After Russian President Vladimir Putin launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, the Kenyon community has felt the intensity of the war from a distance. To help the community develop a better understanding of this conflict, Associate Professor of History Eliza Ablovatski, Assistant Professor of Russian Anna Aydinyan, Professor of Political Science and Director of Kenyon’s Center for the Study of American Democracy David Rowe and Professor of Political Science Joseph Klesner held a panel discussion on Wednesday titled “The Russian Invasion of Ukraine: Understanding the Current Crisis” in Higley Hall Auditorium for a hybrid audience of attendees.
Wednesday’s panel discussion comes a day after President Sean Decatur sent out a news bulletin condemning Russia’s invasion, and nearly a week after the war began. “As I watch the events unfolding in Ukraine, I am moved by both the strength and fragility of democracy, and the lengths ordinary people, a nation and increasingly the world will go to defend freedom,” he wrote in the bulletin. “Kenyon College stands united with institutions across the globe calling for a diplomatic and peaceful resolution to the assault on the people of Ukraine.”
Seven days into its invasion, Russia has killed over 2,000 Ukrainian civilians, though exact numbers are still uncertain. As of Thursday morning, Russian and Ukrainian forces engaged in battle over the southern port city of Kherson. Russian forces have reportedly begun laying siege to Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, and are currently bombarding its capital, Kyiv. It was also reported that 8,000 Russian soldiers have died since the conflict began. No Russian civilian deaths have been reported.
Ukraine redeclared its independence in 1991 following the dissolution of the Soviet Union. In recent years, Putin has perceived the country’s trend towards democracy as a political threat, as he has become increasingly resistant towards Ukraine’s ties to the nations comprising the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and those of the European Union.
According to Rowe, Russia may have perceived a possible integration of Ukraine to NATO and the European Union as inherently threatening to the legitimating claims undergirding its autocratic political regime.
“It’s not just NATO that is expanding into the East, [it] is really the expansion of a set of liberal values,” he said. “And so it’s also a threat to the legitimation of a regime that is not built around those values.”
Aydinyan expanded on Rowe’s point, explaining how the Russian state’s primary source of income derives from oil exports, which she said enables it to maintain an autocratic, non-democratic regime.
“[For] some countries which have this reserve resource, it kind of creates the economic incentive of a more corrupt government,” she said. “And it doesn’t mean that many people in Russia don’t want to establish a democratic regime, but it sometimes feels like swimming against the current because the economic system is just not working to support that.”
A number of protests against the Kremlin’s decision to invade Ukraine erupted in Moscow and St. Petersburg late last week. Reports estimate Russian police arrested over 300 protesters in St. Petersburg and detained over 1,300 people for protesting across Russia. Late on Wednesday night, Alexei Navalny, an outspoken jailed critic of Putin, urged Russians to continue their protests.
Throughout the week, Ukrainian and Russian students alike have been forced to hear about the tragedies in their home countries from afar, as death tolls for Ukrainian soldiers and civilians and Russian soldiers continue to rise. Ukrainian students Maxim Farkhat ’22, Sofiia Shyroka ’25 and Yana Honcharuk ’24 have all been in communication with their family members and are terrified about what the future holds for their families and loved ones.
In his news bulletin, Decatur encouraged those affected to seek support from the chaplains, the Cox Health and Counseling Center or the Employee Assistance Program. Farkhat, Shyroka and Honcharuk all spoke to the overwhelming amount of support they’ve received from their professors, friends and community members. “I’m very appreciative of how everyone is reaching out and making sure that we’re okay,” Farkhat said.
Still, not everyone has been so supportive. On Feb. 25, Committee for Diversity and Inclusion Chair Bijan Khaghani ’23 sent out an all-student email reporting instances of Russian students being labeled “spies” and of jokes made by community members about Ukrainian students not being allowed to return home. He reminded students to extend patience and care to one another.
Honcharuk said that she had been seeing jokes surface on social media sites about Ukraine, and found them to be distasteful and insensitive. “It’s really easy for people to speculate if they don’t understand what’s going on. It’s really easy for people to misunderstand things,” Honcharuk said. “If you don’t know about something, you should not be joking or talking about it.”
Farkhat, who is from Kyiv, reminded students about the importance of supporting local journalism sources, recommending the Kyiv Independent as a reliable source of information. Honcharuk also suggested that students get involved by visiting the website “Resources to Help Ukraine,” which includes various petitions and donation sites.
At the panel on Wednesday, Russian student Alex Smirnov ’23 also announced that a coalition of Russian and Ukrainian Kenyon students who have been affected by the economic stresses of the war have organized a fund in conjunction with Kenyon’s alumni association.
The situation in Ukraine remains bleak, and it is feared that Russian forces will encircle Kyiv in the coming days. For those interested in supporting Ukraine, there will be a rally taking place at 1:30 p.m. on Saturday in the Mount Vernon Public Square.