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Odesa professor says U.S. global leadership crucial to Ukraine’s security

Volodymyr Dubovyk, an associate professor at Odesa Mechnikov National University, was pictured attending a rally in support of Ukraine in Boston.

WASHINGTON – Students at Tufts University in Boston are currently learning about Ukraine from one of the country’s top experts on international relations. Volodymyr Dubovyk, an associate professor at Odesa Mechnikov National University, is a visiting professor at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts and continues to lecture online to his students in Odesa.

Mr. Dubovyk’s specialty is U.S.-Ukraine relations and U.S. foreign policy, an expertise he has honed over the span of three decades while conducting research and teaching at his home university and bolstered through participation in numerous international conferences as well as two Fulbright scholarships – one at the Kennan Institute of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington (2006-2007) and the other at the University of Texas in Austin (2016-2017). He is frequently contacted by journalists to explain U.S. policy to Ukrainians and to comment on the situation in Ukraine for Western audiences.

And what has it been like to teach in Odesa in the aftermath of Russia launching its full-scale war on February 24?

Mr. Dubovyk explained in an interview that after the initial shock and uncertainty caused by Russia’s invasion, classes resumed online by the beginning of March. As would be expected, he said that “many of the classes were really somber, but we did our work, we understood what we needed to do with, really, this understanding that we should not let them [the Russians]prevail,” adding that his students “were really resilient in their way, coming to classes, being active in class.”

Most of his students live in Odesa, although early on in the full-scale war Mr. Dubovyk learned that one was participating in class from occupied Kherson, where other classmates could hear explosions on the call. In recent weeks classes have been complicated by power disruptions caused by Russia’s targeting of the country’s civilian power grid. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, teaching online had already become the norm in Ukraine before the war.

During his travels to the United States over the years, Mr. Dubovyk has observed an ever-increasing interest in Ukraine. As a result of the extensive media coverage of the full-scale invasion this year, however, knowledge about Ukraine has now permeated all levels of American society. He is struck by the high level of compassion and support that Americans are demonstrating toward Ukraine – from displaying Ukrainian flags in a show of solidarity to conducting countless charity drives to help Ukrainians in need.

Speaking about U.S.-Ukraine relations and the steady flow of U.S. government military assistance to Ukraine this year, Mr. Dubovyk said that “it’s been a good stretch in general in terms of helping Ukraine but, clearly, by the end of the year, closer to the midterm elections, there were worries accumulating in terms of whether this position will change.”

According to the Odesa scholar, statements made by former U.S. President Donald Trump and his wing of the Republican party calling into question aid to Ukraine were a source of concern for Ukrainians. For several weeks prior to election day, Mr. Dubovyk said he had “tons” of interviews with Ukrainian media and people were wondering if cuts in U.S. aid were imminent.

“I had to explain ‘no, it’s more complicated than that,’” he said, adding that the generally lackluster performance of isolationist Republican candidates was “a relief to us.” Mr. Dubovyk stressed that Ukrainians are certainly grateful for the money and weapons coming from the United States. “People understand … that we can’t fight [Russia] with sticks. … We need weapons, and there is one country that has given us most of the weapons” he said, emphasizing that “American support is a lifeline.”

On the other hand, there is disappointment about Washington not providing Ukraine with all the advanced weaponry it has requested. Mr. Dubovyk noted that U.S. officials and some experts raise fears about provoking Putin into further escalating the war – but Russia is already continually escalating even without the United States providing the most advanced weapons systems, he said.

As for recent controversial suggestions that it is time for Ukraine to pursue peace negotiations with Russia, Mr. Dubovyk said that no one else wants to “get to peace” more than Ukrainians as they are the ones who are experiencing immense suffering and loss. Ukrainians will not accept a peace that would freeze the status quo, he explained, because it would mean condemning millions of Ukrainians in Russia-occupied territories to further Russian brutality and atrocities and, therefore, Ukraine must try to liberate them.

