Panelists shed light on Crimea controversy

Written by Victoria Slater and Sammie Miller, CAS communications interns
Photo by Samantha Coman, CAS communications intern

Moderator Stephen Norris; panelists Ivan Grek, Neringa Klumbyte, Ben Sutcliffe, and Liza Skryzhevska

"Neither the Ukrainians nor the Russians are innocent here," said associate professor of Russian Ben Sutcliffe to a crowded lecture hall September 12, 2014, during the Russia and Ukraine: Inside Perspective panel discussion. The event was sponsored by the Havighurst Center for Russian and Post-Soviet Studies and moderated by professor of history Stephen Norris.

The lecture featured four panelists with extensive background in Russia and the Baltic states who gave an unprecedented look into the conflict in Crimea. Along with Sutcliffe, they included graduate student and Russian native Ivan Grek, associate professor of geography and Ukrainian native Liza Skryzhevska, and associate professor of anthropology and Lithuanian native Neringa Klumbyte. Each panelist aimed to shed light on the misconceptions shrouding American understanding of this region and its conflicts.

Analyzing Russia's Actions

Grek was the first to share his views, highlighting a theme that would weave its way through the remainder of the lecture: Russia’s overwhelming support of Putin and his actions in Ukraine.

"Regular people support Putin in his decision to take back Crimea because from the Russian perspective, it is a restoration of justice and the protection of Russians," he said. "It is the restoration of the Russian world where there are no borders."

To Putin, and to thousands of other Russians that he represents, the rebels are 'movers and shakers' that are pushing to reclaim a national identity lost decades ago.

Sutcliffe echoed many of Grek's sentiments, drawing on his experiences in Russia during the 1990s, before Putin rose to power. He called this a dark period of poverty and danger, which Putin was able to eradicate during his presidency. Sutcliffe said an overwhelming majority of Russian citizens, especially those well-educated, have rallied behind Putin, despite the lack of freedom they might enjoy.

"What do you want, social stability and putting food on the table, or freedom?" Sutcliffe asked the audience. "Historically, freedom loses, every single time."

A Long and Complicated History

While Russia and Ukraine are both guilty of committing horrendous war crimes during this conflict, Sutcliffe added, "America cannot critique others for invading other countries and breaking international law."

Skryzhevska, a Ukrainian native, showed a Powerpoint presentation which outlined the specific timeline of the conflicts, showing that neither side is fully to blame. According to Skryzhevska, there is longstanding history between the two nations that did not create conflict overnight.

Klumbyte, the final speaker, discussed the aftermath of so much conflict, leaving the audience on a rather grave note.

"It is hard to explain the feeling in Lithuania that comes with the possibility that war may happen everyday," she said.

Audience members poured out for the event. The packed room was filled with students, professors, and community members alike. Many of the students showed up to see the different viewpoints on an issue they already felt strongly about.

Senior Mike Beldon attended the event because he has been studying the conflict since his freshman year. He is triple majoring in political science; Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies; and anthropology.

"The Russian and Ukrainian conflict is of high interest to me," Beldon said after the panel was over. "The conflict itself is very much fueled by public opinion, which I think was made obvious today."