On Wednesday, Feb. 16, the Political Science Department, Public Policy Program, and Pi Sigma Alpha sponsored a forum titled “Decoding the Russian Threat to Ukraine.” The event was moderated by Professor Renee Van Vechten with a presentation by Professor Graeme Auton. The talk was hosted through the Public Square Zoom account and was meant to inform interested students and community members about the Russian-Ukraine border crisis.
Unfortunately, the talk was abruptly interrupted when several unidentified individuals infiltrated the Zoom and loudly disrupted the presentation. Professor Van Vechten promptly ended the meeting to deny the responsible individuals any further opportunity to continue their disruptive behavior.
About 15 minutes into the event, an individual logged onto the meeting and loudly asked, “Am I late?” to which Professor Auton, who was speaking at the time, responded “Yes.” At first, this seemed to be an isolated incident. But seconds later, several more individuals chimed in: “Is this the free class?”
They commenced with incoherent yelling followed by racial slurs, sexual obscenities, and other disruptive behavior which culminated in them sharing their screen to draw a swastika just before the meeting was ended.
It appeared to be a coordinated effort given that several people with common intentions logged on at the same time, but it is unclear whether these individuals were students of the University of Redlands.
Fortunately, the meeting restarted and the presentation resumed uninterrupted shortly after the incident–this time with a waiting room requiring the host’s permission to join. The faculty, including Professor Van Vechten and Professor Auton, quickly and gracefully recovered the discussion. The meeting concluded with a question and answer session, ultimately ending about an hour and a half after its scheduled start time.
After the discussion, Professor Van Vechten told the Bulldog that while the presentation was thankfully able to continue, efforts to bombard the meeting continued until its conclusion. The meeting was originally open to the public, however, Van Vechten only admitted users whose names she recognized after the restart due to the incident, while the hackers were kept in the waiting room.
Professor Van Vechten stated that she had never had this happen in any of her meetings before and noted it would be impossible to identify the attackers. But, to her, their motive was clear: “They get a thrill out of it,” she said.
After the interruption, the lecture ran smoothly. “I found Professor Auton’s talk insightful and accessible,” said Andy Patriquin ‘23.
Professor Auton covered the history of NATO and the fall of the Soviet Union, as well as broken promises made by the George W. Bush Administration, before diving into the current tensions.
Analysis of the Russia-Ukraine Conflict
Despite promises from the United States and its NATO allies that the organization would not expand eastward in Europe, it did; and by 2009, Russia’s geopolitical retreat from the center of Europe was decisive as NATO had gained several new member states. However, Russia broke its promises too.
In 1994, Russia signed the Budapest Memorandum, in which the newly independent Ukraine surrendered 1,900 nuclear warheads in exchange for Russia’s commitment “to respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine” and “to refrain from the threat or use of force” against Ukrainians.
“Clearly, Mr. Putin has… conveniently forgotten that commitment as well, although the Ukrainians are frequently reminded of it over the course of the past two or three years,” said Professor Auton.
Ukraine, when divided by linguistics and ethno-nationality, is heavily Russian in the Donetsk Basin and Crimea in the southeastern part of the country. Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, is located in an area of the country that is less than 25 percent ethnic Russian. The linguistic and ethno-national divisions are largely the result of territorial changes from World War II.
Another point Professor Auton emphasized, which he said is largely ignored, is that “Ukraine remains, like Putin’s Russia, a corrupt, poorly-managed kleptocracy,” and has failed to implement proper democracy. As recently as 2012, Ukraine had “by no means met the criteria… for joining NATO in terms of democratization or the rule of law.”
In early 2014, anti-government protestors gathered in Kyiv’s central square to demand closer association with Europe after President Yanukovych refused to sign a political association agreement with the European Union and instead turned to Putin for financial support. The protests, as well as the government’s response, turned violent and Yanukovych was forced into exile in Russia.
At that point, Russia decided to take back Crimea from Ukraine, motivated by its geopolitical importance due to its control and access to the Black Sea. Having annexed Crimea, Putin then decided to support pro-Russian separatism in the southeastern parts of Ukraine that are more ethnically Russian.
The Russian-occupied territories of Donetsk and Crimea, therefore, do not vote in Ukrainian elections, meaning that fewer pro-Russians vote in the Ukrainian elections overall. In the most recent election in 2019, Volodymyr Zelensky defeated former President Petro Poroshenko by a margin of 9 million votes, carrying over 73 percent of the popular vote.
According to Professor Auton, Zelensky is a moderate conservative and not as nationalistic as Poroshenko. Still, Zelensky has tried to hold the country together while most Ukrainians continue to move more to the west.
This year, Zelensky has called for a peace agreement with Russia, but Putin has grown increasingly hostile and is presently threatening military action against Ukraine. Between 120,000 and 230,000 Russian military personnel are currently stationed along Ukraine’s borders along with up to 1,100 tanks, 18 rocket systems, and other armament and military equipment.
Professor Auton proposed three possible scenarios moving forward:
Under the first scenario, Russia could formally annex the Donbass region, providing everyone there with Russian passports.
The second scenario would see Russia seize control of the Donbass, the Ukrainian port of Mariupol, and the coastal region to form a “land bridge” from Russian territory to Crimea.
Third, it is possible that Russia could launch a major offensive in easter, northern, and southern Ukraine, encircling Kyiv, occupying the majority-Russian-speaking Odessa, and forcing the capitulation of the Zelensky government and its replacement by a puppet regime loyal to Putin.
It is currently unclear where things stand or what Putin’s intentions are. However, on Feb. 16, Russia launched a massive cyber attack on the Ukrainian Defense Ministry; and, according to the Biden Administration, Russia has added 7,000 to the existing presence. Professor Auton said that Russian cyber attacks sometimes precede kinetic attacks.
Professor Auton concluded by offering four book recommendations on the topic, including “Putin’s World” by Angela Stent, “The Crimean Nexus” by Constantine Pleshakov, and “Putin’s People” by Catherine Belton.
The full lecture, as well as the Q&A session, is available through the link below. It is viewable for all Redlands students logged into the University of Redlands Zoom system–which can be done by logging into MyRedlands and clicking the Zoom app.
Photo contributed by Bulldog photographer Michael Driscoll.