Editor's note: This article was updated on April 29, 2022.
On Feb. 24, Russia launched a military attack on Ukraine. According to CNN, explosions were heard across Kyiv, the country’s capital.
Kira Morse, a Ukrainian citizen and English professor at Virginia Tech, explained the history between the two countries and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s motives behind the invasion.
“Ukraine proclaimed independence (from the Soviet Union) in 1990 or 1991 and was a separate country with the borders that were there at that time,” Morse said. “It started kind of building its own country and its own government. We have our own money system, our own official language, so it is a different country.”
She stated that the National Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) — formed in 1949 to militarily and politically protect the Allies’ freedom and borders — played a role in the invasion. Putin demanded from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy that the country not ever join the alliance.
“But Ukraine was a part of the Soviet Union, which did not join NATO obviously because those were two big kind(s) of separate organizations,” Morse said. “But now in more recent years, Ukraine has shown a lot of interest in joining the European Union, in joining NATO and kind of joining the Western world, and Russia doesn’t like that. (The) Russian government doesn’t like that because Ukraine is so big and covers such a big part of the border with Russia, they don’t like the idea of NATO encroaching and getting close.”
However, Nataliya Brantly, a graduate student in public health and Ph.D. candidate in science and technology studies at Virginia Tech, does not believe that Russia will keep its promise to end the conflict if Zelenskyy refrains from joining NATO and the European Union (EU).
“I think that Russia cannot be trusted,” she said. “I think that it’s obvious to whoever listens to the news and is reading the history and looking at the events happening right now that Russia cannot be trusted, and any promises made today and in the past cannot be trusted, so the resolution right now is to come to a consensus that can be supported by European nations and the United States that can guarantee (that) this agreement, whatever the agreement is, can be upheld.”
Brantly stated that most of her family is in Ukraine, and are taking care of internally displaced people by providing them with housing, food and supplies. Some of her friends are also in Kyiv, fighting alongside the Ukrainian army. As a mother with young children, Brantly also said it was terrible to hear about the deaths of Ukrainian children.
“It felt unreal, like a terrible nightmare, to be honest, of something like this happening in 2022,” Brantly said. “For just beautiful people, kind, that are not seeking issues, just want(ing) to build a life and future for their families.”
Tim Covert, a senior majoring in history and a reservist in the Marine Corps, stated that his aunt and cousin escaped from Ukraine to the United Kingdom, while his uncle stayed in Kyiv. His grandparents left Kyiv for Lviv in western Ukraine.
Covert’s grandparents lived 30 minutes away from the Bucha Massacre. If they had stayed, “you can probably assume that they could’ve become victims in the same way,” Covert said.
Most of Covert’s friends are also in Ukraine, volunteering to fight and defend the country.
“Some of them have died, at this point,” Covert said. “Some of them are still alive. One of them is in Mariupol, currently being besieged by Russian forces. He’s still alive, and he’s fighting there.”
Morse stated that her parents were currently safe and that they have been able to evacuate Kyiv to Poland, one of Ukraine’s neighboring countries. While they were still in Kyiv, however, Morse recalled hearing gunshots when speaking with them over video chats.
“They were asked to keep all the lights off in the evenings and at night (and) I would talk to them on video calls and they’re like, ‘Oh, hold on. There’s some shooting outside; we heard something,’ And it’s surreal, you’re just talking to somebody, all of a sudden, there’s an explosion or shots fired, and you don’t know what to do,” Morse said.
Despite being safe in the United States, Morse had trouble sleeping and eating and avoided watching the news because “it is very traumatic seeing the streets where you grew up with tanks and people in military uniforms.”
Morse was also unable to continue her daily routines and had to take a step back from her job due to various triggers, such as the construction noise right outside her office window.
“When I hear construction outside, and I talk about my parents hearing explosions, like to me, this is very triggering,” Morse said. “Or when I came to class, and I had cadets in my class, and I just broke down and cried, you know? So they’re like little things that are now really affecting my life because I think of my friends and relatives in Ukraine.”
Due to Covert’s position in the Marine Corps, he was told that he could not travel overseas and volunteer to fight, like his friends. Covert then had to make a decision between renouncing his American citizenship and defending his home, or remaining in the Marine Corps, but decided to stay.
“It was a very, very difficult decision,” Covert said. “Ultimately, I decided that I can do more damage to the Russian regime, that I can do more to defend democracy (and) freedom, by serving in the U.S. military than I would as a volunteer in Ukraine.”
On campus, Covert has been involved with spreading awareness and fundraising with other Ukrainian students.
Morse did not feel that the invasion was unexpected due to past invasions such as in 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine, but was surprised that Russia had in fact carried through with its plans to invade Ukraine. She initially saw Russia’s claims as nothing more than empty threats to incite fear.
“But we thought they were just trying to scare us,” Morse said. “They’re testing out the American president; they’re testing out the world; they’re testing out how people would react. They’re trying to scare the Ukrainian president who is extremely inexperienced (and) really he didn’t know what he was doing at all, so we kind of saw it as just a scare tactic.”
Morse expressed her frustrations with the lack of action from world leaders but understood not wanting to turn the invasion into a larger worldwide conflict. She referenced the Budapest Memorandum in 1994 when Ukraine relinquished its nuclear weapons to Russia in exchange for acknowledgment of the country’s independence and sovereignty.
On the civilian level, Covert was concerned that people were not understanding that the conflict does not solely impact Ukraine and Russia, and it is simply “another headline on the news.”
“From an economic standpoint, Ukraine possesses 10% of wheat production, so right now we’re not seeing the effects of it yet, but in about three months, you’re gonna see the global prices of wheat are gonna skyrocket, and that’s gonna affect our ability to produce food and to have food available,” Covert said.
According to Brantly, the first step for the Blacksburg and Virginia Tech community to show their support for Ukraine should have been to acknowledge the war. She recalled being disappointed in the lack of community support after seeing the World Market selling Russian products.
“I asked if they have any plans to discontinue, if they understand by selling products from Russia and procuring them from Russia, they are supporting the war efforts,” Brantly said. “They are providing financial assistance for the war in Ukraine, and their response was that they would actively continue to procure Russian goods because there are Russian community members that deserve to have access to these products. There seems to be a lack of compassion, generally.”
On March 21, the Cranwell International Center hosted an event, “Coming Together: Reflection and Learning in the Midst of the War in Ukraine,” for students to reflect on the crisis, as well as learn about the Slavic holiday, Maslenitsa or Maslyana. Food from Ukraine and surrounding areas was served.
Morse felt the event was offensive because, despite the ongoing conflict, it did not solely focus on Ukraine but it was rather an event to bring people, both Ukrainian and Russian, together. She also stated that she would have appreciated the university personally reaching out to her and others from Ukraine to attend the event.
“Why does it have to be Ukraine and Russia?” Morse said. “Why do you have to have Ukrainian and Russian food? Why can't you just have Ukrainian food? When you have a country that is an aggressor, that’s invading and bombing and killing and forcing people to leave, celebrating them together seems like a very strange thing.”
For more information on how to help support families in Ukraine, visit unicef.org.