Why did Putin invade Ukraine now? What is his goal and motivation? No one really knows, despite endless speculation in the media. In this episode, Dr. Bjorn Mercer talks to APU political science professor Dr. Thomas Kelly about how the invasion of Ukraine has been influenced by the media. Listen to this engaging discussion about who’s more trustworthy, the American media or Russian media? Why do American politicians think the U.S. has to be involved in everything that goes on around the world and be the world’s police?
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Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Hello, my name is Dr. Bjorn Mercer. And today, we’re talking to Dr. Thomas Kelly, Department Chair in the School of Security and Global Studies. And today our conversation is about Ukraine. Welcome, Tom.
Dr. Tom Kelly: Hi Bjorn. It has been too long since I’ve been here. What happened?
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: It has been. It’s been a long time and a lot has happened, unfortunately. So we’re talking about Ukraine. It’s going on literally by the time this comes out and things will change, but there’s a lot to talk about the conflict, the war in Ukraine. So my first question for you is, from a political scientist perspective, what’s going on with that war in Ukraine? Why is it so complex?
Dr. Tom Kelly: This is a question that maybe a historian could answer better because of the history of the oppression and the death caused in Ukraine under the Soviet regime, how they got their independence back in the 1990s. And we know now, that there are parts of Ukraine that are predominantly ethnically Russian and even Russian-speaking, who seek to be part of Russia again.
There’s been an ongoing civil war since 2014, but the big question is, why now? Why did Putin pull the trigger now and roll tanks and artillery and tens of thousands of troops into Ukraine, and what’s his goal? And what it comes down to is when I read editorials, when I see experts on TV talking about this, it’s nothing more than pure speculation. We really don’t know why he decided to go right now. We understand that there have been overtures that Ukraine was getting closer and closer to NATO.
Now we know during the Cold War, you had the Soviet Bloc, you had the Eastern Bloc versus NATO. And since the Cold War ended, NATO has been, I would say, inexplicably, taking on former members of the Soviet satellite sphere into NATO.
I don’t understand, when we’re taking a country like Poland as part of NATO, what that has to do really with our security here, why Germany and the UK would need that. And why we wouldn’t see that as provocative to an adversary like Russia. Then we make overtures to Ukraine, and start kicking around the idea about making a NATO member right on Russia’s border.
Now, Putin has said, I think he said, I don’t speak Russian, I have to trust what the media say, that he wants a neutral government. The way it’s portrayed in Russia is the Ukrainian government right now is a puppet of NATO. And he wants an independent government that is neutral between NATO and Russia. The other side of the coin would be, Putin wants to put in a puppet regime for himself, one that would promote him.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: I agree. It is very difficult. And obviously, one of the blind spots we have, one of the biases is, we have is we’re American. And so we’re biased from our American perspective. And we’re also biased from the fact that, like, I live in Arizona, and California or New Mexico or Utah is not trying to invade me, or even in the sense that we don’t have historical issues with the states around us. But when you get into Eastern Europe or even just Europe in general, every single one of those countries has fought or been invaded by everybody else around them.
And just like you said, a historian could go into the long, long history of Ukraine being part of the Russian empire for centuries, Ukraine and Russia being ethnically tied to Russia, but very different. Ukraine trying to separate itself from the newly formed USSR, but then not being able to, and then being incorporated in the USSR and then the Holodomor in the 30s and that the horrible conflict of World War II ripping right through—I mean, there’s just so much that goes into it. Stalin giving Crimea to Ukraine, which was originally part of Russia. All of this going on end of the Cold War, I mean, it goes on and on and on. And it’s just like you said, the timing now is curious because when you watch our media, it’s all about speculation. It’s like, what are the possible reasons? And one of the difficult things I think that Americans have a hard time doing is understanding the world from a Russian perspective. Does that make sense?
Dr. Tom Kelly: It makes sense. And I’m glad you brought up the media, because this is the main point I wanted to get to. Since this invasion started, there has been, and let’s call it for what it is, a massive pro-Ukrainian propaganda campaign in America with elites and people taking photo ops, “We stand with Ukraine,” people putting Ukrainian flags all over the place. And one has to ask why? Well, obviously, because you’ve got a country getting brutalized by another country right now, but when we say stand with Ukraine, what do we mean by that? They’re waving the Ukrainian flag.
