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Tuesday, June 25, 2024

War in Ukraine: The human costs of power politics

A 6-year-old boy killed when his apartment building was bombarded. A 25-year old engineering graduate hit by a stray bullet. And Yelena Ivanona, a geography teacher, lying six feet underground as her students and family mourn.

These are just three of at least 536 civilian casualties from the first week of Russia’s assault on Ukraine. But for those still fighting, reminders of death and destruction are everywhere.

“I have done nothing to entertain myself as usual,” 19-year-old Ukrainian resident Christina Pylypiv said. “I can’t live with the thought that Russians live without danger. Their houses are whole, while Ukrainians are left without houses.”

Pylypiv is a third-year international relations student at the Ivan Franko National University of Lviv. She is currently staying with her grandmother in western Ukraine, an area she says is relatively safe. But the war’s effects are still inescapable.

Nightly curfews, public transport delays and school closures quickly became reality for much of Ukraine. “People are just sitting in their homes when they don’t have to work,” Pylypiv said.

For Americans with family inside the war zone, anxiety is just as pervasive. UW-Madison sophomore Brian Blinder said he worries about his grandpa and other extended family who live in Southern Ukraine, where Russia has made their greatest push into Ukrainian territory. 

Though his family is safe now, the situation is unpredictable.

“They’re stuck there and really can’t do anything about it, so it’s scary to watch,” Blinder said. “I just pray every day that [war] goes away and they’re all safe.”

Shocked and horrified

Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, three days after recognizing the independence of two separatist states in eastern Ukraine. Though Russian military forces were building on Ukraine’s eastern border for months, the invasion surprised even the most knowledgeable political science experts.

“Literally, up until the last minute, I did not think he would invade,” UW-Madison Political Science Professor Yoshiko Herrera said. “I thought it would be crazy. He would never be able to have easy control of Ukraine.”

Both Blinder and Pylypiv said the war caught them off guard. Pylypiv added that her family wasn’t prepared, and had to urgently rush to gather essential resources.

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“My dad woke me up with horrible news that the war had started at 5 a.m., and then he rushed to the supermarket to buy food,” said Pylypiv.

In a televised speech announcing the invasion, Putin called the Ukrainian government “neo-nazis” and accused them of waging genocide against Russian minorities within their borders. Western news outlets have continuously debunked Putin’s false claims of genocide. 

“They did not leave us any other option for defending Russia and our people, other than the one we are forced to use today,” Putin claimed. “In these circumstances, we have to take bold and immediate action.”

The real motive behind Russia’s invasion, says UW-Madison Political Science Professor Jon Pevehouse, had more to do with geopolitics. He explained that Russia is concerned about Eastern European defense strategy, especially since Ukraine expressed interest in joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). 

Established in the aftermath of World War II, NATO is an intergovernmental military defense alliance among the U.S., Canada and 28 European countries. 

“Historically, Russia has always wanted a buffer between itself and Europe. Whether it was Hitler going in with Operation Barbarossa or WWI encroaching on its borders, Russia has always felt a little bit under siege,” Pevehouse said.

However, Herrera claimed Putin has used this excuse to justify conquest throughout his 22-year reign. During the late 1990s and early 2000s, Putin led a violent military campaign in Chechnya, a separatist region near Russia’s southern border. Death toll estimates from the conflict range from 25,000 to 100,000.

“They just bombed the place to smithereens,” Herrera said.

Putin executed similar strategies in bordering Georgia and Crimea in 2008 and 2014, respectively, capitalizing on U.S. preoccupation in the Middle East. While these wars were also planned as Russian security operations, Hererra believes Putin’s recent assault on Ukraine suggests his goal is more about projecting power than ensuring peace.

“Putin could have, ten days ago, ended this without this escalation,” Hererra said. “He could have said, ‘Ok, I wanted everybody to take us seriously, I wanted NATO to not expand, and everybody to know we’re extremely mad about this in Russia.’ But the invasion shows it wasn’t really about NATO expansion.”

“Resilience and resistance” from Ukrainians

Though Putin expected a quick victory, Ukrainian forces have mounted a staunch defense against the Russian military thus far. 

Ukrainian citizens at home and abroad are signing up for combat, building barricades and sabotaging Russian war efforts. Their inspiration comes from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who famously replied, “I need ammunition, not a ride,” when the U.S. offered to evacuate him from the battlefield.

Pylypiv says that almost every Ukrainian she knows is helping with the war effort, including things as simple as giving blood for soldiers. Some citizens are even fighting Russian soldiers with their bare hands.

“People here are very brave and united,” Pylypiv said. “They wanted us to panic, but they only made us stronger. It’s a historical moment of our nation when we have a chance to show the real side of who we are.”

She also said young people are joining the Ukrainian “IT Army,” a decentralized band of young citizens carrying out cyberattacks on Russian targets. The IT Army scored its largest victory last Monday when they successfully crashed the Moscow Stock Exchange and Russia’s largest lending bank, Sberbank

Citizens have also created an ingenious test to weed out Russian assailants. Pylypiv explained they uncover enemy soldiers by telling them to repeat “palyanitsa,” a hard-to-pronounce Ukrainian word. ”[The Russians] all fail,” she said.

