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DAAD Visiting Professor Chiara Pierobon: Insights into the Ukraine conflict

Submitted by Stephen Dunne on December 22, 2022 - 9:53am
Prof. Chiara Pierobon
Prof. Chiara Pierobon

DAAD (German Academic Exchange Service) professors are German academics who teach at North American universities for up to five years in a wide variety of fields such as political science, history, anthropology and philosophy. This year we welcome new DAAD Professor Chiara Pierobon who will be researching and teaching courses related to Europe and Central Asia in the Department of Political Science and the Jackson School of International Studies. Dr. Pierobon has an impressive resume that includes five degrees and visiting scholar positions in Germany, Malaysia, Russia, Kazakhstan and Kirghizstan.  The winter she will be teaching two undergraduate courses, Politics and Society in Eastern Europe and an Advanced Seminar in International Relations.

As an international expert on Eastern Europe and Central Asia, we were interested in hearing  Chiara’s perspective on the broader implications of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine for other former Soviet Union States and for the European Union.

Chiara, welcome to the UW! Thank you taking the time to speak with us today.

We all have many questions about Ukraine. But what do you think Americans should know about the conflict that is receiving less attention in the mainstream media?

Russia’s aggression against Ukraine launched on February 24, 2022 has represented a watershed moment for European and EU foreign policy and has brought political leaders in Europe to question existing European security architecture. The EU has adopted most severe sanctions against Russia, provided extensive humanitarian and financial support to Ukraine and has mobilized EUR 2 billion of military aid. As a matter of fact, this is the first time that the EU is supporting members states as they supply military equipment to a country that is under attack. A dramatic shift is also visible at the member states level and, for instance, in Germany, where a EUR 100 billion special fund for immediate investment in military capacity has been set up. In addition, the country has abandoned a long-standing policy of blocking weapons from being delivered to conflict zones and has committed itself to invest annually more than 2 percent of its GDP in defense, a NATO benchmark that the country has long failed to meet. Last but not least, since the beginning of the conflict Europe has also welcomed more than 5 million refugees from Ukraine whose number will surely increase during the winter.

To what extent is the war in Ukraine about more than the territorial sovereignty of Ukraine? What else is at stake for the region, Europe and the world?

The war in Ukraine has been framed especially by Western countries as a clear violation of the UN Charter and International Law, as testified by the emergency session of the UN’s General Assembly of March, 2. during which 141 of the 193 members states voted for a resolution deploring Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and calling for an immediate withdrawal of its forces. A similar consensus emerged in October when in its resolution “Territorial integrity of Ukraine: defending the principles of the Charter of the United Nations”, the UN General Assembly did not recognize any Russia’s annexation claim and demanded Moscow to reverse its attempted illegal annexation of the regions of Donetsk, Kherson, Luhansk and Zaporizhzhia. Nonetheless, also in this case five countries voted against and 35 - mainly African nations alongside China and India - abstained from voting. Remarkably, leading countries from the Global South, contributing to more than half of the world’s population, consistently refuse to take side in the conflict.

At the same time, if we look at Europe, the conflict has pointed out great deficiencies characterizing European energy sector and the urgent need to decrease its dependence on energy imports especially from more authoritarian countries. This crisis has surely created momentum for the green-energy transition and boosted investments in renewables sources with the EU launching a new energy independence policy called REPowerEU and setting up an additional budget of €210 billion in investments in renewables by 2027. Nevertheless, the region’s energy security remains precarious, with blackouts and gas rationing still possible in the coming months.

What about Russians?  Is this just Putin’s war or do Russians generally have a very different perspective on this war compared to those of us in the west?

