The messiest story you can have: A Western perspective on the war in Ukraine
The war in Ukraine may seem a million miles away, but one doesn’t have to travel halfway across the world to find the Western perspective on it. A small group of scholars from Western Carolina University in Cullowhee — some with roots in the war-torn region — are using their experience and academic skillsets to help educate the public about a complicated, confusing conflict that is already beginning to have global implications.
“The heart of the conflict is that at the end of the day, it’s an ethnic war no different than when Serbia was making claims to territory like Kosovo, going all the way back to the ninth century,” said Dr. Ingrid Bego, associate professor of political science at WCU.
Today, Ukraine is the second-most populous and powerful former Soviet Republic, behind Russia. Home to more than 40 million people — before refugees began fleeing in late February — it’s slightly smaller than Texas and would be the America’s third-largest state. But, more than a thousand years ago, it was a loose federation of broadly Slavic peoples who formed a proto-state known as the Kievan Rus, centered around modern-day Kyiv.
For a number of reasons, the Kievan Rus declined in power through the 13th century and was eventually conquered by Mongols, beginning a long history of occupation by regional powers.
Both Russia and Belarus acknowledge the Kievan Rus as the cradle of their own modern civilizations, and Russia has long claimed that Ukraine, which wasn’t officially a state of its own until 1918, is rightful Russian territory due to a shared culture and ethnicity.
“In 1922, a treaty between Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and other republics that are now Georgia, Armenia, et cetera, formed the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics,” said Bego, who was born in communist Albania in the 1980s. “Ukraine played a really big role in the Soviet economy and the world economy. We’ve always heard a lot about it being ‘the bread basket of the world.’”
It was, which makes the Holodomor (terror-famine) even more tragic; in the early 1930s, Ukraine’s Soviet rulers including Joseph Stalin forced the collectivization of farms and the eradication of kulaks, a class of peasant landowners.
Predictably, grain harvests suffered, along with ethnic Ukrainians. Between 3 and 10 million Ukrainians were executed or starved to death, according to most estimates.
A decade later during World War II, German Nazis occupied Ukraine and killed more than a million Jewish Ukrainians, along with 4 million non-Jewish Ukrainians. “Liberation” from Nazi Germany came at the hands of Stalin and the Soviets, as did another four decades of repression under Soviet rule.
With the fall of the Soviet Union in 1992, Ukraine regained true independence for the first time in 70 years.
“In 1991, a referendum was held in the former Soviet republics, and 92% of Ukrainians voted to leave the Soviet Union,” Bego said. “There was absolutely no doubt that Ukraine wanted to be its own country and not a satellite republic.”
Alleged Russian interference in Ukraine’s 2004 presidential election prompted both a revolution and a revote, resulting in the ascendancy of an independence-minded president who was later mysteriously poisoned. In 2014, another Ukrainian president, the one who stood to benefit from the rigged election in 2004, was overthrown after a series of moves inched Ukraine away from the European Union and closer to Russia.
“One thing that is really important I think for most people to know is that Ukraine very different than many post-communist countries in the region in that it has always had a very strong pro- democracy movement,” said Bego. “I think the other post-communist countries in the region have always sort of been jealous that any time they saw something opposing the popular will, Ukrainians have always protested.”
A bombed out apartment building in Ukraine. Jane Ferguson photo
‘Well then, what is NATO good for?’
Amid the chaos of 2014, Russian dictator Vladimir Putin capitalized on the opportunity to seize Ukrainian territory in Crimea, a strategic heart-shaped peninsula jutting out into the Black Sea. The Western world did nothing to stop him.
“Putin knew that [then-President Barack] Obama came in as an anti-war president, and he took advantage of that,” Bego said. “That’s when the world could have called him out and said that this is unacceptable.”
Russia was removed from the G-8, a group of the world’s largest economies, and Obama presented sanctions that were later expanded by President Donald Trump in 2019 — right around the time Trump threatened to withhold military aid from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy unless he volunteered to dig up dirt on former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, Hunter.
The lack of action on the part of the free nations of the world is reminiscent of the 1938 Munich Agreement, when Great Britain, France and Italy agreed to let Adolph Hitler’s Germany annex part of Czechoslovakia. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain said that the move would bring “peace for our time” but less than a year later, Hitler invaded Poland.
Now, eight years after Crimea, Putin has invaded Ukraine.
“That’s the weakness of the west,” said Bego. “I think that we tend to think that we can control dictators or authoritarian leaders, and then they surprise us when they act like this.”
Ukraine is not part of the 27-member European Union, which is mostly an economic and political partnership. Nor is Ukraine part of the 30-member North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which is a collective security arrangement formed in 1949 to counter Soviet expansion.
But, that’s not because Ukraine doesn’t want to be.
