W&L hosts webinar on Putin, Ukrainian crisis

Zoom panel helps answer questions and provide context around Putin’s invasion.

Why did Vladimir Putin invade Ukraine? Why isn’t he backing down? What does it mean for the world? And why is all of this happening now?

These were just some of the questions answered in a Zoom webinar titled “Ukraine, Russia, EU, and Vladimir Putin,” hosted by Washington and Lee University March 9. The talk came against the backdrop of  Russian troops inching closer to the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, causing thousands of deaths and forcing millions more to flee the country.

History professor Richard Bidlack, dressed in blue and yellow, the colors of the Ukrainian flag, said three main events have rooted the lifelong insecurities which motivate the actions that Russian President Vladimir Putin is taking.

Putin grew up in the ruins of Leningrad, now called St. Petersburg, Bidlack said, after it had been blockaded and sieged by the Nazis for nearly 900 days, resulting in  almost one million residents being killed. Putin’s brother died from disease, and both his parents nearly died of starvation — all before he reached the age of 10.

According to Bidlack, those experiences, as well as the countless war stories, molded Putin’s  character.

He was taught to “always be on guard,” Bidlack said. “Never again be caught unprepared.”

Bidlack also said that the collapse of the Soviet Union left Putin with more insecurities.

Weeks after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Putin was stationed as an officer for the KGB (the former security agency of the Soviet Union) in Dresden, East Germany, when a group of protesting citizens decided to storm the KGB office. Putin realized the office could not withstand the citizen invasion, so he called Moscow for help.

Bidlack said Putin was met with a stunning response.

“We cannot do anything without orders from Moscow,” the voice at the other end replied, Bidlack said. “Moscow is silent.”

Despite managing to convince the crowd to withdraw, the incident had a lasting effect on Putin. It led him to believe the Soviet Union’s collapse was caused by a “paralysis of power” and showed Putin how vulnerable political elites were to everyday citizens, Bidlack said.

The events in East Germany only made the “Orange Revolution” 15 years later even more profound to Putin, Bidlack said. 

Ukraine citizens successfully took to the streets demanding a new presidential election after widespread proof showed that the 2004 Ukrainian election was rigged in favor of the Russian-backed candidate.

The so-called “Orange Revolution,” and the subsequent new election in which the pro-Russian candidate was defeated, deepened Putin’s fears about NATO expansion. The fragility of his power became a point of obsession, Bidlack explained.

Bidlack said that Putin believes it is his innate destiny to bring former Soviet-controlled countries back into his sphere of influence, but he does not want to rebuild the Soviet Union.

“Putin is not nostalgic for Communism,” Bidlack said. “He even has a grudge against Lenin.”

Sociology professor Krzysztof Jasiewicz, a native of Poland, agreed in his presentation covering how Putin’s ideas and actions show his imperialistic state of mind.

Jasiewicz said that Putin is not trying to reverse what he called the “demise of the Soviet Union,” but rather trying to rebuild the land that the pre-Revolution Russian Empire once controlled.

“Going back to history, I would like to repeat that the Soviet Union was established in the place of the former Russian Empire in 1922,” Putin said in a Feb. 21 speech.

According to Jasiewicz, Putin’s invasion could be his way of trying to enact three potential aims: creating the Russian order of the world, portraying Russia as the last defender of traditional Christian values, or making Russia into a “Third Rome” or Turan.

Jasiewicz also posed a contrast between a Russian order of the world and “the West’s” way of life.

“The West has liberal democracy, rule of law, a market economy, civil society, ideological pluralism… with groups like Republicans and Democrats, and lifestyle tolerance,” Jasiewicz said. “Russkiy Mir (the ‘Russian World’) is the opposite. It’s autocracy, arbitrary decision making, state capitalist… ideological uniformism, and is traditionalist exclusionism.”

Jasiewicz said  that the invasion may be Putin’s way of “rescuing” Ukraine from what he thinks is a decline in traditional Christian values, especially as the country becomes more Westernized.

“People living in the southwest of what has historically been Russian land have called themselves Russians and Orthodox Christians,” Putin said in a Feb. 21 speech. “So, modern Ukraine was entirely created by Russia.”

Jasiewicz explained that the invasion could also be Putin’s attempt at creating Turan, which many historians have described as a separate autocratic Russian civilization. 

Essentially, it would serve to reconstruct Russia with formerly Soviet nations as a part of it.

It could be “a merger of Slavic, Mongol, Turkic and Ugric people into modern Russians,” Jasiewicz said.

Regardless of his aim, Jasiewicz believes Putin may have miscalculated how the world would react.

“The outcomes of Putin’s invasion seem to be counterproductive to his aims,” Jasiewicz said. “He has united NATO and the European Union and has united support for Ukraine becoming a modern nation-state.”

Jasiewicz also said that Putin likely chose to invade now because of former President Donald Trump’s friendly attitude towards Russia.

“There was something in the relationship between Putin and Trump that allowed him to think he may get away with this [the invasion],” Jasiewicz said. “[Biden’s] failure in Afghanistan was an encouraging sign to Putin… he perceived Biden as a weak leader.”

The scope of devastation caused by the invasion continues to unfold, but Bidlack and Jasiewicz believe that no outcome fairs well for Russia.

“There is no good solution for Russia in this,” Bidlack said. “Even if they gain control over Ukraine, you are going to have 44 million people who are furious. You are going to have grandmothers carrying pistols in their purses.”

Neither seemed optimistic about the prospects of diplomacy.

“I doubt if Putin is ready to agree,” Jasiewicz said.