Unpacking Ukraine: Invasion and Resistance

In the days since February 24, Ukraine has been rocked by the perpetual siege of Russian forces. This war, which marks a contrast from the relative peace that characterizes post-World War II Europe, has taken the continent by storm, marking a newfound era of outright aggression and Russian backlash against the West. In its brief 30-year history, Ukraine, a country with democratic leanings, has routinely been caught between the influences of the West and Russia, with whom Ukraine shares a significant degree of culture and history. This clash of influences is a core cause of the ensuing conflict, one which leaves over 40 million Ukrainians at the behest of an uncertain power struggle between its invaders and the rest of the international community.  

To understand the unfolding of the conflict, it is important to recall the historical relationship between Russia and the West during the Cold War and the eventual dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. For Russia, this dissolution translated to a fundamental loss of global power; for the United States and its allies, it ensured the reign of Western dominance. In the years since the fall of the Soviet Union, NATO, the security alliance between the United States and its European allies, has expanded, inching eastward into former Soviet territory. Russia, specifically its president Vladimir Putin, who has called the collapse of the Soviet Union “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century,” views this growth as a security threat.  

Arik Burakovsky, the assistant director of the Russia and Eurasia program at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, outlined Russia’s growing agitation with NATO expansion. “Back in December, the Russian Foreign Ministry submitted draft treaties to NATO and the United States… ask[ing] for a variety of security guarantees,” Burakvosky said. These security guarantees revolved around the military activities of Western powers in the region, and, notably, the promise that Ukraine, a former Soviet republic, be denied NATO membership. 

Burakovsky explained, “When the United States and NATO did not make concessions to Russia, Putin decided that it was time to act.”  On March 8, 13 days after the beginning of the invasion, Ukraine’s President, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, declared he would no longer be pressing for Ukrainian NATO membership, a decision seen by many as a move to placate Moscow.

In a speech released in the early hours of February 24, Putin made his case for the “special military operation,” that is the invasion of Ukraine: “It is a fact that over the past 30 years we have been patiently trying to come to an agreement with the leading NATO countries regarding the principles of equal and indivisible security in Europe… We cannot stay idle and passively observe these developments… For our country, it is a matter of life and death, a matter of our historical future as a nation.”  

Burakovsky gave further insight into Putin’s claims to Ukraine, “Russia sees Ukraine as part of its identity. In some sense, the birthplace of Russia is Kyiv.” The relationship between Russia and Ukraine begins with Kievan Rus, the first East Slavic state. The fall of Kievan Rus in the 13th century led to the region being split into pieces that eventually evolved into the modern states of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus. Russia and Ukraine are additionally both successor states of the Soviet Union.

Artem Dinh, a third-year Ukrainian student, also spoke on the interlinked historical identities between Ukraine and Russia, “The impact of this conflict is you have people fighting other people that share nearly the same identity; they share the same balances. They watch the same TV shows, they listen to the same music, they watch the same movies, they use the same flags.” 

Despite the countries’ shared history, Ukraine has fought for its independent identity; it is a nation with its own language, culture, and political system. Since Ukrainian independence in 1991, the country has moved towards becoming a young democracy, unlike Russia, which has moved increasingly towards autocracy, a system in which absolute power rests with a single individual. For Putin, Ukrainian democracy is an ideological shift that places the nation deeper under the West’s influence. Burakovsky explained how this shift has led to Putin’s current efforts, “[He] wants to make sure that the government in Kyiv is loyal to Russia.”

Oxana Shevel, an associate professor specializing in the politics of the post-Communist region surrounding Russia, outlined the consequences of the ensuing conflict. “For Ukraine, it’s an existential threat to its survival as a sovereign state.” Additionally, “the very idea that in this age a member of the Security Council [Russia] can violate the UN Charter and the principles of international law and try to annihilate neighboring countries’ sovereignty… has implications for the kind of world we live in.”

