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Why you should pay attention to what’s happening in Ukraine

One Harvard expert says the world has underestimated Russian President Vladimir Putin for decades, and that it can no longer afford to.

KYIV, Ukraine — You may not know anyone from Ukraine. What’s happening there now, as Russian military invades and attacks the eastern European country, may seem irrelevant or far away.

But the stakes of this unprovoked war are high, including for America, says Emily Channell-Justice, director of the Temerty Contemporary Ukraine Program at Harvard’s Ukrainian Research Institute.

“Vladimir Putin is trying to show the world that his version is better,” Channell-Justice said. “He is an autocrat, and he is basically saying democracy doesn't work. It's a failure. ‘We will crush it, if we don't want you to have it.’”

“It's essential that we understand that he's attacking not just a country that's an ally of the U.S. for many years, but our entire way of looking at the world,” she added. “And if we let him do this, we're saying that autocrats can decide how the world works. And in my opinion, that's unacceptable.”

Harvard’s Ukrainian Research Institute promotes knowledge about Ukraine. Channell-Justice said it was founded by donations from Ukrainians in the U.S. during the Soviet period when the U.S.S.R. was repressing that knowledge.

After the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991, Ukraine became an independent country, something Channell-Justice said Russian President Vladimir Putin doesn’t believe in.

“He’s making claims that Ukraine is not a country – (that) it never has been, it has always been part of Russia – and that Ukrainians are Russians, and that Ukrainian is not a language,” she said. “He started making those claims last summer in an essay he wrote about the unity of Russia and Ukraine. And he also made a lot of remarks about the history. In his speech on Monday, many of those things that he said were just absolute fabrications. But the thing is, he believes them.”

As far as that conflict may seem, said Channell-Justice, Russia has a way of impacting the U.S. through disinformation and cyberattacks.

“The Russian intervention in the U.S. elections in 2016 is really only part of their capabilities,” she said. “Not trying to push panic on people, but if Putin doesn't stop at Ukraine, then that means that he's sending troops into NATO countries like Poland and other Western allies—key European democracies. Putin is very close to threatening nuclear war. And that's something that should be very concerning for anybody.”

Channell-Justice said the U.S. can’t fix every problematic place in the world. But the scale of the Ukraine escalation is alarming.

“I just think we have been caught underestimating Putin the past 20 years,” she said. “And I want to make sure we don't do that in the next few days.”

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