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Ukraine, Russia and their history: A conversation with expert Steve Hanson

Ukrainian Americans and supporters rally on Feb. 25 in Norfolk against the Russian invasion of Ukraine. (Photo by Ryan Murphy)
Ukrainian Americans and supporters rally on Feb. 25 in Norfolk against the Russian invasion of Ukraine. (Photo by Ryan Murphy)

WHRO spoke with Steve Hanson, the College of William and Mary’s Vice Provost of Academic and International Affairs and an expert in Russian history and politics, about what's happening in Ukraine, how it got here and what happens next.

WHRO’s Ryan Murphy: Welcome, Steve. Thanks for speaking with us.

Steve Hanson: My pleasure.

WHRO: Can you describe for us what’s happening in Ukraine right now?

SH: Well, it's one of the most significant geopolitical moments really in our lifetimes, and this kind of language is not hyperbolic at the moment. We are definitely talking about a new era in the global order. The most dramatic land conflict - war - in Europe since World War Two. We are talking about an all out attack on the entirety of a sovereign state, all of Ukraine. 

WHRO: Ukraine and Russia have a long history. How do Russian leaders like Putin view Ukraine?

SH: Probably the most important place to start is that Ukraine has been an internationally recognized sovereign state since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The reason Putin doesn't really recognize this or understand it is that his vision of Ukraine is an outdated, sort of old, mythological one, told from the perspective of a Russian who somehow thinks that the birthplace of Russia was Kievan Rus', that the old stories of how that lineage led to the rise of Moscow, and ultimately of the Russian Empire, are still the salient ways to define the relationship between the two nations. This was not a kind of pragmatic figure who might stop short of all out assault, but really, somehow, a person who believes it's this historical mission to unite the Russias - parts of what he thinks are all Russia that are actually independent countries. 

WHRO: Now this isn’t the first time Russia’s used military power in Ukraine over the last decade. How have those instances preceded this invasion?

SH: You know, Putin has been upset about the settlement of the Soviet conflicts and the collapse of the Soviet Union for really almost his entire presidency, and he's made that very clear. He was a man shaped by the collapse of the Soviet Union, which disrupted his own career as a KGB colonel in East Germany and returned back to Russia to find the country, in his view, humiliated, weakened, economically in crisis in the 1990s. So his whole life, his whole political life at least, he's really seen this settlement of the Soviet Union's collapse as illegitimate. And he's nurtured grievances ever since that the West, the United States in particular, somehow ignore the Russian point of view on that collapse. To assert Russian geopolitical influence and military influence in 2008, in Georgia, let's say, in South Ossetia and Abkhazia or in 2014, in the Donbas and in Crimea, which he annexed. But you know, the other thing to point out is that this is just a completely different scale. It's a military assault on the entirety of an independent state.

WHRO: What role does the U.S. have in this conflict?

SH: Well, the US is absolutely vital to the response. The Biden administration has proven to be quite adept, I really give it high marks and I would mention two things in particular. One was the really skillful way in which the administration systematically debunked the kinds of disinformation that Putin and the Putin regime was using to try to create a pretext for an invasion. And the other is through consultation with allies, really careful work with Europe, and with NATO, to be sure that whether it's sanctions policy, whether it's military policy, whether it's simply the foreign policy rhetoric, that these statements are very aligned. 

WHRO: Where do you see this going - for Ukraine, for Russia and globally?

SH: Yeah. I mean, first of all, my heart goes out to the people of Ukraine who are suffering so mightily and the casualties on both sides are going to be just awful. Also, there will be hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of displaced people. Already there’s a mass exodus of people from Kyiv and other cities toward the front. So the humanitarian crisis is just going to be awful. And in Russia, too, there's no avoiding casualties and death. And I think that is going to get known in Russia very quickly. So that leads to a second point I would make about Russia. It is my view that this invasion will likely weaken Putin's regime fairly significantly. This invasion is profoundly unpopular in Russia and will become much more so as the scale of the costs become known. I think the elite itself, Putin's closest leaders, a lot of them are quite surprised themselves that it went this far. They are going to be hit hard by sanctions that are more unified and more serious than in the past. I don't think they're all going to feel like this was a great idea, and they need to keep supporting the regime. 

WHRO: Thank you so much for talking with us Steve.

SH: I'm happy to do it. And again, my heart goes out to the people suffering in this invasion.

This conversation was edited for length and clarity.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine entered it's fifth day Monday, as negotiators for the two nations were set to meet. Reports indicate Russian forces have suffered heavy losses. Ukrainian forces have retained control of key cities, including the capital of Kyiv.

Ryan is WHRO’s business and growth reporter. He joined the newsroom in 2021 after eight years at local newspapers, the Daily Press and Virginian-Pilot. Ryan is a Chesapeake native and still tries to hold his breath every time he drives through the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel.

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