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Harvard Faculty, Researchers Voice Concerns about Ukrainian Crisis

By Michael S. Avi-Yonah and Hamna M. Nazir, Crimson Staff Writers

UPDATED: March 4, 2014, at 3:09 a.m.

As the political crisis in Ukraine continues, Harvard affiliates have voiced concern over what one professor called Russia’s “naked aggression” in the situation, though many remain optimistic about possible U.S. intervention.

After months of protests, former Ukrainian President Viktor F. Yanukovych was removed from office on Feb. 22, a day after agreeing to form a new government in Kiev. Yanukovich’s subsequent retreat to Russia allowed Russian President Vladimir Putin to step up military forces in Crimea, a region of Ukraine with a Russian majority and many Russian military bases.

Serhii Plokhii, a professor of Ukrainian history and the director of the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute, said that he was surprised by Russia’s increased military presence in the region.

“The mood earlier in the week was that Russia could help stabilize Ukraine,” Plokhii said. “What we got instead was Russian occupation and intervention.”

George G. Grabowicz, a professor of Ukrainian literature, characterized Russia's actions as "naked aggression" that highlights the nation’s larger political agenda.

“This is an attempt to preserve the Soviet Union,” Grabowicz said.

While expressing uncertainty about what the future may hold for Ukraine, Grabowicz said that the country’s situation could potentially worsen.

“The worst possible scenario is outright war between Russia and Ukraine,” he said. “No state wants to be treated as an administration that has no control over its own territory. Ukraine does have an army, and they have said they will not retreat from their border posts.”

Nadiya V. Kravets, a postdoctoral fellow at the Ukrainian Research Institute, acknowledged these possible threats, yet said she hopes that Ukraine will emerge as a stronger democracy from the crisis.

“The country has had very difficult transitions since independence in 1991,” she said. “I hope now Ukraine will be a state that allows people to determine their own lives.”

Many Harvard affiliates agreed that the U.S. could play a potentially important role in solving the crisis. Scholars like Grabowicz have been optimistic about recent proposals from the U.S., which include an economic aid package of at least $1 billion and sanctions against Russian officials engaging in the military deadlock.

“I very much favor the notion of an aid package because it’s a strategic investment,” Grabowicz said. “If we mean what we say about supporting democracy and the rule of law, then this is an investment that will eventually pay itself.”

Thomas W. Simons, a lecturer at the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies and a former U.S. ambassador to Poland and Pakistan, said that the U.S. can cooperate with the international community to dissuade Russia from escalating its involvement in the crisis.

“It’s important not to underestimate Russia’s sensitivity to world opinion,” he said. “Nothing we do individually will roll Russia back, but mobilizing international opinion in order to get Russia to refrain from using military force abroad is a big goal.”

—Staff writer Michael Avi-Yonah can be reached at

—Staff writer Hamna M. Nazir can be reached at Follow her on twitter @HamnaMNazir.

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