On the evening of Thursday, Feb. 24, the cousin of Arzy Abliadzhyieva ’24 sheltered in a cold Kyiv basement with his wife and three-year-old child as bombs bombarded the city from the sky.
Russian President Vladimir Putin had announced hours before in a televised address that he was aiming for the “demilitarization and denazification of Ukraine, as well as bringing to justice those who carried out multiple bloody crimes against civilians, including citizens of the Russian Federation.” In the address, he assured viewers that he intended to capture only the contested Ukrainian border territories of Donetsk and Luhansk, which have been occupied by separatists groups following the 2014 Russo-Ukrainian war. That same day, Russian tanks crossed over from the Belarusian and Crimean borders, with explosions being reported in the airport of the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, the border city of Kharkiv and Donetsk. The Ukrainian foriegn minister denounced the operation as a “full-scale invasion.”
“I was terrified after seeing the pictures of [the] explosions and their victims,” Abliadzhyeva said in a written statement to The News. Luckily, her cousin’s house survived the night, and he was able to return and retrieve emergency supplies.
To many, the incursion came as a surprise. Professor Nina Tumarkin, professor of Slavic Studies and director of the Russian Area Studies program, said at first she did not believe the earlier predictions from Washington DC of an imminent wide-range invasion.
“All of the colleagues to whom I’ve spoken and also my Russian friends who are very savvy and sophisticated, no one expected an invasion of this scope,” Professor Tumarkin, a scholar of Russian history and a former advisor on US-Soviet affairs to US President Ronald Reagan, said. “What I had predicted was what happened on Monday, Feb. 21, when President Putin recognized the ‘independence’ of the two Eastern provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk … It actually was very similar to what had happened in 2008 in the aftermath of the war with the country of Georgia, where there were also two Russian leaning territories within the territory of Georgia, [South Ossetia and Abkhazia] and Putin recognized them.”
As of March 1, the Ukrainian government says there have been at least 406 civilian deaths, including 16 children. Although there have been no official release of military casualties, it is estimated that at least 5610 Russian soldiers have been killed in the conflict, according to the Ukrainian interior ministry.
On Feb. 27, three days after the initial start of the invasion, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy agreed to send Ukrainian officials to begin negotiations with Russian delegates on the Belarusian border. Many were left on edge after a remark on national television from Putin that Russia’s nuclear forces would be put on alert in response to “aggressive statements” from NATO members.
Ukraine, which possessed the third-largest arsenal of nuclear weapons in the world after the collapse of the Soviet Union, agreed to disarmament in the 1994 Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurance — signed by the Russian Federation, the United States and the United Kingdom — under condition of its political independence and territorial integrity.
Although US President Joe Biden announced that he would not send any troops to Ukraine, a sentiment echoed by the European Union (EU), he approved a $350 million presidential drawdown to be sent as military assistance against Russia’s “unprovoked assault,” making the total security aid sent from the US to Ukraine in the past year more than $1 billion.
According to Professor Tumarkin, Putin’s response is possibly due to concerns of growing Western influence in Ukraine and rumors of German troops from NATO being stationed along the Russian border. Ukraine is currently one of three countries who have applied for the NATO Membership Action Plan, along with Georgia and Bosnia.
“There is a logic that is based on Putin’s belief, or at least stated belief, that the United States and the West in general is out to weaken Russia and is using Ukraine as a kind of final bridgehead to encircle Russia [along its Western border],” Professor Tumarkin said. “I do truly think that right now [Putin] is a little unhinged, which is quite out of character. Until 2014, with annexation of Crimea, he had been a very cautious leader and a very cautious statesman, but he feels that the West has continually provoked this situation by getting closer and closer to Russia’s borders — even though of course Ukraine is not a member of NATO, [but] by arming Ukraine — and also he believes that the US was very instrumental in bringing about a regime change that occured in Ukraine in February of 2014.”
This is not the first time that Putin has invaded Ukrainian soil since the country’s 1991 declaration of independence. In Feb. 2014, Putin annexed the autonomous Crimean peninsula following the 2014 Ukrainian Revolution of Dignity, when protestors overthrew the pro-Russian regime of Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych. Abliadzhyieva’s parents were among those affected.
