As Russia’s offensive in Ukraine stalls and backtracks, the Kremlin must deal with consequences beyond the immediate warzone. The effects of economic sanctions have had a significant effect, and Russia is already losing a steady stream of well-educated people fleeing from the escalation of repression by Vladimir Putin’s government. Regarding the brain drain, Cynthia S. Kaplan of UC Santa Barbara’s Political Science department commented, “Many of these well-educated urban residents would have otherwise contributed to the Russian economy and development … Russia has been largely unsuccessful in diversifying their economy beyond raw materials such as oil and gas; the drain of skilled and educated workers will make this even more difficult.”

Cynthia S. Kaplan | Credit: UCSB

The implications of an exodus are also political. “These people tend to be more oriented toward liberal democracy,” Kaplan said. “The worsening political situation has driven them away, and now Russia will have even fewer people to pull in that direction.” For the younger Russians who fled as well as those who remained, Kaplan believes that “opportunities will generally become much less available to them as the state becomes a pariah — it really is a tragedy.”

Kaplan has been at UCSB since 1989, as the Cold War thawed across the Eastern Bloc. Her interests lie in the former Soviet Union, primarily Russia itself and the former Soviet republics of Kazakhstan and Estonia, where she studies political participation, public opinion, and cultural identity. The issue of cultural and national identity has been a salient issue in Ukraine, as Putin tries to downplay or even erase its existence.

Ukraine, like other countries, is ethnically, culturally, and linguistically heterogenous. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, much of the discourse around identity has revolved around the split in orientation toward Western Europe or to Russia. At the same time, Kaplan explained, there are significant characteristics that define Ukraine. “Much of Ukrainian identity can be based on an understanding of its unique history,” she said. “This history includes entities such as the medieval Kievan Rus’ or the development of the Catholic Eastern Rite Church, an entity that grew separately from the Eastern Orthodox Church and was suppressed under Soviet rule.”

Political observers have noted that the war itself has also shaped Ukrainian national identity. But even as Ukrainian soldiers and militia have mounted a ferocious resistance, the Kremlin has shown a willingness to take extreme measures. “Putin is waging a war of annihilation,” Kaplan said. “[Russian forces] are deliberately bombing civilians, forcibly moving large groups of people, and seizing official documents to strip people of legal protections.” The ultimate objective, she added, is to “dismember Ukraine, perhaps with Donetsk and Luhansk being incorporated into the Russian Federation.” Russia may also have an interest in attaining control over some or all of the Black Sea coast, including the port of Odessa.

As war rages in Ukraine, Putin has found diplomatic support wanting. China, often aligned with Russia in global politics, has maintained a largely ambivalent stance. Kaplan believes that the relationship between Russia and China might become more complicated in the near-term: “China has benefited from international stability, and their model of power is based on economic projection, not aggressive expansion. A large-scale military clash that threatens the autonomy of another state undermines China’s global position.” China has not condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but it also has not sent any form of military aid.

The former Soviet republics in Central Asia, often regarded as Russian allies, have maintained positions ranging from awkward neutrality to statements directly contradicting Moscow. Shortly after Kazakhstan abstained from a UN General Assembly vote to condemn the invasion, its Minister of Foreign Affairs Mukhtar Tleuberdi refused to recognize Donetsk and Luhansk as legitimate states. His counterpart in Uzbekistan, Abdulaziz Kamilov, reiterated his government’s recognition of Ukraine’s independence and territorial integrity.

Meanwhile, Kaplan said that Europe will likely welcome Ukrainian refugees in the long-term, despite previous backlash against refugees coming from Syria and other Middle Eastern countries. “The experience of Soviet rule or domination has created an attitude in Eastern Europe that is sometimes anti-Soviet and anti-Russian,” said Kaplan. “So because of the shared experience — as well as similar ethnicity — people in these countries see themselves in the refugees and will generally accept them.”

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