“I think the EU will need to be a lot more aggressive than it has been in the past. It has to be more aggressive with enlargement,” Bego said. “With this focus on political gains and benefits, it forgot that Europe still has deep security concerns and ethnic divisions. The populist politics in Europe have put a stop to the enlargement procedure and policies that would have made Europe more secure.”
Bego wrote a piece for the Washington Post in 2017, arguing that Russia was a acting against the balance of power in Europe.
“I think Europe has been passive. It has been unable to see beyond elections and populism rising in their far-right,” she said. “Europe was not ready for this. Germany is so tied to Russia economically. France and the Netherlands, they have really sort of put a stop to the enlargement policy.”
And NATO hasn’t really played much of a role in preventing the bloodshed in Ukraine that’s now entered its second month.
“I remember 10 years ago teaching global issues classes and talking about whether NATO was still relevant. I think it was still an exam question five years ago. We were wondering whether NATO was actually even good for anything,” said Bego. “The only time really that we have used NATO effectively was when the United States was attacked on Sept. 11 and then sparingly here and there in the Middle East.”
When it was founded, NATO was viewed as a unified front against the very type of aggression currently taking place. At the very least, Bego said, NATO could have instituted a no-fly zone over some or all of Ukraine, but Russia’s status as the world’s largest nuclear power left Western leaders reluctant.
“Well then, what is NATO good for? You know, the United Nations mediates disputes. It has peacekeeping troops,” she said. “NATO is then a reactive force. The protection it offers is needed now more than ever. What role will it play in the 21st century? We don’t know. It is clear Putin is attempting to put it to a test. The blatant re-emergence of the Russian threat in the region is certainly making NATO’s mission clear and relevant again.”
Citizens of Ukraine fleeing the conflict zones amid the current Russian invasion. Jane Ferguson photo
‘You’ll still be alive in the morning’
Waging war is one thing, but paying for it is quite another.
As the largest country on the planet by area, Russia has abundant natural resources.
But those resources don’t quite give Russia all the money it needs to continue to pay for the ammunition, equipment, fuel, soldiers and vehicles that make the ongoing conflict in Ukraine possible because the scale of Russia’s economy isn’t nearly as large as its geographic footprint.
Russia’s estimated annual Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of $1.4 trillion lags far behind world leaders, including the United States’ $20.5 trillion GDP and China’s $13.4 trillion.
The yearly economic output of Russia even places it behind the U.S. states of California, Texas and New York, respectively, and is only about double North Carolina’s $660 billion.
Russia is, however, the world’s largest exporter of natural gas at almost 200 trillion cubic meters per year, according to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency’s World Factbook. Russia is also the third-largest exporter of petroleum — the largest not located in the Middle East.
While Russia certainly has several advantages on the supply side, it doesn’t really matter how much energy a country produces if other countries on the demand side can’t or won’t buy it.
Since the onset of the conflict, energy companies, including those based in the United States like ExxonMobil, have rushed to exit the Russian energy market by divesting from existing partnerships, cancelling future investments and halting purchases of Russian oil and gas.
That’s not only disrupting the flow of energy from Russia, it’s also disrupting the flow of billions of dollars a day into Russia, says Dr. David Dorondo, an associate professor of history at Western Carolina University for the past 35 years.
Informally since 2019 and formally since August of 2020, Dorondo’s been contributing to a research task group authorized by NATO’s science and technology office and working under the heading of energy security. The group is a broad, international consortium of analysts and scholars.
“My particular remit in this project is to provide historical and political context for the attitudes and actions of the German government as regards energy security issues in Europe,” he said.
European countries, Germany in particular, have been importing relatively large amounts of oil and natural gas from Russia since the Reagan era. Around that time, West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl initiated the construction of the first pipeline project with Russia, which raised alarm across Europe and in the United States over Germany’s increasing dependency on Russian energy exports.
Germany has committed itself to clean and sustainable energy practices, closing coal-fired power plants and decommissioning nuclear power plants in anticipation of 100% renewable energy by 2035.
“In order to keep the lights on, to keep homes warm and factories running and so on, the German government has felt compelled to continue to import large amounts of petroleum products, hydrocarbon products, specifically — and importantly — natural gas,” Dorondo said.
Nord Stream 1 is a pipeline running beneath the North Sea from Russia to Germany. Completed in 2010, it’s been vital to delivering the 55 billion cubic meters of Russian gas Western Europe relies on each year.
Nord Stream 2, a parallel pipeline that would double delivery capacity, is now complete but Germany halted the certification process on Feb. 22 after Russia annexed separatist-held Ukrainian territories in advance of the invasion.
“Enormous pressure was brought to bear on the German government by other European countries, by Ukraine, by the United States, Canada, and by the German people themselves to keep Nord Stream 2 from going into operation,” said Dorondo.