Now, I for one, personally, will bring in my own personal perspective here and say, I stand with the people who are being brutalized by two corrupt regimes going to war right now. There are civilians, they have to flee their homes, there are women and children dying, there are men dying, there are civilians picking up arms to defend their homes against an invader. They’re not sure why he is there, but we can’t tell from American media exactly what is happening anymore.
Let’s take a look. If you go to transparency.org, they’ve got a map and they rank how corrupt governments are. And the most trusted governments in the world tend to be the Scandinavian countries like Denmark and Finland and Norway. New Zealand makes it up there too. The United States is down at like number 26 or 27 in the world, as far as ranking corrupt governments.
But if you look at Russia, Russia ranks 136th out of 180 countries ranked. They have a confidence score in their government of 29 out of 100. That’s really low. That’s a corrupt authoritarian system. So you could say, “Okay, well, look at Vladimir Putin, he’s a bad guy. The Russians are the bad guys here.” And, of course, when we look at it in terms of invading and shelling civilians, they are the bad guys.
But when we talk about defending democracy in Ukraine, well, just go ahead and move your cursor over on transparency.org. You’ll see that Ukraine ranks 122nd out of 180 countries. Their score is only 32 out of 100. They also get an “F,” as far as transparency and government corruption and democracy. This is one corrupt authoritarian regime invading another corrupt authoritarian regime. And, of course, the people suffer in it, but we see in the American media we’re standing up for the good guys who are Ukraine, but are they really the good guy? And this is a question that I want to ask everybody listening, at this point, who can we trust more, American media or Russian media? Now the knee-jerk reaction might be to laugh and say, “Well, of course, American media.”
But think about it. How many stories from American media have turned out to be false in recent years? Even the Russian collusion story that they just hammered on for a couple of years about Donald Trump and the Russians, Russian media were saying it was all a farce. American media said it was true. The Russian media was accurate at that time.
So, taking that objective, look at it, I honestly don’t know exactly what’s happening there. When I see stories of the Ghost of Kiev or these propaganda stories of the brave Ukrainians standing up for themselves and everyone’s heart strings gets pulled to stand with Ukraine. What is American media trying to do? What are American politicians trying to do? Are they trying to start a war with Russia?
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And they talk about war fever, where a war occurs and everybody gets caught up in it. And, for lack of a better description, this is not our war. This is a war between Russia and Ukraine. Ukraine is not a beacon of democracy and they’re not fighting for democracy. And I guess they are, but the country is extraordinarily corrupt. And they’ve got a long way to go to become “democracy,” just like Russia, in essentially, abandoned at a long time ago. And the media’s perspective is that, “Yeah, they really did grab onto Ukraine.”
And so, when you see these videos of destroying Russian tanks or different ambushes and stuff like that, what I call war porn. Every time that happens, Russians die, and those Russians die and a lot of times, it’s not like those Russians are like, “Yeah, I’m going to go in and do what’s right.” They were told to go and invade. And first I’m assuming for a lot of them, again, we’re just assuming, they might be asking themselves, “Why are we doing this?” My whole thing is more of like, let’s not cheer a side, now Ukrainians are defending their homes, so that is good, they’re defending their homes. The Russians seems to be using tactics that are draconian or even World War II in their nature.
But the media is really, really, like you said, just grabbed onto the Ukrainian side when it’s like, “Okay, let’s just step back a second.” And I don’t think anybody’s saying, “Oh, well, we should take either Russia’s word for it.” We should really do some real hard analysis and say, “What is going on and who is actually ‘winning’ and who is ‘losing’?” What does winning and losing mean?
And I guess that’s my next question. It seems the Russians thought they could walk in and the Ukrainians would be like, “Okay, whatever. We don’t want to fight.” And that didn’t happen. How is there an end game to this?
