HELENA — As the situation between Russia and Ukraine continues evolving rapidly, half a world away, some Montanans are watching closely — and from very different perspectives.
To Dr. Jeanette Fregulia, an associate professor of history at Carroll College, the current crisis is tied in with years of complex history and culture.
“I think we want simple solutions to what are enduring and long-term questions and problems,” she said.
Fregulia first visited Russia in 1984, when it was still part of the Soviet Union. She’s been paying particular attention to developments in the region, as she was planning to lead a Carroll study abroad group to Russia and Ukraine this year. The rising tensions forced those plans to change.
“It started out to be Russia and Ukraine, including a one-day excursion to Chernobyl, then it went to just Russia, and then as of a week ago, it was off the menu entirely,” said Fregulia.
On Monday, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced he would recognize two separatist areas in eastern Ukraine as independent countries and send in Russian troops for what he called a peacekeeping mission.
Fregulia said she was particularly interested to see the transcript of a lengthy speech Putin made Monday. In it, he focused heavily on history. He was quoted as saying Ukraine was an integral part of Russia’s “history, culture and spiritual space.” He also argued Ukraine didn’t have a true history of separate statehood, and that its separation from Russia was caused by mistakes during the Soviet era.
“He also feels that Ukraine is a loss to what he sees as greater Russia, and he has made no secret in the past of wanting to regain that territory,” said Fregulia.
While Putin’s views on Ukrainian history aren’t shared by everyone, Fregulia says it’s clear they play a big role in the decisions he’s making.
“He’s very much a student of history, and I think we underestimate that about him,” she said. “He’s a very complex character.”
Josh Manning, a longtime Montana resident who now works in Washington state, spent several years studying Russia intently. He worked as a military intelligence analyst, working for the U.S. European Command.
“That was my introduction, and I’ve been following it ever since,” he said. “You can’t let that go.”
Since Manning became a Russia watcher, the country has been involved in a number of armed conflicts – fighting against separatist rebels in Chechnya in the early 2000s, supporting two secessionist republics in Georgia in 2008 and sending troops to assist pro-Russian separatist movements in eastern and southern Ukraine in 2014.
Manning says there are some similarities to those earlier situations, but in those cases, we saw only limited incursions. In this case, he says signs point toward plans for a full-scale invasion.
“I know there are people who are like, ‘They’re bluffing, this is all just a thing, it’ll be limited,’” he said. “This is not going to be limited. You don’t park 200,000 troops, vast armadas of ships and warplanes and bombers near a country if you’re just going in and take a few yards of territory.”
Manning says he believes the reason we’re seeing a change in attitude now is that Russia perceives a change in other countries.
“I think what’s changed is the Kremlin feels emboldened,” he said. “I think the Kremlin feels like it has the West split.”
He sees this move by Russia as a clear signal they will step up their efforts to stand against democratization efforts.
“I hope people are paying attention,” he said. “I hope people aren’t thinking this is some distant conflict that doesn’t matter. I mean, this is a wave that starts out somewhere, but eventually, that wave ends up coming home.”
Carroll’s Political Science and History departments will be hosting a discussion about the Ukraine crisis on Zoom this Thursday at 7 p.m. The event is open to the public. If you’d like to participate, you can follow this Zoom link (https://carroll.zoom.us/j/98182137102).