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A Cold War Revival in Ukraine?

Political scientist Yoshiko Herrera explains what Russian aggression means for Ukrainians and the West.

Esther Seidlitz
February 28, 2022

A study abroad trip to Eastern Europe in 1990 ignited Yoshiko Herrera’s interest in Russian politics. She graduated from college following the end of the Cold War and has had her finger of the pulse of post-Soviet Russia ever since. Herrera, a political science professor at the UW, has written extensively on U.S.-Russian relations, nationalism and xenophobia, and international politics. Before coming to the university in 2007, Herrera studied at Dartmouth College and the University of Chicago, and she taught in the Department of Government at Harvard University for eight years.

Herrera is a former director of the UW’s Center for Russia, East Europe, and Central Asia (CREECA), former codirector of the Institute for Regional and International Studies, and former director of the UW–Madison Partnership with Nazarbayev University in Kazakhstan. Outside of the classroom, she has also served as an expert on Russian tensions with the United States and NATO as a panelist and public speaker. On Tuesday, March 1, Herrera will take part in a UW Now Livestream event to share her insight into the latest developments in Ukraine.

Chief Area of Research:

Yoshiko Herrera
Courtesy of Yoshiko Herrera

I got interested in separatist movements and nationalism. That was a big topic in the 1990s, but it was focused on non-Russian nationalism — Chechens, Tatars, Ukrainians, etc. From that, I got interested in thinking about different kinds of social identity, for example, ethnic identity versus national identity. Russia is a multiethnic country, so there are Russian citizens, but there are about 800 different ethnic groups within the country. In recent years, there has been a resurgence of Russian nationalism and far-right extremism in Russia. So that took me back to nationalism in Russia, but [with a focus] on Russia and xenophobia.

On the UW Now, I’ll Discuss:

What I’m going to focus on is the domestic support for Vladimir Putin — the domestic political reasons for his actions and the question of Russian and Ukrainian national identity. That’s a big part of this, in that Putin is denying the existence of a Ukrainian nation — denying Ukrainian sovereignty.

When we think about answering the question of why [Putin invaded], we have to divide things into two parts. One is the background historical factors of what might make a person behave this way, or [make a] country behave this way. And that gets to some of the historical grievances about NATO and about Ukraine’s democratic revolution. But then, separate from that, there’s the more proximate reason why Putin invaded. And I think it’s really a mistake to treat the historical reasons as the reason for [the invasion] because it’s a crazy, unprovoked attack, and it’s very damaging not only to Ukraine but also to Russia. So, there isn’t really a good explanation of why. Why would you destroy your country and your neighbor? Why would you cause a war that nobody supports?

One Thing I’d Like Viewers to Remember Is: 

The one takeaway is that this is Putin’s war. It’s important to understand that he is an authoritarian dictator who has used violence against his own population. He’s currently arresting people who are protesting this action. His main opponent, Alexei Navalny, has been in jail for a year. That’s the person he tried to assassinate last year. I think it’s important to understand that this isn’t a conflict between ethnic Russians and ethnic Ukrainians. There isn’t a centuries-long hostility between the two peoples or nations. Many, many tens of millions of Russians have direct, familial ties with Ukrainians. This isn’t a case of ancient hatreds. When we think about who’s in the wrong here, it’s important to understand this is Vladimir Putin’s war, and it’s important for people to understand just how dangerous he is.

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