Dr. Tom Kelly: I don’t see any happy ending to this. I just see eventually an ending. This is probably going to grind into some horrific stalemate. The worst case scenario, though, is that other major powers get drawn into this. If America starts to put up our Air Force for a no-fly zone, well now we’ve got air battles with Russian MiGs. We’re at war with Russia at that point.
And a lot of people are forgetting the Chinese factor, that China and Russia met before this invasion. And we don’t know what they talked about, but China has openly supported them. And now they’re talking about bringing in China militarily. Note, China, economically and militarily, is much, much more powerful than Russia is. What are the repercussions going to be with the island of Taiwan? As America looks flatfooted and hopeless, as we issue vapid warnings and put on sanctions that they knew were coming anyway, what should America do at this point?
The only thing I could see America doing at this point that would be worthwhile in the interest of everybody, is humanitarian aid for the Ukrainians, to provide shelters for the refugees, to provide medical care for the people, or food and water or whatever, who are having their cities destroyed at this point.
But to come in and try to militarily stop the Russians at this point, we’re talking thousands of American lives to get involved in that. We’re talking about another nuclear power, and then we’re talking about China sitting over there, just looking for an excuse, if maybe not to get involved in this, but to let their military elsewhere while we have our hands full with Russia.
And now, media will start talking about, “Oh, this is a start of World War III.” I don’t how many times I’ve heard that in my entire life. Then the headlines start, “There’s going to be nuclear war with Russia.” No, there isn’t. There’s going to be no nuclear war with Russia. The United States nuclear arsenal is still powerful and efficient enough to turn the entire country Russia into glass. They’re not going to fire nukes at any of our interests here. They’re not going to fire nukes on Ukraine if it’s a country they would actually like to occupy at some point.
As you said, what’s the end game here? I don’t know how long this is going to go for. I’d imagine, at some point, the two countries are going to decide to just stop fighting. Ukraine will probably give up some of the territory in the east that they have not controlled for years anyway. And they’ll decide there’s no point in losing any more lives fighting for an area that doesn’t want to be part of Ukraine anyway.
Think back to when Crimea, when it was annexed, that’s the nice word for invaded, and made part of Russia again, Ukraine eventually just accepted that. That’s probably the end game we’re going to see here.
I’m going to go slightly different direction though with the media here. The bio labs, this is one of the things to talk about. Not necessarily the bio labs themselves, but the way American media covers it. When it first came out, and it was Russian media that reported, that the United States was funding labs with biological weapons and the Russians felt the need to protect themselves. That’s a plausible story. Immediately, American media started to discount that as another crazy right-wing conspiracy theory Russian propaganda.
Lo and behold, we do have a bunch of labs there with deadly pathogens that are communicable and the United States is funding them. And American media says, “Well, they’re not technically bio weapons labs. Oh sure. They are bio labs. And yes, they have pathogens that can be weaponized, but they’re not actually in the process of weaponizing them.” So, we start to get in into semantics. Again, who do you trust, Russian media or American media? The Russian media was correct on this one.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Even though our media is open, and unlike Russia, where the state media is really clamped on a single message, our media really does kind of fall in line when there’s a single narrative. People don’t want to go away from that single narrative. They don’t want be the one person who says, “Well, let’s think about the Russian perspective.” Even when people say, “Well, we don’t agree with Russia invading of course, but what are some possible ideas?” And I think, again, going from the American bias, we’re like, “Well, NATO would never invade Russia. And every country ‘has enemies’, and even if we as US.., or as U.S. citizenry, we’ll never invade people.”
Russia sees the U.S. invade various countries over the last few decades. And they might think, “Well, what happens if they come after us?” And again, it’s not portraying the U.S. as the bad guy at all. I’m just saying each individual country has their security threats. And we are a threat to some countries, most notably, Russia and China.
Dr. Tom Kelly: In the world of social sciences, the theory of realism is really experiencing an awakening in international relations. The whole idea of countries seeking their own security and acting as unitary actors rather than complex dynamic societies with individuals, with varying perspectives and needs.
From Russia’s perspective, NATO would never invade Russia? Well, two members of NATO are France and Germany, both who have invaded Russia in the past. So they have that in their history books saying, “Will these countries never invade us? Well, they already have, and one not all that long ago.”
