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Seaver College Faculty Lead Discussion on Putin's War in Ukraine

On March 7, 2022, at 4 PM, eleven days after Russia launched an invasion of Ukraine, five Seaver College professors hosted Pepperdine University and local community members for an analysis of the historical context, global impact, and international response to the conflict. The panel aimed to inform the community and engage with experts in a range of related disciplines. 

Entitled “Putin’s War in Ukraine,” the panel included Robert E. Williams, divisional dean for the social science division and professor of political science; Karie Riddle, assistant professor of political science; Amanda Rizkallah, assistant professor of international studies; John Taden, assistant professor of international studies; and Felicity Vabulas, associate professor of international studies. 

Williams opened the panel by discussing the history of Russia and Ukraine, briefly recapping events that led to the current-day situation. Williams emphasized the impact of the Revolution of Dignity in Ukraine in 2014, which led to the ousting of elected President Viktor Yanukovych, who was perceived as trying to establish closer ties with Russia, and the overthrow of the Ukrainian government. 

Rizkallah shed light on Russia’s military tactics and the potential consequences of Ukrainian insurrection. She pointed to Russia’s prior involvement in Syria as a reference point: The military gained experience and control of a Mediterranean naval base, tested over 300 weapons that are now being deployed in Ukraine, and made connections that have led to the hiring of Syrian mercenaries. Rizkallah also emphasized the repetition of Russian tactics used in Syria––namely, the use of cluster munitions and indiscriminately targeting civilians and civilian infrastructure to drain morale and prepare for ground fighting. 

Rizkallah concluded by laying out three possible scenarios for a Ukrainian insurgency: Russia takes Ukraine and, ultimately, Ukrainians comply with little or no insurgency; Russia takes Ukraine but a stubborn insurgency takes root––likely covertly funded by NATO; or Ukraine could be split into west and east, likely with the west full of refugees and the east under Russian control.

After Rizkallah, Vabulas directed the conversation to intelligence, international organizations, economic impacts, and China.

“This war looks very different than any we have seen in a long time,” Vabulas shared. “This is the most information-dense war we’ve seen.”

She elaborated on the statement, sharing that, because the United States knew they couldn’t play Putin’s information game alone, they declassified information ahead of time to prompt the European Union to action, an unprecedented move by United States intelligence. In speaking on international organizations, she encouraged the audience to keep the power of diplomatic sanctions in mind, such as the suspension of Russia’s membership in the Council of Europe and Ukraine’s case against Russia in the International Court of Justice.

Vabulas also addressed the economic sanctions, stating, “This is the largest set of sanctions ever leveled on a state,” she said. “We don’t know how powerful they will be because we have no historical precedent.”

Following Vabulas, Taden discussed global impacts, both long-term and immediate. In discussing immediate implications, Taden shared that the sanctions are causing governments and countries that have nothing to do with the war to suffer. He cited Tunisia, which recently requested grain after losing imports from Ukraine and Russia, as one example. Taden also mentioned several other examples of countries with current border and land disputes who will be looking at the world’s response to Russia’s invasion, including China and Taiwan. 

“There is only one outcome of superpower contests: destabilization,” Taden said. “These sanctions cannot afford to fail. Ethnic nationalism has to be a thing of the past.”

After Taden, Riddle addressed the conflict through the lens of gender analysis and feminist theory, emphasizing the gendered expectations for behavior of political leaders that both Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky have used to lead.

Riddle also highlighted the gender disparity in roles: Many women and children are fleeing as refugees while men between the ages of 18-60 are required to stay and fight. Though this keeps many women off the front lines, the lives they are leading as refugees are by no means violence-free.

“As Ukraine hopefully rebuilds, we’ll see the effects of these different roles,” Riddle shared. “It will likely lead to a doubling-down on gender norms as women have had to flee regardless of whether they had jobs and will likely have a difficult time returning to the workforce.”

On a positive note, Riddle added that many Russian mothers have critiqued the Russian government because they feel their sons were lied to about the nature of the war in Ukraine and sent off, inexperienced and ill-equipped. Riddle stated that mothers often can use claims about their sons as political comments.

Williams returned to the discussion, sharing how, with Russian civilians protesting at home, Putin is fighting on two fronts. Possibly due to this unexpected protesting at home, “Russia is undoubtedly more authoritarian than it was two weeks ago,” Williams shared. Williams also commented that the US and NATO have restrained from responding more forcefully in order to avoid the risk of a wider war.  

After the panelists concluded their remarks, Williams opened it up to a question and answer portion, which discussed the effects of social media on the invasion, how we might prevent nuclear powers abusing their positions in the future, how nations are constrained by public opinion, and the ethical dilemma of offering Putin an “off-ramp” or de-escalation options.

Williams closed the event by reading the Russian-Ukrainian-American poet Ilya Kaminsky’s poem “We Lived Happily During the War.”

To learn more, view the recording of the event.