From Chernobyl to Russian allies: Stanford expert explains Russia-Ukraine conflict

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- Why did Russia attack Ukraine? What does Vladimir Putin want with the Chernobyl nuclear power plant? Is China supporting Russia? Will the U.S. send troops? These are just a few of the many queries that people across the United States are typing into Google, to learn more about the conflict between these two countries.

To get these questions answered, we spoke with Professor Amir Weiner, Ph.D.,, Director of Stanford University's Center for Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies and Associate Professor of Soviet History. Weiner teaches and writes on totalitarian movements and regimes with a focus on the Soviet polity; population politics; the Second World War; and modern mass violence. His current research is on the KGB and the Soviet surveillance state.

Watch the video player above and read the text below for a comprehensive look at the complicated history and conflict between Russia and the Ukraine.

What did Putin say was his reason for invading Ukraine?


Well, he had a lot to say about this.

According to Weiner it's, "Mainly the issue of the genocide that is being conducted in the Donbas region against Russian citizens. This is, of course, quite a problematic argument because these people became Russian citizens breaking international law that Russia offered citizenship passport to Ukrainian citizens in this region."

Second, the issue of NATO expansion. Weiner says Putin has repeated this constantly, using it as both a Russian national interest and his own personal grievance.

"In 1997 you were 16 countries now you are 37. We've had enough of this, you're encroaching on us and we are not taking this anymore. This is our red line and we will use all measures.

And the rhetoric is very violent, quite bombastic. Don't forget that we are a powerful nuclear power, etc.

Usually we do not use this language in diplomatic interactions. He does it. Maybe sometimes he is carried away, maybe he means it.

One thing that we learned with Putin - he means what he says."


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Is it safe to say Russia declared war on Ukraine?


The short answer is no. Russia did not outright declare war on Ukraine. They are conducting, what they call, a special military operation. But it's more complicated than just that.

Here's what Weiner had to say:

"Russia declared special military operation, which is a very elastic definition. Needless to say, this is not just a special operation to protect a Russian citizen and ethnicity in the Donbas region, it is much broader than that. They did not go as far as declaring a formal war, but what is special military operation that on the one hand is limited. You heard in the speech of Putin, which went on in all directions: we do not intend to occupy Ukraine. But basically they're all over Ukraine.

And we are waiting to see if, indeed, the goal is to carve Ukraine into two pieces. To slice it into basically leaving Western Ukraine as the only untouched territory. And basically create some kind of domination in the rest - east and central Ukraine."


Will Russia launch cyber-attacks?


Russia has already launched a cyber-attacks against Ukraine, according to Weiner.

"The military assault was accompanied, actually preceded, by cyber-attack against Ukrainian government websites. Some successfully some less so. But certainly, this is something that has been done well before the military assault and right now, side by side.

We have to wait to see what will be the Ukrainian reaction. Ukraine has its own cyber capabilities. But at this point, of course, this is part of warfare, and we should expect to hear all other military operations."


Should the United States be worried about cyber-attacks?


"Well, we are engaging the cyber warfare with the Russians and Russian hackers who are employed by the Russian security services, the military intelligence. For many years they do it to us, we do it to them. Nothing new under the sun here."

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Will Russia attack the United States?


When asked if we should be worried about anything else here on American soil, he stated, "I would say no."

Here's his longer answer.

"There's a certain red line between the superpowers, not to engage each other directly. That will be way beyond the pale and I doubt that we will get to this point of direct engagement between our militaries.

We said, a priori, that we are not going to send troops to Ukraine as we should not do.

Attacking each other directly militarily, is something that has not happened since the second World War, we got very close in 1962 in the Cuban Missile Crisis and it was a lesson to both sides not to do it because we are armed with nuclear power, nobody is winning in this situation, a lot of proxy wars, we fight our wars against each other with proxies. But certainly not engaging each other directly, which would be a doomsday. And nobody's looking forward to it.