I like how you mentioned though, about America, we do have that bias. We do have the bias that for some reason, we’re always the good guys. Russia are always the bad guys. And we see it from our politicians. When you have former Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard coming up and saying—and she’s a Democrat—and she brought on Facebook the whole idea of these labs I talked about that have deadly pathogens in them. We have Senator Mitt Romney come out and accuse her of treason for parroting Russian propaganda. So it’s not just the media, we have members and leaders in government.
And media, we do have nightly news that can give you a fairly objective view on these things. But if you really, really want to have no idea what’s happening in Ukraine right now, spend about an hour watching Fox News, then spend about an hour watching MSNBC, and you’ll hear an entire hour about how it’s all Biden’s fault on Fox, and then you’ll hear an entire hour about how it’s all Trump’s fault on MSNBC. In both sides, just cherry picking little facts here and there and twisting and distorting to make the opposite political side look bad. But that’s an issue we run into with just about every issue in the United States right now.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: I completely agree. And so, this actually leads us perfectly to my next question is, why is it that U.S. politicians and commentators like to make that this war is all about us? And I always like to say, why are we so narcissistic that we think that anything that happens in the world is about the U.S.?
Dr. Tom Kelly: Well, sometimes there’s a kernel of truth underneath all of that. And the United States has sought to become internationally and globally dominant in so many perspectives. The United States has armed troops in dozens of countries across the world right now. We have the 21st century version of the British empire, while our territory only expands from Hawaii, and then we’ve got Guam, we’ve got territories to the east and west of our mainland. We don’t own entire countries like the British empire used to. We still have that type of influence.
So, when there’s a move made, the United States is usually involved. When North Korea rattles their saber, well, we’ve got a bunch of troops in South Korea. When China does something, again, we’ve got troops out there in the far east. We have troops all over Europe. So when there’s a move in Europe, of course, we’re involved in that.
Well, your question is more, are we the root of everything? I think is what it is. And no. No, we’re not. Sometimes it’s really just none of our business. We have this, almost a family feud between Russia and Ukraine. Like you said, you’ve got these shared history between these two countries and there’s a lot of ethnicity crossover and even language crossover. But at the same time, it’s a rivalry. And right now, they’re technically enemies. Does this have anything to do with the United States? No, not really.
Like you said, this really is not our war any more than the other wars going around in the world right now that our media ignores. The wars that are going on in Africa currently, the wars that are going on in South America, we tend not to get involved with these. Why is this one, it might go back to the Cold War, the Generation X type. We grew up during the Cold War when we were told to hide under our desk if there was a mushroom cloud outside, and maybe it goes back to that.
But then again, you have to think about how American media is also about clicks and ratings and views, and that we get more, then into the outrage politics. That we have to blame somebody, we have to be angry at somebody. There’s got to be a good guy, there has to be a bad guy. There has to be a Facebook frame we could put up to show that we’re on the side of the good guys.
But what’s more important is not so much the media. Why do so many of our politicians think the United States has to be involved in everything that goes on in the world? Why does the United States have to be the world’s police?
Now, if we’re talking about defending a defenseless democracy against some horrible invaders, that makes sense. We’ve done that in the past. But we already established that’s not the case what’s going on with Ukraine and Russia. We have one corrupt authoritarian regime invading another corrupt authoritarian regime. I don’t see the upside for America becoming involved in this. Let’s say Russia invades and takes over, and annexes Ukraine completely. Ukraine as an independent country, no longer exists just like they didn’t really exist independently in the Soviet era. How does that affect the United States?
Then we see American media, and you say, “Why do we care over here?” And they try to give us reasons to care about it, “Well, they’re not going to stop at Ukraine. They’re going to roll into Poland. They’re going to keep rolling. They’re going to take over the world. There’s going to be a nuclear war, this is going to be World War III.” They try to get everybody ginned up over here.
