Dr. Ben Peters is a professor of Russian studies and media studies at TU. courtesy Ben Peters

TU Professor Peters interviewed on Ukraine crisis

Dr. Ben Peters sheds light on the complex history of Ukraine and possible outcomes of the conflict as Russian troops continue their invasion.

On Feb. 24, Russian President Vladimir Putin launched an invasion of Ukraine. A few days earlier, Putin delivered a fiery speech rejecting the legitimacy of an independent Ukraine. As of Feb. 27, the invasion has made its way to Kyiv and Kharkiv, the two largest cities in Ukraine.

To get a clearer picture of the complex geopolitical crisis, I talked to Dr. Ben Peters, a TU professor of Russian studies and media studies. This interview was conducted on Feb. 25.

Beginning with the context of the invasion, Peters stressed the vibrant culture Ukraine has, particularly in its cultural capital of L’viv. The country has a shining literary history with writers like Nikolai Gogol and culinary delights to rival any nation. Putin’s speech positioned Ukraine as a little brother to Russia, regaling the history dating back to Kyivan Rus’, but this history actually shows the opposite — that Russia is really an extension of Ukraine. Peters cautioned against a typical western view of Putin as “playing 17-dimensional chess,” instead characteriszing him as a “murderous tyrant” and an autocrat.

Still, Ukraine has a complex history and a role that Peters calls a “delta of empires” throughout the last 500 years. The country is “no one single thing” and should stop being seen only in its relation to both Russia and NATO. Its position as a “crossroads” between Europe and Eurasia lends itself to this characterization, but Ukraine is more than its relations to these other regions.

The recent invasion was a completely unjustified attack on a sovereign, independent nation. It has resulted in 198 civilian deaths as of Feb. 26 according to Ukrinform, and this number will only grow in the coming days. The precise motivations for such a violation of international law can’t be known with certainty, but Peters believes controlling Ukraine is the essential step for Russia to become an empire. “Without Ukraine, Russia cannot identify as an empire; at the same time, with Russia, Ukraine cannot identify as an independent nation,” Peters wrote in a blog post on February 21.

Peters hesitated to offer any specific predictions for the conflict, though did list a few possible outcomes. Initially, the goal seemed to be to install puppets in the eastern Donbas region only, which would still give veto power to pro-Russia elements. However, it now seems Russia may install a puppet government in Kyiv, essentially giving complete control of Ukraine to Russia. In an even worse scenario, if NATO countries are brought into the fighting, the conflict could spread into a massive and potentially nuclear war. Regardless of the developments, all possibilities are devastating for Ukraine.

One relatively novel factor of the ongoing invasion is the potential for cyber attacks. Peters says the Ukrainian power grid would represent the “holy grail” of attack targets for Russia, though the internet, communication networks and grocery stores are also vulnerable to cyber attacks. Of course, the US has also perpetrated their share of cyber attacks such as the infamous “Stuxnet” attack on an Iranian nuclear facility.

Disinformation is another vector of attack Ukraine faces, often coming from cyberspace as well. According to Peters, disinformation doesn’t have to fully convince the listener, it just has to “make enough doubt” in Ukrainians’ minds to make them stop fighting. Putin’s incessant accusations of rampant nazism in Ukraine aim to foment this kind of doubt, despite Ukraine being nowhere near actual fascist rule. Putin’s claims are then echoed on official Russian media outlets.

Peters also stressed how the complex scenario requires a deep understanding of Slavic history and culture — an understanding that can only be cultivated by serious academic study at institutions like TU. Cyber studies on their own aren’t enough to tackle immense geopolitical conflicts like these, they must be complemented by this sort of worldly knowledge.

Dr. Peters’ current project is titled “Imagining Russian Hackers,” an inquiry into the media’s common image of hackers from Russia. More information can be found the website for hackers initiative

Post Author: Justin Klopfer