After four months of standoff and military buildup on the Russian-Ukrainian border, Russian president Vladimir Putin on Monday, Feb. 21 ordered troops to invade two separatist pro-Moscow regions in Ukraine — Donetsk and Luhansk.
In an impassioned speech delivered Monday, Putin said he would formally recognize the independence of the separatist regions in Ukraine, provoking widespread international backlash, including the Biden administration announcing a series of new sanctions on Feb. 22.
At the University, some community members with personal connections to Ukraine who spoke with The Daily Princetonian reacted to news of the latest escalation by sharing concerns about family members in Ukraine and fears about war in the region.
“The war has been going on for eight years now,” said Professor Iryna Vushko, a professor of the history of modern Eastern Europe and a native of Ukraine, in the wake of Putin’s speech. “It did not start yesterday. Yesterday marked a new escalation, and it is only the beginning of a much larger military campaign.”
In 2014, Russia annexed Crimea, a Ukrainian region, resulting in two secessionist regions breaking off from Ukraine and an armed separatist movement taking control of government buildings in Ukraine’s Donbas region. A cease-fire was established in the 2014 and 2015 Minsk agreements.
Over the past few years, public discontent in Ukraine in the wake of Russian aggression led to increased interest in becoming a member of the North Atlantic Trade Organization (NATO) and of the European Union.
Throughout the conflict, Russia has continuously deployed cyberattacks against Ukraine, which have impacted Ukrainian infrastructure and government agencies. In April 2021, Ukraine saw a “war scare” as Russia ordered as many as 100,000 to 120,000 troops to the Russian-Ukrainian border, in what analysts refer to as the largest troop movement since the 2014 annexation.
“The only way to diminish this danger is to change the inside politics of Russia,” Vushko told the ‘Prince.’ “Some people say that the only way is for Russia to break up, the way the Soviet Union broke up, to create a sizable domestic opposition in Russia that doesn't really exist at this point, and to generate an internal dissent, and not just among the intellectuals.”
“The worst thing isn’t for bad people to do awful things, but it's when good people do nothing,” she added. “The Russian silence is very disappointing.”
For Marta Baziuk ’24, from Ternopil, Ukraine, her family's safety is at the forefront of her mind.
“I find it really challenging because I’m here, and my family’s there,” Baziuk said. “And so I don’t really know if anything happens if I’ll still be able to be in touch with them. How will I know that they’re safe? If the internet shuts down? If they need to relocate, how would I find them? If they start bombing from the air, there’s no way to ensure that people will be safe.”
Baziuk is part of a community of Ukrainian students that study in the United States. Through group chats, they keep each other informed on the ongoing situation in their home country and offer support.
At the same time, Baziuk believes it’s important to talk to the “other side,” too.
“I talked to some Russians, both on campus and off campus,” she said. “I think it’s very important to learn about their perspective.”
“The prospects of my family getting bombarded is terrifying; all my friends, too,” agreed Misha Bilokur ’25, who hails from Kyiv, Ukraine.
“The most scary part was when there was this announcement by the U.S. Secretary of Defense that there’s a possibility of war coming to Kyiv, which is a city of three million people, most of them are not military targets,” Bilokur said. “The war in the east was happening for eight years, and that’s not as terrifying because everyone’s used to it, but the war being brought to major cities. That’s scary.”
Some of the students told the ‘Prince’ that watching the conflict unfold from abroad has made them feel helpless.
“If I couldn’t help somehow, there’s literally nothing I can do,” Bilokur said. “And everyone understands that you going and pursuing education as a 20-year-old is probably the best thing you could do, for yourself, for your family, and for our country, ultimately.”
Bilokur said he understands that the reality is much more severe and personal for his family and friends in Ukraine.
Ukrainians at Princeton are eager to find support and community on campus. Vushko is in the process of putting together a Ukrainian Club at the University to build a stronger network for students.
In the wake of the events, the University pointed to resources for students who may be particularly impacted.
“Counseling and Psychological Services can provide services to support psychological well-being, and students who have questions related to their status or renewing a visa can attend the Davis Center’s virtual drop-in hours or schedule an appointment with their assigned advisor,” said Deputy University Spokesperson Michael Hotchkiss in an email to the ‘Prince’ on behalf of the Davis International Center.
Additionally, both Bilokur and Baziuk said they have struggled to find accurate depictions of Ukraine in the media. Baziuk said she tries hard to find reliable sources of information and avoid inflammatory headlines, while Bilokur said he wants to change the perception he’s received from American news outlets that Ukrainians may be delusional about the threat of war.
Vushko advised Ukrainian students to stay away from the news during this time, saying, “That’s what I did for a long time.”
Baziuk expressed her disappointment with the possibility of the Ukrainian conflict evolving into war.
"I think it’s really strange that the conflict is taking such turns as potential war, especially after our experiences in society, as humanity, in the 20th century with two world wars,” Baziuk said. “We would want to prevent anything like that from happening ever again. And yet, we see this escalation coming pretty rapidly. It just seems like people are quick to forget the important lessons that history taught us.”
Editor’s Note: When this article was published at 9:16 p.m., the conflict between Russia and Ukraine had not been escalated to military invasion. At 10:23 p.m., several international news sources reported that Russian President Putin ordered a military invasion into the Donbas region of Ukraine.
Isabel Yip is an Assistant News Editor who typically covers University Affairs and student life. She can be reached at email@example.com or on Instagram at @isaayip.
Julianna Lee is a news contributor for the ‘Prince.’ She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.