Credit: Athina Bohner

Russia’s war on Ukraine: An expert perspective

By David Swanson

Political Communication lecturer Dr Joanna Szostek provides students with a guide to understand the conflict – and how to respond.

Understanding a conflict of this magnitude is not easy. With so many tense complications and geo-political implications, the Russian-Ukrainian crisis is arguably the most damaging conflict in Europe since the Cold War. 

In times of crisis, expert opinion always becomes a crucial source of information. With a research dedication in Russian-Ukrainian affairs and lived experience in both countries, Dr Szostek is arguably the leading contributor in her field. She sits down with The Glasgow Guardian to discuss some important components of the crisis. 

Historical Background: A Complicated Relationship.

To Dr Szostek, the “fundamental heart of this conflict is that the current Russian leadership doesn’t accept that Ukraine is a sovereign, independent state.” 

As “Russia and Ukraine have historically been closely interlinked” – within both the Russian Empire and the USSR – the current Kremlin government believes that Ukraine “does not have the right to be fully independent from Russia.”

Indeed, to Dr Szostek, this historical context ensures a current Kremlin belief that “Ukraine does not have the right to come up with its own views regarding national identity.” As Ukraine independently pivots towards a potentially closer relationship with the European Union and NATO, it breaks with the Kremlin’s view that “Moscow should have the final veto on constitutional matters.”

To Dr Szostek, this ultimately defines the conflict. The Kremlin is “using force to impose their vision on the kind of entity Ukraine should be.”

Mass-mediated propaganda: how does the Kremlin sell this assault to Russian citizens? 

In the context of crippling economic sanctions and intense international condemnation, she also notes that the Kremlin needs to maintain a firm hold on propaganda to “present the conflict as a triumph for Russia.” Here, Dr Szostek notices two sinister trends within Kremlin-directed mass-mediated communications. 

The first is the justification used for the initial assault. To validate military invasion, she notes that “Kremlin communications espoused a deeply distorted view of a need to stand up to the West.” Both the European Union and NATO are portrayed as international aggressors who seek to degrade Russian sovereignty – a neo-authoritarian throwback to the Soviet propaganda of old. Indeed, Dr Szostek notices a trend not dissimilar to Trumpian rhetoric: this is a concerted attempt to sell “making Russia great again” to its national citizens, and “restore Ukraine’s neutrality” from uninvited western influence.

However, as the Kyiv invasion has failed to swiftly deliver a Russian victory, Dr Szostek has detected a new, more troubling narrative. Kremlin communications now emphasise a need to “demilitarise Ukraine” to resolve the country’s “far-right problem”; the war is now positioned as a long assault to “liberate Ukraine from Kremlin-constructed fictional Nazis.” Under the guise of a de-Nazification rhetoric which is extremely powerful in the context of Russian history, war is used to force anyone even vaguely dissimilar to traditional Russian identity from Ukraine. 

To Dr Szostek, these communications point towards “completely unacceptable” long-term goals. The Kremlin seeks to justify that there must be “a Ukraine where national identity distinct from Russia is not the dominant political force.

Is peace possible: how does this end? 

The scale of the crisis cannot be underestimated. As Dr Szostek reports: “It is a humanitarian catastrophe: no one can know for sure what the toll on civilian life could be.” Many families remain displaced within the country by the force of the invasion, while others – mainly women and children – attempt to flee across borders for sanctuary.

However, in words that will be deeply troubling to all those who seek a peaceful resolution, she also reports: “I struggle to see how both sides reach an agreement.” Russia is unlikely to relinquish its claim upon its self-declared republics in Donbas and Crimea – a clear breach of Ukrainian sovereignty that will never be accepted by the Zelenskyy’s government. Even the very likely scenario of Ukraine staying out of NATO is false dawn: Dr Szostek articulates that “this was only a very small part of what Russia was demanding.” 

But even in despair, there is hope, and Dr Szostek articulates that “the longer Ukraine manages to withstand the Russian invasion, the less likely it is they will be forced into horrible compromises with Russia.” Peace and justice, in the end, are still possible through a collectively defiant spirit – but at what immediate cost for the Ukrainian population?

What can University of Glasgow students do to aid the Ukrainian cause? 

Dr Szostek moved to commend those who have organised fundraisers and donations for the Ukrainian people. She also suggests social media can be a powerful tool to break down international barriers, and offer direct support to Ukrainians. However, she offers one clear – yet understated – lasting message for students: “staying informed is crucial.”

Indeed, she argues that this is not simply an individual responsibility, and “we should also seek to constructively inform others”. Indeed, she concluded our interview with a call to action: “Being part of discussion and conversation about what’s happening is extremely powerful.” 

Even in times of crisis when individual experts become crucially important, collectively constructive dialogue can make a difference. Everyone – expert or otherwise – has their own part to play. 


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