Valerie Chu/The Campanile, Photo Illustration by Ajay Venkatraman

Ukrainian-Russian conflict impacts students’ families, livelihoods

Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, one on a level not seen since World War II. For Russian American and Ukrainian American students, the consequences are more than changes to news feeds and the effects of economic policies still rippling through the global economy — this invasion is deeply personal.

Students affected by Ukraine crisis

Russian American and senior Sasha Boudtchenko said her family’s roots in Ukraine makes the situation extremely difficult for them.

“My mom (spent summers in Ukraine) and my grandma grew up there, and they know the places that are being bombed right now,” Boudtchenko said. “It’s part of their childhood, so I just can’t even imagine how difficult it is for them to hear of those places being just completely destroyed. For me, it’s been difficult knowing that we have family over there that’s caught up in this.”

For Ukrainian American sophomore Katya Oks, the consequences of the invasion pose a constant worry for her family. 

“The majority of my family still lives in Ukraine … So we’re all hoping that they will stay safe, and that things become peaceful and that we will be able to see them in-person soon after not seeing them for three years.”

Senior Madison Abbassi said she has relatives living in both Russia and Ukraine, and her mom is still in contact with friends from her childhood city of Odessa, which was once part of the Soviet Union but is currently under attack as part of Ukraine. 

“A lot of my family might have a cousin who is Russian and a cousin who is Ukrainian, so it very much is kind of a war within families,” Abbassi said. “And in a lot of areas, people have grown up very close to each other and think of each other as brothers. So I think it’s been a huge shock to our family, and we’re all hoping that peace will work out and there isn’t too much damage and not too much of a cost in terms of lives as the war continues.”

Senior Lily Lochhead, whose grandparents lived in both Ukraine and Russia, and whose cousin was adopted from Odessa several years ago, said the consequences of the invasion have deeply affected her and her family. 

“It’s really hard because for some people, it may just be, ‘Oh, all of these cities have been invaded or bombed,’” Lochhead said. “But for my family, it’s people we know. Some of our friends and my cousin’s birth family members — we don’t know if they’re alright. And we’ve heard news that people have died in the war, (people) that we know.” 

U.S. foreign policy toward Ukraine

James Ellis, a former commander in the U.S. Navy stationed in Europe and an Annenberg Distinguished Visiting Fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, said the invasion of Ukraine challenges what people think of as the global order, and he said he is afraid of the implications a divided Europe could mean to world affairs. 

“It’s a very dramatic change in the world’s situation,” Ellis said. “The Russian invasion of Ukraine is tragic and shocking. It’s an unprovoked attack against a sovereign nation, which we haven’t seen in decades and in some ways reveals a face not of the entire Russian people, but certainly their leadership and President Putin.” 

In a recent press briefing, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said the Biden administration supports the Ukrainian people and has provided humanitarian aid and security assistance. However, she said Biden will not send U.S. troops to fight in Ukraine because he will not put the country in a position of fighting a war with Russia. 

U.S. Foreign Policy teacher John Bungarden said the level of involvement the U.S. currently has in the conflict — placing sanctions, providing aid, sending weapons, repositioning U.S. troops in NATO countries adjacent to Ukraine — is ideal for U.S. interests. 

“Equating involvement with troops on the ground is dangerous because it creates the possibility of American forces fighting Russian forces,” Bungarden said. “And that’s a dangerous point. If you’re attempting to not escalate to some other place, the fact that Putin kind of waved at the fact they’re a nuclear power is interesting. It’s a reminder that the danger is greater if we put guys on the same battlefield as the Russians.”

Abbassi said in terms of U.S. foreign policy, she understands Biden’s decision to not send U.S. troops to Ukraine. 

“I saw there was a speech that Putin gave where he kind of threatened nuclear war, and I think that brings the stakes of this conflict to a level that’s much higher than a lot of previous wars,” Abbassi said. “So I think I agree with the U.S. policy to impose sanctions and hope that that eventually undermines the value of the ruble and causes Russia to kind of back down a little bit too because of economic crises. I think that’s our best path forward.”

Consequences of the invasion

Tenth grade history teacher Cait Drewes said she was talking with her neighbor, a Ukrainian immigrant from Donetsk, when he said something that caught her attention. 

“He was saying the vast majority of people in (the Donetsk) area are not interested in liberation; they’re not separatists, they’re interested in staying as part of Ukraine,” Drewes said. “But (he said) Russia has actually moved a lot of people into that area over many decades. They’ve been moving ethnic Russians into that area, and then claiming they want to be part of Russia.”

For Drewes, this represents one of the many nuances of the invasion, and further revealed the complicated and tangled histories and cultures of Ukraine and Russia. 

Boudtchenko, who has ethnically-Russian family members living in Ukraine, said the conflict should be viewed primarily as a politically-motivated situation. 

“It’s not black and white,” Boudtchenko said. “Russian people live in Ukraine. Ukrainian people live in Russia. People are mixed. Like my family — I’m not Ukrainian, but I have Ukrainian family, and we’re still all related. So it’s very intertwined. It’s very difficult. And it’s important to remember that it’s not as simple as Russians versus Ukrainians.”

Lochhead said her grandparents, who lived in Russia for two years and are still in contact with many people there, said most Russians are not in support of the invasion of Ukraine, a statement which Russian protests against the invasion have demonstrated. 

Bungarden said these protestors mirror some of the most notable examples of collective bravery shown throughout history. 

“Thousands of people have walked onto the streets of Russian cities,” Bungarden said. “To do that in an authoritarian state — that’s courage. That’s courage at an everyday level, just people who said, ‘Screw it.’ And by virtue of their body being in place, stand as a rebuke to the regime. It’s not a cost free action — and they know it.” 

Abbassi said she has been following the conflict and hearing from her mother about the invasion of Ukraine, and is moved by the ways Ukrainian citizens came together to stand against a country with a more powerful military. 

“If you look online, there are images of people just carrying signs with street names and walking it miles away, so they can just confuse the troops,” Abbassi said. “And I think it’s that level of resourcefulness in the face of war that’s really powerful.”

Reporting contributed by Shamsheer Singh

Help Ukraine

To support Ukrainians in this crisis you can donate to DirectRelief, a nonprofit sponsorship organization working to providing medical care and relief for those affected, at https://www.directrelief.org/emergency/ukraine-crisis/