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Q&A: Sizing up the current geopolitical situation in Ukraine with PAWAC's Angela Weck

Women hold banners during a protest in front of the Ukrainian embassy in Bucharest, Romania, Thursday, Feb. 25, 2022. Russia launched a wide-ranging attack on Ukraine on Thursday, hitting cities and bases with air strikes or shelling, as civilians piled into trains and cars to flee. (AP Photo/Andreea Alexandru)
Andreea Alexandru/AP
Women hold banners during a protest in front of the Ukrainian embassy in Bucharest, Romania, Thursday, Feb. 25, 2022. Russia launched a wide-ranging attack on Ukraine on Thursday, hitting cities and bases with air strikes or shelling, as civilians piled into trains and cars to flee. (AP Photo/Andreea Alexandru)

Russia's invasion of Ukraine could signify the largest military unrest in Europe since World War II.

WCBU's Tim Shelley spoke to Angela Weck, the executive director of the Peoria Area World Affairs Council and an affiliate instructor of political science and international studies at Bradley University for her analysis of the unfolding international crisis.

This interview was condensed and lightly edited for length and clarity.

TIM SHELLEY: We knew this was coming, right?

ANGELA WECK: We did. At least for weeks, we've known it was coming. I would argue people use a little caution. This is not yet World War III, because to date, at least, as we're talking at this moment, it is primarily a fight between Russia and Ukraine. The NATO forces in Poland and Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, elsewhere across Central and Eastern Europe are not yet engaged. And so it could be, and relatively easily, but not yet. So we need to pay attention. But not panic.

TIM SHELLEY: So the President's already announced a round of sanctions and more likely going to be announced today at this point. I'm wondering...Russian soldiers are in Ukraine. Are sanctions going to be enough at this point to to make any kind of impact?

ANGELA WECK: You know, there are criticisms that sanctions don't bring about the kinds of changes that we want them to bring about. For Russia, the sanctions that we've already had in place since they invaded Crimea in 2014, have in fact, had a strong impact. They've not forced Putin's hand, but they have had a strong impact. Before we throw out sanctions as a viable diplomacy tool, what's the alternative? The alternative is to send U.S. forces into Ukraine to push Russia out. Are we prepared to do that? So, until we're prepared to send us forces into Ukraine, we need to exhaust every diplomatic tool we have in our toolbox.

There are harsher sanctions, which I think the President is coming on shortly to announce, to kick Russia out of the SWIFT system, freeze their accounts, they won't be able to borrow money when they want to buy big equipment, using hard currency or currency other than the ruble, which is fluctuating wildly right now. They won't be able to. So individuals will be targeted, you know, sanctions can have an impact. If nothing else, maybe they just cool the waters, you know, make people step back.

TIM SHELLEY: So Putin's justification for this, or his pretext rather, is that he needs to protect Russian speakers in Ukraine. What is the actual reason behind this?

ANGELA WECK: That was part of his foreign policy agenda 10 years ago, 15 years ago, that Russia's mission in life is to protect Russian-speaking peoples around the world. If that's a true justification, they can come into New York or other places in the United States because we have sizable Russian speaking populations. So that is a false claim. You're right.

Moreover, in Ukraine, many, many people — I'd say probably in excess of 75% of the population — speaks Russian. Russian and Ukrainian are sister languages. And while Ukrainian is the dominant language, because it is an independent sovereign state, it's the official language of Ukraine, Russian is still commonly spoken.

And so what's driving Putin now is actually, I think those past sanctions. So I think those past sanctions have had an effect, a strong enough effect that Putin needs the agricultural resources that come out of Ukraine. As Europe talks about shutting off that Nord Stream 2 pipeline, or technically, not turning it on. They have other pipelines that already go through Ukraine, that Russia has to pay a fee to use. If Russia owned Ukraine, they wouldn't have to pay themselves to use those pipelines to ship gas and oil to Europe.

Eventually, gas and oil will trump whatever complaints we have against Putin unless we are able to replace the needs that are being filled right now with Russian gas and oil. So Germany, for example, you know, 35% of its natural gas comes from Russia. It has agreed to turn that off. But for how long? So I think the sanctions have had an impact. And I think that's part of what's motivating him to take the valuable piece of real estate that Ukraine is back.

TIM SHELLEY: The U.S. and its NATO allies, you know, want to avoid a military confrontation. I mean, you're talking about two nuclear powers, the U.S. and Russia. And that's a situation nobody really wants to see happen. But is there a way it could be pushed to this point, or what's what's the alternative if the sanctions don't work? Is the United States just going to watch this happen? Or is there something else that can be done?

ANGELA WECK: Again, the sanctions are going to take time, so they're not going to happen overnight. Will this turn into a nuclear war, I think, is what your your bigger question is, and I hope cooler minds will prevail.

We've had an understanding of MAD, mutually assured destruction, ever since we first discovered how to create these massive, massively destructive weaponry. And we've not used them. We could however, and in the last few years, several countries in the world, including the United States and Russia have developed smaller nuclear warheads that they feel like could be tactical and strategic. That is something to worry about. But even there, for Russia to use a nuclear weapon to Ukraine would be their own backyard. They want Ukraine for what it offers Russia. They don't want to destroy Ukraine. And so if they do, so they're not going to bomb Ukraine like that with a nuclear weapon because that does not serve his purposes.

I don't know, however, how Putin backs down from the path he's on. So he wants Ukraine. He has laid out the groundwork for why Russia should reclaim Ukraine. We have attempted peaceful negotiations. We've threatened. None of it has let him off of his task of taking over Ukraine. So I don't know what's going to divert that.

One thing to really pay attention to, though, is something that could go accidentally astray. So if Russia uses conventional weapons, and launches bombs, missiles at Ukraine that accidentally go into Poland, accidentally go into Bulgaria, or the Czech Republic, or some other Central European state, that would engage NATO. Then we'll have a whole different set of warfare. But the reality is, are American people willing to go on the ground to war with Russia, over Ukraine? And I don't know.

Tim is the News Director at WCBU Peoria Public Radio.