Olga Kamenchuk’s mother is Ukrainian. Her father is Russian.
Both of the Northwestern University professor’s parents are now in the United States, but Kamenchuk still has family and friends in the Ukraine.
So when asked if she’s concerned over the possibility of a Russian invasion there, she quickly responds “of course, very much so.”
Kamenchuk is an associate professor in both NU’s School of Communication and in the Institute for Policy Research. Her expertise is in political communication, public opinion and international security, all areas where the potential Russian invasion of the Ukraine can be analyzed.
But not easily. Kamenchuk notes that Russian leader Vladimir Putin is difficult to read. “It’s hard to get inside his head,” she says.
“Pretty much everything is decided by him,” she says. And with 100,000 Russian troops on the Ukrainian border, “everything is possible, escalation or de-escalation.”
Kamenchuk says public opinion in the Ukraine has changed significantly since Russia annexed Crimea, then part of the Ukraine, in 2014.
Before that, she says, Ukrainians were pretty evenly divided, pro-Russia or pro-West.
But since Crimea was taken, “now, the majority of Ukrainians want to join NATO. Ukrainians now look at Russia very differently,” she says.
Kamenchuk, who was born in Russia, says “Mr. Putin is thinking about his legacy,” which may be a driving factor in the current crisis.
The Russian president, she says, once called the collapse the USSR “the greatest political catastrophe,” and may be trying to re-create the Soviet near-empire.
The Ukraine is Europe’s largest nation geographically and also has strategic and economic assets.
But even if there is no invasion, Kamenchuk says. Putin may be using the threat of military action to try to get concessions “by blackmailing the West.”
Certainly, she notes, the Russian leader has gotten the attention of President Biden and America’s European allies by “increasing anxieties” in the world.
Putin may also be trying to deflect attention from internal problems in Russia, from the economy to the coronavirus pandemic.
“Conflicts distract,” Kamenchuk says.
And in Russia, with its largely state-controlled media, Kamenchuk says, Russian public opinion is generally supportive of Putin’s Ukraine gambit, even from opposition leaders who generally take another view of Russian policies.
“The Ukraine is very important to Russians,” Kamenchuk notes. “They think it’s theirs.”
Feelings in the Ukraine, of course, are quite different. “It’s two different realities,” Kamenchuk says.
“The average Russian,” she says, “does not want to admit that the Ukraine has its own identity.”
The possible invasion has created a “very stressful” situation for Ukrainians, including Kamenchuk’s friends and relatives.
“I’m very much worried,” she says. “I hope there will be no conflict.”