Experts with Prairie roots surprised by speed of attack on Ukraine, but not by resistance to it

While not surprised about the war in Ukraine, Marnie Howlett says she didn't expect the Russian invasion to happen as fast or to the extent as it did.

'President Putin has swallowed a porcupine,' says former Canadian diplomat

Ukrainian service members collect unexploded shells after a fighting with a Russian raiding group in Kyiv in the morning of Feb. 26, 2022, according to Ukrainian service personnel at the scene. (Sergei Supinsky/AFP/Getty Images)

While not surprised about the war in Ukraine, Marnie Howlett says she didn't expect the Russian invasion to happen as fast or to the extent as it did.

The researcher from Saskatoon works at the University of Oxford, U.K., as a lecturer in the Department of Politics and International Relations.

Howlett said people might have expected tensions to rise in Eastern Ukraine, particularly Donetsk and Luhansk, but not an invasion across the country.

"We didn't expect Putin to escalate as quickly at this time," she said. "The tactics being used, I think, are what is most surprising." 

Personal connections with Ukraine

As an academic with a focus on Ukraine and a woman of Ukrainian heritage, the war in her ancestors' home country has affected her on several levels.

Since Thursday morning she hasn't heard from one of her closest friends who lives in Ukraine. Howlett assumes he has joined the fight.

"It's very heartbreaking," she said. 

"I feel like my life has been turned upside down since I woke up on Thursday morning, not only personally but academically. I mean, the place that I study is no longer and it will no longer be the place that I have been to."

While not born in Ukraine, the researcher calls the country her second home and her friends there family, she said.

After finishing her master's degree in Political Science in 2017 at the University of Saskatchewan, Howlett moved to England to work on her doctoral research, studying grassroot sentiments, nationalism, how borders have been drawn historically and how people feel about them.

"While this [research] can … highlight separatism, it also can highlight people's attachment to their territory," she said.

"We also see people's attachment to the state of Ukraine and their territory and their willingness to defend those borders…. We see Ukrainians willing to die for their country."

It's important to remember that Ukraine has been an independent country since 1991, said Howlett, however, Ukraine has not been treated as such by Russia.

Resistance 'very difficult' for Putin: former diplomat

Both Howlett and Colin Robertson believe Russian President Vladimir Putin didn't expect the efforts of the Ukrainian people to fight back while the Russian invasion continues.

"It has not been as quick as I think Vladimir Putin would have liked," said the former Canadian diplomat from Winnipeg, who is also vice president at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, and executive fellow at the University of Calgary's School of Public Policy.

"President Putin has swallowed a porcupine, and the Ukrainian people certainly seem to be demonstrating the resistance that their leadership was hoping to see. And that makes life for Mr. Putin very difficult."

The chances of diplomatic talk between Russia and Ukraine ending the war are pretty slim, according to Robertson.

"I think Vladimir Putin is determined," he said. "He has rolled the dice. He won't stop until he has seized the country."

In addition to Ukrainians fighting back, some protesters in Russia are also showing disapproval with their president's attack on the neighbouring state.

In 2014, however, there were demonstrations in Russia in support of Putin's actions when the country annexed Crimea, said Robertson.

This time, Russians went to the streets in 54 Russian cities to decry the invasion of Ukraine

"That's gotta trouble [him]," said Robertson.

"The challenge for Putin now will be maintaining support within his immediate entourage, who are now all being sanctioned and finding that their pocketbooks and their passports aren't going to be much use, as well as with the Russian people."

Howlett says it is hard to predict Putin's next actions.

However, she agrees with Robertson that the Russian president might have been surprised by the response of the Russian people.

While the protests alone might not be enough to stop Putin, it shows that people are willing to push back against their own government, according to Howlett.

Option to ban Russia from SWIFT

Several nations have been discussing the potential ban of Moscow from SWIFT, the Society of Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, which is used by thousands of financial institutions worldwide.

On Saturday several western nations, including Canada, said they were cutting off a number of Russian banks from the financial payments system.

This would not only affect Russia but also other countries such as Germany or Italy which depend on Russian gas imports.

SWIFT has only been shut off for one country once, according to Robertson. That was in 2012 when Iran was denied access to the system due to its nuclear program.

Many nations — including Canada — are condemning the attack on Ukraine.

The choices for NATO members to support the invaded country are limited, according Robertson.

The two only options are to apply military force or economic sanctions.

With Ukraine not being a member of NATO, it doesn't look like the Western nations will send any soldiers to fight in the war right now, said Robertson.

"If they were a member, it'd be a different story," he said.

"Then we would be at war with Russia today…. One of the things President Putin has threatened is that he would use tactical nuclear weapons, which would be catastrophic."

Howlett hopes Western countries such as Canada will open their borders for Ukrainians fleeing the war and having nowhere else to go.

As a Ukrainian-Canadian whose family came to Canada during the First and Second World Wars, she feels responsible to help the next generation of Ukrainians arriving now.

"We need to recognize that Ukraine will not be the same place," she said. "This situation will not be going away anytime soon."

With files from Saskatchewan Weekend