‘This is a war against the Ukrainian people’: Russia-Ukraine conflict felt at home and abroad

Protestors voiced their support for Ukraine in downtown Ames on Feb. 27. 

Kylee Haueter

Reporting contributed by Andrew Harrington, andrew.harrington@iowastatedaily.

Though the conflict between Russia and Ukraine is over 5,000 miles away, members of the Ames and Iowa State communities are feeling the repercussions here at home.

Russia invaded Ukraine late last week following months of tension building and Russian troops stationed near the Ukrainian border. 

Scott Feinstein, assistant professor of political science, said that there are two perspectives as to what led up to the Russian invasion. 

“There’s Vladimir Putin, the aggressor, and his personal motivations for this, like restoring a legacy of greatness that links to — in the annals of history — past czars like Peter the Great and Catherine the Great or Vladimir Lenin… Sort of cementing his place in history.”

In addition, Feinstein said that Putin also has personal ambitions to build support for himself in Ukraine.

“He came from the Soviet Union. It was his country, he was a KGB officer there. He lost it and now he’s trying to restore it,” he said. 

Feinstein said that part of Putin’s personal vendetta is also against the West. 

“He has been shamed by the U.S. for his human rights and political views, and now it’s his chance to embarrass, weaken the U.S. — maybe freak out Europe and renegotiate energy prices,” he said. 

On a larger level, Feinstein said that there are arguments to be made that the conflict could be outside the control of just Putin himself. 

“When the Soviet Union collapsed, the Russian state was not necessarily incorporated into the European security architecture,” he said. “Slowly, they may have felt some elements of threat from the expansion of NATO east since the 1990s and the inability to act as a great power anymore in the world […] now they’re able to be heard, to have these great power privileges.”

“Is this the will of Vladimir Putin and his ability to organize and invade for personal gain and a vendetta? Or is this a product of post-Cold War security?”

Following the invasion, the U.S., Canada, the United Kingdom and members of the European Union issued harsh financial sanctions against Russia and Russian President Vladimir Putin in response to the invasion and are also providing Ukraine with aid. Traditionally neutral Switzerland has also adopted all sanctions that the EU will be imposing. 

Russia has also been banned from international sports competitions, including those held by FIFA, World Curling, the International Ice Hockey Federation and the International Skating Union. 

Putin stepped up aggression towards Ukraine and ordered his nuclear deterrent forces to be “on alert” following the sanctions and what he said were “aggressive statements” from NATO countries. 

Russian forces bombed Kyiv’s main TV tower and Kharkiv’s Freedom Square — causing casualties in both attacks. 

Feinstein said that there is very little gain in the situation for Russia. 

“For Russia itself, not only are you going to lose lots of lives in this process, but their ability to actually have authority in Ukraine is fairly questionable,” he said. “I think there’s something about Russia wanting to control the politics of Ukraine, and they’ve tried it through having their lackeys, for lack of a better word, like Viktor Yanukovych, be the president. But, he failed in elections and then was eventually thrown out in the Euromaidan in 2014.”

Despite cyber techniques to control the flow of information, invasion attempts on the eastern border and the annexation of Crimea, Feinstein said that Russia hasn’t been able to control Ukraine itself. Ukraine’s democracy has raised questions as to why Russia can’t follow suit and be democratic as well.

“Keeping Ukraine authoritarian makes it more legitimate for Russia and Vladimir Putin to stay in power under authoritarian pretenses without free and fair elections,” he said. 

Feinstein said that Putin’s ability to actually hold authority in Ukraine would be a big challenge. 

“Kyiv was a city and a place long before Moscow ever existed,” he said. “The Soviet Army tried to take Kyiv twice before they had to come in and just negotiate with Kyiv to make them part of the Soviet Union. A lot of [implementing power] is going to have to be by force, by elimination of other types of power. It’s eliminating opposition voices.”

The potential gain for Putin is the ability to have other world leaders listen to him and have a hand in shaping what global relations look like — something Russia hasn’t been able to do since the end of the Cold War.  

“This time he said ‘I am a world leader and you must listen to me,’” Feinstein said. 

Ukrainian opposition to the invasion has remained strong, with the armed forces delaying Russia’s takeover of major cities longer than initially predicted and civilians staying behind to join the fight instead of taking refuge in a neighboring country.

In Ames, members of the local Ukrainian community and other supporters made their voices heard Sunday evening during a protest in downtown Ames. 

Svitlana Zbarska, an undergraduate research program coordinator at Iowa State, grew up in Ukraine. 

“Ukraine did nothing. Ukraine did not initiate any conflicts,” Zbarska said. “There is nothing which Russia might prosecute Ukraine except their ego to reconstruct the Soviet Union, and again add post-Soviet countries together and recreate the big Russian empire.”

“Unfortunately, right now regular civil people are in danger,” she said. “Putin is trying to call it military conflict, but it’s not military conflict. This is a war against the Ukrainian people. They are calling it nationalization of Ukrainians, but we want to save our nationality and our culture and our language and our independence.”

Ames resident Sasha, who asked to be identified only by her first name, said her entire family is still back home in Ukraine.  

“My parents are hiding in their apartment. All of my classmates, all of my friends are over there,” she said. “They are killing our kids, they are killing our doctors and ambulances, they are killing our soldiers, they are shooting at civilians, they are destroying our houses, they are destroying our cities. Ukraine has a very, very long history, and I believe that we deserve peace. We have to stop the war.”

Sasha was not alone in worrying about family members that remain back in Ukraine. Victoria Kyveryga, a senior in chemical engineering, has family and friends still in Kyiv. 

“My family is from Ukraine, my grandparents are still in Ukraine, friends and family are still in Ukraine, some of them live in the capital city of Kyiv,” she said. “So it’s obviously very concerning to witness this, basically, massacre of Ukrainian citizens and bombing of Ukrainian cities.”

Another Ames resident, Ina Kreymborg, said that Ukraine is fighting for the world in this war. 

“It breaks my heart that it has to do that on its own — that Ukrainian soldiers have to face the aggressor,” Kreymborg said. “Of course, I’m thankful, when I think of how much support the world is giving to Ukraine right now, but I still believe that not everything was done to prevent the war. If Putin is not stopped right now, the war will come here tomorrow.”

“We need to review the speeches which Hitler was using to brainwash this population,” she said. “That’s exactly what Putin is doing right now. It’s like Putin is using Hitler’s script. He dehumanized Ukrainians, called them unbelievable names just to justify this act of aggression.”

Feinstein said that in the coming weeks, we would see large amounts of refugees fleeing into other Western European countries like Moldova and Poland, which will leave leaders figuring out how to peacefully integrate people and provide them with the resources that they need. 

“This is going to put greater pressure on that struggle for Europe,” he said.

Feinstein also raised the questions of whether this conflict will cause European countries to be united or to be divided and how resolved are citizens of democratic countries to get involved in another war.

“The United States experiencing 20 years at war, then the COVID pandemic, economic challenges — how willing are people to bear the brunt of eliminating Russia from the United States in terms of as an economic partner,” he said. “These different democratic citizens — are they going to support these kind of sanctions on Russia for a long-term future, or are people too exhausted at this point?”

Though President Joe Biden has rejected sending troops into Ukraine up to now, he has said that if Putin makes a move into any NATO countries, the U.S. “will get involved.”

“Today Kyiv is not only the capital of Ukraine, it is the capital of the old Soviet Union countries because all of us want to be safe, all of us want to be free, all of us want to live as we wish,” said Kanan, another local resident from Ukraine who also asked that his last name be withheld. “It’s not only [a] Ukrainian war; it’s [an] all of us war.