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Jonathan Sanders

Stony Brook University students and members of the media took part in the March 23 teach-in. Photo from SBU

During a teach-in at Stony Brook University March 23, a panel of professors gave their take on the invasion of Ukraine, including perspectives on the war, propaganda efforts and the impact on American public opinion.

Alexander Orlov 

Orlov is a professor of Materials Science and Chemical Engineering. He is an expert on the parliament of the European Union and the government of the United Kingdom. According to him, who has many relatives still in Ukraine, a dangerous propaganda campaign has been waged by the Kremlin.

“There is one very hurtful part of the propaganda,” Orlov said. “Russians call Ukrainians Nazis. This is so offensive to the memory of the 7 million Ukrainians who died during World War II.”

According to Orlov, this is not the first time in Ukrainian history that Russians have bombarded Ukrainian territory. He also said Ukrainians are a freedom-loving people.

We live in a highly partisan, polarized context.

— Leonie Huddy

“I talked to my mom yesterday and asked her about her biggest fear,” he said. “She told me that the biggest fear she has is to be forgotten by the West because, at some point, you might get tired of the images of human suffering and stop paying attention.” Orlov added, “Ukrainians are like you. They want freedom and free enterprise, and they want to dream. Many of the Ukrainians that are fighting right now are the age of Stony Brook students and they’ve never held a rifle before in their lives.”

Leonie Huddy

Huddy, distinguished professor and chair of the Department of Political Science, addressed the impact of the Ukrainian invasion on American public opinion. 

“There’s a very common effect in foreign policy attitudes when the U.S. engages in war, when it sends troops to other countries, and it’s called the rally effect,” Huddy said. “There hasn’t been any rally effect by any stretch of the imagination.”

According to her, Americans are so divided and the political culture is so partisan that Americans cannot even agree on the proper foreign policy approach to the war in Ukraine.

“We live in a highly partisan, polarized context,” she said. “I don’t think you can get much worse than this. Things are looking pretty bad in terms of just how divided we are.”

Huddy believes that the looming midterm elections will have a pronounced impact on how Americans address the war in Ukraine.

“One of the reasons for this is that we have congressional elections approaching,” she said. “I think the Republican Party is thinking there’s a potential for success so it’s very important not to give an inch to the Democrats right now. We have the heels dug in.”

John Frederick Bailyn

Bailyn is professor in the Linguistics Department and co-director of Virtual NYI Global Institute. According to him, the invasion of Ukraine prompted a massive effort by the Russian government to repress domestic opposition.

“February 24, 2022, was a day that has changed the course of Ukraine and also Russia forever,” Bailyn said. “Anything ‘fake’ about the war, which is entirely up to [the Kremlin], is punishable by up to 15 years in jail.”

According to Bailyn, there are plenty of Russians who support the invasion of Ukraine, but there is also a large exodus of people leaving the country.

“People have been leaving in droves,” he said. “People are all having to decide if they should leave everything they know — their entire lives. Many people are deciding to do that because this is just far beyond anything that they have seen before.”

Vladimir Putin grew up in postwar Leningrad, a city that had survived almost 900 days of siege.

— Jonathan Sanders

Jonathan Sanders

Sanders is associate professor in the School of Communication and Journalism and a former Moscow correspondent for CBS News. He has met the Russian president personally and described in vivid detail the psychology of the man coordinating the invasion effort.

“Vladimir Putin grew up in postwar Leningrad, a city that had survived almost 900 days of siege, a city in which his baby brother had died, a city in which rats were eating corpses and people were eating corpses,” Sanders said. “He was an individualist, an alienated, bad kid. He played with rats,” adding, “The rat is probably the best metaphor for him — not the nice little white rats that we see in the psychology labs, but really mean, vicious little rats, whose predecessors survived the second world war by eating people.”

Sanders said that the rebellious streak in Putin dates back to early childhood. According to the professor, it was highly unusual for Putin to reject the politics of his father but he did so as an act of individualism and revolt.

“Mr. Putin was an individualist,” Sanders said. “His father was a true believing Communist and young Vladimir did not join the Young Communist League, something extremely unusual.” Sanders added, “He was a hooligan, a street kid.” 

Jonathan Sanders on assignment in Moscow. Photo from CBS News

Stony Brook University Associate Professor Jonathan Sanders, who won an Emmy and an Edward R. Murrow Award, reported on Russia for a range of news organizations, including as CBS News Moscow correspondent.

