Russia invades Ukraine: Social Studies teachers, Illinois college student with Ukrainian heritage weigh in


Photo by Olivia Baude

Throughout the Chicagoland area, organizations have been flying the Ukrainian flag below the American flag. Globally and online, people have been displaying the blue and yellow colors of the Ukrainian flag to show support for this country during the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Anastasiya Bakun, a college student at the University of Illinois in Chicago with Ukrainian heritage, commented on the national anthem of the country. “If you translate our national anthem, it will give you chills,” she said. For example, the opening line of the anthem states, “Ukraine is not yet dead, nor is glory, nor is freedom.” Another line in the anthem states, “Like the few before the sun, our enemies will fade.”

William Fisher, Entertainment Editor

Editor’s Note: This is an ongoing conflict, and therefore current information on the progress of the war can be found on traditional news sites.

   On Thursday, Feb. 24, around 5 a.m., the first Russian missile attacks began against Ukraine. In a speech at 4:50 a.m., Russian President Vladmir Putin announced this “special military operation” against Ukraine to accomplish his goal of the “demilitarization and deNazification” of Ukraine. 

   As the war unfolded into March, Social Studies teachers and a student with Ukrainian heritage studying at the University of Illinois Chicago shared their thoughts on the Russian invasion of Ukraine.   

   Anastasiya Bakun, the UIC student, has family mostly living in Ukraine. Thus, this invasion has had a very personal effect on her. 

   “This whole conflict has not only caused a mental strain on my daily life but also a physical one, watching everything going on broadcasted on multiple news channels from different [language-]speaking countries and still having Russian media promote false propaganda to side with Russia,” she said.

   Bakun, though, noted the resilience of the Ukrainian people in response to this invasion. 

   “One thing I would like to add about Ukrainian people is we are strong, especially when we come together as a whole,” she said. “Ukraine will not surrender; it will overcome. My people will fight until the end.”

   Social Studies Teacher Neil McCarthy said at the time of the interview in mid-March he believed that Ukraine would likely eventually fall to the Russian invasion but that there would be massive rebellions and insurrections in Ukraine for years to come.

   ”It’s pretty clear that the Ukrainians are not going to give in; they’re not going to surrender,” he said. “They’re not going to do a dirty deal with Putin.” 

   Thomas Kuhn, social studies teacher, also described his prediction for this conflict based on what had happened a week into the invasion. 

  ”It took Hitler three weeks just to take Poland,” Kuhn said. “The fact that [Putin] had this much success in a week leads me to believe that he’ll take it without any intervention from outside countries.”

   Both McCarthy and Kuhn were not expecting Putin to actually invade. McCarthy described his initial reactions to the war breaking out. 

   ”When we were in my classes, for instance, talking about the build-up to it, we were discussing it more in an abstract way…Those kind of classroom conversations are fun because it’s abstract; it hasn’t really happened…And then when we returned on that Monday, it was, ‘Nope”, it was real,’ which made it very surreal that it was actually happening.” 

   However, one could argue this conflict has really been going on since 2014 with the Russian invasion and annexation of Crimea as well as Putin’s support for Russian separatists in the East since then. 

   “I think Russia has been invading Ukraine since Euromaidan back in November of 2013 but now has launched a full war on civilians,” Bakun said about the invasion. 

   Euromaidan was a conflict that erupted in 2013 when the Ukrainian government suddenly decided not to sign a bill, which would have forged closer relations between the European Union and Ukraine, due to pressure from the Russian government. 

   The conflict eventually saw the then Ukrainian president impeached, he is currently in exile in Russia. Ever since then, Ukraine has been increasingly interested in joining both the EU and NATO, something which the Russian government fears. 

   “[Putin wants] to prevent Ukraine from joining NATO, which would put NATO forces right on the Russian border, which Putin doesn’t want, and also to protect ethnic Russians in Ukraine from Ukrainian discrimination,” Kuhn said.

   Kuhn also described Putin’s deeper geopolitical ambitions with this war. 

   “The real reason is to rebuild that Russian empire and try to reclaim territory of the Soviet empire…and to sort of rebuild Russian pride and nationalism,” he said.

   The West’s response to this invasion has been harsh sanctions against Russia– sanctions which have seen foreign companies pull out of Russia, the Russian currency (the Ruble) plummet in value, as well as the U.S. House passing a bill which would ban Russian oil, natural gas and coal imports into the U.S. 

   “The intervention is going to come economically and how much they can punish Russia’s economy,” Kuhn stated about the sanctions. 

   The West has also been supporting Ukraine through various means, including Germany reversing its historic policy of not sending weapons to conflict zones.

   “Other countries are coming together, protesting and showing love via the internet, sending money and donations (medical supplies, military supplies, hygiene products, diapers, etc.),” Bakun said. 

   An even more shocking change of policy is with Switzerland, a famously neutral country, that has frozen Russian assets in Swiss banks. Sweden and Finland (the only Baltic nations other than Russia not in NATO) have also shown a new push to join NATO as a result of this invasion. 

   “Putin’s foreign policy is failing; he’s alienating places he normally had in his camp or in between at least,” McCarthy said. “Now they’re gravitating clearly to the West.”

   The U.S. has also seen the effects of the sanctions with gas prices rising to their highest since 2008. 

   One may wonder, still, why the U.S. or other countries aren’t militarily intervening because of this conflict. The most obvious reason being covered in the media is that Ukraine is not part of any formal military alliance with the U.S. and others. However, there is more to the West’s decision not to intervene than that. 

   “I don’t think they want blood on their hands,” Kuhn said. “The minute boots on the ground happen, that’s usually bad news for a country, no matter what, and there would be massive casualties, and we would probably see more resistance from Putin, too.” 

   McCarthy also described the domino effect of joining the conflict, which could plummet the world into war if any NATO member were to militarily step in. 

   “Why aren’t we supporting with troops on the ground or with air cover, no fly zone? And the reason, of course, is if any of those nations are NATO members, which all of them almost are, that means all of us would fight together,” McCarthy said. “Article 5 [of NATO] will kick in if a Russian pilot shoots down an American pilot, or a French pilot, [and] before you know it, it has escalated into a major regional, maybe even a world conflict– that’s why.” 

   The Russian people have also risen up in protest against the war, despite the immense risk. However, how much this will actually do is another question. 

   “As long as [Putin is] in power and as long as he’s got that stranglehold on the people, then people are kind’ve powerless to stop him,” Kuhn said.

   The media is heavily state-controlled in Russia, spreading false information to its people about the war. Even some of its own soldiers were lied to. 

   “That a lot of these [Russian] soldiers were not even told what they were actually getting into, that we were just doing exercises on the initial boundary, and then to switch it that now it’s going to be a humanitarian effort, so we’ll be greeted as the liberators, it’ll be fine, to this– where they’re seeing this incredible resistance in the Ukrainians. So, I think the morale of the Russian forces is way down,” McCarthy said. 

   Russia has also been attacking civilian targets across Ukraine and arresting protesters in its own country. 

   “The aggression needs to stop,” Bakun said. “Arresting innocent children for carrying anti-war signs, bombing hospitals and schools, killing innocent civilians who cannot get out needs to stop.”