Tensions are mounting on the Ukrainian border as Russian president Vladimir Putin continues to move troops into the area. At Queens, we seem far removed from the problem, but Dr. Leanne Pupchek of the Knight School of Communication has personal insight into the problems in the region, having traveled to Ukraine as a Fulbright Scholar and being married to a Ukranian.She said part of our problem with misunderstanding the situation is the way we tend to think about the world. She noted that Americans tend to see everything like a sports game with two sides broken down by language. However, the history of Russia and Ukraine is complex.
“The fact that people in eastern Ukraine speak Russian does not mean they want to be part of Russia,” she said.
She said that most people who attended school in Ukraine before 1992 spoke Russian in school, and that the language people speak does not reflect their political leanings.
She said that a lot of the news that Russian-speaking Ukrainians hear is propaganda and that these messages are covering their television, radio and billboards. The news tells Russian Ukrainians to fear Ukrainian speakers, which adds to cultural tensions.
Pupchek says the situation in Crimea is changing. Between the wars, the Soviets moved the native population out of Crimea and moved them to Kazakstan, but they have been moving back. When Russians moved into the area, the Russian government did not spend any time building infrastructure. Later, she said, when the region was given back to Ukraine, the infrastructure was improved.
“It was a piece of rock when the Russians gave it to Ukraine,” she said. “Now that the infrastructure is built up, the Russians are coming to take it back.”
Even with this history, Pupchek says the cultural tensions in the region are not what Putin claims they are and Russian-speaking Ukrainians do not all want to become part of Russia. She said that much of the problem boils down to Putin’s ego and his desire to rebuild the Soviet Union. Ukrainians, however, were oppressed under Stalin in soviet times, said Pupchek. She said Stalin starved 30 million Ukrainians and put Russians in their homes when they died.
Pupchek said the fact Putin’s troops gathering on the border should matter to Americans because of what it means for the future.
“The idea that a country can invade another country is outrageous,” she said. “It’s like a land grab.”
The current tensions could affect students from Russia, she added. Russian students may find that their bank accounts are frozen, which could cause problems for them.
“The way it will affect you will become clearer as the days and weeks progress,” she said.
She said that students traveling to Russia as part of the JBIP program this summer could have problems getting across the border, but since they are planning to travel to St. Petersburg, they may be far enough from Moscow that the problems will not be as great. Problems would likely be with the military and police, mostly at the border, but that once in Russia, students should find that the Russian people as a whole are wonderful.
Pupchek said that Russia is currently trying to become a dominant power with a push back to Soviet times. She has said on her blog that even the way we speak about Ukraine – calling it “the Ukraine” – signifies a mentality that is stuck in the Cold War. However, the outcome of this conflict could change the way we view that region.
“Ukraine, in some form, will be part of the West,” she said.