Sergii Gorbachov is worried.
The second year master’s student studying Russian is thinking of his family back home in Ukraine now, as he watches his country falling apart on the news.
The Eastern European country of 45 million is in crisis. In the past two weeks, Ukraine has seen a revolution and an invasion. Late last week Russian military units covertly and swiftly seized control of Crimea, a peninsula in southern Ukraine.
War seems a grim prospect to Gorbachov. His hometown of Kharkiv, Ukraine, is only 20 miles from the Russian border. What’s even more disconcerting to him is what could happen to his 26-year-old brother, a member of the Ukrainian army reserves.
“He will be called to go to war,” Gorbachov said. “If something happens, he could die.”
Unease hangs over the whole of Ukraine as well, as neither side seems ready to back down, according to Pat Willerton, an associate professor of political science. Both Ukraine and Russia believe time is on their side.
“I’m pretty confident that the Russians are not leaving,” Willerton said. “They will not leave if they feel that their interests and those of Russians and Russian-oriented Ukrainians are not being respected.”
Protests had been going on for months in Ukraine’s capital Kiev over Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s decision to not seek closer ties with the European Union, but they became increasingly violent after the government enacted laws cracking down on protesters’ rights.
Two weeks ago, Yanukovych was ousted from power following bloody protests in Kiev that resulted in dozens of deaths.
Gorbachov was not upset to see the government go.
“I didn’t like the government because everything is corrupt — education, health care, police,” Gorbachov said. “That’s why I came here.”
Willerton said the ousting of Yanukovych and the quick ascension of a new nationalist-oriented government in Kiev has led Russia to take actions to protect ethnic Russians and Russian citizens in Ukraine.
The violence since the overthrow of Yanukovych hasn’t been as one-sided as the Russians claim, according to Anna Vozna, a first-year master’s student studying Russian, who originates from Kharkiv. The images of pro-Ukrainian protesters in her hometown being dragged through the streets and forced to their knees in the middle of the square are deeply troubling to her.
“It’s Ukrainians who have problems there, not Russians,” Vozna said.
Mikhail Beznosov, a limited-term adjunct instructor in political science, is currently in Kharkiv as tensions simmer. He said in an email that the situation in the city is “quite tense.”
Beznosov waited for the arrival of pro-Ukrainian protesters following Yanukovych’s ousting — and they came. They took control of the regional administration building in the city and attempted to destroy a statue of Vladimir Lenin in the central square.
Beznosov said most people in southern and eastern Ukraine, areas seen as pro-Russian, are not happy with the new government in Kiev. They still view Yanukovych as the legitimate president of Ukraine, and see the protesters as nationalists with a “neo-Nazi essence.”
Beznosov also leads the Arizona in Yalta study abroad summer program for the political science department, a program that is now in limbo given the current crisis in Crimea. Yalta lies on the southern coast of the Crimean peninsula.
The UA Study Abroad and Student Exchange Office has decided that hosting the program in Yalta is no longer feasible given the security situation in the area, but Beznosov said he is looking at other options for students who applied for the program. He said he offered the countries of Bulgaria,
Georgia and Montenegro as alternatives.
The problem in Crimea is not simply a present-day conflict, said Teresa Polowy, head of the Department of Russian and Slavic Studies. Polowy’s ties to the area lay in that his grandparents are from western Ukraine.
“This is a 21st century iteration of a situation that has existed in Ukraine for 500 years or more,” Polowy said.
Polowy said Ukraine has long been torn between whether it should be closer to the West and Europe or toward the East and Russia. Crimea has a long history that must be understood as well, Polowy added.
Nikita Khrushchev handed Crimea over to Ukraine from Russia in 1954 when the two were still republics within the greater Soviet Union. Crimea is home to a large population of ethnic Russians, and Russian is the predominant language spoken there. Strategically, Crimea is home to a Russian naval base in the city of Sevastopol.
“It’s about Putin really reclaiming those strategic areas for Russia,” Polowy said. “Crimea was attached to Ukraine artificially.”
Gorbachov said he is uncertain of what comes next for Ukraine. A week ago, he never would have guessed that Russia would invade Crimea.
Vozna said she thinks the situation will improve now that Western nations are taking measures to punish Russia for its action, and that it will send a message to Putin.
“Maybe people will understand that if we allow him to take Ukraine now, it may spread all over Europe, because he is dangerous,” Vozna said.
Willerton said it is highly unlikely that the U.S. or the West will intervene militarily because Ukraine is not a vital interest — not to mention the U.S. is war-weary as it is.
Ukrainians and Russians don’t want to fight each other, Willerton said, but he emphasized that the crisis is not likely to end any time soon.
“It’s going to be hard to please everybody,” Willerton said. “Everyone seems to agree that they don’t want to break the country up, but I don’t know where it goes from here. I don’t know how you please Russians in the East and Crimea and Ukrainians in the West.”
Vozna planned on staying at the UA after she gets her master’s, but now she’s not so sure.
“Now, when I see all [these] events going on in my country,” Vozna said, “I think that I want to come back.”