Experts talk impacts of Ukraine invasion

Photo of the center of the Center for Public Affairs building. In the middle of the photo there is a tree and surrounding it are arches with various country flags hanging from the poles.
Ukrainian refugees in the E.U. granted freedom of movement, a reversal of a previous E.U. policy that confined refugees to the first country that granted them asylum. The new policy comes after denying the Afghan and Syrian refugees who came before them the ability to move throughout Europe. (James Wolfe | Daily Trojan file photo)

Thursday marked exactly four weeks since Russia began its invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24. In that time, continued attacks on civilian targets expanded westward, where, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees at time of publication, upward of 3.8 million people have fled to neighboring countries. On March 23, the U.N. counted 2,571 civilian casualties.

The Daily Trojan spoke with USC experts concerning the invasion’s impacts on the nuclear world order, record-high gas prices in the United States and the ensuing refugee crisis.

Najmedin Meshkati, professor of civil and environmental engineering, industrial systems engineering and international relations at the Viterbi School of Engineering, expressed concerns about Russia’s desire to “take over control of [the] four nuclear plants” operating in Ukraine.

“These plants … generate 50% of the electricity of that country,” Meshkati said. “Russia wants to be in control on that — then they want to shut it off, to pull the plug and stop the plants from operating.”

At time of publication, Russian forces control two of the four Ukrainian plants: Chernobyl and Zaporizhzhia. Russian forces held more than 300 Ukrainians, including workers and guards hostage at Chernobyl, forcing them to continue operations at gunpoint for three weeks without rest. Russia allowed 64 people to leave Sunday and replaced them with “employee-volunteers.”

“Having worked on nuclear safety for the last 35 years, this is a recipe for disaster,” Meshkati said. “If there is, God forbid, an accident in these four plants … that radiation fallout will affect everybody.”

To avoid such a scenario, Meshkati said “the only solution” is to have demilitarized “safe-haven” zones around all Ukrainian plants.

“[The International Atomic Energy Agency] should mobilize on asking Russia to declare a ‘no-fighting’ zone around these plants and allow these employees and operators of the plants to rotate their shifts, be with their family,” he said. “Let Russians, unfortunately, do anything else that they want — but these four [plants] need to be considered as safe havens.”

Meshkati questioned the validity of past disarmament and security assurance agreements, including the 1994 Budapest Memorandum — which denuclearized Ukraine in exchange for security assurances from the U.S., United Kingdom and Russian Federation — as well as the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, which Meshkati extensively studied.  On March 4, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky expressed regret about Ukraine’s denuclearization, saying “All that the [NATO] alliance has managed to do so far is carry 50 tons of diesel fuel for Ukraine … Probably so that we can burn the [Budapest Memorandum].”

Meshkati co-authored an article for Iran News in 2000, the title of which declared “The NPT is a Cold War Relic.” Over twenty years later, Meshkati said he is “even more convinced” that the title is applicable today.

“I think the NPT was good. It served its purpose, but we really need a paradigm shift,” he said. “After this [invasion], would Mr. Kim [Jong-un] in [North] Korea, or anybody for that matter, … exchange their nuclear weapon arsenal for a piece of paper? I mean, this is going to be the $65,000 question.”

“Having worked on nuclear safety for the last 35 years, this is a recipe for disaster. If there is, God forbid, an accident in these four plants … that radiation fallout will affect everybody.”

Najmedin Meshkati
Professor at the Viterbi School of Engineering

Shon Hiatt, associate professor of business administration at the Marshall School of Business and faculty affiliate of the Greif Center for Entrepreneurial Studies, said the recent unprecedented hike in gasoline prices was the culmination of “an imbalance of supply and demand” that started about 10 months ago.

More recently, however, Hiatt said the “potential of Russian oil not getting onto the marketplace,” as Western trade deals with Russia deteriorated in the wake of the invasion, caused the “major price jump” to a national average of $4.17 per gallon on March 8 — the highest since 2008. Los Angeles County reached a record high of $5.966 per gallon on March 19.

