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Peace and Conflict Studies Panel Examines War in Ukraine

Four International Scholars Share Their Insights with Students

Four people in a room watch a panel of speakers on a TV monitor Photo by Ed Brennen
Assoc. Prof. of Political Science Deina Abdelkader, center, moderates a hybrid panel discussion on Russia's aggression in Ukraine featuring a panel of international scholars on Zoom.

By Ed Brennen

Lasha Takalandze, a research assistant in the Peace and Conflict Studies program, isn’t shocked to see Russia invade a neighboring country that wants to join NATO and is becoming more Westernized.

He saw it happen to his home country of Georgia 14 years ago.

“The current Russian aggression in Ukraine and the 2008 Russo-Georgian war are interrelated. They are both direct aggression against the Western world,” said Takalandze, who is from Abkhazia, one of two Georgian territories now occupied by Russia.

Takalandze was among four international scholars from Ukraine and Georgia who took part in a recent panel discussion on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The hybrid event, which featured the panelists on Zoom and a live audience at Coburn Hall, was hosted by Assoc. Prof. of Political Science Deina Abdelkader, director of the Peace and Conflict Studies program.

“I organized this panel because I appreciate and empathize with what’s going on in Ukraine,” said Abdelkader, whose research interests include Islamic activism, religion and politics.

Joining Takalandze on the panel were Volodymyr Dubovyk, an associate professor of international relations at Mechnikov National University in Odesa, Ukraine; Nina Didenko, professor of health management and public administration at Shupyk National Healthcare University in Kyiv, Ukraine; and Ghia Nodia, a Georgian political analyst who served as the Minister of Education and Science in the Cabinet of Georgia.

Of the four panelists, Dubovyk was the only one currently in Ukraine.

“This is an existential issue, and Ukrainians must be prepared to fight until the end.” -Volodymyr Dubovyk, professor in Ukraine
“My hometown of Odesa hasn’t been bombed, surprisingly. We thought it would be among the first in our region to have bombings,” said Dubovyk, who noted that he occasionally sees Russian naval ships on the horizon in the Black Sea.

There has been some shelling on the outskirts of the city, but Dubovyk said that life in Odesa was still relatively normal.

“Everyone is working. The shops are not full, but they’re not empty. I’m doing lectures online. Someone is baking bread. The train is running on schedule, despite being bombed,” he said.

While he didn’t expect the invasion to target civilians and be “so massive, so cruel and so bloody,” Dubovyk said he was proud of how Ukrainians were standing up to Vladimir Putin’s army.

“We’re seeing what we’re capable of and seeing how Russians have miscalculated and mismanaged the invasion,” he said. “This is an existential issue, and Ukrainians must be prepared to fight until the end.”

Dubovyk said that the growing consensus among Ukrainians is that the country should give up its goal of joining NATO and instead become a neutral state like Austria, Finland and Sweden. He added that Ukrainian-Russian relations “are broken once and forever.”

Takalandze was an exchange student in the Peace and Conflict Studies program last year while pursuing a master’s degree in European and international studies from the University of Trento in Italy. He now lives in New York and is a research assistant with the Peace and Conflict Studies program, focused on democratization and diplomacy in Georgia and Azerbaijan.

He said that by abandoning its ineffective “soft power” policy of cultural diplomacy that began in the 1990s in favor of military might, Russia is now perceived by neighbors “as a threat rather than an attractive and trustworthy partner.”

“Putin tried to convince everyone that this war, or so-called ‘military operation,’ is a defensive strike against Western aggression in order to protect Russia’s imperial dominance over Eastern Europe,” he said. “But Putin’s desire to control the foreign policy of newly independent states … undermines the principles of international law.”

Mao Mao, a senior computer science major who is taking Introduction to Comparative Politics with Abdelkader this semester, appreciated the opportunity to hear about the invasion from people so directly connected to the conflict. He added that many students are getting their information about the war in Ukraine on social media, where “people just want to express their anger instead of actually solving the problem.”

An international student from China, Mao said he’s paying close attention to his home country’s geopolitical balancing act.

“Officially, the Chinese government didn’t claim to support Russia, and there’s no evidence of military support. But that might change if there’s too much pressure on Russia and Russia is really asking for help,” he said.

“It’s really interesting to step into the world of politics, because everything is politics,” he added. “As a student, it affects me because of globalization. As an international student, China’s relationship with the Western world is really important to me.”