Augustana Boe Forum 2022: A Discussion on Russia, Ukraine, and the Future of Europe

POSTED May 4, 2022

On March 31, 2022 Former Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul spoke at Augustana University in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. The topic of the evening’s discussion was “Russia and the Future of Europe”, as McFaul spoke at several press conferences, ending finally with his lecture speech at the Elmen Center.

Before the main event lecture, Augustana University facilitated a student press conference that allowed local high school and university journalists to ask questions to Ambassador McFaul in a smaller setting.  The topics of discussion ranged from nuclear disarmament to a “Tupac story” and everything in between.  McFaul discussed his career and discussed his direct connection to journalism, stating that the world needs fewer pundits and more journalists to report the fact-based news of today.  The following paragraphs are summations of much of what McFaul discussed both at the student press conference and his lecture at the Elmen Center at Augustana University.

Many rumors and speculations about the Russia-Ukraine War have saturated social media and the news, but thanks to Ambassador McFaul we were able to gather facts and his thoughts on what is truly going on. Ambassador McFaul gave a very detailed speech with factual insight about what is happening.  He was able to give us more information thanks to his job as former ambassador to Russia, giving all present the unique honor of asking questions for clarity and giving honest, thoughtful answers firsthand.

With this being said, what is the reason for the invasion? As we know, Russia has been a dominating country with a well-equipped army and aggressive leaders. The Ukraine invasion was something that has been in sight for many years but no one knew when it was going to happen. Ukraine was part of Russia until August 24, 1991, when Ukraine declared its independence. Since Ukraine’s independence, it was already likely that Russia was coming up with a different tactic to gain back the land they lost. Well, this came sooner than expected when Russia annexed Crimea, which is recognized as part of Ukraine,  in 2014. Following this event, Russia was on the move to get more and more because they are a big country, and the only two things on their mind is building a bigger country and building a stronger army. We can see this throughout history with dictatorship, the pressure, tension, and with the annexation. This on and off again eight-year tension was never settled and ultimately ended up with Russia invading Ukraine on February 24, 2022.  

We know that Putin is a very power-hungry and dominating dictator but why would he want to go after a newly independent country. Well from what we have learned from Dr. McFaul is that “Vladimir Putin thought that he had the power to invade Ukraine”. Putin doesn’t believe that Ukraine can be an independent country because of its many natural resources such as steel, coal, oil, and grain production. He has always thought of Ukraine being a part of Russia and even said that Ukrainians were “Russians with an accent”. This is what lead Putin to fully invade Ukraine, and  when Putin wants something he will get it.  Putin has always had a vision for how he wants his country to run and if something or someone gets in the way of his success then he will find a way to hinder it. We have no idea what Putin is thinking or what he is truly capable of. He gives threats but we never know how far he is willing to go to gain power and this is something that we can learn from the Russia-Ukraine War. We can be warned but no one knows what goes through his mind because Putin is going to be one step ahead of all the other countries because we simply don’t think like him. 

 

When listening to McFaul he stated that both Ukraine and Russia have a conflicting military and political view. Ukraine is staying strong and they’re bringing awareness to the war. Many of the citizens of Ukraine are helping defend their country, even President Zelensky is on the front line and he is keeping a positive attitude through the whole thing. Ukraine is fighting wonderfully and this has caught President Putin by surprise. They have defended their country from Putin’s tanks by using anti-tank javelin missiles and many different supplies that various countries have given to them. The people of Ukraine are staying true to their democratic values, much like what they did during the Revolution of Dignity in 2014 when they protested and ousted their president when his decisions went against democracy.  McFaul stated that many countries need to keep on helping Ukraine with giving them their necessities like: food, clothes, shelter, and even weapons so they can keep fighting how they are. 

Russia’s big attack on Ukraine was all a bombshell. It was shocking to the people, soldiers, Ukraine, and the world. Many of the citizens of Russia don’t know what is happening because their news is censored and controlled entirely by the government. In addition, Russians may not speak against the government of Russia or refer to the war as “a war” but instead as a “military operation”. According to McFaul, Putin has tons of power over the people, and he uses the Russian Orthdox Church to control and outsource “Putinism”. “Putinism” is another Russian term to describe the political leadership of Vladimir Putin. When this all started the soldiers thought they were just doing a drill, but really they were attacking Ukraine. A lot of the Russian soldiers lost their lives during the “drill”. April 1st, in Russia is conscription day, meaning more troops are being added to the war to help Russia fight. The Russian Military is powerful and put together on paper, but when it comes to fighting they are less organized and weaker. Many of the Russian citizens are still protesting this war. Some have even been detained for saying anti-war slogans and even for holding signs up during the protest.  

President Putin, a former government member of the KGB and President of Russia, was the main subject of the Boe Forum. His actions against Ukraine have been criticized by many countries in the world as he has ravaged the land of Ukraine and attacked the people for his own ambitions. Ambassador McFaul, the ambassador of Russia from 2012 to 2014, discussed his personal encounters with President Putin and his opinions on Putin’s personality and actions. Ambassador McFaul began by sharing a personal encounter in Putin’s house where he was threatened by Putin for splitting up his country. Ambassador McFaul explained how he was scared at that moment as he was at the mercy of Putin and his bodyguards were nowhere close to him. Through stories like these many believe that Putin is a very demanding individual who is willing to act on his own desires at the expense of the people in his country and his family. However, Ambassador McFaul shared that President Putin was human in the aspect that he loved his family like many others. He is not willing to take any action that will directly cause his death or endanger his family in any manner. For example, on the subject of nuclear weapons,  Ambassador McFaul stated that Putin would not resort to nuclear weapons since he knows that this action could cause the death of his family. Furthermore, Ambassador McFaul talked about his experiences in diplomatic conferences with President Obama and Putin. Ambassador McFaul shared an encounter he had with President Putin in a conference where Putin explained that Russians were superior to other individuals in the West as they desired different things. Putin believes that the Russian government is better for the people compared to all the rest of the countries in the world, and he is willing to go to any extent to ensure that his ideologies remain strong in Russia.

