Alison Des Forges Symposium to examine Russo-Ukrainian War – UBNow: News and views for UB faculty and staff

To enhance our understanding of the Russo-Ukrainian War, the strengths and weaknesses of the contemporary international system, and human rights violations stemming from the war, experts from academia, journalism and a human rights organization will come together for a hybrid symposium on April 26.

Presenters will range from Ken Roth, former executive director of Human Rights Watch and Serhii Plokhii, professor of Ukrainian history at Harvard University, to George Packer, staff writer at The Atlantic, and Angela Stent, director emerita, Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies at Georgetown University.

The free, public event will take place from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. in the Buffalo Room, 10 Capen Hall, North Campus. Registration is required for in-person and virtual attendance. Email to sign up.

The symposium honors the memory of Alison L. Des Forges, a member of the UB community who fought to call the world’s attention to another great humanitarian crisis: the Rwandan genocide.

Des Forges, a historian of Africa and Buffalo native, was an adjunct member of the UB history faculty during the 1990s and received an honorary doctorate from SUNY during UB’s 155th general commencement ceremony in 2001.

She was one of the world’s leading experts on Rwanda, serving as an expert witness in 11 trials at the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. Her award-winning book, “Leave None to Tell the Story: Genocide in Rwanda,” was a landmark account of the 1994 genocide, and her tireless efforts to awaken the international community to its horrors earned her a MacArthur Fellowship in 1999.

The symposium will open with welcoming remarks at 8:45 a.m. The morning presentations run from 9:00-11:15 a.m. and include the following talks:

The Russo-Ukrainian War in Historical Perspective

Serhii Plokhii, Mykhailo S. Hrushevs’kyi Professor of Ukrainian History, and director, Ukrainian Research Institute, Harvard University.

Russia’s attack on Ukraine produced the largest European conflict since the end of World War II and plunged the world into a new Cold War. Vladimir Putin’s de facto declaration of war on Ukraine was dubbed a history lecture, and few observers outside Russia could make sense of it. How important have been the misuse and abuse of history in the perpetration and justification of this war, and what are the actual historical causes of the conflict? Plokhii will provide answers to these and other related questions by demonstrating that Ukraine and Ukrainian history have remained central to Russia’s idea of itself. He will also trace the origins of the newest European war to the fall of the USSR and will explain the reasons for the return of the Cold War to the very same part of the world where it ended 30 years earlier.

The Protests that Were — and Weren’t: Russian Society and the War

Willard Sunderland, Henry R. Winkler Professor of Modern History, University of Cincinnati.

A small number of Russians have publicly protested the war. A larger minority outwardly support it. But what of the rest, the huge number of people who aren’t protesting but also aren’t rallying? Are they a silent majority whose silence means agreement or are they merely quiet for now?   

A Collision of Histories? NATO Expansion and the Russo-Ukrainian War

Timothy Andrews Sayle, associate professor of history and director, International Relations Program, University of Toronto.

How should we understand the relationship, if any, between enlargement of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022? The very idea of a connection between the post-war growth of the alliance and the Russian decision to launch a conventional war has been hotly disputed. The answer to the question has significant implications for the present and future of global security. Sayle, a historian of NATO, considers the decisions to maintain and expand the alliance after the end of the Cold War, and seeks to identify how it shaped — and continues to shape — today’s international system.

The afternoon talks run from 12:15-3:15 p.m. and include the following presentations:

Globalised Oligarchs

Marlies Glasius, professor in international relations, Department of Politics, University of Amsterdam.

The sanctions against the Russian oligarchs are legally problematic, ineffective and counterintuitive. However, understanding the phenomenon of the oligarchs is important for the West in other ways. After discussing precisely how the sanctions work and what their effects have been to date, Glasius will shift to examining the role oligarchs have played in the shifts away from democratization in the last decades, in Russia and elsewhere.  Russia’s history in the 1990s holds up a “black mirror” to us, demonstrating how oligarchs can capture electoral politics and erode accountability to the public. At the same time, globalization has given oligarchs the opportunity to put their assets beyond the reach of national taxation authorities in democratic states. What is needed, instead of sanctions against Russian oligarchs, is national and global initiatives to make all oligarchs more taxable and subject to democratic controls.

As Autocracies Fail, How Should Democracies Respond?

Ken Roth, former executive director, Human Rights Watch.

The Russian government has played a leading role in trying to undermine the global system for the defense of human rights, largely by attacking the fact-based analysis that is needed to enforce rights and by pursuing a strategy of whataboutism on steroids. The Kremlin’s motive is to deflect condemnation of its intensifying repression at home and its flouting of international humanitarian law in Chechnya, Syria and now Ukraine.  However, the international response to these efforts has been strong.  Beyond the sanctions imposed by many nations and the arming of Ukrainian forces, key international institutions have stepped up. Russia’s veto has stymied U.N. Security Council action, but strong steps have been taken by the U.N. General Assembly, the U.N. Human Rights Council and the International Criminal Court. Whether these steps will succeed in curbing Russian war crimes remains to be seen, but it is one of the strongest responses that we have seen.

Russia and the New World Disorder

Angela Stent, director emerita, Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies, Georgetown University, and senior nonresident fellow, The Brookings Institution.

What kind of world order will emerge after the Russia-Ukraine war? Putin’s pronouncements on world order have evolved during his 22 years in power, but he has consistently advocated for a post-West multipolar order. For years he praised both the 19-century Concert of Power and the Yalta system as models for the future world order. The essence of both was a world divided into spheres of influence, where sovereign great powers ruled their smaller, less sovereign neighbors. In the 21st-century, this would be a tripolar world divided between Russia, the United States and China.  Russia’s attack on Ukraine has made this model obsolete. It is clear that Putin is promoting a Hobbesian, disruptive world order with few rules and little predictability. When the war ends, the collective West will redouble its efforts to constrain future Russian aggression. Much of the Global South will remain neutral, while Russia will increasingly become China’s junior partner. In the emerging multipolar world, the United States will remain the predominant power. The dual challenge that Russia and China pose individually and together may galvanize the U.S., Europe and Asia into even closer cooperation.

What Does America Owe Ukraine?

George Packer, staff writer, The Atlantic.

Packer will discuss his trip to Ukraine last year (see his piece in the October
2022 Atlantic) and will situate it in a larger context of geo-politics. He will try to answer a fundamental question: How can the U.S. and the West justify the extraordinary amount of support — military, economic, diplomatic — given to Ukraine, when much of the world, including major countries such as India, Brazil, South Africa and Indonesia, has taken a neutral stance or even sympathizes with Russia? And on what basis can the U.S. lead this effort, when its own record over the two decades since 9/11 is so flawed?

Sponsors include the Alison Des Forges Memorial Committee; The Baldy Center for Law and Social Policy; departments of Comparative Literature, History, Philosophy and Political Science; Gender Institute; The Gordon and Gretchen Gross Professorship in Jewish Thought; Humanities Institute; James Agee Chair in American Culture; and the Office of the Vice Provost for International Education.

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