That does not mean that we cannot use all other means to try to deter the Russians. Deter them not necessarily from invading, because they have already invaded Ukraine. But to make them realize that there is a heavy price to pay for it economically, diplomatically.

The problem is the symmetry between these two means. Military operations have direct impact, immediate that are felt on the ground as we speak. Economic sanctions take time to sink in and to take to exact their toll, but we can help them very significantly by imposing economic sanctions that will paralyze or help paralyze the Russian economy."


So is the U.S. sending troops to Ukraine?


Certainly not, Weiner says.

"We made it very clear. All administrations and President Biden said so - we are not sending troops and I don't see us sending troops to Ukraine."

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Why did Russia want to capture Chernobyl?


According to Weiner, this may be part of Russia's military operation to penetrate from the north and get closer to the capital. He says, "We do not know if, indeed, that is their wish to encircle the capital."

He does note, "It is no more than a symbolic region itself because it's the site of one of the largest nuclear catastrophes of the modern era. But it is more of a military move."

What is the SWIFT banking system?


"Basically interfering with the banks, they're using dollars and we can hurt them there by cutting them off from the American financial system. It will have direct impact on literally the basic daily transactions of these banks."

Why did Russia attack Ukraine?


The answer to this is not straightforward or simple. It's multi-faceted and will be different, depending on who you talk to.

Here's what Weiner had to say:

"The answer is twofold: one is the official Russian position and then of course the actual one.

Officially, they are protecting the invaded in order to protect Russian citizens in the Donbas region, protecting them from genocide, alleged genocide by the Ukrainian government and Ukrainian militias. Second, to prevent once and for all Ukraine from joining NATO.
Most experts would agree that there is no basis for any of these allegations, there is no genocide. There is a civil war that, to a large part, instigated by pro-Russian separatists supported and sustained by Russia for the last eight years. Second, candidacy for NATO is not a real issue, it's a very complex and lengthy process that is not on the agenda right now.

What we believe that the main reasons are:

One, once and for all, remove a pro-Western regime from the border of the Russian Federation regime that might create a spillover of anti-authoritarian sentiments into the Russian Federation itself, sending a message to all other former Soviet Republic, not to go the Ukrainian way, especially Georgia, there is Armenia, and others. And it seems to be that they're doing it in the most brutal way because they failed in all other means, as they seek.

Second, there is a diversion of attention from domestic problems. The Russian economy is sluggish the regime's popularity I wouldn't say sunk completely, but has declined over the last decade or so from the heydays of the early 21st century. The pandemic wreaked havoc on the Russian economy and society. A successful small war is, as they would call it is a good a diversion.

Third, there is this issue of the personality of the Russian President Vladimir Putin. After more than two decades of total power and control, there is Ukraine turned into an obsessive feature in his cap. This is a place where he was snubbed and failed twice in 2004 and 2014, where his candidates or subordinates were kicked out of power and it turned into both geopolitical and personal humiliation. He's obsessive about Ukraine in his speeches. You could see him turning emotional and impulsive. It comes all wrapped with this ideological claims that Ukraine has never been an independent nation, it's an artificial creation created by the Soviet regime actually after the first World War in 1918. Most people, of course, would object to such a definition of Ukraine, which has a long history and long day tradition."


How can we help the people of Ukraine?


"By doing something that became quite a rarity in recent years in American politics: closing ranks. Closing ranks and understanding that the fight for Ukraine is a fight that goes way beyond Ukraine itself, it is a fight over democracy. The fate of the democratic world here.

Are we going to succumb to tyrannical authoritarian regimes imposing their will in brutal ways on countries that have different aspirations, that do not wish to live under foreign rule and under puppet regimes?

This is something that is dear to us. This has the danger, the potential danger, of the stabilizing the European Union, which is so important for the United States. Not only in terms of the value system, but also as one of our largest economic trade partners.

It is important for the U.S. This is something that is directly relevant to each and every one of us and we should pay attention. And I do hope that they will we will stop the partisan bickering over this or that and close the ranks in support of Ukraine, that found itself in these horrible, tragic circumstances."


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