There is, without a doubt, a simmering war fever in America right now, this idea that we need to go after Putin. It is common throughout history, it is common in politics for when any type of administration or regime is failing politically or economically at home, to start a fight outside of home as a distraction. That’s just a fact in the history books.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And, this is a good distraction for the U.S. media and that’s, of course, that I don’t mean to sound callous at all because it’s horrible. And the one thing whenever I talk about war, is all war is terrible. There’s no good war. And I oftentimes like to blame World War II for giving, I’ll just say Americans, an incorrect view of war. Because World War II, the greatest generation, we went and we defeated evil. Nazis were completely bad, Japanese imperialism was bad. A lot of people died for absolutely no reason, genocide. But then we also look at war as like, it’s always a conflict of good versus evil.
But, the vast majority of wars, it’s not good versus evil. It’s about somebody making a bad decision and a bunch of people dying, on both sides. These Russians who are going over there dying for no reason, these Ukrainians who are dying to defend their country. It’s absolutely a complete waste of life.
And we look at all these conflicts like in Yemen, there’s some talk about Yemen, but “one of our allies” is doing that. We look at Syria and there’s a lot of attention on Syria when it first started and then it drug on for years. And that’s where, like we’ve been talking about, our bias is just blinding.
And then with politicians, like you were saying, with Romney, it’s not treason, we’re not at war. And we have to be able to talk about things. And if we can’t talk about it, we’re as bad as an authoritarian state, where we’re not authoritarian, but everybody knows the rules you can’t cross or else you get in trouble.
Dr. Tom Kelly: Well, I’m glad you brought that up. Because when we say we’re not an authoritarian, as I mentioned, we’re not even the top 20, as far as the most trusted and free governments now. And of course, the political sides will say, “Well, it’s Trump’s fault.” “No, it’s Obama’s fault.” “No, it’s Biden’s fault.”
No, it’s American people’s fault, that we so easily fall into these narratives of good versus evil on every issue. Because when you are on the side of good and your opponent is on the side of evil, there’s no room for negotiation. And you and I could be easily accused of what some say is moral relativism, like there is no right and wrong, there is no good and evil, of course there are. But we’re getting to the point that there’s much more gray area, and that brings us back to Ukraine and Russia.
Everyone agrees that forcefully invading a country and bombing civilians is wrong. But then we come to this whole idea that we have to protect Ukraine at all costs. Why? Why is Russia invading? Why are they taking on this war that is not beneficial to them? It’s not beneficial economically. I don’t think Putin’s becoming more popular in Russia because he’s doing this right now.
And that’s what I will be looking at going forward is, what were the actual motivations behind trying to take Ukrainian territory as such? My guess off the top of my head was the fact that he just did not want a NATO partner sitting right there on his border because NATO has been the enemy his entire life. And during his life, he was active during the Cold War. He was a part of the Soviet government.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Exactly. And it’s probably hard for people to remember today, younger folk, I say that. For decades, during the Cold War, the Russians, USSR, the Eastern Block, the Warsaw pact, those were “the enemy.” And look at any Bond movie, that Russian was the enemy, and that was a real thing. And, like you said, Putin is an older man today, but he matured in that hostile world.
It’s hard to let go of beliefs you have from your youth. And especially if, and I’m not saying that this justified any invasion of Ukraine, but if you know Estonia, Latvia, Poland, Lithuania, if they all then became part of NATO, from the Russian perspective and their defense risk assessment, they keep on seeing NATO, their historic enemy, creeping up on their borders. And, again, doesn’t excuse an invasion, but it makes the Russian perspective then like, “Oh, well, we’re right here.”
Dr. Tom Kelly: This is one way to look at it for people listening, trying to understand what would be so threatening about Ukraine, or Estonia or Latvia or Lithuania becoming parts of NATO. They all used to be part of the USSR, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. So they were part of the same country. And now, as they broke up and became independent, they’re looking to join the enemy.
So, look at this from an American perspective. Imagine the United States breaks up, not completely, the majority of it stays intact. But let’s say, Hawaii, Alaska, maybe even Texas, all leave the United States. And then we find out Texas is signing arms deals with Russia and they’re moving Russian weapons into Texas. How would Americans, how would the American government respond to a territory that used to be part of our country now being armed by the enemy?