Sam Farbman, an international relations major studying the former Soviet Union, outlined the conflict’s global implications: “At this point, the real issue here is that this is bigger than just Ukraine. This is a complete shift in the world order. This is a complete shift in what we know about diplomacy in the world. And this is setting the stage for more aggressive foreign policy and raised tensions.” Burakovsky added to this sentiment: “We’re in a new era of global politics, we’re back to the era of realism where might makes right, and the use or the threat of the use of force decides the course of events,”

On campus, the ramifications of the conflict are widely felt. Dinh spoke on the war’s impact on his friends in Ukraine. “I have a lot of friends in Ukraine; those that I have been in touch [with]… they’re all on the frontlines fighting right now [and they are] the same age as we are… the others are waiting to get drafted [or] staying in the underground basement, in the capital city that is getting shot at every day. [there is] fighting going on the streets every day… they’re all targets of the invasion,” he said.  

Dzheveira Karimova, a Russian first-year who has been highly involved in activism and advocacy surrounding the conflict on campus, lamented the inaction of the wider Tufts community, “It’s been very interesting to see the dynamic on campus because so many students are still uneducated about what’s going on. So many students still think that it’s like some sort of joke, and especially when they learn that you’re from the region, they think that it’s the most hilarious thing they’ve ever said to say ‘Happy World War III’ to you when there’s so much turmoil going on.”

Dinh and Dzheveira, along with other students, have organized and attended rallies throughout Boston, with the explicit intent to push the governments of Western countries to further support Ukraine and its people. On March 2, Tufts Community members gathered outside of the Mayer Campus Center, chanting “Act now!” and “Support Ukraine!” The organizers have also created a website with educational resources, lists of nonprofits, and other ways to support those impacted. Their Instagram account @tuftshelpukraine provides further information on how Tufts students can support Ukraine and become involved in related events on campus.  

In an email to the community sent on March 4, nine days after the invasion began, the Tufts administration expressed “solidarity with the people of Ukraine… and deepest concern for those impacted by the tragedy of war unfolding there.”

But for many students, the email fell short compared to the actions taken by other universities. “MIT released a statement immediately, [saying] ‘please let us know what kind of support you need, we will cancel all of our partnership with our Russian partners, to Russian labs, Russian universities, here’s all the support that you need.’ But Tufts at the same time did not even make a statement…it took the 100-person rally for Tufts to just write three paragraphs saying, ‘Oh, I’m sorry… war must suck for you’… that’s basically all we got,” Dzheveira said. 

She added, “the mental health services are booked a month in advance, so it’s really hard to get any mental health counseling. And we have a lot of students who have family in Ukraine, like cousins [or] grandparents, and they literally have to check every second if they’re still alive. And it takes a toll on you, especially when you’re still a student. Students don’t know how to request academic flexibility.”

Dinh and Dzheveria, along with freshman Eulalia Tisnovsky, sent an email imploring the university for more support. “In the email sent by the administration, there was no promise of taking concrete action… We ask for your immediate support to all the students who are impacted by this war. Tufts must recall and embrace its history and tradition of advocacy for democratic values and its international leadership in higher education to bring political change and support Ukraine. We believe that Tufts will use its power to help end violence and human rights violations in Ukraine.”

As of March 7, nearly 2 million people have fled Ukraine, and the United Nations has recorded at least 752 civilian casualties. These figures are expected to rise as Russian forces continue their siege. The United States, European Union, and other nations have unveiled numerous economic sanctions on Russia in retaliation; however, the violence continues and is now entering its second week. The Ukrainian forces, underestimated by Russian forces, have prevailed in resisting the invasion thus far.

Dzheveria finished with a final plea to the Tufts community: “Please stay educated and don’t think that it’s some sort of abstract issue that you can ignore, or you can joke about. There are real people on campus who are being directly impacted by this. So please be mindful of what you say… please support those affected… and please donate.”