What is happening in Ukraine: A series of a few things

*Editor’s Note: The “Views from NAU” blog series highlights the thoughts of different people affiliated with NAU, including faculty members sharing opinions or research in their areas of expertise. The views expressed reflect the authors’ own personal perspectives.

By Gretchen Knudson Gee

Associate chair, President’s Distinguished Teaching Fellow and principal lecturer in Politics and International Affairs

Dr. Gee teaches a variety of courses in international relations, comparative politics, Soviet Union and successor states, Balkan Politics, Religion and Politics and Democratization. She is also the advisor to NAU’s Model United Nations Club.

As I was lying awake last night, I was thinking about my friend’s mom who was trying to evacuate from Kyiv and was stopped by gunfire in the streets right outside her apartment. I was also thinking about my American/Ukrainian friend who had returned to Kyiv last week to help his family, and who was trying to get out of Ukraine but has been standing in a line at the Polish border in 27-degree weather for over 10 hours, just waiting his turn to get to a border agent. I was also thinking about this piece and wondering how in the world I was going to pull together all the things I want to say.

I realized that I can’t say everything I want to say, so I’m going to restrict myself to just a few main topics, and further restrict myself to a few things within each of those topics. I’m going to leave out so much, but hopefully, I can hone in on some of the most important things.


Ukraine is its own country, with its own history, language and culture. It shares a great deal with Russia and Belarus, but it also has a unique and distinctive identity. This identity has been dominated by Russia, not only during the 70-plus years of the Soviet Union, but for hundreds of years previously during the Russian Empire. This has meant a reality of being dominated, controlled and manipulated. It also has meant extensive contact, intermarriage and sharing of culture and ideas. Ukraine has long been an agricultural and religious heartland, known for its fertile soil and deeply religious believers.

The Soviet Union

Ukraine was both an asset and a problem for the USSR. The warm-water ports in Crimea were essential for the Soviet navy, but the people were not always cooperative with Soviet decisions.  So Stalin murdered more than 5 million Ukrainians in 1932-1933 in a man-made famine because the farmers resisted collectivization efforts which were enforced as part of the Soviet economic system.

Ukraine, like the other non-Russian republics, were forced to endure Russification, which was a deliberate attempt to weaken and extinguish any forms of nationalism, which might lead to resistance against Soviet control. This means banning the teaching, and sometimes even speaking of Ukrainian. It meant persecution against Ukrainian churches. It means the rewriting of history to glorify Russia and the attempt to erase distinctive Ukrainian poets, authors or actors who contributed to Ukraine’s identity.

The collapse of the Soviet Union

My husband and I were living in Kyiv on Aug. 19, 1991, when Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev was kidnapped by KGB hardliners who disproved of the liberalizing changes he had been making. Due to popular uprisings in Russia as well as all over USSR, they released him three days later and he tried to return to power, but the dam had burst.

On Aug. 24, 1991, Ukrainian Soviet officials declared Ukraine to be independent. In this manner, the collapse of the Soviet Union meant that Ukraine could finally, after hundreds of years, be in control of itself. This euphoric news drowned out the reality, at least initially, of how difficult it would be to create a healthy and functioning independent Ukraine.

Despite Gorbachev’s best efforts, the other Soviet republics also declared independence, and he, and the Communist Party, had to face the writing on the wall. Russians made clear that they too wanted to be free of Communist rule, and on Dec. 25, 1991, the Soviet flag in Red Square in Moscow was lowered, and the independent Russian flag was raised. The euphoria of independence was strong all across what had been the USSR.

Independent Ukraine

The struggle to create a healthy political and economic system was huge. Corruption flourished as unbridled capitalism meant that the powerful and connected were free to exploit everyone, including little old ladies trying to make some much-needed money selling fresh bread on street corners, and buy up valuable state-owned industries for a fraction of their value.

The country faced the reality of deep divisions, across language, religion, ethnicity and ties with Russia. This led to a political system that lurched back and forth, from governments that had a pro-Western and anti-Russian orientation, to governments that had a pro-Russian and anti-Western orientation.

Putin’s Russia

Putin is the most important player in this entire scenario. He has been in power since 1999, longer than some of our students have been alive, and his rule has made Russia what it is today. His time ruling Russia has been characterized by three main goals.

