Diving into the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine
As has been littered across the headlines and news channels, the animosity between Russia and Ukraine recently came to a head amid several attacks on the outskirts of Ukraine. Although the conflict has festered over many years now, Russian troops began to press up against the Ukrainian borders in January 2022 with the first major attack taking place on Feb. 24. These “special military operations” as Russian president Vladimir Putin coined them, are a physical representation of the deeply rooted conflict between the neighboring countries. This large-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine is the largest military mobilization Europe has seen since World War II.
How did this all start?
Many people might look at the current political rift in Europe and trace it back to 2014, when Russia overtook the Crimean Peninsula located to the south of Ukraine. The land was a hot commodity for Russia not only for its top-tier scenery and arable land, but also for direct access to the Black Sea and freshwater.
However, history teacher Brent Chambers thinks that in order to fully grasp the issue, one needs to look farther back in history around the era of World War II when Russia was in the height of its expansion. During WWII, the Nazi forces swept through present-day Ukraine in the midst of a Russian invasion. However, when the tides turned in the war, the Soviet Union pushed back into Ukrainian territory. The animosity that the soldiers had for the Ukrainian people was born out of an idea that the Ukrainian people were somehow responsible for letting the German invasion happen in the first place, and thus the mistreatment of the Ukrainian people began.
In more recent years, the conflict continued into the early 1990s when Ukraine voted strongly for independence from the Soviet Union. Ukraine, now an independent country with a steady path toward democracy, acquired strong ties with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). This organization, made up of 28 European countries and two North American countries, poses a major threat to Russia due to the fact that Ukraine is now getting support from many western, democratic nations.
The Vasylyk Family
Vlad Vasylyk is a current foreign exchange student coming from the city of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city. Kharkiv is located about 20 miles from the Russian border and has been hit especially hard since the February attacks.
“[On Feb. 24], I got up in the morning and I didn’t see the news,” Vasylyk said. “I just saw a number of messages from my friends, from my family both from here and the Ukraine. I texted my brother to ask about what was going on, and he said that something started [in Ukraine].”
For Vasylyk, one of the most surreal aspects of seeing this conflict taking place in his home country is seeing the devastation unfold in parts of Ukraine that are close to his reality growing up.
I just couldn’t believe it,” Vasylyk said. “Now you’re looking at pictures of the places that you used to jog and walk around and now you see something that you see in history books and documentaries about World War II and you’re looking at this like, ‘this is not real.’ But it is, it’s just crazy.”
One quality that makes this war different from those in the past is that Russian forces are deliberately targeting civilian areas in Ukraine, in an attempt to “demoralize Ukraine resistance” according to the Wall Street Journal. With this tactic, casualties continue to grow in major Ukrainian cities like the nation’s capital of Kyiv. Kharkiv has also been a victim of Russian forces, resulting in hundreds of civilian casualties in just a matter of days.
“At first, Russians didn’t seem to target civilians,” Vasylyk said. “But quite recently, there has been pretty big damage to apartment buildings and they started shelling civilian targets as well.”
Although Vasylyk has been living in the States since September, his parents are still currently living in Ukraine. Like many others all around the world, Vasylyk’s mother Olena Spasonova was shocked that Russia would commit such acts being that many of Ukrainian citizens have family living over in Russia.
“I am in a state of total lack of understanding on what to do next,” Spasonova said. “Where to move, work, beginning from scratch at the age of 50. Although, you understand that you are living, and that’s a lot.”
The most startling thing to grasp for many Ukrainian citizens is the fact that their lives have been so unexpectedly interrupted in just a moment. Although the unrest has made it so that day to day life is unpredictable and worrisome, Spasonova has found comfort knowing that her son is safe in Michigan.
“It’s impossible [for Vlad] to live in his home city right now,” Vasylyk’s father Sergii Vasylyk said. “The shellings continue and evacuations are taking place. Obviously, education and self-development are out of the question under such circumstances.”
Without the possibility for a good education in Ukraine right now in the midst of this war, Sergii said that he feels happy knowing that his son is able to continue his education and challenge his abilities in a country without ongoing attacks posing threats at every corner.
It was 5 a.m. on Feb. 24 in which Spasonova and Sergii first heard explosions. It wasn’t until a few days later when the fighting encroached into Kharkiv.
“The situation was getting worse every day,” Sergii said. “There was fighting on the outskirts of the city, and then the shellings of military objects and administrative infrastructure took place. The following day, the Russian army started directing attacks at residential buildings, schools, universities, and hospitals. We had to hide in a dedicated shelter, and a few days later decided to evacuate to another city.”
Where do we go from here?
According to the website Aljazeera, nations such as the United States, the European Union, the United Kingdom, and France are amongst the many countries that have supplied Ukraine with supplies in recent weeks. In the wake of this onslaught, these nations have supplied the country with military aid among other supplies, such as body armor and lethal defensive weapons with the hopes that these resources will help the nation defend itself against one of the world’s most powerful military forces.
Amidst the grim present for the Ukrainians, many locals have made the decision to step up and fight as armed volunteers. Locals are also helping the cause by donating food from restaurants, as well as medicine from pharmacies to treat the wounded in the midst of these grim attacks.
“I believe that peace and kind relations among people is the key thing in our lives,” Vasylyk’s mother Olena Spasonova said. “I have faith in the power of the Ukrainian people, the heroism of our soldiers who defend civilian people not sparing their own life, and I am so grateful to all the people in the world who have helped us and have been praying for us.”
Chambers believes that the unrest present in Ukraine is an opportunity for people all over the world to understand just how important and valuable democracy is.
“Democracy is fragile and it’s precious,” Chambers said. “If we fail to recognize internal and external threats to it, we’re making an error. And I hope that if there’s one good thing that comes out of this, it’s a reminder for all of us that it doesn’t take much to upset the fragility of a democratic government.”
Who is Vladimir Putin?
In the past, Russian president Vladimir Putin has held the presidential position as well as the prime minister position. In previous years, he was the president from 2000 to 2008, and fulfilled the role as president again in 2012 to now. His prime minister duties were in the years 1999 to 2000, and then again from 2008 to 2012.
After graduating from Leningrad State University, Putin became an intelligence officer in 1975, working with the military early on in his career. He worked with the State Security Committee (KGB in Russian-language abbreviation) for a time before joining then president Boris Yeltsin’s administration.
Who is Volodymyr Zelenskyy?
Elected into office in 2019, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy is the sixth president of the country. Before his career in politics, he was a very well-known actor and comedian. Ironically, one of his most famous roles was in a TV series in which an ordinary man would later become the president of Ukraine.
He is credited with being the leader that modernized the nation’s military along with standing firm to the aspiration for Ukraine to be closely tied to the western nations with democracies, rather than the communist nation of Russia.
Many people have found that Zelenskyy’s leadership during this time of unrest has been incredibly unique in the way that he has stood by his people through the time of war.
“We’re not used to seeing political leaders in the streets with their people during an invasion,” Chambers said. “It’s amazing. Instead of hiding in a bunker, he’s not leading from the back, he’s leading from the front, and it’s inspirational.”