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Former U.N. leader in Ukraine and Eckerd College diplomat-in-residence illuminates Russia-Ukraine conflict for campus community

By Tom Zucco
Published March 3, 2022
Categories: International Relations & Global Affairs, Political Science
Neal Walker stands at a podium with index finger raised

Neal Walker ’78 spoke to a packed audience in Fox Hall this week. Photo: Angelique Herring ’19

“What worries me is the unknown element, and that’s Putin’s health,” Neal Walker ’78 said, looking up from his notes. “By most accounts, he is far more isolated than ever before. He rarely meets with his trusted advisers. He has even given up bareback horseback riding. He acts like a deranged father forcing his family to stay together.”

In front of a packed audience March 2 in the Raymond James Room in Fox Hall, Walker—Eckerd College alumnus, diplomat-in-residence and head of the United Nations in Ukraine from 2014–2018—spoke on the topic of Ukraine: How Did We Get Here, What Next?

In the audience sat ELS student Nina Sovoleva, who is studying English at Eckerd this spring. Born in Ukraine, she has several family members living there—including her husband, who serves as a member of the Ukraine parliament.

After Walker’s six years with the Organization of American States, he served 28 years in the United Nations, where his work took him to Sudan, Equatorial Guinea, Guatemala, Kyrgyzstan, Bangladesh and war-torn Ukraine. In the last three posts, he led the United Nations in-country, implementing action in development, human rights, humanitarian response and conflict prevention.

“Russia stands absolutely alone in its war against Ukraine,” he said. “But this isn’t going to be over next week. Putin uses an ‘escalate to de-escalate’ strategy.

“Is this invasion of Ukraine a concern to U.S. citizens?” he said. “Absolutely yes. We don’t want to be the world’s policeman, but there is no other country that can lead the global effort. America can’t do it alone. The challenge for America is to lead by bringing in the world. It’s a different kind of leadership [than what] America is used to exercising.”

Neal Walker in front of U.N. flag

Neal Walker ’78

It’s also a chance for the United Nations to shine. “This is the moment,” he said. “The U.N. has a chance to rally together and speak with one voice to challenge Russian aggression. It’s not a question of Russia versus the West. It’s a question of Russia versus the rest.”

A large group sits in Fox Hall to listen to Neal Walker

The resolution is going to be a hard and bitter slog, he added. “It begins with an immediate ceasefire and a reaffirmation of international law. Of the 41 million Ukrainians, 18 million are affected by the war, and 12 million need assistance.”

After Walker finished speaking, one of those Ukrainians, Nina Sovoleva, spoke briefly about how much Ukrainians need and appreciate support from the U.S. and other nations who back her homeland. She wore a Ukrainian flag draped around her shoulders. “I came here,” she said, “to say thank you.”

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