“The timing [of the invasion is because Putin] saw the US as being weak, particularly evident with the chaotic withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan. He saw the EU as weak and fractured, and America fractured too with polarization between Democrats and Republicans because of the Trump presidency,” Professor Tumarkin said. “Plus, and this is important, the last straw was marked by the departure of [German Chancellor] Angela Merkel. It’s very clear during the four years of the presidency of Trump, she was the leader of the free world and a very strong one … putting all of those things together, I think it was a very calculated determination [for him] that it was the best moment to strike.”
More than that, Abliadzhyieva believes that Putin’s motives are not limited to national security.
“[The] Russian invasion is not a conflict between two countries. It is a genocide of Ukrainian people: ethnic cleansing, terrorist attacks, hybrid war, and many other elements of violence that try to eradicate us,” Abliadzhyieva said. “If we let Putin accomplish it, he will crave more. Thus, this full-scale invasion of Ukraine is a threat to the whole world.”
“[In Europe, sibling countries are two countries which] are culturally distinct from each other but share similar heritages and have far more in common than not. Like siblings, these are countries who love each other, who are close socially and economically, who squabble a bit amongst themselves but who deep down share a powerful sense of respect and camaraderie,” Astrid Lawyer ’22, an international student from Sweden, said. “To invade a sibling country, to inflict the pain and suffering that Putin is now inflicting on Ukraine, is as unimaginably horrific and cruel as it is unnecessary and absurd. Ordinary Russians do not want war on Ukraine. There truly is a sense in Europe that Putin is waging war against his own family.”
In Moscow and other major Russian cities, thousands of anti-war Russian citizens took to the streets in protest to the invasion, chanting “нет войне (No To War)”. Since the sixth day of the demonstrations, nearly 7,000 have been arrested, according to OVD-info, an independent Russian human rights media project. The Russian Investigative Committee released a warning on Feb. 24 that the organizing of “mass riots” would be met with “harsh punishment.”
“It takes extraordinary courage to be a dissenter in Russia, given the history of repression of dissent (e.g., the artists of Pussy Riot),”said Professor Larry Rosenwald, co-director of the Wellesley peace & justice studies department. “What’s happened to them I don’t know. But they’re not normal; they’re extraordinary and courageous and heroic.”
In the United States, students have also rallied in support of Ukraine. On the weekend of Feb. 26-27, thousands gathered in Boston and Cambridge, many bearing the blue-and-yellow flag of an independent Ukraine.
“Attending protests … are important in our pursuit of peace and justice,” said Suzanna Schofield ’24, who, with other Wellesley students invited by Abliadzhyieva, attended a rally in Boston Public Gardens on Feb. 27. “Nothing is stronger than a group of people adding their voices to those who need it most.”
According to Schofield, at its peak, thousands of protestors covered over two miles of space in the Boston Commons.
“I posted an announcement the night before the protest. Regardless of the short notice, I got many replies about attending the rally. Even people I didn’t know before sent me messages saying they would love to join. Local parents offered to drive groups of students to Boston,” Abliadzhyieva said. “It was great seeing my Wellesley community take a day off from schoolwork and stand in solidarity with me and my people.”
Abliadzhyieva, who is of Crimean Tatar descent, the Muslim indigenous people of Crimea, was forced to flee to Kyiv after the events in 2014. Since then, she has advocated for Crimean Tatar rights and raised awareness of the oppression and human rights violations faced by Tatars by the ruling Russian government for generations.
“It was inspiring to witness how so many people choose not to ignore unlawful crimes committed by Putin. The images I shared with my Ukrainian friends made them happy that their resilience and strength are seen and admired all over the globe,” she said. “This, however, is only one way to support Ukraine. Among other low-commitment support, I find it effective to reach out to the local office of the Red Cross to ask them to save Ukrainians from the humanitarian crisis.”
Professor Rosenwald emphasized the importance of individual impact.
