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Conflict and Currency: Why Perspective Matters

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Why did Russia begin a war now?

Every international conflict that has taken place in the past years has prompted the general public to believe that World War III is on the horizon. However, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has ignited real fear in the minds of the people — both those in the area of conflict as well as those watching the fire burn. The expansion of Russian territory has been a primary goal of Putin’s leadership in the past, and the close historical ties between Ukraine and Russia indicate that this invasion may have been a long time coming, especially after Russia’s victory with the annexation of Crimea in 2014. The closeness of the languages and protection of culture have been utilized as a reason for Putin’s choice of aggressive steps; however, Ukraine has been blossoming on its own, indicating that Russia may just have predatory motives. 

Since the Biden administration has taken a stance, and NATO countries become economically and politically closer, Putin justifies the existence of a threat by viewing the unity of democracies as forms of western expansion. Putin is clearly breaking the terms of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum — the treaty between the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan that affirmed the territorial sovereignty and recognition of Ukraine in return for giving up its nuclear weapons, with Russia taking the title of the third most powerful nuclear country from Ukraine. By seizing the area, Putin not only stands to gain clearer access to former Soviet territory, but he also has the chance to break any developing European ties the country may have built and increase his own leverage within international negotiations. In turn, the oscillations between the strength of responses are truly hinging upon the way the world is choosing to frame the narrative. As the world is navigating how to react to the hostile situation that is now clearly a war on sovereignty, we are grappling with what it means to have sovereignty over the formation of an opinion. 

Who supports who?

Even though Ukraine is not an official member of NATO, a large majority of nations have been sending them aid in the form of humanitarian resources, welcoming refugees, troops, and most visibly, economic sanctions. However, the West’s actions have not nearly been enough for the support of the nation, as several fringe areas have already been taken over with high casualty rates. The largest risk being taken by the western bloc is the loss of Russian exports, specifically natural gas. And thus, the cost of intervening becomes larger because of the interdependence between the conflicting states. Even with the power of widespread public support, American intervention has been militarily minimal but economically powerful. This hesitance from the Biden administration can be attributed to the shift in the foreign policy after the Afghanistan withdrawal and the necessity to keep a constrained reaction in the wake of a dangerous military confrontation. 

However, Ukraine believes that the West is not doing enough. They demand that they fulfill the security assurances they provided in previous treaties. While the conflict does morally oblige the other sovereign nations to help aid the country in peril, they do not have any real legal bindings because assurances are not guarantees, and the idea of the UN’s Responsibility to Protect is always something that has wavered under the ground posited by states. When does a crime become so heinous that action must be taken by actors that are not directly in the conflict? Can such a question be answered by empirical data or numerical categories? What crimes can humanity tolerate before it is stripped of its humanity? The notions of what a crime can be and what exactly is seen as a crime are also consistently changing, especially based on how a government wants to frame it for its people. 

Humanity or saving face: risking stances

Ukraine does not deserve this passive form of support from the international community. In a panel hosted by UCI that included experts in political science, international relations and sociology, political science professor Dr. Heidi Hardt stated that “[i]t’s important to acknowledge the historic moment that we’re living in.” It is not incomprehensible that western nations are not absolutely willing to put in all of their resources into a conflict that does not directly involve them. In fact, direct confrontation may put their own populations at risk because Russia is a nuclear power and mutually assured destruction is a real risk when superpowers are at war. As the American stance has clearly been declared as pro-Ukraine, this position could be seen as a provocation, even an act of war, from the Russian perspective. But, the truth is that the real Russian perspective is not even visible to the world due to their state-run media’s prominence, discouraging nations from seeing the full impact of the war on the civilians on both sides. 

Despite global renouncement of the war, there is no clear route out of it. All diplomatic activities have reached a stalemate, with Russia’s impossible demands and Ukraine’s unmoving strength. Even as a cease-fire was announced on March 8, the 13th day of the conflict, fears and threats cannot cease to continue because Russia can threaten to completely cut off Europe from the essential resource of natural gas. They can even choose to increase the price to a point wherein western aid may be forced to back off to ensure that their own civilians can function on a daily basis. And the lack of accountability to another nation or higher international authority may just leave Ukraine without aid. Even though Americans may not be affected by this threat, they may be blamed, as leaders of the western bloc and often representatives of international response. 