Russian power and pride

He lived through the collapse of the USSR and the humiliation of seeing his country go from being one of the two most powerful states in the world to being the recipient of humanitarian aid and being the focus of Western “help” as outsiders from the West flooded in to assist Russia (and other former Soviet states) transition to being democratic and capitalist states. This Western assistance was perceived as paternalistic, heavy-handed and designed to further weaken Russia and bring her under Western control. From the very beginning, Putin has been clear that his strongest goal is to make Russia powerful again and to make Russians proud again. This message has gained a lot of traction, and so many of his actions (invading Chechnya twice to stop a civil war, taking a stronger role in the international system, standing up to the West) have had strong popular support.

Centralization of power

Putin has taken the democracy that Russia built with extensive Western involvement and shaped it to put most power in his hands. Important industries that were privatized immediately following independence have been brought under state, or crony, control. The media is almost entirely under the control of Putin’s cronies, and journalists who dare to speak out and report the truth are murdered, beaten, arrested and tortured, or fired from their jobs and their newspapers are closed. Governors are no longer elected but appointed. Elections are rigged.

Crackdown on dissent

Not only are people in the media controlled and regulated, but regular people who try to speak out, or protest or stand up to abuses are also beaten, jailed and killed. Putin has created a system of authoritarianism, or a “one-man show” as former senior director for Europe and Russia at the United States National Security Council, Fiona Hill puts it, where all power is in his hands.

A misunderstanding of, and hostility to, democracy

He has had virtually no meaningful exposure to the West. Democracy to him represents a lack of control, a need to bend and change, subservience to the West and a lack of order. Therefore, he will do whatever he needs to keep democracy at home down, and he sees foreign democracies like the United States, or like Ukraine, as inherent threats.

Ukraine and Russia

2004 was a key presidential election in Ukraine. Putin had been manipulating things behind the scenes, going so far as to have the pro-Western candidate Yushchenko poised with dioxin during the election campaign. He didn’t die, and the elections continued with the pro-Russian Yanukovych winning. All reports indicated that this was due to fraud, and a popular uprising, known as the Orange Revolution, began in Ukraine. Peaceful protests began in Kyiv and moved across most of the country (except for eastern Ukraine, which threatened to secede). The election results were nullified, the election was run again, and pro-Western Yushchenko won.

Fast forward to 2014—Yushchenko’s rule was ineffective, with in-fighting and corruption rampant. Things were so bad that in 2010, when the new election was held, Yanukovych won.  He then began to rule Ukraine with an orientation toward Russia. He had been in talks with the European Union about having an association agreement, but at the last minute pulled out and instead moved to position Ukraine’s economy toward Russia. This so angered people in central and western Ukraine that popular protests began in late 2013, which turned violent in early 2014.  This became known as the Maidan Revolution and featured violent clashes between protestors and police with people seizing government buildings in many parts of Ukraine, and police firing upon protesters.

It ended in February 2014 as Yanukovych fled to Russia and Ukraine set up an interim government. By all accounts, Putin was so angered that he made the snap decision to invade the Crimean peninsula, and to move into far eastern Ukraine. However, he did this using Russian troops without Russian military insignia on their uniforms, driving Russian tanks and using Russian equipment without Russian identifying markers. This soft invasion allowed him plausible deniability, as he claimed that these “little green men” were Ukrainian civilians. Putin created a sham referendum in Crimea in March 2014, and once the vote passed (with 97 percent), Putin immediately signed a treaty and recognized Crimea as part of Russia. Russian forces are now entrenched in Crimea as well as eastern Ukraine, where fighting has waxed and waned.

Now in 2022, Russia’s massing of troops along three sides of Ukraine began in October 2022. This was intended to be a show of force that came with demands. One was that Ukraine would never become part of NATO. Another was that NATO would only place forces in states that had been NATO members before the collapse of the USSR. When these demands were refused, Russia invaded on February 24, 2022.

What to watch

Russian military

There has been a huge investment into the Russian military in last 10 years. This brought Russia’s military up to be second-most powerful in the world after the United States. They also have had the opportunity to use new weapons and gain important combat experience in Syria when they moved in to prop up Assad regime in 2015. However, Russia still relies on conscripts, which means that poorly trained and equipped young men are now being sent into battle.