“It’s a tempting error to see this as a conflict of persons, Putin v. Zelenskyy, Putin v. Biden, etcetera. And of course people matter, and are good to tell stories about. But the invasion is being carried out by every Russian soldier participating in it, willing or eager or intimidated, and by all those who support Putin, or don’t protest against Putin, by every American commentator defending him,” Professor Rosenwald said. “And Ukraine is being defended by every soldier, every woman learning to make Molotov cocktails, every journalist reporting, every Ukrainian artist posting antiwar songs to an Instagram account — and also by every Russian protester, boycotter, non-cooperator. It’s not a hand-to-hand combat between two knights.”
“I feel extremely proud of Ukrainians defending our land and families, resisting the attack of the Russian forces, and being more united than ever in their fight for freedom,” Abliadzhyieva said. “Active volunteering commitments inspire me to stay hopeful and feel involved. It motivates me to use my privilege to educate my peers about the issue and spread donation resources among my American community.”
Julia Boca ’22, an international student from the Romanian border city of Galați, took action on her own by raising funds for Ukrainian refugees — mostly women and children — fleeing through the border from the Republic of Moldova. After three days of fundraising, over $3,000 was raised to buy necessities such as hygienic products, blankets, diapers, food and water.
“The situation is bad overall, but the support that I’ve seen from my people is outstanding. Anytime someone posts there is a need for a family, there are at least 10 people responding to the post offering to give them a ride or a room … People are willing to help,” Boca said. “There is a green line for people to call set up by the city council in my city and there are different orgs that are helping out, but most of what I’ve seen are the civilians that are at the frontier point waiting with warm food, water, anything that refugees might need.”
Boca, a public figure in Romania, has used her voice to promote stories often overlooked by the mainstream media.
“A receptionist from a hotel in Bucharest reached out and told me that her boss is trying to help 28 students from Swaziland, and they were all scared because they … were threatened at gunpoint by the Ukrainian police force,” Boca said. “This is a clear cut example of how racism is never forgotten even during the worst time, especially war. Africans are considered the least priority right now, and they’re in extreme danger, especially at the [Polish] border … They’re not letting African people get on trains to find refuge in Poland. It’s disgusting how racism works, and how it infiltrates our lives even when people need our help.”
After raising awareness of the issue in her social media platforms, Boca was able to successfully raise an additional $1,000 for the 28 PCR tests needed for the students to return back to Swaziland.
“I’m a little disappointed in the E-board at the Slater Center, I tried to reach out to them, never heard back … but I was expecting this,” Boca said. “I want to underline that the Wellesley students who have donated — and I know we are all living in a very difficult time, but no matter what — they made a difference.”
On Feb. 25, Dean of Students Sheilah Shaw Horton acknowledged the crisis in Ukraine through an all-school email and announced that the College was working on ways to support affected students with friends and families in the area, including one-on-one appointments with the Slater International Center and the Stone Center. In the email, Horton asked students to “keep the people of Ukraine in our hearts and hope for a peaceful resolution.”
Abliadzhyieva, however, feels that the email is not enough.
“As of March 1, the Wellesley leadership [have] made little effort to address the war even though I asked for an official statement. Leaders in academia like MIT, Harvard, Princeton, Amherst, Notre Dame, and many others already publicly condemned the Russian invasion, calling out unlawful crimes against humanity,” Abliadzhyieva said. “By staying silent and ignoring the scale of the invasion, Wellesley is supporting crimes committed against the Ukrainian people.”
The Russian Area Studies program is also arranging a virtual panel with speakers from Harvard University and Stanford University discussing both Russian and Ukrainian perspectives about the war. The event will take place on March 8 at 8 p.m.
Professor Rosenwald urged students not to turn a blind eye to the events in Ukraine.
“‘It’s the job of a pacifist to be concrete,’ said the American pacifist Kathy Kelly, and as a pacifist I feel that obligation. So being concrete, I’d note, and call to the attention of Wellesley students, that people are being killed and wounded, that buildings are being blown up and lives disrupted, that people are becoming involuntary refugees — lots and lots of people. That’s what this means in lived experience,” Professor Rosenwald said. “There’s a stanza from a Josef Brodsky poem that comes to mind: ‘In the towns with funny names, / hit by bullets, caught in flames, / by and large not knowing why, / people die.’”
To donate or to learn more, visit: https://linktr.ee/help_ukraine_global