Why Has Russia Invaded Ukraine? USC Experts Break Down the Conflict in Global Discussion

Why has Russia invaded Ukraine?

For the past few weeks, USC students, faculty, staff and alumni alike have watched in horror as Russian military forces continue to carry out a full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

The sight of gunfire being exchanged, airstrikes landing and tanks rolling across Ukrainian cities has been disturbing to witness — but it has also been a confusing conflict for those who aren’t familiar with Eastern European politics or up to date with existing global tensions.

Many have found themselves wondering: Why is Russia waging war on Ukraine? What effect does this have on Ukrainian and Russian citizens? What are the global ramifications, and what are other countries doing to help?

In an effort to discuss these topics and more, the USC Global Policy Institute – a student-run foreign affairs think tank and education institute – teamed up with USC Department of Political Science and International Relations, the Max Kade Institute for Austrian-German-Swiss Studies and the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures to present their third crisis briefing on the situation in Russia and Ukraine. The first two briefings in January and February covered the increasing tensions in the region.

“The Russian Invasion of Ukraine: A Discussion of the Ongoing Conflict, What It Means and What Happens Next” — held both on Zoom and in the Leavey Library Auditorium on March 3 — was a lively and informative conversation on the many different perspectives of this international catastrophe.

Six experts shared their thoughts on the current conflict and what the future may hold: USC professor and former Soviet Union expert Robert English; USC Kade Institute Director and Central Europe expert Paul Lerner; Slavic Languages Post-Doc Fellow Andrzej Brylak; European Academy of Public Diplomacy Director Katarzyna Pisarska; USC professor and Russia and Poland expert Tom Seifrid; and USC professor and human rights lawyer Steve Swerdlow.

Seifrid kicked off the event by quoting Andrei Zorin, a professor of Russian studies at the University of Oxford, who recently commented on the crisis, “Leaders become prisoners of their own populist mythologies.”

“I believe this is really what’s taking place,” Seifried said before providing an explanation for why some Russians, particularly President Vladimir Putin, have built a mythology that views Ukraine differently than the rest of the world.

While many have accepted Ukraine as an independent, self-existent state since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia has continually regarded the country as culturally, historically and geographically tied to the former USSR, viewing Ukraine as “the origins of Russia itself.”

“Therefore, the idea of an independent Ukraine is that much more irksome and intolerable to them. They view it as a violation of what they understand as a natural order of statehood. They totally reject legality,” he said.

Although these historical implications can help firm our understanding of the war today, Seifried said he disagrees with “French philosopher Blaise Pascal that to understand is to forgive. To understand is essential. It doesn’t mean we have to forgive Putin for promoting his extreme and falsified version of this mythology,” he explained.

How Can the West Support Ukraine’s Refugee Crisis?

Brylak, who covered the Maidan revolution in Ukraine in 2014 as a journalist, spoke next, breaking down the civilizational and political changes that have occurred in Ukraine following the revolution.

Discussing how the relationship between Ukraine and its neighbor Poland (a member of NATO) has deepened in the years since the annexation of Crimea, Brylak noted there was also an urge for Ukrainian people to distance themselves from Russia, impacting many citizens’ sense of cultural identity.

“In the Ukrainian context, the new identity born after Maidan is based on the idea that you can be culturally Eastern European, yet you want to belong civilizationally to Western Europe,” he said.

Brylak also touched on the current crisis and how the invasion has impacted those fleeing their home country, commenting he has “had very little sleep” while working tirelessly from the U.S. trying to place refugee families in Poland.

“This is a very emotional, really painful period of days for many of you,” Swerdlow added. “I want to just acknowledge how difficult this time has been. It affects the USC community — there are Russian [and] Ukrainians here affected.”

Swerdlow then went on to focus on the ways in which the war has become a human rights catastrophe in Ukraine and Russia as well as the wider international refugee community, noting how the West can help support displaced families during this time.

From collecting survivors’ testimonies to voicing support on placing crypto sanctions on Russia and ramping up pressure on the Biden administration to accept refugees, the list of recommendations is “very long,” said Swerdlow.

What Are the Global Consequences of the Russia-Ukraine War?

Pisarska, who dialed in remotely from Warsaw, Poland, spoke about the refugee crisis from the Polish perspective, detailing how the country has been able to effectively manage the overwhelming influx of Ukrainian citizens.

“Thousands of Poles have taken Ukrainians into their houses,” she said, adding that they are now working on placing children in schools and supplying adults with employment opportunities.

Although the Polish government has successfully supplied its “Ukrainian friends” with shelter and safety, urgent problems remain in Ukraine, including the necessities of humanitarian assistance and military support.“Ukraine has continued to be resilient, and the Kremlin has so far learned no lesson. What our main fear is that it will take many, many more victims and many, many more days to actually stop this invasion,” Pisarska said.

English, meanwhile, discussed the war from a military perspective and provided an up-to-date analysis of the battlefield, detailing the types of Russian weaponry that are being used on “more and more civilian targets [and] infrastructure.” Just this past week, a Russian airstrike devastated a maternity and children’s hospital in the city of Mariupol, resulting in three deaths and 17 injured victims.

“Putin has now made a clear decision to go for it at all costs, which is why this fear a Grozny-like outcome is well-founded,” he said, referencing the damage Putin inflicted on the city of Grozny in the 1990s, when its republic, Chechnya, rebelled for independence.

English then turned to the effects the conflict is having on the everyday people of Russia and its economy.

With hopes of deterring Putin from causing further damage to Ukraine, several Western countries have enacted sanctions against Russia, sending Russian lives into a tailspin and causing their financial systems to collapse. In response, daily anti-war demonstrations have broken out across Moscow and other major cities, condemning Putin’s invasion.

Although neither domestic protests nor international censures have seemed to make much of an impact on the president’s end goal of overtaking the country, Western nations have held strong in their resolve — and the people of Ukraine remain hopeful.

“[What my Ukrainian friends have said] is, ‘This war is already won by us … There is no stopping of the Ukrainian nation — there is not going to be a return of Ukraine to Russia. Ukraine is lost for Russia forever. They’re no longer our brothers.’ And I think we need to understand that this determination will absolutely change the course of this war,” Pisarska concluded.

Interested in hearing more? Watch the entire crisis briefing now.

BY Becca van Sambeck