Indiana State University Newsroom

Panel discusses possible solutions, pitfalls and history of Russia-Ukraine conflict

April 23, 2014

It's complicated. That phrase was a recurring theme during a discussion about Russia and Ukraine by Indiana State professors, students and Terre Haute residents Monday evening.

All in attendance for the panel discussion at Cunningham Memorial Library agreed something needed to be done to thwart Russia's recent land grab, but what that action could be is a complicated decision.

Economic sanctions? Not so fast, said Richard Lotspeich, professor of economics at Indiana State. Western European countries' economies - especially Germany - are heavily intertwined with Russia's economy.

"If we sanction Russia and hurt their oil and gas industry, we hurt Europe at the same time. The act of sanctions cuts both ways," Lotspeich said.

Military action? Not unless the U.S. would like to go to war with Russia.

Arming Ukrainians wouldn't do much good, as there is a drastic difference between the two armies, panelists said. Russia has an extremely well-equipped army of about 850,000 troops, while the Ukrainian force is much smaller - 60,000, with only 6,000 of them battle-ready.

"There's no way, even if we sent weapons and people that it would be an even fight. So what you're doing as soon as you incite military conflict, you're just giving the green (light) for Russia to walk in and take over all of Ukraine. That has to be avoided at all costs," said Barbara Skinner, associate professor of history at Indiana State.

"This is a very tricky situation. Think further ahead - we're getting into World War III. Military conflict and any building up of Ukraine forces (by) the U.S. will be looked upon as a declaration of war against Russia. Do we want that?"

Nation-building for the remaining part of Ukraine? Maybe, but that wouldn't be a popular political choice stateside.

"We need to look to the long term and do what we can to keep the rest of Ukraine healthy - or healthier than it is - with long-term aid and promotion of democratic values," Lotspeich said. "It should be a long-term project. It shouldn't just be America; it should be the European Union, as well. To some degree, we missed the boat by not doing this early on."

So, if none of these options are a quick fix, what exactly are industrialized nations doing?

"There's a lot of talk from the democracies, because that's what democracies do," said Lynn Maurer, professor of political science at Indiana State and dean of the College of Graduate and Professional Studies. "We believe, in political science, that democracies don't wage war on other democracies."

Lotspeich, who has expertise on comparative economic systems and the Russian economy, prefaced his comments by explaining the region's economic transition following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The transfer of productive assets from state ownership to private ownership proved to be the most difficult task, Lotspeich said, and set the stage for oligarchy and bureaucratic corruption in Russia and Ukraine.

Russia's economic growth has been largely based on natural resource extraction - mostly oil and natural gas - and with the current market prices, Russia should be able to continue expanding its military presence.

"Going forward, I think Russia will continue to enjoy a good deal of economic success and GDP expansion, but this is a fragile condition of the Russian economy. If energy prices stay high, Russia is fine. If energy prices crash, Russia is in big trouble," Lotspeich said.

Ukraine, which lacks Russia's natural resources, represents a "failed or half-completed economic transition, especially compared to Poland" or other eastern European countries, Lotspeich said.

When the Soviet Union broke up, the hope was the region would democratize - even in Russia, Maurer said. The Baltic States and Ukraine have enjoyed greater freedoms, but "Russia has become more and more and more authoritarian," Maurer said.

"When you hear in the news about ‘Russian presidential elections,' this is within an authoritarian regime. This is why candidates disappear or get kidnapped. They may get ‘released' over the weekend, and ‘they've changed their mind.'"

The watchdog organization,, tracks and analyzes challenges to freedom around the world. Maurer said Freedom House has said, "This is a threat to democracy - not just inside of Russia - but to all of those democratic neighbors. They call Putin's form of government ‘kleptocratic authoritarian.' He's grabbing areas."

As a result, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia - all of which have large Russian populations - are concerned they might be next on Russia's list.

"The response there has been one of apprehension and fear," Maurer said. "Here is Russia justifying their taking of Crimea and moving into the Ukraine as a way to protect the Russian population there. The reaction from the Latvians, Lithuanians and Estonians is, ‘Will they use that same justification to move into my country?' This is not their first experience with that."

Because of the volatile nature of the region, economic sanctions against Russia continue to surface as an option. Two key facets of economic sanctions, however, make them difficult to impose, Lotspeich said.

First, coordination is necessary, and it will be difficult to coordinate the efforts when European countries will have varying degrees of pain as a result of the sanctions against Russia, he said.

Secondly, "The way sanctions are supposed to work is you put pressure on some groups in the society, and they put pressure on political leadership to change the political action," he said. "That's an unlikely prospect ... especially with Putin's quite successful shift in Russia's politics. I think the prospect of sanctions is bleak."

When Crimea was first invaded, "President Putin said, ‘Oh, no, no, no. Those aren't Russian soldiers.' Apparently, you can buy this kind of uniform and machine guns in the local store," said Sophia Wilson, assistant professor of political science at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville. Putin recently confirmed the masked "green men," as they are called, were in fact Russian soldiers.

"A misstep that may have had an indirect role here is Obama's drawing of the red line in Syria about chemical weapons and then not responding when the line was crossed. Putin watches that and says, ‘OK, I can do what I want in Crimea,'" Lotspeich said.

Putin, too, is waging an information war, "telling truths, half-truths and downright lies," Lotspeich said. It's been reported that Jews living in the region have been instructed to register, another parallel to pre-World War II days.

"Why can't the U.S. speak louder and carry a bigger stick?" asked Skinner. "I'm really a little bit alarmed that we haven't made it clear that we know Putin is lying and that we know how much propaganda is being used in eastern Ukraine."

Women, religious groups, the elderly, people who just want to go to their jobs every morning - these are the groups of people on which Maurer focuses.

"We're not talking about Germany versus France, Russia versus Ukraine versus Crimea. These are actually countries made up of people. We're talking about real people. We're talking about students. We're talking about women and families," Maurer said. "Sometimes when a country is far away, we think of it as not being real. It's just as real as this room."

Maurer added, "When these conflicts go on, it's the people with a little less money, a little less power, the people without a majority representation who suffer the most."


Photos: - Barbara Skinner, associate professor of history at Indiana State, wrote her first book on religious conflicts in Ukraine and Belarus and has travelled to the region recently. - Sophia Wilson, assistant professor of political science at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, is from Ukraine. - From left, Lynn Maurer, professor of political science at ISU and dean of the College of Graduate and Professional Studies, has taught courses on Eastern European political systems in transition in the post-communist world, and Richard Lotspeich, professor of economics at ISU, has expertise on comparative economic systems and the Russian economy. - Indiana State students and residents of Terre Haute filled the events area of Cunningham Memorial Library Monday, April 21, for a panel discussion on Ukraine and Russia.

Writer: Libby Roerig, media relations assistant director, Office of Communications and Marketing, Indiana State University, 812-237-3790 or