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WIU experts share perspectives on conflict in Ukraine

Betsy Perabo, Richard Filipink, and Greg Baldi (from left to right) shortly before the event began.
Rich Egger
Betsy Perabo, Richard Filipink, and Greg Baldi (from left to right) shortly before the event began.

Russia invaded Ukraine more than a month ago. Faculty members at Western Illinois University are examining the ongoing conflict and providing context for what’s happening through historical, religious, and political lenses.

The history

History Professor Richard Filipink said Russian President Vladimir Putin is a former KGB agent who considered the collapse of the Soviet Union the greatest historical tragedy of the 20th Century.

He said Putin has made it clear during his two decades in power that he intends to restore the Soviet Union.

“In a very real sense, this is a bit of continuity with the originator of this idea in the 20th Century, Joseph Stalin. Vladimir Putin is sort of the Dollar Store version of Joseph Stalin,” Filipink said during a panel discussion at WIU on March 24.

He said Ukraine declared independence from Russia toward the end of World War I. Stalin then retook it by 1920, and Filipink said Stalin imposed a man-made famine in Ukraine in the 1930s, killing close to four million people.

He said Stalin also declared Ukraine to be a myth and barred teaching Ukrainian history, language, and folk songs, and banned speaking about the famine he created.

Filipink said Putin is using the same playbook so it’s not surprising he is attempting to destroy Ukraine and brutalize it in the process.

“(He is) attempting to eliminate Ukraine and portray Ukraine as unreal, as just another part of Russia. (That) it’s as false now as it was then,” Filipink said.

He added that the weaponizing of history and disinformation are standard operating procedure for Putin and his ilk.

“This deliberate attempt to sow this kind of confusion and to force people to question what he actually believes and what he actually thinks is part and parcel of behavior fomented by the KGB,” Filipink said.

Religion also a factor

Betsy Perabo, Liberal Arts and Sciences Coordinator and Religious Studies Professor, said it is common in the history of Christianity for religious and political leaders to claim that a war is divinely blessed. She said that’s true even though Jesus was recorded as saying “love your enemies” and “pray for those who persecute you.”

“We see Christians and their leaders behaving as if their own worldly kingdom is the one and only kingdom of God, that this kingdom must be defended or expanded by striking others or engaging in much more violent forms of fighting, and displaying an attitude towards their enemies that does not look anything like love,” she said, adding that the current leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, has justified the Russian invasion of Ukraine in religious terms.

“In particular, he suggests that Russia is really fighting to overcome the immorality found in Ukraine, (and) to ensure the flourishing of true Christianity,” Perabo said.

She said Kirill also claims the conflict is the result of the West’s efforts to drum up tensions between Russians and Ukrainians.

Perabo said Kirill claimed Russia had a Christ-loving military in World War II and was fighting a holy war. He called it a fight for justice, the homeland, and the people against a cruel enemy.

She said he has not made such claims about the current fighting, but she said his claims about World War II provide important background as the Ukrainian conflict continues and Russian political and religious leaders potentially try to connect the ideas of church, state, and war.

European politics

Political Science Associate Professor Greg Baldi, who specializes in European politics, said Putin asserted on the eve of the invasion that Ukraine was not a real country but rather a part of Russia.

He said Putin also claimed Ukraine had allied itself with Russia’s enemies to weaken Russia and bring about regime change.

Baldi said many observers feel the invasion is really about the threat Putin and his regime see from a democratized Ukraine that’s allied to western democracies.

“In attacking a democratic Ukraine, he hopes not only to overthrow its government, but also to convince other countries of the region – perhaps Belarus, Kazakhstan, Poland, and Hungary just to name a few – that democracy is not a viable option in the long-term for them,” he said.

Baldi said Russia also worked to weaken democracy by intervening in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, and causing dissent and division in Europe during the 2016 Brexit referendum.

Baldi called the Russian invasion of Ukraine one of the most significant events in Europe since the Cold War ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

“The images we’ve seen -- armored columns, fleeing refugees, cities reduced to rubble by airstrikes – have shocked many. And I would say for many of us these were images that seemed to belong to a different time,” he said.

Baldi said that for most of the past four centuries, Ukraine and Russia belonged to a common political unit, first in the Russian empire, and then later in the Soviet Union.

He said Ukraine gained independence along with more than a dozen other post-Soviet states when the Soviet Union was dissolved in 1991. He said Ukraine is the second largest of those states; only Russia is larger.

He said Ukraine and Russia reached a series of agreements in the 1990s regarding security and Ukraine’s post-Soviet borders, but the situation changed significantly in the new century when two popular uprisings occurred in Ukraine.

“The second of these, which takes place in 2013 and 2014, is tied to a belief that Russia had taken over too much of a role in Ukrainian domestic politics and stopped Ukraine from its desired goal to align more with the west,” Baldi said.

That led to the impeachment of pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych, who was removed from office in 2014. A more pro-European president in Petro Poroshenko was elected later that year, and in 2018 Ukrainians elected current president Volodymyr Zelensky, who is also pro-west.

Baldi said Russia responded in 2014 by disputing the impeachment and annexing the Crimean peninsula. He said Putin’s regime also has supported Russian insurgents and separatists in a border region between the two countries. The fighting has been going on there for the past eight years.

“Although we’re talking about this war in terms of the invasion that began in February this year, it’s really a conflict that’s been going on for some years,” Baldi said.

Russia began a large-scale movement of troops in 2021 followed by the movement of armored divisions, and weapons systems to the Ukraine border, culminating in invasion that began on February 24.

Candlelight vigil

Panel moderator Tim Roberts said the Macomb Interfaith Alliance is planning a “Pray for Peace” vigil for Wednesday, April 6, 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. at Chandler Park.

In the event of inclement weather, the vigil will be held at the First Presbyterian Church, 400 E. Carroll St. in Macomb.

Tri States Public Radio produced this story.  TSPR relies on financial support from our readers and listeners in order to provide coverage of the issues that matter to west central Illinois, southeast Iowa, and northeast Missouri. As someone who values the content created by TSPR's news department please consider making a financial contribution.

Rich is TSPR's News Director.