Although German Chancellor Olaf Schultz was blunt in condemning the invasion, Germany has thus far refused to shut down Nord Stream 1 — according to Bloomberg News and Dorondo, between 40% and 60% of Germany’s natural gas comes from Russia.
A recent speech by Schultz suggests that nothing is off the table, but in the meantime, Germany is scrambling to shore up its energy infrastructure so it can seek fuel from other sources in Qatar and North Africa while the conflict continues.
Americans, on the other hand, are struggling to pay for fuel amid the twin tides of inflation and global energy supply disruption.
On March 8, President Joe Biden announced an end to American imports of Russian oil and gas. Only about 8% of American oil imports come from Russia, according to a March 14 story in the Wall Street Journal, so Russia isn’t fully to blame for American gas pains at the pump.
“I can tell you with absolute certainty that Germans and Austrians and Europeans generally from Britain and Ireland to Poland and from Scandinavia to Sicily are paying enormously higher prices for the natural gas to heat their homes, the gasoline to put in their vehicles, diesel fuel for commercial drivers,” Dorondo said. “All of those prices are consistently higher than they are here in the United States largely because Europe is so much more heavily dependent on Russian oil and natural gas than is the United States.”
Dorondo recently told his students that he knew they were upset about gas prices, as is he; however, Dorondo attempted to take some of the sting out of the situation by putting it all into context.
“Remember, you’ll still get your gas,” he told them. “You’ll still go home where you can watch television and have electricity, and you’ll still be alive in the morning. Ukrainians by the millions are being made refugees. Thousands of them have been bombed out of their homes or have fled, but we don’t have to go to bed worrying about whether or not a cruise missile is going to land on our house.”
‘We got through other crises without anybody using nuclear weapons’
Depending on where you live, a cruise missile strike probably isn’t feasible, but no matter where you live, a nuclear missile strike probably is.
Not since the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 has there been such tension among the world’s military powers over nuclear missiles — the long, phallic shadow of which hang high over the entire Ukrainian conflict.
“Russians, as a legacy of the Cold War, have tremendous capacity,” said Dr. Niall Michelsen, professor of political science and public affairs at Western Carolina University since 2001. “They are deterring the United States and NATO from going in to help Ukraine. Without a doubt, if this were just a conventional invasion with no nuclear weapons anywhere in the picture, then I think by now the United States or some combination of American allies would be on the ground fighting in Ukraine.”
As with other nuclear-capable nations, Russia has put a lot of thought into when, why and how it might use its estimated 4,500 available warheads (the U.S. has 3,700) or its stockpile of smaller, short-range tactical nuclear weapons suitable for battlefield deployment.
“These weapons are not even as big as the bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki,” Michelsen said. “These are not the ‘destroy a major city’ types of weapons, but they are nuclear weapons.”
“The Russians have in their military doctrine, as we understand it, a philosophy that if they’re losing on the battlefield, the terminology they have used is they would ‘escalate to deescalate,’” said Michelsen. “If they’re losing the conventional battle, they might launch a nuclear weapon to sort of say, ‘Okay, this is where we are, are you sure you want to go here?’ and force the other side to say, ‘Okay, let’s stop the war, let’s not escalate anymore.’”
Once nuclear weapons are used, there remains the possibility that the other side will, if it can, escalate as well. That could include nuclear annihilation and global warfare scenarios ripped straight out of popular movies from the 1950s through the 1980s.
“There are war games that the Pentagon does to try to see what would happen under these circumstances,” Michelsen said. “Obviously, the government has tried to keep that secret. I’ve read about a study, Princeton University brought together some nuclear experts and military experts, and once one nuclear weapon got used in this type of conflict it ended up with like 90 million dead.”
But that’s assuming they even work.
Following the economic and social chaos that came after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1992, the military capacity of Russia languished for more than a decade. The effects of this neglect may be visible today in widespread reports of Russian equipment breakdowns impeding resupply efforts.
“Thankfully, we have not had to find that out, but the power of nuclear weapons as a deterrent means that even if you suspect that your adversary’s weapons may not work as they intend, that’s a high gamble,” said Michelsen. “To get that wrong and then they perform perfectly would be a disaster beyond anybody’s imagination, almost.”
There is no such deterrent for Ukraine. When the Soviet Union collapsed, four successor states inherited its nukes — Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine.
The international community, led by the United States and Russia, pushed for Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine to give them all to Russia in exchange for modest assurances of security.
“Some of us, including myself, at the time were suggesting that maybe Ukraine was making a risky gamble, because Russian claims on Ukraine are pretty extensive and longstanding,” Michelsen said. “If Ukraine had nuclear weapons, I would argue that the chances of Russia invading — this would not have happened. They would’ve been deterred.”
The gamble didn’t pay off, beginning with the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014.
