The Voice of Bates College Since 1873

The Bates Student

The Voice of Bates College Since 1873

The Bates Student

The Voice of Bates College Since 1873

The Bates Student

Bates Hosts Panel on War in Ukraine

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To mark the somber second anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Bates community gathered in Pettengill Hall on Feb. 28 to listen to a panel discussion on the war. Hosted by the Department of Politics and the European Studies Program, “Russia and Ukraine: Two Years On” featured a trio of distinguished invited speakers: Professor of Political Science Yoshiko Herrera (The University of Wisconsin-Madison), Associate Professor of Government Jason Lyall (Dartmouth College) and Associate Professor of Political Science Oxana Shevel (Tufts University). 

The panel followed a series of recent events that have re-focused attention on this conflict: the U.S. Congress’ failure to pass a military aid package for Ukraine, the death of Russian dissident Alexei Navalny, the Ukrainian military’s loss of Avdiivka and right-wing media personality Tucker Carlson’s interview with Russian President Vladimir Putin. 

Professor Herrera opened the panel by analyzing Russia’s domestic politics — including Carlson’s interview with Putin. According to Herrera, the interview is proof “that history and memory politics… matter for Putin.”

Herrera described how Putin manipulates historical narratives — like the memory of World War II — to justify the war. She added that Putin slanders Ukrainians as Nazis for propaganda purposes. Far from being Nazis, Ukrainians — she explained — are resisting Russian imperialism and asserting their national sovereignty. 

Additionally, Herrera explained that Putin’s war machine benefits from the lack of “opposition in the government,” which seemingly extends to ordinary Russians as well. Some polls, for instance, showed that “68% think Russia is still going in the right direction.” Yet other polls — Herrera cautioned — show “some weakening support for the war” even among Russians who accept Putin’s narrative of the invasion. For example, 75% responded positively to supporting a peace treaty, and only 30% responded in support of a second wave of mobilization. After Herrera shared these results, she added that Putin “shows absolutely zero interest in signing a peace treaty.” 

Next, Professor Lyall shifted the panel’s focus, “from the Kremlin to the battlefield.” 

At the beginning of the war, most Western analysts — Lyall maintained — underestimated Ukrainian strength and resilience. These analysts continued their mistakes by coming to the erroneous conclusion that the Russians couldn’t fight. Following Russia’s successful defense against the Ukrainian counteroffensive and its recent territorial conquests, Lyall warned that “we are rapidly learning that the Russians can adapt as well.”

Lyall’s prognosis on the war was bleak. “The war is now” he argued, “a brutal stalemate where each side is rapidly trying to… get some kind of breakthrough, which… I’m afraid won’t happen anytime soon.” 

Rather than simply focusing on innovative technologies and tactics, such as the mass use of drones, Lyall argued that the war in Ukraine “is not a new form of warfare.” Instead, the Russians are using many of the same military tactics from World War I and World War II. Lyall explained that the Russians want “to try and drain Ukrainian forces through attritional battles that the Ukrainians are desperately trying to avoid” because they are outnumbered.  

Putin’s regime has also revitalized Stalin-era blocking units. These “are specialized units that stand behind their own soldiers and shoot them if they retreat, or if they continue to fail to advance,” Lyall explained. The Russian military has also gained infamy for its “meat wave assaults” — a tactic where swarms of Russian troops are sent to overwhelm Ukrainian forces, ensuring many Russian casualties. 

Such staggering military losses have not incited public outrage because most of Russia’s newest military recruits are from its poorest regions which “don’t have a lot of political sway” in the Kremlin or the crucial metropolitan areas of Moscow and St. Petersburg. Additionally, many are also ethnic minorities or convicts who “don’t garner a lot of support back home,” Lyall explained. 

Turning the discussion toward shortcomings in the Ukrainian and Western response, Lyall said that the Zelenskyy government must tackle the political issue of mobilizing “another big wave [of recruits] and raising the quality of their junior officers.” According to Lyall, however, the West has also committed its own share of strategic blunders. During the panel, he said, “Western aid has really been a mixed blessing… It’s given enough weapons to help, [but] not enough to win.” 

For Lyall, a big question remains, “what happens if Russia isn’t pushed back? What does that say about one of the bedrock principles of the post 1945 world order — that people who engage in territorial conquest are punished?” 

Professor Shevel, the last panelist to speak, shared Lyall’s pessimism about the present-day state of the war. “The current situation” she noted “is quite grim for Ukraine. It is probably the most difficult moment, maybe with the exception of the [start of the invasion].”

She explained that “in Ukraine there is a severe and worsening shortage of ammunition and arms which allowed Russia to make its first noticeable [territorial] gains in a year.” This crisis has been made worse by “Republican muddling in Congress” that has “blocked… U.S. military aid” to Ukraine. 

Shevel did, however, point out reasons for optimism. “We should be careful,” she contended “not to fall for the narrative that Russia cannot be defeated and that Ukraine can’t possibly win, which… has been getting stronger and stronger…in the West.” She explained that this myth “underestimates… both Ukrainian society and its military.” 

Despite Western analysts predicting a swift Russian victory, “Ukraine [in the early stages of the war] was not only able to defend the capital” it also “liberated a substantial chunk of territory in 2022 [and] destroyed 20% of the Russian Black Sea Fleet.” 

Claiming that Russia “retreats when faced with a show of force,” Shevel urged the West not to be intimidated by Putin’s nuclear saber rattling. Despite Western anxiety over escalating the war, Ukraine has violated Russian red lines multiple times throughout the conflict — from bombing a major Russian bridge in Crimea to sinking the flagship of the Black Sea Navy Fleet. Each time, the Russians have not responded with “suicidal nuclear escalation,” Shevel noted. 

According to Shevel, Ukrainians are determined to beat Russia because they understand that Putin’s war is “about controlling the entire [country of] Ukraine.” In Russian occupied territory, “there is a full-scale genocidal policy [against]… Ukrainian culture, language, [and even the]… deportation of children.” While these genocidal war crimes have faded from the “front pages of the Western media,” people in Ukraine are “very aware” of Russia’s genocidal agenda which is “why I think there is [also] very little support for a… peace deal,” claimed Shevel.

Not only are Ukrainians determined to fight until they regain full control of their country, Shevel argued that many Ukrainians will not feel safe until they join NATO. “If there is no NATO,” Shevel warned “there is no way to prevent Putin from moving against Ukraine again.”  

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About the Contributor
Lena LaPierre, Assistant Forum Editor
Lena is a sophomore from Hattiesburg, MS, majoring in History with a minor in Russian. When she is not busy writing essays or memorizing Russian grammar rules, Lena can be found reading, volunteering with College Guild and exploring Maine with her friends. Previously, Lena was a contributing writer for The Bates Student.

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