Scholars across disciplines found much reason for concern, but also some glimmers of hope in the Ukraine war.

A webinar at the University of Georgia March 17 showcased its academics’ expertise across a wide range of disciplines while shedding light on under-explored spillover of the war in Ukraine. 

Headlined by the Dean Rusk International Law Center at the UGA law school, the cross-disciplinary forum included seven-minute speaking slots for professors in seemingly unrelated subjects whose presentations formed a mosaic of a conflict already exacting a gruesome human toll. 

During the “Understanding Ukraine” forum, assistant history professor Joseph Kellner gave a look at Russia’s professed justifications and Ukrainian national identity, while international affairs professor Jeffrey Berejikian explored how the global community can maintain pressure on Vladimir Putin while avoiding escalation and the threat of nuclear war.

Dr. Berejikian concluded that real progress on negotiations will be detected only when Russia starts engaging the West in talks directly. He concurred with most other experts in recommending against the imposition of a no-fly zone or supplying fighter jets to Ukraine, citing the risk of direct confrontation with Russia. 

He noted that the West’s perceptions of Russia’s red lines were rightly guiding its interventions, noting that Russia could reasonably see a NATO offensive, coupled with crippling economic sanctions, as an existential threat in a way that Ukraine is not. That might activate Russian doctrine calling for use of a tactical nuclear weapon “in-theater, to freeze the conflict.” 

It’s important, he said, to keep Putin’s off-ramps open, despite the slow progress in talks thus far, to avoid giving Russia the feeling that it has no viable way forward but dramatic escalation.

“Dramatic escalations in conflict — moving across domains, expanding to other countries — that doesn’t happen when countries are feeling strong about their military position. We’ve got data going back to the 1850s: Dramatic escalations are born from the perception of weakness,” Dr. Berejikian said. 

Still, it isn’t just nuclear weapons that could inflict generational damage: Professor James Porter at the university’s Odum School of Ecology is has research the health effects of underwater munitions in Puerto Rico and is helping remove bombs from the World War II era from coral reefs in Hawaii. 

He said the effects of munitions on the natural world have a long tail that include ecosystem and habitat destruction, increased cancer risks and other grave results. He noted that in Ukraine, tanks will be using depleted uranium shells that have been shown in other conflicts to contaminate the hair of children with radioactive material years after the explosions. Cancer rates in U.S. military members with exposure to radioactive munitions are relatively high, an effect that has only been detected decades later.

“If you know anything about the ecology of war, you know this: that when the fighting stops, the killing will not,” Dr. Porter said. 

On the communications front, Russia native Victoria Hasko from the Mary Frances Early College of Education, outlined how draconian new laws in Russia have curtailed speech, silenced independent media and hindered Russia’s understanding of its own role in the conflict — even perhaps at the Kremlin. Putin famously doesn’t use the Internet and instead relies on intelligence briefings, and some experts believe his officials’ desire to please him is creating a dangerous echo chamber, Dr. Hasko said.

Younger people with access to virtual private networks and messaging apps are getting a fuller picture of the war, while older, more rural residents see their views clouded by state propaganda. Many don’t believe the reports about their own military casualties or the carnage caused by Russian attacks on Ukraine, and the disconnect has become a source of strife for Russian emigres trying to convey reality to their relatives, she added.

Ralitsa Vassileva, a native of Bulgaria and a lecturer at the UGA Grady College of Journalism, said she recognized this propagandistic playbook from her upbringing under Soviet rule, lamenting that the expulsion of Western journalists from Russia could create a dangerous hole in global understanding of Russian aims. 

Gopinath Munisamy, an expert on agricultural marketing at the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences gave a view of the war’s effect on commodities markets, with near-term wheat futures soaring amid disruption in Russia and Ukraine, both large producers of the crop. That’s putting upward pressure on food prices already hitting historic highs, according to a key United Nations index. The fact that Russia is one of the largest producers of nitrogen-based fertilizers is not helping matters, though futures priced out later in the year are seeing more price stability thanks to the hope that other producers like India and Australia will be able to pick up some of the slack by that time, Dr. Munisamy said.

The moderator of the discussion was Peter “Bo” Rutledge, a noted expert on international law and dispute resolution and the dean of the UGA law school.

Mr. Rutledge also took some time to outline fresh developments related to the Ukraine war at the International Court of Justice, showing how international law is vital even and especially in wartime.

With Russia accusing Ukraine of a “genocide” against its own people as a justification for its invasion, Ukraine took the ingenious step of filing a request for the review of that claim at the ICJ. The court not only found no evidence to back up Russia’s claim, but it also said that even if there were evidence, it likely would not have seen justification in Russia’s unilateral decision to attack Ukraine.

Two other votes were also instructive — a 13-2 vote for Russia to cease hostilities, with only the Chinese and Russian judges dissenting, as well as a unanimous vote for both sides to leave open the path to negotiating a peaceful end to the conflift.

To Mr. Rutledge, the Russian and Chinese votes in favor of the latter hinted at the desire to prevent escalation.

“Even in war, the legal apparatus provides powerful signals about the diplomatic pathways toward a peaceful solution, which ultimately — and this is a day that we can all hope for — will be enshrined in a legal document like a treaty.”

Dr. Kellner, the history professor, similarly ended his remarks on a less-than-fatalistic note that both rebutted Russia’s misplaced justifications for the war and reminded viewers that Russia is not necessarily “eternally aggressive or domineering.” He said World War II offers a glimpse at what is possible, as a “better peace, not a punitive one” was achieved with Germany — now a vital member of the global community.

“This crisis was not pre-ordained; it doesn’t have to ebb and flow forever. After it passes and it will pass, and after this Russian government goes, Russia too can change, it can become part of our world, and we should hope and work for that.”

Watch a video of the event, including an in-depth Q&A, here.

As managing editor of Global Atlanta, Trevor has spent 15+ years reporting on Atlanta’s ties with the world. An avid traveler, he has undertaken trips to 30+ countries to uncover stories on the perils...