Do sanctions even work?

UCI professor Dr. Erin Lockwood, who teaches International Studies 14: Intro to International Relations, expresses similar sentiments regarding the response of the international community. In an interview with the New University, she indicated that all actions, especially economic, have been deliberate and planned. However, there may be no real effect from the implementation of the most extensive rebuttals, since the cost of the war was already “priced in” by Putin before invading the nation. Western governments’ actions will take a long time before they affect any military strategies: “that’s not how sanctions work … the Russian economy is somewhat insulated in the short fund [reserve banks, foreign currency].” Even though it may have been predictable what assets of the country may be targeted, the “extensiveness” of the sanctions, including personal funds and banking systems, could not have been anticipated. 

Lockwood also believes that it is early and difficult to predict whether the “economic toll can generate sufficient domestic unrest that might matter to Putin’s decision calculations.” The space for domestic voices is highly constrained in Russia; thus, this scenario in which the Russian populace’s concerns overtake Putin’s territorial sights is highly unlikely, especially based on the increasing arrests of protestors. The ease of the fabrication of images, the scams spewing up for fake aid and creation of false testimonies create a tumultuous space for misinformation and impact public organization. As the war continues to move to the west, it is important to remember that sanctions are ultimately longer-term “punishments” whose real effect can and will be overstepped by the previously planned precautions. Lockwood agrees that this age of social media, even as it “give[s] ordinary people a voice and outsiders a glimpse into the lives of everyday Ukrainians,” may pose multiple risks to victims unknowingly being circulated on the internet. She stated that caution is necessary when sharing these narratives and stories from personal platforms while acknowledging that it is truly a double-edged sword. 

Manufacturing a perspective

Biases matter and they always have. In fact, what is being discussed right now is definitely biased because it comes from the perspective of a student living outside the conflict, whose political views may not match those of diplomats. In this case, many of the biases are manufacturing ideas that help further their own agendas; it depends on what a person chooses to follow, fact-check and count on. For those that have been following the war with information limited to the public sphere, desensitization to the real impact of conflict is rampant. The largest humanitarian and refugee crisis is currently ongoing, and many may choose to use memes to understand the scope. 

But, this is one of the first times that a war in a truly new format is unfolding and emerging in front of the general populations’ eyes. This desensitization may indicate a lack of compassion and even, in the long run, a shorter attention span that would endanger victims. When people move on to the next scarier thing, then what? Do we stop advocating for the people in need once the war is no longer trending? We saw this happen with the pandemic as people eventually tired of newer guidelines and chose to stop planning ahead despite the pandemic still raging on in underprivileged communities. The perspective being given to us is a product of years of behind-the-scenes work by those in authority, and we have no say in the perspectives we consume. Our voices may truly have no effect on the real puppet masters of public opinion at the end of the day.

The past and present: what now?

Despite the growing fears in popular culture, there isn’t actually an oncoming World War III or new Cold War. In an interview with the New University, Lockwood expressed her belief that even though there are several plausible comparisons to draw to the Cold War, with a neo-imperialist Russia looking to expand, we are in a “different world.” And that is because there are new roles of power in the international system, such as China, that are playing into its own territorial dilemma by aiding Ukraine while staying friendly with Russia. She also mentioned that Russia’s shift from communism to authoritarianism has removed the ideological aspect of the Cold War that had heightened the tensions. 

So what are we scared of now? The primary answer is nuclear risk. However, contemporary economic interdependence still has the power to supersede those chaotic destructions and even give a chance for reconciliation. Many depend on Russia for natural gas, and many depend on Ukraine for agricultural exports. With the need for these essential resources, is the world truly willing to risk an oppressive takeover, a puppet government and a humanitarian crisis? Currently, each perspective — whether artificial or real — points to the necessity of rational actions that do not risk humanity’s prosperity, which has begun to slowly rise after a health crisis. 

Nandini Sharma is an Opinion Staff Writer. She can be reached at nandis2@uci.edu