‘A war of aggression’: UC Berkeley community reacts to Russian invasion of Ukraine

Photo of a news panel display with the headline "EXPLOSIONS ROCK UKRAINE"
Lisi Ludwig/Senior Staff
After Russian troops invaded Ukraine on Wednesday, the campus community has expressed varied reactions, with ASUC External Affairs Vice President Riya Master referring to the situation as "upsetting" and unjustified.

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Update 3/4/2022: This article has been updated to include additional perspectives from Fulbright visiting scholar Nataliia Goshylyk.

All eyes turned to Eastern Europe on Wednesday night as Russian troops advanced into Ukraine, declaring war on their neighbor in what many people see as an attempt to recreate the expansive Russian empire.

Campus political science professor Steven Fish said Russian President Vladimir Putin has been preparing for the expansion of Russia his entire career. He noted Putin has spent years carrying out projects to “raise the morale” of his country and reestablish a “Russian world.”

“I wasn’t surprised at all,” Fish said. “I thought Putin was aiming and has been aiming at this for years.”

After a pro-Russian figure was “ousted” in 2014, Ukraine has “tended more to the West,” according to campus European history professor John Connelly. The resulting tension between the countries includes Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

Multiple sources said the conflict would likely cost the lives of thousands of Ukrainians and the dislocation of millions.

Nataliia Goshylyk, a Fullbright visiting scholar on campus who is from Ivano-Frankivsk in Ukraine, called the situation “very simple and very evident.”

She added she was glad many media organizations around the world are using the term “war” to describe Russian actions, rather than “crisis.”

“That’s very important, that everyone sees that this is war,” Goshylyk said. “This is not a peaceful operation on the territory of Ukraine. (Russia is) trying to depict that.”

Goshylyk, who followed Putin’s speech as Russian forces invaded live, said the full-scale nature of the operation — targeting all of Ukraine — was unexpected. Because of the large number of cities attacked, she did not know which people in her life she should reach out to first, she said.

ASUC External Affairs Vice President Riya Master said it was “upsetting” that it took Russia fully invading Ukraine for people in the United States to recognize the conflict between the two countries, which has been an ongoing issue.

“Our hearts go out to everyone located here in Berkeley that are from (Ukraine),” Master said. “We are very upset with what’s happening, and we in no way think that this type of invasion is justified.”

Furthermore, Connelly noted the conflict will impact the UC Berkeley community.

Students may feel anxious about ensuing repercussions from the conflict, which can disrupt academic life.

“Whatever academic, cultural relations we have with Russia or Ukraine will probably be severed for quite a while,” Connelly said, noting that those relations have been particularly “tenuous” with Russia. “For historians, it’s been increasingly difficult to work in Russia.”

Fish further elaborated, saying Putin has no belief that U.S. President Joe Biden will be able to effectively stop his advances into Ukraine. Because the United States is the “unequivocal leader” of the Western alliance, according to Fish, it would have to impose economic measures that threatened Putin’s hold on Russia.

For example, Fish said, should Russia be cut off from the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications the Russian economy could be badly damaged.

Other sources were more skeptical of the efficacy of imposing sanctions on Russia.

“Western sanctions will hurt the Russian people, but they will not influence Putin’s actions in Ukraine,” said campus political science professor emeritus George Breslauer in an email. “Great powers that feel deeply aggrieved do not sacrifice their perceived national security interests to avoid an economic pinch.”

Campus political science assistant professor Michaela Mattes referred to Russia’s actions as the beginning of a “war of aggression” against Ukraine.

The war will likely be used to “decapitate” the Ukrainian government and install a puppet government in its place, according to Mattes.

“There’s going to be a lot of uncertainty created by this,” Mattes said. “It sends a message to other countries.”

Mattes also pushed back on the idea that Russia was afraid of Ukraine entering NATO, saying there was “no expectation” that Ukraine would join the organization in the future.

Despite the location of the war, however, Fish warned Russia’s invasion could have larger consequences for the rest of the world.

“A lot of people are not quite getting the big picture of this conflict,” Fish said. “One side represents democracy and the other autocracy, one side liberalism and the other side illiberalism, one side peace and the other side war. It’s remarkable how much moral clarification there’s been here.”

The struggle, Fish said, is in his opinion as “morally unambiguous” as that of the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, or the outbreak of the Second World War.

Connelly highlighted a campus event that will occur March 2 for community members who may be interested in learning more. The UC Berkeley Institute of Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies will host a panel discussion on the events in Ukraine, where experts will discuss the conflict.

Goshylyk encouraged students looking for ways to help to educate themselves about what is going on and its global scope.

“Once you understand, share this with your friends and colleagues, people you know. Try to discuss this, try to speak up,” Goshylyk said. “Take a strong, proactive stand here in any way you can, because that’s important for global security.”

Goshylyk also said donations were helpful, and asked students to use their creativity and intellect to think about new ways to help.

Because of the past thirty years of freedom in Ukraine, the newest generation of Ukrainians only know what censorship means from learning about it, according to Goshylyk. For students in Berkeley, a historically liberal campus and city, protection of the right to protest and speak out against the government is essential.

“It is very important to understand that it is not only about Ukraine. It’s not only about my family, my colleagues and Ukraine,” Goshylyk said. “It is also a fight about democracy.”

Contact Sebastian Cahill and Aileen Wu at [email protected].