Russia is in a difficult situation, said the Odesa professor of international relations, and the pressure should be kept up on Russian forces without giving them time to regroup as they are still a very dangerous enemy for Ukraine.

Are there concerns that some Europeans might pursue a return to business as usual with Russia after the war?

Mr. Dubovyk does not see that happening anytime soon since public attitudes in Europe toward Russia have changed compared to pre-invasion times.

The war “has been a major wakeup call,” Mr. Dubovyk said, and many countries that were traditionally soft on Russia are now supplying weapons to Ukraine and saying that they believe that Russia should be punished.

“I think that people are really outraged as human beings with the things they have seen on TV over the last nine months and the reports of the war crimes and killings, the kidnapping of children,” Mr. Dubovyk said. “Any human being, regardless of where you live, is really outraged, appalled. … Therefore, I think there will be some degree of support for Ukraine … for a longer time,” including for refugees and rebuilding of Ukraine after the war.

He added that, under the dramatic circumstances of the war, Ukraine has obtained European Union candidate status – but regarding the speed of accession, much will depend on meeting prewar criteria, including reforms, fighting corruption and good governance. Boosting Ukraine’s prospects for E.U. membership is the fact that the country “has proven itself not only as a heroic nation but also as a nation that is very resilient,” he said.

Although there is currently no clear path for Ukraine joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), Mr. Dubovyk noted that thanks to the Ukrainian armed forces’ battlefield successes the idea of membership is still on the table. Ukraine has proven itself as a major military power, he said, and it can be argued that having Ukraine in NATO would make the alliance stronger.

Mr. Dubovyk said he believes that Russia will continue to be a long-term “mortal threat” to Ukraine so, at a minimum, some kind of intensified cooperation with NATO will be needed to enhance Ukraine’s security – and that is already happening.

Ukrainians are getting sophisticated weapons and technologies from NATO countries and have learned to use them capably. In a way, Ukraine is already “a de facto NATO member,” said the Odesa native. In order to deter Russia in the near term and beyond, Ukraine will have no choice but to continue to strengthen its military and acquire adequate amounts of advanced weaponry.

It now seems quite clear, Mr. Dubovyk said, that the Russian invasion of Ukraine was not about NATO or Ukraine joining NATO. Rather, it was a land grab to restore Moscow’s empire and remove the irritant of having a vibrant, independent Ukraine next door, he said.

The invasion has brought about an irreversible change in Russian-Ukrainian relations that Mr. Dubovyk characterized as “the end of any kind of Russian world in Ukraine.” The majority of Ukrainians will not be willing to forgive Russians for their barbaric, unprovoked war for many years to come. This applies particularly to Ukrainians in the south and east of the country who traditionally were more sympathetic to Russia but have borne the brunt of Russia’s brutality and cruelty during the full-scale war.

Summing up his role as an expert on U.S.-Ukraine relations at such a perilous time for Ukraine, Mr. Dubovyk said, “right now I think the most important thing for me is to be useful to my country and my people back home.”

Besides teaching at Tufts in Boston, he is making an extra effort to present guest lectures at various North American universities, including in Canada, Vermont, Illinois, Pennsylvania and New York. “When I come to the U.S., in many ways, I don’t really feel that I am abroad,” said the Odesa scholar, underscoring that Americans are friendly and welcoming.

At the conclusion of the conversation with this correspondent, Mr. Dubovyk had the following message for American politicians who prioritize domestic spending to the exclusion of foreign aid. As a superpower, the United States has the ability to simultaneously address both domestic and international challenges. Since the beginning of Russia’s massive military buildup on Ukraine’s borders last year, the world has seen that U.S. global leadership “is needed,” he said, and that it is “absolutely irreplaceable.” Mr. Dubovyk is convinced that the unified Western effort in support of Ukraine would not have materialized if not for “the U.S. putting together a coalition of nations” to thwart Russia’s full-scale war.

Adrian Karmazyn is a former chief of the Voice of America’s Ukrainian Service.