Chai Wai Series: Russian-Ukrainian Conflict

On February 13, the International and Area Studies Library hosted a Chai Wai panel incorporating several professionals and scholars discussing the current Russian- Ukrainian conflict. Ukraine faced large-scale protests in late 2013, followed by revolution and continued protests in 2014. President Yanukovych was removed from office in February 2014, prompting informal Russian involvement. President Putin of the Russian Federation has denied extensive military action but annexed the region of Crimea and admitted to military support of separatists later in the month of April. Sanctions against Russia from the EU, USA, and Canada have exacerbated tenuous relationships.

The Chai Wai panel, comprising of Illinois faculty and staff, touched on facets of the current conflict from varying perspectives and disciplines.  Panelists Buckleywere introduced by Joseph James Lenkart, manager of the Slavic Reference Service. Cynthia Buckley (Sociology) is currently researching displacement in the Ukrainian region. She opened with figures from UNHCR, stating that there are six million people currently displaced in Eastern Ukraine. 980,000 of these are internally displaced and 600,000 are in refugee status. Dr. Buckley noted those within the significant percentages of those facing displacement. Pensioners and children are more likely to be counted within displacement statistics due to benefits attributed to registration (pensions, school). The number of men recorded as being displaced are astronomically lower because of forced conscription and lack of social support motivation. Attitudes of those within communities that take on the displaced are prone to hostility as these groups are seen as gaining preferential treatment during an already difficult period.  Dr. Buckley concluded that those that are displaced can be utilized as a weapon, justifying outside intervention. She outlined displacement as a phenomena, propaganda, and a matter of growing inequality. 

Diane Koenker (History) created a historical setting for the current conflict. Going back to the time of the Russian empire, Koenker detailed the nine regions of Ukraine under Russian sovereignty. In 1917, the Russian empire collapsed and made way for two parties, the liberals and Bolsheviks. The liberals believed that Ukraine should be autonomous but that Russia should remain undivided. The Bolsheviks lacked the same idealism and nationalism and believed that Ukraine had two options; join the Socialist agenda or become a separate entity. Koenker then posed the question, what defines a state, as borders or is it ethnically defined? This complicated Ukraine which bolstered a diverse population, including Greeks, Russians, Jews, Tatars, and Macedonians. In December of 1919, Lenin’s stance changed, having realized the impact a capitalist Ukraine would have on the newly emerging socialist Russia. The Treaty of Riga in 1921 recognized an autonomous Soviet Ukraine (except the Polish occupied region). At the end of her presentation Dr. Koenker brought a final and poignant point, the territories currently being discussed and under conflict have never not been part of Ukraine.

Carol Leff (Political Science) opened with the imagery of the Russian bear. The cute and cuddly “mishka” is pinned against the Western perspective of Russia’s “medved”. On December 18th, President Putin addressed the nation, his speech contained imagery of the Russian nation as the bear (using both “mishka” and “medved”). During his speech he pointed to the West as trying to “chain the bear” and “declaw” it. Dr. Leff noted that it is clear in his address that Crimea is not the issue, but rather Russia protecting its own sovereignty and right to exist. Dr. Leff compares the US’s 1823 Monroe Doctrine to Russia’s current dominant influence in the former Soviet states. This political identity is the reason for Russia’s systematic objection to NATO expansion. Currently, Ukrainian troops within the East are depicted in Russian media as the “foreign NATO legion” and on the payroll of the United States. The separatist troops (“little green men”) that have been spotted throughout recent media coverage are assumed to be Russian (this is denied by the Russian Federation), however, President Putin identifies them as “volunteers”.  Dr. Leff concludes with surveys and popular opinion polls; her findings are that although most Russians believe in the annexation, they do not want to be part of a military conflict.

Oleksandra Wallo’s (Slavic) presentation was centered on the arts during the current conflict. Her research has found that most painters are moving into representational art (rather than abstract) to convey the Russian-Ukrainian war.  These paintings and pieces of art are sometimes used as auction pieces to raise money for the Ukrainian troops. Poster art has exploded as a medium due to low resource usage and the portability of posters. Literature has also changed, with short stories and poems becoming more common. Literature for children has also been a focus, using story as a tool for children coping with displacement and war. The last focus of Dr. Wallo was the increasing usage of the documentary and photography medium. This media conveys the every-day life experience of the soldier, including troop morale, rations, and the terrible living conditions. In this year alone, there have been twenty documentaries made about different aspects and perspectives of the conflict (separatists, local populations, soldiers, protesters).  Dr. Wallo showed a clip from a popular documentary piece by Babylon 13. Locals, including children, come to terms with their current environment and the ongoing conflict. One woman’s memorable monologue described that she does not care what the country where she lives is called, she just does not want to leave.


Kit Condill (Slavic Reference Service) presented on evaluating resources during times of conflict.  The media surrounding Ukraine and in Ukraine come from several different perspectives, which makes finding an unbiased source difficult. He cited the FEMANorganization as an example of inflated importance. The best way to evaluate a source’s legitimacy is to evaluate where the media comes from and who the sponsoring sources are.   Due to changing roles in media and the war, some websites and news outlets have moved or been removed from their previous domains and are now only available via VKontakte (the Russian Facebook). To find an authoritative list of sources, Mr. Condill suggested the Russian INION database.  He noted that researching this conflict is especially tricky not only because of bias but because of transliteration.

Alisha Kirchoff (REEEC) spoke about National Research Centers in response to conflicts. Funding for research and resources usually grows with national security threats or conflicts, however, as recent as 2013, Title 8 was suspended indefinitely.  Recently programs such as Arizona’s Critical Language Institute, University of Pittsburgh’s Summer Language Institute, and Indiana’s Summer Language Workshop have cut some, if not all, of their Ukrainian programing.  Programs like SRAS, that offer abroad programming, have moved their language training locations within Ukraine, but they now face the dilemma of securing interest with Ukraine taking part in such a volatile conflict. In previous years, Ukraine was a great source of Russian scholarly material and language research due to their more relaxed visa system and cheaper programs.  However, the availability of these student programs will undoubtedly fluctuate with student demand, and the violence seen in Ukraine is likely to deter increased interest.  Ms. Kirchoff concluded her presentation by noting that global landscapes and political relationships are an unknown,  and if the United States wants to continue to promote leaders with a global perspective then research and scholarly support dictates a need for funding consistency.

The Chai Wai panel was an interesting and informative mix of varying perspectives across Illinois’ campus.  The function was well attended and cemented the scholarly community’s commitment to current events.

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