“This far exceeds my worst-case scenario:” SLU Experts Discuss Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine

The world has been on high alert since Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a “military operation” in Ukraine on Feb. 24. The University News talked to three experts on Russia and Ukraine to get their insight on the war.

Monica Eppinger, Ph.D., J.D., is a professor at the Saint Louis University School of Law, where she teaches courses on international law and national security. From 1995 to 1997, she served in the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine under Ambassador William Green Miller. During this crisis, Eppinger has stayed in touch with friends who remain in Ukraine.

“This far exceeds my worst-case scenario,” Eppinger said. “And my only comfort is that every other expert that I’ve heard from had the same expectations that we did, whether Russians or Ukrainians, or Western Europeans or Americans. I only know one Ukrainian who openly expected there to be an invasion.”

Ellen Carnaghan, Ph.D., is a professor of political science at SLU and a scholar of post-Soviet conflicts. She said that she finds Putin’s actions difficult to understand.

“I was surprised by the full-scale invasion, insofar that I find it hard to make sense of,” Carnaghan said. “I find it hard to see what this invasion actually can accomplish.”

Though the war may seem far away to some, Eppinger said it will affect the U.S. in a way that will be “impossible to ignore.”

“Your gas prices are going to go up,” Eppinger said. “Ukrainians grow a lot of sunflowers. Sunflower seed oil is already up. Ukrainians grow a lot of wheat; they’re always in the top 10 of world wheat producers. Chances are your bread prices are going to go up. So, until the war is settled, we’re going to miss the things that Ukraine produces.”

Daniel L. Schlafly, Ph.D., is an expert in Russian history. He served as a professor at SLU from 1998 until his retirement last spring. Schlafly, who has analyzed the region since the height of the Cold War, said the “unprovoked aggression by an autocrat” caught him off-guard.

“I’m very surprised,” Schlafly said, though he noted that Putin “has been poking around on the eastern territories for a long time.”

Much of Putin’s defense of the war has hinged on denying that Ukraine is, or should be, separate from Russia. As a historical argument, Putin’s claims fall short, Schlafly said.

“[Putin] basically is weaving together a tissue of historical lies to justify his crap,” Schlafly said.

While the modern state of Ukraine, like the Russian Federation, was only formed after the fall of the Soviet Union, the idea of an independent Ukraine is far from new, Schlafly said. The two countries share a lot of history, but have fundamental differences with regard to language, culture and religion, Carnaghan said.

“There’s a historical basis for that argument. Both Russia and Ukraine claim their history from the same civilization from around 1000 AD,” Carnaghan said. “But since that time, there’s been a fair amount of consistent distinguishing between the Ukrainians and the Russians.”

Another claim Putin made which raised eyebrows was his stated goal to “demilitarize and denazify” Ukraine. Eppinger, who hosted a “teach-in” event on Ukraine at the law school on March 2, said she was worried by the statement’s implications.

“[Putin] has also said that he intends to replace the government of Ukraine,” Eppinger said. “So, by ‘demilitarize’, I would imagine if he managed to replace the government of Ukraine, it would not only be his puppet person there, but that Ukraine wouldn’t have a defense capacity after that.”

Carnaghan attributed the “denazify” comment to the 2014 “Revolution of Dignity,” which she said saw some involvement from fascists.

“There’s a basis; it’s not enough to justify bombing a country,” Carnaghan said. “At the time of that revolution, there were some neo-Nazis involved in the protests, because there are neo-Nazis all across that area of the world, and they were looking for a fight. There was one, so they were involved.”

All of the experts had high praise for the Biden administration’s response, noting the high amount of information that has been made public and mentioning the difficulty in supporting Ukraine while averting direct warfare.

“The West has made absolutely clear it’s not going to send military force,” Schlafly said. “But if the West can supply arms, ammunition, money and supplies—and they’ve got a long border on which to do it—they can probably hold the Russians off.”

Carnaghan said she understood decisions by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the Biden administration to not administer a much-discussed “no-fly zone” over Ukraine.

“I think that NATO was very concerned about taking any kind of action that would appear to put NATO directly at war with Russia. Because NATO at war with Russia means the United States is at war with Russia, and that is potentially a nuclear conflict,” Carnaghan said. “Putin has said it’s tantamount to a declaration of war, and it really does come pretty close.”

Eppinger said she views the prospects of nuclear war as unlikely but “definitely higher this week than it was last week.” She was also alarmed, she said, by Russia’s use of extremely lethal “thermobaric weapons”, nicknamed “vacuum bombs”, against Ukraine.

“Those things are scary and they should not exist on the face of the earth,” Eppinger said. “I would imagine that using them for any purpose is a violation of the international law of war. But they’re being lined up on the border of Ukraine right now.”

Schlafly warned of a “long and very bloody insurgency” if Russia manages to take power in Ukraine.

“If the Ukrainians can hold out, there will be a sort of stalemate. I’m not sure they can,” he said.

Eppinger said she will call on SLU to accept refugees from Ukraine, and advocated the establishment of a “Ukrainian Study Center”.

SLU President Fred Pestello, Ph.D. issued a statement in solidarity with Ukraine on March 1, calling for “mercy, compassion and comfort” and “a lasting and just peace.” The statement was co-signed by members of his cabinet and the Student Government Association (SGA) executive board.

That same day, the St. Francis Xavier College Church was lit up in blue and yellow, the colors of the Ukrainian flag. The church held a service in support of peace on March 7.