“We got through other crises without anybody using nuclear weapons, so we’ve done it in the past and hopefully will again,” Michelsen said. “But some of this hope or faith is that Vladimir Putin, who has sort of gotten everything wrong so far — he’s created a stronger more united NATO, he’s brought NATO troops closer to his border, he’s got Finland and Sweden thinking about giving up neutrality and joining NATO — we’re resting some of our faith that he will think properly about this matter and that he won’t escalate to the nuclear level.”
Thousands of Ukrainians have either been injured or killed during the ongoing Russian invasion. Jane Ferguson photo
‘War is the messiest story you can have’
Observers across the globe have long relied on the media to bring details about escalation from far-flung battlefields into their living rooms, especially since the advent of electronic communications.
During the American Civil War, it was by telegraph. During World War I, it was by radio. During War II, it was by newspaper. During the Vietnam conflict, it was network television. During the more recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, it was by cable television and mainstream media on the internet.
Now, it’s by social media platforms like Tik Tok, Twitter and YouTube.
Increasingly, the journalists doing the newsgathering face challenges above and beyond everyday news reporting — injury, death, imprisonment or torture.
The Committee to Protect Journalists says that five reporters, including one from Time and two from Fox News, have been killed in the Ukrainian conflict so far, with many more injured and separate accounts of family members being kidnapped in retaliation for their reporting.
But that doesn’t absolve reporters of their charge to get the story right and to ensure some semblance of balance.
“It’s not the sexy job of journalism,” said Dr. Katerina Spasovska, associate professor of communications at Western Carolina University. “Everybody thinks that, ‘Oh, I’m gonna go and cover the war.’ Yes, it’s a noble thing but it’s not the time to just go drop in there and say, ‘I’m gonna figure it out.’ It’s pretty dangerous to do it right now.”
Spasovska, who’s been training aspiring journalists at WCU for 11 years, has more than a little experience living in and practicing journalism in conflict zones.
A native of what was then Yugoslavia, Spasovska was a first-year journalism student in Belgrade in 1990 when the republic began to splinter and disintegrate, prompting a nasty war with several belligerent parties from various competing religious and ethnic groups in the region.
She fled Belgrade for what’s now called the Republic of North Macedonia, completed her studies and worked as a reporter and editor there for more than a decade.
“Macedonia had a small conflict in 2001,” she said. “I did do a few stories on identifying victims with DNA. I talked with families who lost members who were giving DNA samples so the graves that were discovered, they would be able to identify some of the victims.”
Her husband, Iso Rusi, also spent time reporting from a besieged Sarajevo.
“He was able to go in and see how it was, at least for a couple of days, thanks to NATO forces,” she said. “But even with NATO and UN peacekeeping forces, the place was far from safe. The siege was very long, and very hard.”
As the war progressed, journalists and state media began to uncover substantial evidence of ethnic cleansing being carried out by all sides.
“If you see who was tried in the Hague, you’ll see that people convicted for genocide or crimes against humanity were Serbs, Croats, Bosnians and Albanians,” she said.
The same thing is almost certainly happening in Ukraine right now, even though most of the West remains enamored with romantic stereotypes of crafty Ukrainian farmers stealing Russian tanks and brave Ukrainian civilians turning back Russian armored columns with only their bodies as barriers.
“I mean, the reporters that are in Ukraine right now that are foreigners, what they’re reporting on is what they’re seeing and what they’re seeing is bombs or rockets coming from Russia,” said Spasovska.
That creates a problem for reporters who are looking to avoid rampant clickbait propaganda from both sides and instead provide balanced coverage of the situation.
“Right now, we can just assume that the Ukrainian side is [also] committing war crimes. We don’t know. There is really not a way to track it,” she said. “There isn’t a really a front line. There isn’t a concentrated place where you have fighting going on. We are not really hearing the other side of the story, of the Russian-identifying population in Ukraine being murdered by the Ukrainian side.”
At least part of that is due to the danger journalists face in gathering and verifying facts on the Russian side.
“Covering this war from Russia and making sure that they hold their politicians accountable is hard, but that doesn’t mean that they’re not doing it. And I think that for people who are doing it, we should be glad that they’re doing it and that they are still conforming to the professional standards,” she said.
Russia is a notoriously unfriendly place for the media. According to the CPJ, since 1992, 38 journalists in Russia have been murdered, most for presenting materials not aligned with the viewpoints of the Russian government.
“We still have reporters in Russia that are all not brainwashed,” Spasovska said. “You had a fairly good amount of independent media in Russia, but you have to also keep in mind that after 22 years of Putin, you take it with a grain of salt how independent they are.”
And with no resolution to the conflict in sight, it will likely take journalists, maybe historians, years to find balance.
“After the fact, when people start investigating and digging and finding mass graves, you will see that both sides will have done atrocities,” said Spasovska. “In my opinion, war is the messiest story that you can have because there is no way that you can have a balanced story.”