Experts analyze Russia’s war on Ukraine from multiple angles

Expert panel on Ukraine
SIA Interim Director Elizabeth Ransom (far left) introduces the panelists, left to right, Professor Catherine Wanner, Interim Dean of Penn State Law and SIA James W. Houck, Dean of the College of Agricultural Sciences Rick Roush, and (on the video screen) SIA Professor Mary Beth Long. Credit: Michelle Bixby, Penn State

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – An array of experts from across the University discussed Russia's war on Ukraine from a variety of angles at a March 4 panel event co-hosted by the School of International Affairs (SIA) and Penn State Law in University Park. The panelists delivered remarks to, and answered questions from, an audience of nearly 500 people—online and in-person—that touched on political, legal, humanitarian, historical, cultural and agricultural aspects of the conflict.

Expert panelists were:

  • Vice Admiral (Ret.) James W. Houck, JAG Corps, U.S. Navy, interim dean of Penn State Law in University Park and the School of International Affairs. Houck is a former judge advocate general of the Navy and an expert in national security law, international law, and law of armed conflict;
  • The Honorable Mary Beth Long, SIA professor of practice and former assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Long served as chair of NATO’s High Level Group, responsible for NATO’s nuclear policy;
  • Rick Roush, dean of the College of Agricultural Sciences. Roush is stewarding a 30-year Penn State-Ukraine partnership in research, training, and education;
  • Catherine Wanner, professor of history, anthropology, and religious studies at Penn State, and an area expert on Ukraine and Russia.

“We are extremely appreciative of the expert panelists’ participation in this important and timely discussion,” said Elizabeth Ransom, SIA interim director and associate professor of international affairs. “The speakers’ diverse expertise helped to shed light on the unfolding events and the grim reality of the days ahead.”

Examining the war through various lenses

Rick Roush and James W. Houck

Panelists Rick Roush (right) and James W. Houck during the panel event. IMAGE CREDIT: Michelle Bixby, Penn State

Houck focused his remarks on the role of international law, including war crimes, sanctions, and cyber warfare. Although enforcing international law is often more complicated than in the domestic sphere, he emphasized the importance of having established global standards of conduct.

“International law is an expression of the norms and values of the global community—including protecting civilians and preventing unnecessary suffering,” Houck said. “Around 140 nations condemned Russia’s behavior at the recent United Nations General Assembly, and we ought to find some optimism in that.”

Long provided some political and historical context to help explain the current conflict before shifting to a summary of where things stand now and could be headed next. She argued that Putin is getting increasingly desperate and will look to cut off supply lines and isolate the Ukrainian government in an effort to get them to capitulate.

“Once Putin gets control of the territory, there is some doubt as to whether that […] slow war attrition is something that he can sustain in front of his population,” Long said.

Roush, in addition to describing the ongoing, 30-year partnership between Penn State and Ukraine, discussed the importance of agriculture and food security to Ukrainian independence and democracy, and Ukraine’s key role in exporting grain across the globe, particularly Europe.

“We can expect one outcome of Russia’s invasion to be food insecurity in several countries,” Roush said.

Catherine Wanner

Panelist Catherine Wanner discusses the Ukrainians' approach to resistance during the event. IMAGE CREDIT: Michelle Bixby, Penn State

Wanner examined Ukrainians’ approach to resistance, beyond military measures, which includes individuals taking cell phone videos and using social media to show the reality of events on the ground and to influence public opinion, especially within Russia.

“[These tactics] are an effort to re-humanize an otherwise grossly inhumane war and to re-introduce basic standards of human decency and empathy in an effort to try to provoke Russians to agitate against this war at home,” Wanner said.

The individual efforts by Ukrainian citizens also serve to push back on Russian government propaganda about the war, Wanner added. Similarly, several panelists noted that this information war can be viewed as running parallel to the actual conflict—a “battle for the hearts and minds” of the public, so to speak.

The Russian government, several panelists said, is using repression and censorship at home and disinformation and denials abroad in an attempt to control the narrative and reframe the conflict as necessary and justified.

“Let's be clear—there's a lot of information out there, but this was an unprovoked attack,” Long said.