The price hikes, in turn, increased political pressures in the U.S. to suspend gas taxes. Preexisting calls for a “gas tax holiday” gained further traction in Congress because of the Ukraine invasion. House Democrats introduced a bill on March 17 to provide rebate checks of $100 per month to American taxpayers. Hiatt said, at the federal level, such measures would only “add fuel to the inflationary fire.” A “complete 180-degree turn for the Biden administration” would be necessary instead, he said.

“They have this climate change strategy throughout all their agencies to reduce fossil fuel usage,” Hiatt said. “But, now that we have a massive shortage in the global supply, which is also building now into this inflation that we have — this is a terrible time to do this. So there needs to be a complete change, but that doesn’t seem to be happening.”

In a Feb. 28 Q&A with Marshall’s Communications team, Hiatt said he believed “the Glasgow 2021 goals to become carbon net neutral by 2050 will not be achieved.” When asked whether he had changed his mind since then, he said, “absolutely not.”

First, Hiatt said, recent decreases in the European Union’s carbon emissions, which were touted as progress toward the Glasgow goals, “never counted the Russian imports” — which account for 40% of E.U. consumption. As for China, the country processes 80% of the materials required to produce electric vehicle batteries, preventing U.S. energy independence.

“If you were to still continue for the Glasgow [goals], you’re still at the mercy of Russia and China — [countries] which, right now, don’t care much about Western interests,” Hiatt said.

Photo of the tower of the Center for Public Affairs building.
Russian forces control two of the four Ukrainian nuclear plants, and held more than 300 Ukrainians hostage at Chernobyl. (Vincent Leo | Daily Trojan)

Hannah Garry, clinical professor of law and founding director of the International Human Rights Clinic at the Gould School of Law, said the E.U. directive to grant Ukrainian refugees temporary protective status — allowing Ukrainians to live and work within the E.U. for three years — “makes a lot of good sense.” Under this Temporary Protection Directive, Ukrainians are also allowed freedom of movement, a reversal of the E.U.’s previous ‘first country of asylum’ policy, which states a refugee must remain in the first country to have granted them asylum. 

Garry also called the directive “discriminatory” because the E.U. denied freedom of movement for the millions of Afghan and Syrian refugees who have sought asylum in Europe. Refugees of color also faced racism at the Ukrainian border: Africans attempting to leave Ukraine told the New York Times that border guards would “slap them, beat them and push them to the end of the queue.”

“The perverse effect of the ‘first country of asylum’ rule is that these border countries are fatigued from taking in refugees or don’t want certain kinds of refugees,” Garry said. “So they have engaged in illegal deterrence practices, pushbacks, indefinite detention — and we are seeing that with Afghans and Syrians and others at the border … It’s clearly discrimination. And it’s clearly in violation of international law.”

Following the 2015 Syrian refugee crisis, public opinion of refugees in Europe was mostly negative: a 2016 Pew Research survey found that upward of 50% of surveyed Europeans believed refugees “are a burden to society,” that Syrian and Iraqi refugees were a major threat, and that an “influx of refugees will increase the likelihood of terrorism.” Meanwhile, far-right parties across Europe — including France’s National Rally (then the National Front) and Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland — seized the opportunity to expand their power via anti-immigration platforms. But with Ukrainians, Garry said there was “more empathy and receptivity and openness.”

“We hear of individuals from those far-right parties … running to Ukraine to fight and to take part in the battle,” she said. “I think that they have seen these refugees coming out of Ukraine as in the battle for their national identity, for their self-determination as a state and as a country — and that resonates right with their narratives.”

Garry said she hopes the “Ukrainian model” of refugee policy “brings new awareness” to the European public and beyond.

“I’m hoping that, as we observe what’s going on in Europe — particularly as we’re having our own moments with systemic racism and understanding of underlying biases that are endemic in all systems — [we will] realize that it needs to change here in the United States as well,” Garry said.

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that President Volodymyr Zelensky expressed regret about the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. It has been updated to state that Zelensky expressed regret about the Budapest Memorandum. The Daily Trojan regrets this error.