Russia’s slow but calculated march into eastern Ukraine continues to draw condemnation from world leaders as Russian President Vladimir Putin moves ever closer to full-scale war.
Should the weary residents of southern Minnesota, grappling with more than two years of the pandemic and another key election year, be more concerned about this international conflict?
Yes, emphasizes Denis Crnkovic, a retired professor from Gustavus Adolphus College. Mankatoan, 68, is the former associate professor of Russian studies, who retired in 2019, after 35 years. He still holds the title of professor-researcher at the Collège d’arts liberals Saint-Pierre.
“The big question is, ‘Is that bluster? How deadly serious is he in this?
“We’ve been here before,” Crnkovic said. “What’s different this time is that Putin moved 200,000 troops near the Ukrainian border.”
At the very least, the escalating Ukrainian-Russian conflict spells potential trouble for a US economy and a still-volatile stock market, he said.
“If Russia enters Ukraine, the bull market is over.”
The worst case scenario? War and Russian expansion in Eastern Europe, according to Crnkovic.
“It’s almost as critical as the Cuban Missile Crisis,” Crnkovic says, drawing a comparison that tested the fledgling John F. Kennedy administration in late October 1962. “If Putin moves into Ukraine, it’s not very different from Hitler moving to Poland.”
While Crnkovic hopes war can be averted, that optimism is fading.
“I wish I had a crystal ball,” he said. “Unfortunately, I don’t think the current administration’s tough stance has had a strong impact on uniting the American people.”
Crnkovic says Putin, now 69, is exercising his authoritarian presence, his ‘Russian patience’ and the old ‘Soviet way’, just as he did through the KGB to the top of the Kremlin .
“We refuse to believe that the Russians aren’t watching the next four years of elections… And they lie constantly,” he says.
Crnkovic is getting closer to joining the chorus of analysts who think Putin could be heading for full-scale war to achieve that long-held goal of expansion into Eastern Europe. Putin’s emergence and fierce speeches as early as the 2007 Munich convention might have fallen on deaf ears, he says.
“Putin has solidified his army. He really increased the number of his ground forces and his weapons,” Crnkovic said. “And he sees the West as gradually weakening. And he considers himself stronger. He wants to find what he lost. Of course, this spells disaster for everyone on the east side.
Crnkovic joined Gustavus in 1984, teaching courses in Russian, Russian literature and culture. He had previously been a lecturer and instructor in Croatian and Russian studies at Yale University. His post-doctoral work was at Saint Petersburg (then Leningrad) State University.
Others share their concerns
“The situation is escalating very quickly,” says political science professor Tomasz Inglot, director of the international relations program at Minnesota State University.
Inglot has been at MSU since 1995 and has seen Russian Studies take precedence over other Eastern European cultures. It was, he said, a mistake.
“I’ve been saying for a long time, ‘Russia isn’t going away anytime soon.’ And no one listened to me.
Inglot said on Tuesday he was worried about the long-term effects across Europe. Russia’s advance deeper into Ukraine is concerning as Putin seeks “the reconstruction of the former Soviet Union”, according to Inglot.
“It’s the most dangerous thing,” he said.
Inglot praised the early and frequent warnings from President Joe Biden’s administration about Putin’s plans and Russia’s planned deepening in Ukraine.
“I think he handled it brilliantly,” said Inglot, who had previously criticized the administration’s foreign policy moves. “And maybe now we have a chance to find a compromise, bringing Democrats and Republicans together.”
Loramy (Mimi) Gerstbauer, professor of political science and director of peace studies at Gustavus, says that “the conflict in Ukraine is really complex and dates back to 2014”. But because it seems off the radar of many southern Minnesota residents, Gerstbauer chose the area to study in his spring 2021 semester course, “Conflict and Resolution.”
Gerstbauer views the current conflict beyond Ukraine, but as the potential “end of the liberal order.”
“Liberal as in human freedom – human rights, democratic government, free markets,” she said by email. “The liberal international order is supported by international rules and cooperative institutions meant to benefit the freedom and security of all.”
The move toward autocratic rulers threatens those freedoms, says Gerstbauer.
“Rising tendencies towards isolation and nationalism threaten this order, as does the decline of democracy. The number of countries that are democracies in the world has been declining since 2006.”
Gerstbauer agrees that Putin’s moves and influence are growing, “along with what some see as a reduction in American influence.”
“There’s reason to criticize American foreign policy, but it’s hard to dismiss the positive influence the United States has had in maintaining liberal policing and even promoting democracy around the world.”
“Russia vs. the Western World”
Both Gerstbauer and Crnkovic note that NATO’s role has been significant in the ongoing Ukrainian-Russian conflict, creating a glimmer of hope.
“One of the things I noticed that’s different is how unified NATO countries have been in their response to Putin,” Crnkovic said. “I’ve never seen this before.”
Gerstbauer thinks the current crisis could renew a deeper analysis of NATO’s value to the United States and Europe.
“A good number of students see NATO involvement as a waste of American resources, especially when (former President) Trump was right to call on European countries to contribute more to the alliance… If NATO is a Cold War relic, new Cold War-like tensions could make NATO even more important.
Gerstbauer taught political science in Warsaw, Poland in the spring of 2015 as a Fulbright Scholar. But most of her students, she noted, were Ukrainians, not Polish.
“Many had been affected by the 2014 Russian invasion and were looking for better opportunities in Poland. They were bright, accomplished young people who had dreams like any American college student. I have a small personal connection with Ukraine through all these students.
Former Wells resident Esther Zdebko, a 2007 graduate of United South Central High School, served as a missionary in Ukraine from 2011 to 2016. She married Ukrainian-born Valera Zdebko a year later. The couple now reside in Austin, but family and friends, including her grandmother, live in the Mankato area. The Zdebkos moved to Minnesota in 2019.
Her husband, born in 1987 when Ukraine was still under the former Soviet Union, spends little time on US media and seems less concerned, Zdebko said. However, she is worried.
“He has two sisters still in Ukraine. He’s not as worried as I am because American news is grayer, grimmer than it seems. He says: “Keep calm. We’ve been through this before. It’s a bit of a Ukrainian thing because Russia has been at war with them for so long.
She says the differences between the western and eastern parts of Ukraine are visibly and emotionally noticeable.
“It really gets grayer as you travel east. Western Ukraine is modern. There is some light and progress. And flowers. It’s almost like something spiritual. There is more hope (in the west).
Zdebko agrees with US foreign policy experts that Putin should be taken seriously.
“You can’t ignore that Putin is very smart. I hope Putin changes his mind. But I don’t think that’s possible. »
Gerstbauer agrees it might be hard to stay optimistic.
“But without a doubt, Ukraine means much more to Russia than to the United States. There is no skin in the game for the United States to start World War III to save Ukraine from Russia.”
According to Gerstbauer, these are critical moments in the crisis regarding the current American foreign policy.
“I actually think there are a lot of things to consider for all of us here in the United States,” she says. “Obviously the threat of war, but also the continued decline in human freedom that affects us all. It’s a kind of slow death. Russia takes control of Ukraine or parts of it. China and Hong Kong. Nicaragua, where an elected leader abuses power. Threats to Democracy in the United States For me, everything is connected.
Zdebko puts it this way: “It’s really Russia against the Western world. It’s frustrating that Ukraine is caught in the middle.