Although Western governments and media indulge in framing the conflict in Ukraine as “Putin’s war”, public opinion polls of the Levada Center have consistently revealed Russians’ high popular support for Moscow so-called “special military operation” as well as for Putin, whose popularity has indeed - contrary to the expectations of Western observers – increased in the past months. Russians tend to justify the military intervention in Ukraine as an unavoidable response to the threat faced by Russian-speaking population in the country and see the United States and, especially, the NATO as the main responsible for the military escalation in the region. However, thousands of arrests following the peaceful demonstrations last spring and the introduction of new criminal charges for spreading fake information and for discrediting the armed forces might also have negatively affected critics’ willingness to openly express their opinions. The conflict has also produced very visible consequences for Russian society and the neighborhood with tens of thousands of young Russians – also referred to “relokanty” – who in the past month have fled to Central Asia, Armenia, Georgia and Turkey to avoid being called to serve in the army.

How do other former soviet states further from the conflict, such as Kazakhstan and Kirghizstan, view this conflict?

Many of these so-called “relokanty” are now living in Kazakhan and Kyrgyzan where they have generated mixed reactions among locals. Indeed, whereas with their significantly higher incomes they contribute to economic growth in receiving countries, their presence has also caused an increase in good, real estate and rent prices that negatively affect locals. Economically speaking, the conflict has led to an energy crisis in Central Asia and an inflation rate at 16 percent.

In the past months, Central Asian countries have expressed objections and distanced themselves from the Kremlin as testified by their votes during the UN’s General Assembly of March, 2. when Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan abstained and Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan did not vote. Kazakhstan has been the most reactive country and has resolutely stated it will not recognise quasi-state entities annexed by Russia. Kyrgyzstan’s deep economic ties with Russia – one third of its GDP depends on remittances mainly from Russia - makes its positioning more ambiguous.

Overall, the conflict has exacerbated existing divisions in Central Asian population whose positioning vis-à-vis the conflict has also been influenced by pro-Russian media and the promise of Russian citizenship for labor migrants who would join military service.

What else could the U.S. and European nations be doing to support Ukraine and other nations in the region?

The conflict in Ukraine has led to a humanitarian crisis with millions of people in need. The situation is aggravated by the disruption of utilities such as water, heating and electricity caused especially by recent attacks, lack of vital supplies and the arrival of winter with temperatures that could drop below -20°C. Right now, there is a very urgent need to address this energy emergency and to help people to get through the winter in a country where infrastructure has been devastated and the access to basic services such as drinking water and essential health care is very limited.

In a long-term perspective, it would be advisable for the U.S., the EU and other organizations operating in the region to adopt a more people-centered-approach. Since the 1990s, millions of dollars have been invested in promoting democracy and human rights through the strengthening of civil society in the post-Soviet space with limited results. International assistance has surely provided a fertile terrain for the color revolutions of the 2000s, but the lack of solid democratic roots has hindered political transition in these countries. Remarkably, with its great civic engagement at the grassroot level, the Maidan Revolution in Ukraine represents a unique exception that culminated in the outbreak of the Russo-Ukrainian conflict in 2014.

Overall, international assistance in the region has also led to the creation of a vibrant Western-style civil society sector which learnt to speak the language of the international donor community, but which also became detached from its local constituencies. Therefore, Western countries surely need to rethink their approach and center it more around the people, their needs and visions of good life. Rather than strengthening the NGO sector, they should foster societal resilience at large, by enabling local communities and people to realize their potential giving space to local voices and solutions.

Thank you! On a related subject, I see that your Ph.D. dissertation was on civil society development, national identify and music in Russia and that you’ll be teaching an undergraduate course on music and politics in the Spring. I’m a big fan of the Eurovision Song Contest. Can you say a little bit about your forthcoming course and why it is important for students to appreciate the role of music in politics?

Well, music plays a unique role in social movements and mobilization. As a matter of fact, since the outbreak of the conflict in Ukraine, new forms of resistance through music have emerged in Eastern Europe. Through the course, we will ask ourselves why music is so ideological, and we examine the contribution of this medium to the creation of local, (trans)national and global identities. Of course, we will also look at the Eurovision Song Contest and at how it has established but also challenged a sense of European identity and belonging.