The Russian invasion of Ukraine, explained: Q&A with Professor Dawn Nowacki


The Ukrainian flag.

Maddie Loverich, Editor-in-chief

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While it may seem far away from home, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has become an important issue for the entire world. New details emerge every hour and it’s difficult to keep up with constant developments or to even find reliable and consistent news resources about the crisis.

Linfield University political science professor, Dr. Dawn Nowacki, sat down for a Q&A with The Linfield Review to help explain the complex situation unfolding in Ukraine. 

Could you give a brief explanation of the situation in Ukraine?

Basically, [Russian President] Vladimir Putin is claiming that Ukrainians and Russians are the same people, that the Ukrainians are being led by a government that is being manipulated by outside sources—such as the United States and Europe—and that Russian speakers in the eastern part of Ukraine need protection. They’ve been fighting with the Ukrainian military since 2014. So, it’s kind of a stalemate. Putin just decided to build up his army on the borders, and they just started an invasion on February 24 toward the big cities.

It was shocking to me as a person that knows about that area. Ukrainians are not Russians. They’re different ethnic groups, and they’re very nationalistic. Putin thought that they would just lay down their arms and die in the face of Russian might, but I think he’s surprised how forcefully and how determinedly Ukrainians are fighting back.

What would happen if Putin was successful in his invasion of Ukraine?

It’d be very bad. A lot of the refugees that are leaving now would probably not come back. I don’t think Putin would annex the territory, but he would put in a puppet government that is completely in support of Russia and Putin. What he would really like, I think, is to reinstate the whole barrier of countries that existed during the Cold War. All these Eastern European countries like Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, up into the Baltic states, they were part of the Warsaw Pact and I think that’s what he wants. He’s not going to get that because those states are now NATO members, and NATO will do some things to defend them. 

Plus, I don’t think Russia has the resources. The military isn’t doing that great–so they’re not going to be able to militarily take over those places. 

It would be terrible for the people of Ukraine, and for anyone who was a defender of Ukraine. They’ll probably deport them to Siberia, or take them out and shoot them and anybody who’s anti-Russian… Yeah, I just don’t even want to think about it. It’s genocide.

What’s being done in Ukraine to prevent Russia from successfully invading?

Well, they got a ton of experience as a result of the Russian takeover. There’s a war that’s been happening–there’s Russian speakers in the eastern part of Ukraine who have declared their own states, and Putin has recognized that. But, they got bogged down fighting the Ukrainian army and defenses went after those territories to keep them from succeeding. So, they’ve been having a war of low intensity conflict for eight years and the Ukrainian army has gotten way better at fighting. 

The civilians are organizing and already fighting back. They’ve got civilian–kind of militia–groups that are armed. NATO and various other countries are sending small arms to them. 

The Ukrainian Air Force is still functioning apparently, but they’re afraid to go up very much because of Russian air defenses. But, it’s the same with the Russian planes–there’s not a whole lot of flying because the Ukrainians have air defenses still intact. So, it’s taking longer than what Putin had in mind. 

The Russian military is having big logistical problems, and they’re stuck on a road leading into Kyiv. They were stuck for like 10 days, and they’re not moving. In part because they ran out of gas and other various things. If you’re in a long convoy and one vehicle breaks down, they all break down. Ukrainians are taking advantage of that. 

You briefly mentioned NATO’s involvement, but what is being done by the rest of the world to help?

There’s been an outpouring of support for Ukrainian people because there hasn’t been an interstate war like this since World War II, at least not in Eurasia. 

I think people see [the invasion] as illegitimate. In the UN General Assembly, there was a vote and the majority of the members condemned it, said it was illegal and that this is against international law. The first principle of international law is inviolability of borders by use of force. 

It gives China pause and they haven’t really been very much involved at all. One thing that’s happening is that where there’s Ukrainian populations, like Canada, the United States and various other parts of Europe, they’re going to Ukraine to defend. A lot of younger guys, especially. 

Many have expressed concern about a World War III situation. How legitimate is that concern?

