FSCJ panel on Russian invasion of Ukraine: 'Putin personally feels threated by freedom'

·6 min read

As experts across the world ponder how to end the Russian war in Ukraine, Oksana Spears' friends and family in Kviv focus on a more immediate need.

Staying alive.

The Ukraine native, interim library and learning commons manager at Florida State College in Jacksonville, took part in a recent FSCJ virtual panel discussion on the conflict. The panel also included history, economics and political science professors who talked about the impetus and history behind the invasion and the global political and economic impacts.

Spears provided a personal perspective.

"At this point, the Ukrainian people are trying to survive. Hiding, running," she said.

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Spears stays in touch with her loved ones back home via social media. "Each has their own path … Their own story," she said.

Growing up in Ukraine, she said, she learned how to handle firearms and grenades, check for mines and use camouflage. Those were mandatory self-defense skills, as were learning to act quickly and not panic.

They were "skills you never thought you'd have to use," she said. But in Ukraine they have become critical to survival since the Russian invasion in February.

She said the panel discussion was "interesting and powerful." And at least one of her loved ones was listening in.

"It means a lot to them because somebody cares for them," she said.

Putin acting in own self-interest, claims ideological mission

Economics professor Roman Cech grew up in what is now the Czech Republic. He was 6 when he looked out the window and saw tanks and heavy military presence in the streets. The Aug. 21, 1968, invasion led by the then Soviet Union began a 20-year occupation.

"A few years before I was born the same thing happened to Hungary. Overrun by Soviets," he said. "Continuous invasion perpetuated by the government … for a very long time."

The Russian people, Cech said, "are amazing." But they have been "plagued by some of the worst government in history, quite horrific," he said.

Oksana Spears, a Ukrainian-born staffer at Florida State College at Jacksonville (bottom left), took part in a recent panel discussion about the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Other panelists (clockwise from top left) included economics professor Tina Dajci, moderator; economics professor Roman Cech; and political science professor Debidatta Mahapatra.
Oksana Spears, a Ukrainian-born staffer at Florida State College at Jacksonville (bottom left), took part in a recent panel discussion about the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Other panelists (clockwise from top left) included economics professor Tina Dajci, moderator; economics professor Roman Cech; and political science professor Debidatta Mahapatra.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, he said, is a "psychopathic brutal dictator."

"Putin represents nobody and nothing," he said. "He represents no ideology. He represents no tradition. The only thing he represents is himself."

"Putin personally feels threatened by freedom," he said.

Still, history professor Andrew Holt said the invasion stems in part from religious nationalism that goes back 1,000 years. "Religion has a central role in the conflict," he said, because religion is "often connected to national identity."

The Christian Orthodox Church in Ukraine has pushed for independence from its Moscow origins, he said. Putin has said the invasion was to "protect Orthodox believers from persecution by a Nazi regime governing Ukraine," Holt said, "even though the Ukraine leader is, of course, Jewish."

Putin claims he's "defending traditional Russian values and culture from what he argues is the corrupting influence of the modern secular West," he said. Also, Putin claims Ukraine is part of "greater Russia," so any Ukrainian move toward the West is seen as a threat, he said.

Other factors are Russia's view of NATO expansion as a "threat to its existence" and the United States as an "imperialist power," political science professor Debidatta Mahapatra said. Any Ukraine effort to join NATO, with its "liberal ideas," is viewed as "undermining Russia," he said.

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The conflict, he said, is part of an ongoing battle between democracy and autocracy. Even if Putin does not actually buy into these ideologies he puts out, as Cech said, he can use them to build support from the Russian people.

Despite ongoing peace talks and mediation efforts by Turkey, Mahapatra said "the signs are not bright" for the war to end soon and there is a "possibility of escalation."

Meanwhile, a "humanitarian disaster" is underway in Ukraine with people dying in attacks or of hunger and millions of others fleeing the country, he said.

Only a major change in Russia will end the war, according to Cech.

"This will not stop until this government … currently ruling Russia is brought down," he said. "Considering we don't want to start lobbing nukes with Russians, the only thing that will eventually bring this to a halt will be starving the beast."

That means Europe, particularly Germany, weaning itself off Russian gas and oil. Europe pays Russia $500 million to $1 billion a day, he said, and "this invasion is the best thing Putin can think of how to spend that money."

The U.S. and its allies are using financial and other sanctions to pressure Russia "to get out of the war," economics professor Susan Reilly said. Among those sanctions was a freeze on Russian Central Bank assets.

"Putin has been preparing for this war for years … $640 billion in savings in foreign currency and assets," she said. Because of the freeze, he can only access $30 billion, she said. The sanction results also include a decline in the value of Russian currency and soaring interest rates.

'Listen to stories coming out of Ukraine'

But sanctions can also backfire, leading to an isolationist "siege mentality" in targeted countries, Reilly said.

"These sanctions could very well speed up that process in Russia and some of our other countries that are adversarial," she said. "This is a really serious concern that we could have countries retreating into their own economies. That could have devastating effects on the international stage."

Also, countries that see the need to be economically independent could seize adjacent territory to support that goal, which might be one of Putin's reasons for invading Ukraine, she said.

"Ukraine is the breadbasket for much of the world, and Russia wanted that back," Reilly said.

During a question-and-answer session at the end of the panel, an FSCJ student asked the professors how Americans could help stop the war from progressing.

Use social media to "promote peace" and positive ideas, Mahapatra said. No one person can solve conflict; but global dialogue can, he said.

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"Don't turn away from it," Reilly said. "Listen to the stories coming out of Ukraine. Listen to the voices coming out of Ukraine." Open your hearts and wallets to refugees, she said.

Educate yourself, she said, to get "context to what's going on." Be on the lookout for "fake news" and propaganda, she said.

"Study your tail off," Cech said. "Get as much education as you can. Be a highly competent professional. That will make the American economy and the other Western economies the strongest economies on earth.

"We will outcompete the dictator," he said. "There is no other way."

bcravey@jacksonville.com, (904) 359-4109

This article originally appeared on Florida Times-Union: Jacksonville professors discuss motives, economics of Ukraine crisis