Ukraine Under Assault
Local observers offer personal and professional perspectives on Russia’s invasion and its ramifications.
In August 2014, Katie Dumont King moved to Kyiv, Ukraine, where she was starting a new job as a counselor at an international school. It was less than a year after Euromaidan, the protests that led to the Revolution of Dignity and the overthrow of pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych. And it was shortly after Russia seized and annexed the Crimean Peninsula.
Putin wants Russia to be a major player on the world stage again, said the Baker Center's Krista Wiegand.
On Thursday morning in Ukraine, Russian troops poured over the border from three sides, launching Europe’s largest ground war since World War II. Within a day, Russian troops were closing in on Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital.
King, who moved away from Ukraine in June 2017, followed the events with rising anger from Knox County, where she now lives and works.
“I feel terrible for the people because all they’ve tried to do in the last couple hundred years is get out from under Russia,” she said in a phone interview. “The people of Ukraine want to be Ukrainian.”
The international community is angry and appalled at Russian President Vladimir Putin, who ordered his troops into Ukraine after a weeks-long buildup along its borders. In Knoxville, observers of the situation between Russia and Ukraine weren’t taken by surprise.
“Putin has been planning for many, many years to strengthen Russia’s position on the world stage,” said Krista Wiegand, director of the Global Security Program at the Howard H. Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy at the University of Tennessee. “Putin wants to be a major player again and has said so publicly.”
Wiegand, like most observers, doesn’t give Ukraine’s military much of a chance to halt the invaders. The question is what happens after a seemingly inevitable Russian victory. Wiegand said Russia is likely to annex the country’s eastern provinces, where Russian separatists have been fighting the Ukrainian government for years, while installing a puppet regime in Kyiv to rule the rest of the nation.
“The intention is to remove (President Volodymyr) Zelensky and put in a pro-Russian government that will bow down to Putin,” she said.
Ultimately, she said, Putin sees Ukraine and pro-Russia Belarus as buffers against NATO.
Former Knoxville Mayor Victor Ashe, who was ambassador to neighboring Poland for five years, likened the international situation to the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1961, with the future peace reliant on the leaders of Russia and the United States.
“I think we’re living in a dicey and precipitous situation,” Ashe said Thursday. “With the wrong kind of leadership, it can go the wrong way.”
He said the nation needs to unite in its support for President Joe Biden, who announced economic sanctions against Russia on Thursday afternoon. There will be plenty of time to critique Biden’s response once the crisis ends. “If he fails, we fail,” Ashe, a lifelong Republican, said of the Democratic president. “If he succeeds, we succeed.”
Ashe said Poland is obviously concerned about the invasion, but he doesn’t believe Putin would expand the war to neighboring countries that are NATO members because of the alliance’s certain military response.
The bigger short-term issue for Poland, he said, will be dealing with possibly hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing to the country from Ukraine. “It may happen, whether they are prepared or not,” Ashe said. “No country can prepare for that in a few weeks.”
Wiegand said sanctions take time to work and cannot be made unilaterally. Other nations — the European Union, Great Britain, Japan and more — have also imposed sanctions on Russia. She said sanctions are designed not to deter bad behavior but to punish it.
Some of the measures, particularly a ban on importing Russian goods, will hit American citizens, Wiegand said. Russia produces 10 percent of the world’s oil, so it’s no surprise that gas prices are rising. The United States also imports large quantities of wheat, which could drive up the price of bread.
Russia also exports metals and minerals, machinery and other goods needed by American manufacturers, so supply chains, already affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, could face further disruptions, Wiegand said.
“Even though it seems like a war that is far away and has nothing to do with us, it actually does have a lot to do with us,” she said.
Putin has threatened to retaliate against any country that interferes with the invasion. A response to Western economic sanctions is also likely, according to Cybersecurity expert Paul Calazzo, who works at Knoxville-based Avertium.
He said Putin is more likely to weaponize the internet than respond to sanctions militarily or economically. “We can cut them out of the world financial markets but we can’t keep them off the internet,” Calazzo said.
Avertium’s team had already identified two new cyber threats since the invasion began — botnet accounts, which can take over computer systems, and a hermetic wiper, which acts like ransomware but destroys systems instead of holding data for ransom.
Most cyber attacks target large companies and government organizations, but small companies need to take precautions as well because supply chains can transport computer viruses as well as parts or consumer goods. “Bad guys aren’t going to target a mom-and-pop dry cleaner,” Calazzo said, “but they could target their suppliers.”
He said multi-factor authentication access for systems and end-point software that automatically detects hacker behavior are inexpensive cyber shields.
For King, the internet has provided a way to keep in touch with people she met in Ukraine. Most of her friends, however, stopped posting on social media when the invasion began. The few who remain active, she said, are defiant in the face of war.
King recalls her time in peacetime Kyiv with fondness. She lived in an apartment near St. Sophia’s Cathedral and named the cat she adopted there — and still has today — Sophie. Infused with patriotism after Yanukovych’s overthrow in 2014, people painted fences blue and yellow, the colors of the Ukrainian flag, and began speaking Ukrainian instead of Russian.
“It’s a lovely town and the Ukrainians are lovely people,” King said. “They just want to be left alone.”