The Russian people

There is a deep well of anger with Putin across many levels of Russian society, particularly the young, educated, urban citizens. They have grown up with the USSR as something of the past, with engagement in the rest of the world as a normal thing. They travel, watch American movies, wear clothes made all over the world and experience the benefits of globalization. Russians have paid the price for Putin’s authoritarianism. They have to live with huge levels of corruption.

Their access to media, social media, independent information, etc. is being choked off. Their ability to speak, to read, to think, to gather is increasingly restricted. They are the mothers of the conscripts. They are the followers of Alexei Navalny, who bravely stood up against corruption and against Putin’s authoritarianism and is now rotting in jail after being poisoned, likely being tortured and denied a fair trial. They are the ones who have been economically punished by the international sanctions stemming from Russia’s 2014 invasion of Crimea and eastern Ukraine. And they are the ones who will pay the economic price for the heavy sanctions being expanded against Russia by the day due to the Ukrainian war. Putin has created a system where they have few options to push back. But what will they do?

The Ukrainian people

Ukraine has been divided, ever since independence, about her orientation. This invasion, I predict, has ended that divide. If Russia wanted to get more Ukrainians on its side, it couldn’t have done a worse job. Even ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine who used to support increasing ties with Russia are changing their minds, based on reports I’m reading. If there was ever a question about which direction Ukraine should take, this invasion has answered it. The impressive efforts by the Ukrainian military and civilian population are actually extraordinary. Global Fire Power index puts the U.S. as strongest military in the world with Russia at No. 2. Ukraine is ranked No. 22. The fact that Russia hasn’t taken over is remarkable. We must also give huge credit to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. The former comedian and actor has never held political office, and yet is leading and inspiring his country.


Putin has seen this as a threat and hoped to exploit what he perceived to be divisions within the alliance. What appears clear, however, is that these divisions are shrinking, and NATO is pulling together more than it has in the past. While NATO forces are not going to fight back against Russia on behalf of a non-NATO member, it is clear they are willing and prepared to fight back on behalf of a NATO member, if they were invaded. So, I believe he has strengthened the alliance rather than weakening it. Even NATO members like Poland who were taking political stands that were emulating Russia’s authoritarian style are being quick to stand against Russia and to work closely with the NATO alliance.

Putin’s power

Multiple sources have been talking about how isolated Putin has become over the years, and how small the circle of people that have any input. Those people look a whole lot like him: former KGB/military, older, came to power during USSR, unfamiliar with the West and democracy, uninterested in what the average person in Russia thinks or wants. Putin has purposefully never designated a successor. So, who comes next? What comes next? What change is even possible?  The second most important person in Russia, Navalny, is in ill health in a Russian prison. What will happen to him?

Nuclear weapons

A nuclear war is what the United Nations and NATO were created to prevent. The veto power held by the P5 in the UN is there for that very reason; the UN cannot act unless all the major powers are on board, and if one major power clearly doesn’t support the action, it will not happen. This is why NATO forces will not move into Ukraine to fight against Russia. But what will Putin do? We just don’t know.


This is a major power, with strong ties to both states. They have clear interests that align with Russia, including pushing back against Western and U.S. power and expanding their own sphere of influence. The Chinese government is very authoritarian, and is clearly willing to use violence to crack down on dissent. They also have an entity that they’ve had their eyes upon (Taiwan) and have indicated a willingness to use force. They also have a key role in international politics through their permanent seat on the UN Security Council, and their ability, along with Russia, to veto any action the SC wants to take.  However, this is also a country that is deeply tied to the U.S. and the West as the market for the goods China produces. Without Western consumption, China’s extraordinary rise over the last 30 years wouldn’t not have taken place. So, while China sides with Russia in many respects, it is reliant upon, and intertwined with, the West in a way that Russia is not.

In the time since I first began this, one friend has made it over the border into safety in Poland.  Her family is now frantically trying to find a reasonable plane ticket to purchase to get her to the United States. The other is continuing to wander the border area, still unable to actually get in front of a border agent to show his American passport and be allowed to leave. This uncertainty and instability is a tiny picture of the regional and even international uncertainty and instability that this situation has created. We don’t know what Putin will do next, which means that we don’t know what the future holds. The possibilities range from a peaceful agreement, to the use of nuclear weapons. The outcome is unknown, but what is certain is that what is happening in Ukraine is absolutely changing the world. We can only pray it is for the better.

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