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Q & A: Experts on Ukrainian and Russian politics reflect on attacks

A Russian historian discusses the culture surrounding the attacks, plus a consultant in Kyiv speaks on her experience.

[Russian soldiers making their way towards the Ukraine border]

Russian forces invaded Ukraine Thursday. Ukrainian citizens and residents woke up in the early hours of the morning to the sounds of explosions from Russian airstrikes and attacks raged throughout the day, killing at least 137 soldiers and civilians.

The attacks come after weeks of tension following the build up of Russian soldiers near the Ukraine border.

Anna Lenchovska, an international consultant based in Ukraine for the USC Shoah Foundation and Svetlana Ushakova, a programs specialist for the Shoah Foundation with a doctorate in Russian history, spoke with Annenberg Media about the invasion and ongoing attacks.

Responses were edited for clarity and length.

Annenberg Media: Tell me about being in Ukraine and being present in this moment, how has that been for you?

Lenchovska: It was really scary in the morning. I woke up at five from the sound of explosions. There were loud explosions, but during the day we didn’t see any destruction. It was super scary…It’s just crazy.

So then we went to the shop and already there were lines in the pharmacies outside and to the shops, but we spent like 10 minutes there. And what I liked is that all people in the line were calm and not panicking, and in the shop, all the staff was so friendly and so helpful, and actually I was able to buy everything. … Then, my friend is a scholar and he got a scholarship in Washington, and they have a Visa, they have flight tickets for the third of March. They have a one-year-old daughter, so they tried to escape to Poland today, and I was helping them because I have a car and they don’t have a car. So we went to the bus station and they bought tickets for the bus. We waited there for three hours, but the bus didn’t come. And there were many people, also foreign students, and they were really devastated. I was so sorry for them.

You know, lost people trying to find some inspiration and it was not available.

AM: Discuss some of the history that has led to this point.

Lenchovska: I was born in 1980. I still started a little bit in Soviet school till 1990 where we were taught the Soviet version of history. And of course, we didn’t know the notion of the Second World War. … As we now know, as a child, the horrible things I learned about fascists, they were built on not real facts. Of course, they also did many horrible things, the Nazis. But what we were told were constructed myths. … The Soviet Union was great at propaganda, and now Russia thinks it’s doing the same.

A part of Ukraine was part of the Russian Empire. Another part was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. And then Poland, Romania, Czech Republic, Hungary. Different parts, different histories, and also Ukraine wanted their way. These democratic movements were still vivid after the First World War, and new nations appeared like Slovakia and Czech Republic. All of these countries appeared, but Ukraine didn’t get recognized, and there were also Ukrainian troops whom Hitler promised that they would get independence. Well, some of them cooperated with Nazis. Some of them were fighting against, not just against Soviets, but in Soviet mythology, they always wanted to create this image of an enemy and the enemy was fascists and second, Americans.

So now they call us Nazis. Because we want our state, and they make this comparison. And if the mind of a person is still influenced by the Soviet propaganda and then like Russian and modern propaganda for the last 10 years, they also have a very strange informational bubble and not many people, but even young people in Russia study English. For me, it’s so strange now, but they just know Russian and they are in this bubble. And so there is this myth that we are Nazis.

AM: Could you explain Putin and Russia’s motives in invading and attacking Ukraine?

Lenchovska: To destroy freedoms. In Russia, people don’t have freedoms. You cannot go demonstrate, you will be arrested. You cannot be LGBT. You cannot be a visible minority. You cannot say your critiques about the government. And people in Russia don’t have those freedoms. They haven’t had free elections for the last decade, and Ukraine has all of this.

Ushakova: First of all, I would like to express my solidarity with the Ukrainian people. Absolutely. And I would like to condemn Putin and his team and his regime and everyone who is involved in preparation for this invasion, who made this decision.

I just think that there are several motives, and one of them is to make sure that his power in Russia itself is safe and secure. I guess he has some, maybe I would say, psychological problem. He wants to see himself as a strong leader who wants to see himself not only as a leader, but as a strong historical leader. He probably sees his mission in recreating the great state of the Soviet Union. And he’s really obsessed with Ukraine because he feels like it’s not how he should go.

There are some nationalists in Ukraine, as well as some nationalists and even neo-Nazis in Russia. This is a common problem for all countries and for Eastern Europe, maybe especially. There is no such problem as a justification of Ukraine, so it’s all kind of made up. For some Russian people, it sounds like this because they’re not aware about what’s going on in Ukraine, and they most likely rely on government-sponsored news. But of course, it’s not true, and I cannot say exactly what the Russian people think because the majority are under the impression and the influence of state propaganda.

AM: What do you think he wants out of this invasion? Are there any other things that you think he would want as an end goal of this invasion?

Ushakova: It’s difficult to deal with this in his mind. I think that he’s probably not going to occupy Ukraine like he’s occupying right now, but not for a long time. Maybe he hopes that the Russian government will install a government in Ukraine and it will be a pro-Russian one that will kind of cooperate with Russia more like Belarus or whatever? So I think this is his hope. But I cannot tell you exactly. And you know, he may take some regions that were kind of under discussion, but acknowledges it’s not only about these two small parts of Ukraine. Maybe his goal is to install some pro-Russian government regime in Ukraine and control everything. He’s said he’s concerned about Ukraine joining NATO. Obviously, it will be out of the question if he has a Russian government. I hope that he is not going to occupy Ukraine and make it part of Russia. It would be most horrible.

AM: How do you think the attack will impact Russian citizens?

Ushakova: Ordinary people will be affected the most because the Russian government will have ways to go out of that and probably, like I said, crude prices going up and they were getting in line. I don’t know how it would be in the future, but right now it looks like it’s kind of benefiting now. But for ordinary people, it obviously will be a rise of inflation. It obviously create a high cost of living. And most people say they are concerned that it will be a burden for them - the cost of war, the cost of immigration of people. Russia promised to all people who immigrate, who fly, who flee from Ukraine to Russia – they promised everything for all the local people.

AM: So the invasion of Ukraine is said to be inevitable. Would you say this is true, or could it have been avoided? And if so, how?

Lenchovska: I think it is just unbelievable and crazy and nonsense. We do have a war for eight years ongoing and annexed Crimea, but we controlled the border, we controlled some parts of Donetsk and Luhansk regions. And I was working and also the colleagues were working a lot in peace-building projects, documentarian projects and infrastructure was revealed and our teachers were told about human rights, nonviolent communication. And it’s a really huge progress over there. … Mr. Putin, he has this hatred towards our nation. I can understand because we still have freedom of speech – we always had it – to a bigger or lesser extent. And our Belarussian neighbors, they’re trying also to protect their freedom of speech and their election choice, but they didn’t succeed. Maybe their methods were too soft or it was too hard, and it’s already a different country in Belarus. And for the last year, people are being tortured like the journalists, doctors — but also ordinary people who just have an opinion. And Ukraine, it’s like the saying, a bone in the throat for Russia is our freedoms unfortunately.

AM: How can people in the United States support Ukrainians at this time?

Lenchovska: First, all your public support like in Facebook and Instagram and YouTube for showing support is good. Maybe in the cities somewhere in D.C. or where there’s a Russian Embassy, go and protest.

Lenchovska also said people can donate to organizations like Charitable Foundation Voices of Children, which provides support for children affected by war in eastern Ukraine.