the removal of President Viktor Yanukovych on Feb. 22, who signed a trade agreement with Russia in December while abandoning a possible trade agreement with the European Union. By the beginning of March, the Russian parliament had authorized the use of force in the Ukraine and Russian troops had begun marching toward the southern Ukrainian region of Crimea.
It’s Russia’s historic ties to Ukraine and Crimea — which was once part of Russia — that makes this an area of unique interest beyond Russian interest in other former Soviet Union territories, panelists said.
“Russia ... perceives that it has big interests at stake, and the risks are worth taking,” Nation said.
Panelist Marybeth Ulrich, a U.S. Army War College professor, agreed that Putin has a lot more at stake than the United States, and the west is limited in its options for responding. Still, Ulrich would like to see Russia face some sort of penalty for violating international law, she said.
“To me, success would be if (the penalty) was a little bit more than he was expecting, at least,” she said.
The crisis in Ukraine also goes beyond a Ukrainian choice between Western-style democracy and Russian influence, panelists said. They described Ukraine as country suffering from a poor economy, bad infrastructure and a string of corrupt politicians that helped inspire the protest movement.
“On a personal level, these are just regular people. They’re just fed up,” Ulrich said. “You can have a fair and free election, but everybody who’s been in (office) has been corrupt.”