Many countries rely on the import of Russian goods, with the main countries being China, The United Kingdom, Germany, The United States, and many more. However, Russia relies on exporting to these countries as a source of income. Poland plans to be fully independent from Russian import/exports by the end of the year. According to McFaul, Many other countries should do the same to help impede Putin’s supplies. “Words are not going to be enough to stop Putin,” says McFaul. This is why other countries could help slow the Russian military by sending assistance to Ukraine. Anything under a no-fly zone should be used to help the defending countries. All countries willing to raise their military spending should in order to defend themselves if needed. These countries should focus their spending more on smarter weapons than purely gaining numbers. Taiwan should consider this with the willingness of an invasion from China. With the Chinese and Russian militaries being so similar, Ambassador McFaul imagines the Russian and Ukrainian conflict will determine China’s next move. Although the Russian military overpowers Ukraine in numbers, McFaul believes that no matter the outcome of this war, Ukraine will come out stronger. 

Corruption is still evident, especially in the Russian military budget. Millions of dollars are funneled into equipment and troops, yet their tanks and weapons are failing and being left on the side of the road because they’re unable to be saved. Where is all this money going, if not to the military itself? One thing Vladimir Putin proclaimed is the fact that Ukrainians are just “Russians with accents” and that they are not their own country. Putin has poured money, supplies, and lives on this war assuming the Ukrainian people would be an easy target, and one thing Ambassador McFaul has said was, “Vladimir Putin thought he had the power to invade Ukraine”, and it is evident that this is a fight of a lifetime.

Looking to the future we may see hope and faith in alliances arise. Amidst the strife and destruction, there are still allies and organizations that are reliable. As humans, “…we must do the morally right thing…”, McFaul says “…we should be doing more with sanctions…” and help Ukraine fight this uphill battle. Putin believes that he is untouchable, that he deserves all the land that was once the USSR, and that he is almighty. While Russia, and Putin fight against NATO and allies to Ukraine, Ambassador McFaul leaves us with, “We win if united but if we stay divided, we will defeat ourselves.”

We at The Nationalist would like to give a special thank you to Augustana University, The Center for Western Studies, Janet Blank-Libra, and Ambassador McFaul.  This opportunity was a once in a lifetime chance to connect to the global stage on issues that concern us all.  Thank you for sharing this opportunity.

A few more words from the reporters:

 Aryan: I thought that secret agents were going to jump me due to Ambassador McFaul’s status but the assembly felt very conversational, and he was very friendly.

Mason: I was anticipating Ambassador McFaul to be very uptight and serious but I couldn’t have been more wrong. Asking him questions about the conflict was very easy.

Gavin: I was expecting a very intense meeting. The meeting however was very open. And the meeting was very conversational and welcoming.

Ethan: Going into the event I didn’t have many expectations of what it would be like but I enjoyed it very much. McFaul was very thorough with his answers and it was very obvious that he knew a great deal about the Ukraine/Russia conflict. Ambassador McFaul also had many interesting anecdotes that I thought were a highlight of the night.

Morgan B: I was very happy to hear McFaul speak, not only for the plethora of knowledge he has, but for his personality too. Although I was in the audience, it didn’t feel like a lecture, but a conversation. McFaul had this way of not coming off as a celebrity or like he was more important than the people in the crowd; it was like he was a friend who just had some important things to say.

Morgan D.P.: When I first heard about us going I was so excited but mostly nervous, I have never thought in my life that I would actually get to meet someone from higher government. I also thought the timing of this was good because I was slowly learning more and more about the Russia-Ukraine War but hadn’t fully understood what was going on. I didn’t really know what to expect but it was such an honor to be able to go to an event like this, the way that McFaul is very educated and when asked questions he gave a response almost right away. He would make sure that the questions were answered in great detail and he would look at the person that asked the question, which I thought was very cool. It didn’t feel like a lecture it was a conversation. It wasn’t so serious that you were afraid of breathing wrong, but serious enough to keep the conversation going and also make jokes along the way. I was extremely happy and pleased with how the event went and this is something that I am never going to forget and if you ever get a chance like this, take it, you might never get an opportunity like that again. It is so worth the time to go and listen to someone with great knowledge and someone who has been so involved in something like this. 

Brittany A: I had a really good time hearing from McFaul. I loved that he was so interested in all of the questions and gave us really in depth answers. He also had mini stories with almost all of the answers too. Another thing I liked was that when someone asked a question, he would make eye contact with them and give them his undivided attention. He also liked my Tupac shirt, which I thought was really. But overall I had fun and I would recommend this to anyone because it’s a great experience. 

Mercedies B: Getting to hear from Ambassador McFaul was a great experience for me. He gave me and my classmates some useful information and stories to tell that I enjoyed. My most favorite part is that we got to sit in the front row, get a good view, and show him how engaged we were.

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