UCA experts analyze conflict at Ukraine in student-hosted panel

UCA professors Don Jones, Joe McGarrity, and Mark Mullenbach lead a panel about the war in Ukraine

(L to R) Don Jones, associate professor of history; Joe McGarrity, professor of economics; and Mark Mullenbach, associate professor of political science led the panel about the war in Ukraine

As the world assesses the ramifications of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, University of Central Arkansas professors offered an analysis on the roots of the conflict and where it may be headed during a “Ukraine Teach-In” panel on Tuesday, April 4. 

The hour-long discussion hosted by the UCA Student Government Association featured Don Jones, an associate professor of history; Joe McGarrity, a professor of economics; and Mark Mullenbach, an associate professor of political science. The panel took place in front of a crowd at the Ronnie Williams Student Center and streamed to a virtual audience.   

Mullenbach, who specializes in international relations, explained that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s drastic measures in Ukraine are meant to maintain influence on neighboring countries that have formed close ties with the West. To other countries from the former Soviet Union, Russia’s actions are an unmistakable message. 

“Russia wants to control Ukraine because of significant historical, economic and political reasons,” said Mullenbach. “Putin would rather influence, if not outright dominate, over the government. Ultimately, his goal is to topple the Ukrainian president Zelensky and to keep NATO out of Russia’s sphere of influence.”

Since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, Ukraine’s history has been a rotation of leaders who were either more friendly to Russia or western nations within the European Union or NATO. With a current Ukrainian government that supports closer political associations with the West, including proposed NATO membership, Putin views Zelensky as a national security threat to Russian interests.

“Fearing external invasions is part of Russian political culture,” Mullenbach said. “Think Napoleon’s invasion during the 19th century, Germany’s invasion in 1941, or ones from the East going back 1,000 years.”

Members of the UCA community sit at tables to watch the panel of Ukraine experts

Members of the UCA community attended the panel in person and virtually.

Jones, an expert in 20th century Europe, suggested that Putin has similar tendencies to other dictators in Russian history who took extreme measures to deter perceived foreign interference. Jones classified Russia as a paranoid nation in many aspects, citing historical examples from the Russian Empire barring travel in fear of ideas from the French Revolution reaching the Russian population, or Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin’s hostility over the West’s intervention during the Communist Revolution. 

Comparing Ukraine’s relationship with Russia to other former Soviet states, Jones classifies that it has always been more contentious. 

“Russia created the Commonwealth of Independent States that tied old Soviet countries together, but Ukraine wanted no affiliation with it,” said Jones. “Because the Commonwealth serves mostly Russia. In 1991, Ukraine declared that they were independent, European, and not Eurasian. They immediately started courting the EU and NATO.”

Jones says this mindfulness of the past, especially Ukraine’s political and economic importance within the Soviet Union, seems to weigh on Putin’s mind.  Jones pointed to a quote from Norman Stone, a historian on World War I, stating, “With the Ukraine, Russia is a USA; without, she is a Canada – mostly snow.”

What happens next? McGarrity, an economist at the College of Business, speculates that the world could witness trade disruptions. Much of the international community has placed aggressive sanctions and financial restrictions on the Russian economy. However, these actions can ripple to the global economy. As just one example, he cites that the war is impacting the trade of nickel, a material used in batteries.

“The United States gets much of its nickel supply from Russia,” he said. “The result will be an increase in prices for anything that uses a battery, such as an electric car. Almost the whole economy will be affected by the sanctions in some form.” 

With the impact of the oil economy, McGarrity noted that Europe intends to accelerate renewable energy efforts and reduce reliance on Russian fossil fuels. He points to France’s investment in nuclear power and the Netherlands and Germany signaling a similar change in energy policy. 

Going forward, Mullenbach said that if Russia manages to maintain its presence in Ukraine’s Russian-speaking eastern provinces and overcome the NATO-backed insurgency, it is possible that Putin can declare victory and instruct the Russian state media to perpetuate his gains in the war.  

“Even though it would be a humiliating failure not to achieve the original goal, I see Russian forces being in eastern Ukraine for the foreseeable future,” Mullenbach said.