On Feb. 24, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the start of a military offensive into eastern regions of Ukraine. Caravans of Russian military vehicles were seen advancing across Ukrainian borders while several major Ukrainian cities, including the capital city of Kyiv, faced airstrikes from Russian aircraft.
The U.S. and its European allies were quick to condemn the attacks as an unprovoked invasion and responded with new and harsher economic sanctions against Russia.
“Russia alone is responsible for the death and destruction this attack will bring, and the United States and its Allies and partners will respond in a united and decisive way,” U.S. President Joe Biden said in a statement from the White House. “The world will hold Russia accountable.”
The crisis in Ukraine highlights a long-running campaign of Russian expansion in eastern Europe. Dr. Paul Adams, an associate professor of political science and division chair of behavioral sciences at Pitt-Greensburg, said the current invasion is a major change in Russia’s international behavior.
“I’d say what Russia’s invasion of Ukraine demonstrates is a pattern Putin has shown for 20 years, which is this willingness to bend international law and international standards of behavior, and occasionally violate them,” Dr. Adams said. “There was a certain level he wouldn’t go past, but with this he decided to blow right by.”
In 2014, Russian forces quietly annexed the region of Crimea in southern Ukraine. Now, that region is being used by the Russian military to push further into the country.
In the U.S., it can be difficult to fully grasp the importance of Russia’s activity, but economically, Americans are already seeing the ramifications. In the hours following the invasion, U.S. markets saw stocks drop and the price of gasoline spike. In Greensburg, the price of gas rose nearly 20 cents to an average of $3.60 per gallon overnight. Gas is now the most expensive it’s ever been in U.S. history.
“We’ve already seen how high gasoline prices have affected the prices of everything else. In many ways, it’s just going to get worse,” Dr. Adams said. “The gas prices are going to go up in the next week, and that causes increased prices for everything, just as we’ve seen in supply chain issues in recovery for COVID.”
Students at Pitt campuses can expect the prices of local goods, such as groceries, to increase in the near future. As for Pitt itself, it’s unlikely that student expenses such as tuition would increase immediately.
“My guess is that it’s something that Pitt can absorb,” Dr. Adams said. “Other kinds of operations, and businesses, and entities are probably more reliant on gasoline and diesel. They’re going to be harder hit than a university would be.”
In addition to economic pressures, the U.S. and Europe can’t help but revisit memories of the first two World Wars, where Germany’s expansion of its neighboring nations compounded into widespread fighting. Helga Mears, an associate professor of German language at Pitt-Greensburg, said she doesn’t want a repeat of what happened in Germany more than 80 years ago.
“Such horrible things happened that I feel that all kinds of diplomacy should be used before any war,” Mears said.
Mears and her family lived in Saxony and East Berlin after the division of Germany took place in 1949, then later fled to the U.S. during the Berlin Airlift. Her book, titled “How Could This Happen?” gives an account of German history from World War I onwards along with her personal experience growing up in the country. Most of all, the book offers historical examples of what happens when countries fight.
“It explains how Hitler came to power, and nobody really writes about it,” Mears said. “It had to do with congress and how tricky Hitler was to get the majority.”
Mears said it’s tough to make comparisons between Hitler and Putin, but the way she thinks Putin may feel like he’s playing defensively by invading Ukraine.
“Somebody compared it to if the Warsaw Pact moved into Canada. What would America say about that? That’s a bit of a point I think Putin follows,” Mears said.
But looming behind the markets and memories of war is a bigger issue. Dr. Adams said Russia’s recent actions emphasize its unwillingness to follow international laws.
“If you want to think about it and relate to something, think about the Olympics. The Russians are competing not for their own country but for the Russian Olympic Committee, because Russian athletes are incredibly linked to performance-enhancing drugs and other violations,” Dr. Adams said. “To some extent, it’s a very similar problem in which he [President Putin] and the Russian state just don’t accept the existing rules of the international borders.”
Dr. Adams said that such behavior, especially from a powerful country such as Russia, can undermine the importance of international laws, and that’s something Americans shouldn’t ignore.
“We have to understand how much of trade, what we buy, what we consume, this idea of free societies and democracy are all tied up in a very global set of institutions and rules and norms that underline the whole system,” he said. “And Putin’s willingness to violate that does have impacts for the United States of America. The United States has historically been the leader of the free world.”
In the past, the United States has made military interventions against Russia’s expansion into Georgia and Ukraine, but the scale of the current crisis will warrant a stronger response.
“If we don’t stand up to this, then what are we willing to defend?” Dr. Adams said.