Rally at Saints Volodymyr and Olha Ukrainian Catholic Church, February 24 Credit: Deanna Isaacs

There were two crowds in front of Saints Volodymyr and Olha Ukrainian Catholic Church in Ukrainian Village on a frigid afternoon last week.

One was the medieval crowd that’s always there, on the church’s iconic mural—a depiction of the baptism of the Ukrainian people.

The other consisted of several hundred live and livid Chicagoans reacting to Russia’s attack on the Ukrainian nation just hours earlier. They waved Ukraine’s yellow-and-blue flag, sang its national anthem, called for sanctions and other help, and listened to supportive words from the likes of Congressman Mike Quigley.

When the rally broke up, a few migrated across the street to the modest building that houses the Ukrainian National Museum.

Museum volunteer Larissa Matusiak was among them. Born in a displaced persons camp after her parents fled Soviet-controlled Ukraine during the Stalin era, the retired Chicago Public Schools teacher said that “Ukrainians just want the freedom that people take for granted.”

“We already gave Crimea up and nobody batted an eye,” Matusiak told me. “The whole world sat there and watched. Are we calling this an invasion? It’s really a war.”

Museum administrator Orysia Kourbatov said no one she talked to had expected this to happen, “even though they know Putin is a madman.” With family in the eastern part of Ukraine, Kourbatov said she’d gone from tearful to angry: “Ukrainians are so resilient. They will not give up. They will fight for their country.”

But, she added, “Who would have thought in the 21st century that we would have this kind of war going on?”

Did we go to bed in 2022 and wake up in 1941?

Northwestern University political science professor Jordan Gans-Morse has lived and researched in Ukraine and is an expert on the former Soviet Union. On Saturday, as the situation continued to evolve, I asked him why this [the Russian invasion of Ukraine] is happening. Here’s an edited version of the interview:

Gans-Morse: The easiest answer is that Putin has decided this is the only way he can achieve a combination of goals. The first has to do with his security concerns, the idea that Ukraine has been drifting toward the West and someday could join NATO, putting NATO more on the border of Russia than it already is. The second is that Ukraine is a relatively successful—though far from perfect—democracy. This poses a threat to Putin as an example to Russians that there’s another way to live. And third, he seems to be on a sort of deluded quest, trying to recreate something like the Soviet Union, perhaps so he can be remembered as one of those conquerors who expanded Russia’s borders.

Deanna Isaacs: So, is he bonkers?

In the past, I would have said that—as much as Putin runs a regime that is increasingly disturbing and not democratic—he had shown himself to be fairly pragmatic. But something has obviously shifted. Interviews he’s given in the last few days, they’re not like the old Putin. They’re not careful, they’re not on script, and they seem, quite frankly, deranged. I hesitate to play the role of armchair psychiatrist, but this does not look or sound like the same Putin I’ve been watching for 20 years.

What about Putin’s claim that he’s attacking in part to protect Russian speakers and “denazify” Ukraine?  

[Ukrainian president Volodymyr] Zelenskyy was raised as a Russian speaker, is famous [in his earlier career as an actor and comedian] on Russian TV and film, and is Jewish. The claim that he is somehow a radical Ukrainian neo-Nazi is absurd.

Is Putin actually tossing nuclear threats at us?  

I take his statement [on February 24] to mean that any direct military involvement by NATO or the U.S. to defend Ukraine would be a red line crossed and he would be willing to use nuclear weapons in response.

Does that make a Russian victory inevitable?

So far Russia’s performed worse than expected and Ukraine’s performed better. That said, in terms of ability to directly repel this attack, Ukraine is at a major disadvantage.  

That doesn’t necessarily mean that Putin will be able to occupy Ukraine for very long. Even if Kharkiv and Kyiv fall, if the Ukrainian military is able to retreat toward the west, the most nationalist part of Ukraine, that’s something that could potentially be defended for a long time.  And how will Russia maintain control? The only likely way is by excessive force. There will be resistance, protests. Russia may be able to get control, but whether it can keep control is an open question.

How do you see it ending?

Three possibilities: (1) Somehow Ukraine pushes the Russians back; (2) Russian occupation with a puppet regime; or (3) Russia is somehow able to pacify most Ukrainians and then we’ve got something that looks like the cold war with a heavily militarized borderline dividing Europe. It wouldn’t have the same ideological overtones as the cold war, however. Putin doesn’t stand for anything other than Russian imperialism, so he doesn’t have an ideology to sell the rest of the world.

A scenario that potentially brings this to an end is that with sanctions hurting the Russian people and their sons coming home dead, they begin to turn on Putin, even possibly toppling him. That’s not likely happening soon, but it is one scenario where this ultimately does backfire on him.

What else should we know?

The world, and especially social media, has become so hyperbolic it’s hard for a real serious threat to be seen as distinct from all the overblown rhetoric. But this is one. Given that we have essentially a stand-off between a nuclear superpower led by somebody who does not seem stable and an alliance led by another nuclear superpower. This is not really comparable to anything—the closest would be Hitler’s annexation of central and eastern European countries, unprovoked. And that’s not an analogy I use lightly.