Jonathan Sanders on assignment in Moscow. Photo from CBS News

Sanders, who knew several important figures in late 20th century Russian history, spent considerable time with former Russian President Boris Yeltsin, who is the immediate past president of Russia before Vladimir Putin.

“I knew Yeltsin extremely well, I know his kids,” Sanders said.

Sanders believes the late Yeltsin’s extended family is “appalled” at Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine. He also thinks the late Andrei Sakharov, who helped build the hydrogen bomb for Russia and then was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for opposing the abuse of power and working for human rights, would also be similarly shocked at Putin’s attacks

While Sanders thinks noteworthy and important Russian families likely oppose the invasion of Ukraine that has cost thousands of lives, forced millions to flee their homes and disrupted stock and commodities markets around the world, the associate professor said the Russian population itself is likely divided in its response to the war.

“People whose sole source of information is the Russian central media are aggressively listening to the message coming out of the Kremlin,” he said.

The people in this group tend to be 45 and older and are less urban. They know of events in Ukraine in the context of a military operation in Donetsk, rather than an outright war against a neighbor.

For many people in this older crowd, the message connected to hostilities between Russia and the rest of the world has echoes of earlier times, during World Wars and the Cold War.

After losing millions of their fellow Russians in World War II, many Russians “had a grandfather or great grandfather who served” in the military, “this makes rallying around the national cause important. The Cold War is radioactive material with a long half life,” he added.

They believe the West, and, in particular, the United States, “wants to destroy” them.

The culture and mythology that informs their world view comes from the country’s own tradition of spies and spy novels that are similar to the ones many Americans have read, except that the “bad guys” are the Americans and West Germans the way the protagonists of American spy novels are often Russian.

Younger people who are 35 and below, however, particularly those in cities, get their information from places like TikTok and foreign press, where they don’t receive the Putin party line.

These information lines have created tensions during family gatherings. Sanders described reports of students at teaching colleges getting into arguments with grandparents who believe in the state media, if not in Putin

Sanders has lectured in Russia, where the students in Moscow are “more astute and more diligent in reading the New York Times and watching the BBC than my students here in the United States.”

Sanders said the reason Russians who are protesting the war are younger not only reflects the reality that protesters in general tend to be younger, but also the fact that these are the people seeing and hearing firsthand information about the damage the invasion has caused to Ukraine and to the Russians rolling into the country in tanks.

Over time, pressure might build on Putin when the number of Russians killed continues to climb, although the pace of sharing information about the safety of the troops may remain slow enough that Russians families may not know about their lost loved ones, Sanders said.

Sanders was impressed with the military intelligence released just prior to the invasion of Ukraine.

The information that came out before the war was “remarkable. It’s going to mean there’s going to be a witch hunt of enormous proportions conducted by Putin for who is leaking things out of the Kremlin and the Ministry of Defense.”

Sanders is not particularly optimistic about the outcome of this war for Ukrainians.

Sanders, who produced and edited the documentary “Three Days in September” that was narrated by Julia Roberts and described the siege of a Russian school by Chechen rebels in 2004, recognizes critical differences in the way Putin thinks tactically.

In a hostage situation, most countries and leaders put a priority on saving hostages. Putin, however, puts a priority “on killing the terrorists doing the hostage taking,” Sanders said.

Putin is likely hunkered down and isn’t listening to anyone else closely, even those who might try to tamp down on his most militant impulses, Sanders said.

Former President Donald Trump (R) “didn’t want to listen to anyone [about the 2020 election]. He only wanted to hear about election fraud. He didn’t want anyone to contradict him. That is mild compared to how Putin has isolated himself.”

As for Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, Sanders hailed the embattled leader for his ongoing commitment to the country and inspirational messages. After Zelensky spoke to the British parliament, echoing sentiments expressed by former Prime Minister Winston Churchill at the onset of World War II, Zelensky may be “the first charismatic hero of the digital age,” Sanders said.

While Americans and British saw Zelensky’s address as a tribute to his commitment to his country and his eagerness to preserve a democracy, Russians saw images of Zelensky with a different spin.

“He’s sucking on the teat of the West,” Sanders said. Members of state media believe Russia attacked Ukraine because of “great conspiracy” against the country.