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And I’ve heard that commentary a few times in the media, but not very often. And it’s so hard for Americans to think of that, because of course the last war we had here stateside was Civil War and that was so many years ago, but the actual defense of our homeland is nothing that we’ve had to worry about. And then when you go into Europe where every single little country has fought a war with their neighbors throughout the last thousand years. Defense and risk is literally just a few miles away for a lot of these countries. And so they are constantly trying to figure that out.
And, again, from the American perspective, and that’s why I’m just so disappointed in the media because they’re not giving a good, solid, critical-thinking perspective on this. And, like you said, if you watch Fox, if you watch CNN, it’s like this war has really come into maturity on just the terribleness of American media, where with Obama, it really matured into the bifurcation of Fox and CNN on the side. And then of course, Trump, making Trump derangement syndrome and making it worse.
And now with this, now we have a war to do the same thing. I don’t know how we come back from this without—and this is terrible, not nationalizing the media, but making them nonprofit—but then that’s the same thing that a lot of other countries have done. I don’t know if that makes any sense.
Dr. Tom Kelly: I know what you mean. Yeah, right. And every authoritarian country in the world has said their media is becoming irresponsible and they have to regulate it. So that sends up red flags for me whenever I hear that. The issue, though, isn’t just Ukraine. We saw this, the competing narratives, during the COVID pandemic, which magically disappeared as soon as Ukraine was invaded.
I remember back in 2020, when I would have discussions with people about, there’s a long history of showing that wearing a cloth mask doesn’t do anything to stop the flu, so I don’t think it’s going to stop this virus. “Well, you just want to kill grandma. We have to shut you down. We’re going to close you off Facebook. You’re going to get banned from Twitter for misinformation.”
Or there are those of us saying stuff like, “Okay, these lockdowns are not working because instead of meeting at each other’s homes, people are going to meet each other at Home Depot and Walmart. That we’re not going to stop the spread of a virus by telling restaurants they can only stay open until eight instead of 10. These restrictions make no sense.” And you’d get shouted down for not being part of the official narrative.
We’re seeing now the official narrative in America is that Ukraine are the good guys, Russia are the bad guys. We have to support Ukraine at all costs. And it is always dangerous in any narrative, particularly life and death when it’s war or a pandemic, that people with reasonable dissent are silenced. And that’s the most frightening thing I’m seeing now in American media, American social media and American culture. Some people say cancel culture doesn’t exist. It absolutely does. You say the wrong thing, you are no longer acceptable. Not just your views, you as a person are no longer acceptable.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Exactly. And podcast series I want to do eventually, I’ve titled it Disagreements Between Reasonable People.
Dr. Tom Kelly: Yeah. Good luck finding people for that.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Oh, I’ll find people, but then nobody will listen, because it’ll be two people disagreeing. And then realizing, “Yeah. We can both disagree, we both have our perspective and we’re not going to shout at each other.” And people can live in a world in which there are, say, facts and then two people view those facts differently and then they get along.
And that’s where, I think, the war in Ukraine is number one, sad, and it’s tragic. And the people of Ukraine, it’s tragic that they’re being invaded. But for here in the U.S., it’s tragic in the sense that we just continue to see the same old expletive that we’ve seen in our media, where they’re just not being good stewards of information, and they’re not being civil, and they’re not being humble. They’re not being doing a good job. They need to do better.
Dr. Tom Kelly: And the result is because there cannot be reasonable discussion on what is happening and what should be done, I think many more people are going to die who didn’t have to.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Exactly. And that is the sad part. And it’s always the sad part of any war where countless people die when they don’t have to. So absolutely wonderful conversation. I don’t think we solved anything.
Dr. Tom Kelly: No, we didn’t. But at least if we could bring the light, the whole idea to at least question the American narrative that the Russian media can’t always be wrong, the American media can’t always be right. You have to look at things critically. And I understand Russian media is heavily censored, and it’s heavily influenced by their government, but take a look at American media and see how free that is.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Exactly. And so today we’re talking with Dr. Thomas Kelly about Ukraine. My name is Dr. Bjorn Mercer, and thanks for listening.