To counter local resistance, Putin has asked Ukrainians to lay down their arms. Pylypiv said that Putin must be absurd to think anyone would do that.

“They invaded our territory and beg us to give them petrol, food, money,” Pylypiv said. “What are they thinking? That we will be helping them to destroy our house?!”

In actuality, many Russian troops have laid down their arms or purposefully sabotaged their equipment to slow the invasion. Pevehouse says the morale gap between Russians and Ukrainians, when combined with international condemnation, is the explanation behind Ukraine’s underdog story.

“I think he boldly went in militarily, thinking that Ukraine would fold quickly,” Pevehouse said. “Instead what you’ve seen is that Ukraine has been far more resistant than he’s expected, and the international community has taken more serious measures than he expected.”

Where is the conflict headed?

However, the conflict may escalate now that Putin’s invasion has stalled. 

Recent U.S. intelligence indicates a 40-mile long Russian military caravan is headed towards Kyiv to beseige the city, cutting off supply lines. Reports from multiple cities also claim Russians are intentionally bombing civilian targets such as hospitals and schools.

“I think we’re in a very scary, serious situation,” Herrera warned. “Putin could decide to ramp up the military side and just inflict a lot more violence in Ukraine, or he could do the same with his population. We could be in for much more violence, unfortunately.”

More violence also means that more refugees may flee the country. Approximately 870,000 Ukrainians have already fled, most of them headed westward to Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and Romania. Though the European Union is expected to grant temporary protection for all Ukrainian refugees, the road out of the nation is long and grueling.

“We fled as soon as the first bombs fell,” said Olga, a 36-year-old travelling to Poland with her two young children. “It took us 12 hours just to get out of Kyiv. We’ve been [waiting] here for 36 hours now.”

Despite Russian escalation, both Pevehouse and Herrera believe diplomatic solutions are still possible. Hererra said that the five-hour talks between Ukraine and Russia last Monday signals cautious optimism for eventual resolution, even though no ceasefire was agreed upon.

Pevehouse agreed, but warned Putin is unpredictable. “If he’s desperate, he’ll do what he can to just destroy it.”

Western support

Both the U.S. and European Union immediately mounted a unified response against Putin’s aggression, enacting widespread economic sanctions. The Western allies froze Russian assets, banned Russian planes from their airspace and cut off major Russian banks from SWIFT, a global financial transaction system. Even Switzerland, a historically neutral state, joined Western nations by freezing Russian assets in Swiss banks.

Western sanctions immediately plunged the Russian economy into recession. The Russian stock market lost 35% of its value, and its currency, the ruble, is now worth less than a U.S. penny.

The economic crisis drew rare dissent from Russian citizens, thousands of whom marched against the war despite fear of widespread arrests. Even celebrities and members of the Russian parliament expressed resentment towards the invasion, with one lawmaker posting “I voted for peace, not for war” in a now-deleted tweet.

U.S. President Joe Biden praised the sanctions’ quick effects in his State of the Union address Tuesday night, boasting that “Putin is now isolated from the world more than ever.”

However, President Biden acknowledged Americans will also face economic challenges. Rising oil prices due to sanctions on Russian gas exports will likely raise fuel costs for families already struggling with America’s worst inflation in four decades.

Still, Ukrainian-American Brian Blinder wants Americans to do all they can to support their cause. While he is touched by sports teams and protestors standing in solidarity, financial assistance is his top priority.

“I want to urge everybody to contribute and donate and help out the people in Ukraine because it’s a really peaceful and beautiful country,” said Blinder. “It honestly reminds me a lot of Wisconsin — very rural, very hardworking, very-blue collar.”

Back in Ukraine, Christina Pylypiv says her nation remains strong.

“Instead of greeting each other with ‘good morning’ (because it’s not), Ukrainians greet each other with ‘Glory to Ukraine!’ and answer ‘Glory to its heroes!’ These shouts unite and uplift the spirit of Ukrainians.”

Though international politics often feels out of reach for average people, Hererra noted that the Ukraine crisis is one of few global events where public support has a direct effect on national policy. She noted that a major reason Ukraine has received widespread military and humanitarian assistance is because global citizens are paying attention.

“It’s gonna be much harder to inflict a high human cost on Ukraine as long as people are paying attention.”

Special thanks to Sileen Alomari, a volunteer with cross-cultural connection speaking program ENGin, who assisted Christina Pylypiv with her statements. Alomari is a sophomore at UW-Madison studying neurobiology on a pre-med track.

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Tyler Katzenberger

Tyler Katzenberger is the former managing editor at The Daily Cardinal. He also served as the state news editor, covering numerous protests, elections, healthcare, business and in-depth stories. He previously interned with The Capital Times, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and is an incoming POLITICO California intern. Follow him on Twitter at @TylerKatzen.



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