Jamie Tobias Neely: It’s more than U.S. vs. Russia

Call me highly sensitive. But I’m enough of a child of the Cold War to feel uneasy about any new tension between the United States and Russia.

I grew up knowing that men in missile silos not far from my home were poised to launch nuclear warheads at the Soviet Union, and that made my region a prime target. I can remember my grade-school fear even now.

So when I read of Russian troops rolling into Crimea, President Vladimir Putin making threats and our president waging sanctions, I started to feel a little nervous. Ukraine may lie on the other side of the world, but the reverberations can be felt all the way to Spokane.

This week I talked to several local observers, men who have perhaps a greater interest in the dynamics in that part of the world than most of the rest of us. They come from different realms, academia, military and the church, but all share a desire to see this new conflict as more complicated and nuanced than the cable news reporters would indicate.

Kevin O’Connor, an associate professor of history at Gonzaga University, has a doctorate in Russian and Soviet history. He’s frustrated with the American media’s penchant for reducing this story to the tale of two personalities.

By focusing on who will blink first, Putin or Obama, we fail to consider the impact of history on this region, O’Connor says.

Ukraine and Russia have been deeply connected for centuries. Both countries consider the Ukrainian city of Kiev their country’s birthplace. A Mongol invasion in the 13th century split the region into separate countries.

Russia has often used the excuse of quieting instability in a neighboring country as a justification for expanding its empire, O’Connor points out. That may be Putin’s strategy now. In any case, Putin views Ukraine as within “the Russian sphere of influence.”

Much as Putin may resemble James Bond villain, it’s important to view his actions with complexity, O’Connor says. Putin has called the breakup of the Soviet Union a catastrophe for the Soviet people, and he has expressed his concern for the rights of Russian-speaking people now living in neighboring countries, where they’ve sometimes been treated as second-class citizens.

The Cold War with its ideological conflict is long over, and, no, O’Connor said, Putin is not Hitler. His actions can’t be condoned, but he appears neither as aggressive as Hitler nor “a raging anti-Semite.” Furthermore, Russia itself is not nearly as strong as Americans believe.

Putin, a mysterious former KGB agent who wears a cross pendant, became president in 2000. He views the instability in Ukraine as the result of intervention by the untrustworthy West, O’Connor said.

The timing of this conflict, right after the Olympics, it could not be worse. Putin spent $50 billion on the Sochi games to clean up Russia’s image. By breaking international law, he swiftly reversed those efforts. “He couldn’t have done that more effectively if he tried,” O’Connor said.

O’Connor’s analysis of the conflict contrasts with the perspective of Alexander Kaprian, pastor of the Pilgrim Slavic Baptist Church in downtown Spokane. Kaprian grew up in Ukraine. His church includes religious refugees from throughout the former Soviet Union. They no longer see themselves as Ukrainians or Russians, he said, but as Americans.

Their role as Christians, he said, is simply to pray that peace will prevail.

Col. Darel Maxfield, a retired member of the U.S. Army Reserve who served in Iraq and a former history teacher at Ferris High School, looks at the situation through a military lens. He finds it significant that Russian troops in Crimea wear uniforms lacking insignia, and wonders if that means they’re members of the country’s special forces. He sees Russian tanks rolling in, and believes, given the relative weakness of the Ukrainian military, that they’re a bit of unnecessary Russian theater, their presence largely designed to send a message.

But the academic, the cleric and the colonel all agree on one thing: It is unthinkable that American troops should become involved in this conflict. U.S. leaders, both Democrat and Republican, also agree that consequences for Russia should be economic and political.

And that’s enough to help a child of the Cold War sleep better at night.

Jamie Tobias Neely, a former member of The Spokesman-Review’s editorial board, is an associate professor of journalism at Eastern Washington University. Her email address is jamietobiasneely@comcast.net

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