I think the biggest problem is a World War III, as Putin is threatening nuclear weapons. I think it’s a credible threat. I don’t think he would launch a giant strike against the United States or against Europe, but he could launch a strike against Poland or one of the Baltic States just to show he’s serious.

They don’t want to escalate. This is why NATO and the United States have been trying to get as much weaponry in there as possible without committing our own troops. 

[Volodymyr] Zelensky, the President of Ukraine, has been calling for a no-fly zone. Well, if NATO planes were flying to keep the Russian planes out of the sky, they’d be shot down by the Russians and Putin said that’s an act of war. He said if you do anything about this, we will unleash consequences that you’ve never seen. That’s really him threatening nuclear war. 

What effects are we already seeing or could be seeing here in the near future from this conflict?

We’re already seeing some consequences with gas prices. It isn’t just because Biden just cut off imports of Russian oil and petroleum products, which is 8% of the oil/petroleum products the U.S. imports. The issue, as I understand it, is that this particular kind of oil gets mixed with other oil when it’s being refined. It’s that it actually makes it easier to be refined and to find another source of that is hard. 

But, there’s many, many other reasons why prices at the gas pump are going up. We already had inflation and we already had other kinds of instabilities. So, I think it’s not just Russia, but that is a part of it. 

It actually hurts Europe a lot more than it hurts us. All these other economic sanctions, sanctions against Putin and his cronies, against the banks, and suddenly big corporations like McDonalds and Pepsi-Cola, which has been in Russia for years and years. Even before the Soviet Union fell, Pepsi was there. And they said, “We’re not going to do this with Russia anymore.” I’m not sure what that  means for these companies, but profits are going to be affected. We’ll just see, it’s too early. 

But, mainly, the oil thing. That’s going to have an effect.

Where should students look to get reliable news and updates?

Wall Street Journal and The Economist are really good. Foreign Policy, it’s an online thing. I was just reading their analysis of Russia in Ukraine and they have a huge section on Russia and Ukraine. The New York Times is also doing a really good job and NBC News, as well. They have people over there. Also, PBS News Hour and NPR

What sources should students avoid?

Mainstream broadcast news. They’re so biased, all of them. 

Definitely avoid social media. On social media, you only get the stuff that you already agree with. It’s the worst place to get your news. I’m not on any social media and, to me, it’s just a waste of time.

How can students help?

There are organizations that are providing aid, such as the International Red Cross, because there’s going to be five million refugees. There’s already two million that have lost their homes. There have been at least a million and a half that have crossed the borders and another 500,000 are coming. 

They need everything. They need clothing, food and money. So, you can send money to these refugee organizations. There’s the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees or UNICEF, which is particularly targeted at humanitarian aid for children. There’s also all sorts of church organizations and things that are also trying to get aid to Poland and places where these refugees are going to be. 

Really, I think that’s the only thing is to provide donations and resources. But also to not spread misinformation about what’s going on. Our politics are so polarized that there are those in our country that believe what Putin is doing is right. Don’t buy it.

How’s this going to end?

It’s not really clear yet. Because it’s still going badly for Putin, he has to calculate how much it’s going to cost him to get what he wants, and what the effects on the Russian people are going to be. There are some in Russia who are protesting and there are others that think, “Oh, this is great.” They drank the Kool Aid. 

It’s hard to get real information in Russia. This is where social media actually is good, because Russian people are getting alternative information on social media. It’s illegal now in Russia to say certain things. For example, you cannot call this a war. All the media have been told that it is a military operation. So you can’t term it and you can’t show the bombing of apartment buildings that’s been happening. Or, if you do show it, the way they spin it is that “Oh, the Ukrainians did this.” It’s all a bunch of lies.

I can’t underline enough how important this is, even though it does seem really far away  and doesn’t really affect us directly except for buying gasoline and adding to our overall inflation. But, it’s serious. What he really wants to do is change the whole security architecture in Europe. That’s what he’s after. So, it’s huge.


Dr. Nowacki also recently hosted a Pizza and Politics Event for Linfield’s Political Science Department regarding the conflict on Wednesday, March 2. You can listen to a recording of the full event here.