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Ukraine: Russian Invasion or Liberation?

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Linda-Marie Sundstrom & Mark Kling
March 11, 2022

In the West, people are asking “Why is Russia invading Ukraine?” As they say, there are two sides to every story. But is that the case here? In order to find the answer, we need to put the current conflict into historical context.

In the late 1990s, I traveled through Moscow and Ukraine. In 2010, I was a Fulbright Scholar teaching at the Kharkiv Regional Institute of Public Administration under the Office of the President of Ukraine. Living and working in Kharkiv helped me gain a more in-depth view of the country’s history, people and viewpoints.

Life in the Soviet Union (Prior to 1991)

Prior to 1991, Soviet life (by U.S. standards) was brutal and unfair. Societal rules were enforced by agencies, such as the KGB, without regard for due process or human rights. Inside the Soviet Union, the rules were clear. The government made most of the decisions for the population—where to go to school, where to work and where to live. Some youth were selected to join Young Pioneers, and later Komsomol, to learn the teachings of communism, with hopes of being invited to be a member of the Communist Party in the future. During these times, the government controlled the day-to-day lives of the population, and failure to comply could be met with devastating consequences.

Life in a Free Ukraine (Post 1991)

In 1991, the Soviet Union was disbanded, and countries were suddenly free. As the world celebrated this victory, for many countries, this had meant that central government services were suddenly gone. Ukraine did not fight for their freedom; it was thrust upon them by geo-political decisions. Although the countries could now elect their leaders in free elections, running the government was a different task altogether. When all aspects of a person’s life are dictated and supported by a centralized government, adapting to freedom can be challenging, especially for countries with minimal experience with self-governance. In the late 1990s, with the new government working to rebuild and serve its citizens, some people began to long for the return of the Soviet Union. While life, in their opinion, was better under a strong central government, others were hopeful for the possibilities ahead for a free Ukraine.

Ukraine’s Position in the World (2010)

While I was in Ukraine in 2010, high-ranking members in the community asked me to relay messages to our embassy that Ukraine was getting desperate to become a member of NATO. But over the next few years, Ukraine believed the U.S. interests were more aligned with supporting Russia than the surrounding regions. In the coming years, some Ukrainians believed they would not get support from the West. So, with their futures in mind, some began to turn their allegiance back to Russia—especially in the eastern part of the country. Others, more hopeful of the future, continued striving to strengthen their country. In 2010, I saw protesters carrying Ukraine flags next to protesters carrying the Hammer and Sickle flag of the former Soviet Union, perfectly illustrating the divided opinions of citizens in the country. I met people who believed an independent Ukraine may struggle to be self-sufficient, and their best option was to return to the perceived strength of Russia. While others believed that with time, perseverance and the right international support, Ukraine would become a strong and vital nation.

Crimea Annexation (2014)

Crimea is a peninsula in the southern portion of Ukraine. Since it has a deep sea port in the Black Sea, it was a main shipping port for the Soviet Union and housed the Russian military. After 1991, the region voted to remain conditionally independent of Russia or Ukraine and to be a sovereign state. In 2014, an election was held, and it was alleged that 97 percent of those in Crimea voted to become part of Russia. However, the election was deemed illegitimate by the West, and rumors of coerced votes began to emerge. Russia immediately began to govern Crimea, despite the opposition from the United States and other Western nations. Was this an invasion by Russia (which is the perspective of the West) or was it a liberation of the ethnic Russians who voted in the election?

War in Donbas (2014)

Even though Russia claimed to have control of Crimea, they lacked the ability to move equipment to and from the region— a land bridge between Russia and Crimea was needed. They began the invasion of Donetsk and Luhansk in the Donbas region of Eastern Ukraine, possibly to create a path towards Crimea. Ukraine’s Donbas War has been ongoing for the past 8 years, but has received minimal media coverage around the world despite 14,000 deaths between 2014-2021.

Russian Invasion or Liberation (2022)

Today, Russia continues invading Ukraine and bombing cities throughout the country.

Conclusion

Ukrainians are an amazing, accomplished people. The country is rich in history, culture and warmth. Ukraine has existed as a fledgling democracy, trying to find its place in the world, however, Russia may be putting a devastating end to Ukraine’s ability to chart its own path.


Author: Dr. Linda-Marie Sundstrom is a former Fulbright Scholar who taught Public Administration in Ukraine at a university under the Office of the Ukrainian President. She worked for 20 years in local government and has taught in Master of Public Administration Programs for nearly two decades. She is currently the MPA Program Director for California Baptist University in Southern California. Email: [email protected]

Author: Dr. Mark Kling has been in law enforcement for 35 years, 14 as police chief. He has taught both Public Administration and Criminal Justice courses for the past 20 years. He is currently the Criminal Justice Program Director for California Baptist University and came out of retirement to transition the Rialto Police Department to new innovative executive leadership. Email: [email protected] / [email protected]

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