On February 24, Russia invaded Ukraine. According to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), there have been 16,150 recorded civilian casualties in the country: 6,374 killed and 9,776 injured. Additionally, thousands of Ukrainian children have been deported and subjected to illegal adoptions in Russia.
As the war rages on, one thing is becoming increasingly clear: Russia undertook a huge disinformation campaign to shape the narrative around Ukraine’s sovereignty and justify its invasion.
To understand the full scope of the war and factors that may be difficult to see from the other side of the globe, the Weekly interviewed Kimberly St. Julian-Varnon, a PhD student in history at the University of Pennsylvania. St. Julian-Varnon studied Soviet and Eastern European history as an undergraduate at Swarthmore and Ukrainian history for her master’s degree at Harvard. Her work largely focuses on the Black experience, race, ethnicity, and nationality policy in the Soviet and post-Soviet era. Since the beginning of the war, news organizations and social media users have sought St. Julian-Varnon for insight and analysis.
For this special issue, she spoke to the Weekly about the Russo-Ukrainian war in general, U.S. coverage of the war, race relations, and Russian propaganda and disinformation. Before her doctoral studies, she was a community college history professor and secondary teacher. You can follow St. Julian-Varnon on Twitter @ksvarnon or visit: kstjulianvarnon.com
Why has Russia invaded Ukraine and what does Putin want?
Russia has invaded Ukraine, again, because it wants to claim Ukrainian territory—particularly in the south and east of the country—under the guise of “protecting” Russian speakers in the Donbas Basin, Russia invaded. However, the truth is that as Ukraine worked to gain entry to the European Union and NATO, particularly since 2013, Russia has been focused on preventing that from happening. We saw this in the initial Russian invasions and illegal annexation of Crimea, and Russian support for separatists in Luhansk and Donetsk. Putin wants to claim Ukrainian territory, destroy Ukrainian sovereignty, and show the weaknesses of Western international institutions (i.e. the United Nations and the European Union).
What are some persistent Russian propaganda narratives; who creates them and what are their aims?
Some of the most persistent Russian propaganda narratives I have seen are: that Ukraine is a Nazi state, that Russia has any legitimate claim to any Ukrainian territory, and that the West drove Russia to invade Ukraine. These are ridiculous at the outset to anyone who studies or knows Russian and Ukrainian history. Yet, we still see the popularity of these narratives on social media and in political discourse in the United States. These narratives are created and spread by the Russian state to undermine European and American support for the Ukrainian war effort and to destabilize domestic politics in these countries. Furthermore, Putin has used these narratives since 2013 to justify his aggression in Ukraine.
What inspired you to work in Slavic studies and what has been your experience as a woman of color in that field? And what are some of the things you’ve learned that are maybe harder to see from our perspective?
I love my work. I’ve been fascinated by Russian and Soviet history since I was in the fifth grade. The Soviet period, particularly the 1920s and 1930s, interests me because it represents so many cataclysmic changes to society, politics, and culture.
My work on race and Blackness in the Soviet Union stems from my personal experience researching in Ukraine in 2013, when I ran into an Afro-Ukrainian woman while crossing the street in Kyiv. We were both incredibly surprised to see each other. Since then, I’ve been working to uncover and understand the experiences of Black people in the Soviet Union and to understand the relationships between Soviet socialism and racism.
While I love what I do, it is also very hard to be a hyper-visible minority in my field. I am one of a handful of people of color doing this work. Often, people refuse to believe that I know Russian or that I can understand Russia or the Soviet Union because I’m not from there. But Ukrainians don’t have that reaction to my work on Ukrainian history—they have been more welcoming.
There has been a lot of controversy about race affecting the refugee outflow from Ukraine. In late February and March, as millions were fleeing the country, there were personal accounts of discrimination against African refugees trying to escape Russia’s invasion. Can you give us some context around what happened and what do you make of that?
This early point of the war was chaotic. At the outset of the invasion, Poland and Hungary, who were among the countries that were accepting the first waves of Ukrainian refugees, had made diplomatic agreements with Ukraine to allow people who held a Ukrainian passport to enter. This did not apply to third-country nationals: those who resided in Ukraine, but did not hold a Ukrainian passport.
