Most of his colleagues know Dr. Alfred G. Mueller II as the dean of the School of Arts and Sciences and a classically trained rhetorician whose advanced degrees are in the field of communications. What they may not know is that Dr. Mueller is also an expert on a topic that has been at the top of international news coverage for months – Ukraine.
Mueller lived in the country for three years, 1995-1997, while it transitioned from the USSR to an independent state. He was a graduate student at the University of Iowa at the time and wrote his dissertation on the intersection between religion and nationalism in Ukraine. He turned the dissertation into a book, In the Name of God: Rhetoric, Religion, and Identity in Post-Soviet Ukraine, published in 2004.
The Barnes & Noble overview of the book describes it as “a journey through everyday life in Ukraine throughout its first decade of independence” that provides “a solid grasp of the issues facing Uniate Catholics as they struggled against the Orthodox Church to establish themselves as a credible community of believers.”
According to Mueller, “The Ukrainian Catholic Church, which sponsors Manor College, is tied to the Ukrainian nationalist movement of the post-Soviet era. Today, the Catholic Church has power and sway in areas of the country where folks think of themselves as Ukrainian. In places where the Russian Orthodox Church has power, the east and south, the populace is – linguistically and culturally – more aligned with Russia.”
He became aware of the emergence of this new political and religious dynamic while he lived there after the country’s transition to independence. He noticed a tendency for those in the country’s center and west (mainly Catholic areas) to avoid speaking Russian. “Even the cab drivers were singing in Ukrainian,” he recalls. “Politically, candidates who were pro-Ukraine were winning and the Ukrainian Catholic Church had a lot more authority on the political stage.”
Mueller has no ethnic or family connection to Ukraine; rather, he became interested in the country purely by chance. As an undergraduate, he majored in communications, history, and philosophy at Wilkes University. When he began graduate studies in the Midwest, he worked on his research with the political science faculty at Iowa, all of whom were experts on Ukraine.
“Because of that connection, I got to go to Ukraine to do a pilot study.” He lived mainly in Kyiv and Odessa.
His assessment of the current and very fluid situation is that “If either NATO or Putin get influence there, things will fly apart. The best situation for Ukraine is for both NATO and Putin to back away.”
Global powers seem to be fighting over Ukraine rather than for Ukraine, he believes. “Leave Ukraine alone, and it will govern itself as an independent state. Ukrainians will take to the streets and protest like mad. That’s how they get things done. Politics there is like an Arts and Sciences meeting. People argue like the devil to get important social and political changes made but remain friends at the end.”
Mueller believes that “Putin is taking a massive gamble” by stationing 100,000 Russian troops near the Ukraine border, seemingly signaling an intention to invade. The benefit to Russia, he explains, would be to establish a buffer state between it and Europe to create more defensible boundaries. The risk is the imposition of severe economic sanctions by the West, which would hurt the Russian upper middle class, a group that Putin wants to keep happy.