So that’s one reason we saw streams of Ukrainians entering Poland and Hungary early on, while many African and Middle Eastern students had to wait to be processed. This was when even Ukrainians were waiting twelve to fifteen hours to be processed, so foreign students were waiting nearly double the time. Many students were from countries that had no diplomatic representation in Ukraine, nor Poland or Hungary. This makes an emergency exit from a country incredibly difficult under normal conditions, let alone wartime.
There was also a declaration by the Ukrainian government that men ages eighteen to sixty were required to remain in the country for combat. However, there were instances in which African women and children were being pulled from trains going toward the western Ukrainian border, and African students were being accosted. These are clear instances of racism. The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry set up a hotline for foreign students to call to get help at the border crossing between Poland and Hungary, and this relieved the long wait times at the border.
When videos about Africans not being allowed to leave Ukraine made their way on social media, some said Russia leveraged these videos to frame Ukraine as racist, continue to justify their invasion and distract people (in particular Americans) from the war. Do you agree? If so, do you think it has worked?
I completely agree, and I called this out on Twitter when it happened. The English langauge account for the Russian Foreign Ministry retweeted a video made by African students clearly in distress to portray Ukraine as a “Nazi” country. These students were based in Sumy, which was bombarded and encircled by Russian troops, and no one was allowed to leave the city. This led to rumors, supported by Russians, that Ukrainians were forcing foreign students to remain in order to keep Russia from bombing. None of this was true, as no Ukrainians were able to leave Sumy either. I think it did work to an extent at the beginning of the war as it led to many members of African and African American communities to disagree with American support for Ukraine. However, I think that sentiment has lessened in the past few months.
What do you think U.S. media is currently overlooking when it comes to the Russo-Ukraine war?
I think the U.S. media is overlooking the continued Russian attacks on civilian targets and the impact of targeted Russian bombing of energy infrastructure in Ukraine. These have combined to make this war more brutal and to extend the fighting.
A group of thirty progressive Democrats recently called on U.S. President Joe Biden to shift course in his Ukraine strategy and pursue direct diplomacy with Russia. A day later, they withdrew the letter after pushback from other Democrats. What does this mean and what is your take on it?
The letter was short-sighted and American-centric. Then they walked the letter back. In all, the letter shows an incredible lack of understanding how Russia operates. Since December 2021, we have heard calls for diplomacy and diplomatic off-ramps for Russia in the rising tensions with Ukraine, and look at what happened, Russia played everyone for a fool. What makes them think that any diplomatic solution is possible with Russia that does not include the partitioning of Ukraine? It isn’t feasible. If the group had paid attention to Russian behavior in Crimea and the Donbas in 2013 and 2014, they would know that.
Putin has managed to appeal to many on the right as well as the left. Additionally, both sides of the spectrum have urged the U.S. not to intervene in Ukraine. Why do you think that is?
Putin’s appeal, particularly to the left, has baffled me. On one hand, Putin has been popular among the right for years as he has tried to cultivate an image of Russia as a white, conservative and Christian country. Multiple far-right groups in America have contacts with Russian far-right groups. On the other hand, it appears many of the leftists who support Putin are projecting the Soviet Union’s history on contemporary Russia, which is a serious mistake.
Putin’s Russia is the poster child of capitalism and political cronyism gone extreme. There is no freedom of speech, there are few social programs, ethnic minority groups and political opponents are regularly repressed by the government (and in the case of Alexei Navalny, poisoned), and there are staunch anti-LGBTQIA laws that place them in legal peril. I’m not sure how any of these developments align with a leftist view. Many of these people also believe that Russia was not an imperial power because it did not participate in the scramble for Africa nor the transatlantic slave trade, but this is not true. Russia was one of the largest contingent empires and routinely used violence to oppress colonized people, including Ukrainians.
How can local audiences keep abreast of accurate news and what is happening in Ukraine?
A good way to stay abreast of developments in Ukraine is to follow Ukraine-based English-language news sources such as the Kyiv Independent. American-focused media sources have competing interests for their attention, but Ukraine-based media do not. You get fuller coverage from journalists who are living in Ukraine.
Alma Campos is the Weekly’s Immigration editor