Students Find Solidarity and Community Amidst the Conflict in Ukraine
Four students from the FSI community share their thoughts on the conflict in Ukraine, its implications for the world, and the comfort and solidarity they have felt in communing with one another at Stanford.
The war now being fought in Ukraine has shaken the world and its institutions to the core. With its focus on international affairs and unique relationship to Ukraine and the Ukrainian community, shock and anxiety about the uncertainties of the future have been particulalry keen amongst the students, faculty and staff at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (FSI).
The weekend after Russia's invasion of Ukraine, students came together at the McFaul residence for a teach-in about the unfolding events. In addition to hearing remarks from FSI's director, Michael McFaul, students had an opportunity to share their thoughts, worries and tears for the senseless violence being perpetrated.
Following this evening of solidarity, we asked students from the FSI community to share their feelings about that night and the larger implications of the evolving conflict. Me Me Khant (Master's in International Policy, '22), Anastasiia Malenko (Political Science and Economics, '23), Calli Obern (MIP, '22) and Mikk Raud (MIP, '22) offered their reflections.
Finding Connection in International Solidarity
I recently shared a space with a group of Stanford Ukrainian students who bravely shared their stories — feelings of guilt for being abroad, standing up for their friends fighting at home, calling for solidarity for democracy, losing sleep while worrying for families at home, but above all, the feeling of hope & determination that Ukraine will rise victoriously in the end.
I am a student from Myanmar, and I was in a similar space last February when the Burmese military staged a coup against the government and plunged my home country into violence. I heard my Ukrainian peers fully. I’ll never fully understand what the Ukrainians are going through right now, but I felt connected in our suffering and rage.
As the evening ended, there was a moment when one of the Ukrainian students came to me to tell me that he was so sorry for #WhatsHappeningInMyanmar. I told him, “Thank you. I am sorry too. I can only imagine what you are going through.” In response he asked, “But you feel it, yeah?”
For a moment, we stood there, teared up, in silence. It was simply powerful. I felt understood. I felt the support. And this was all while I was trying my best to not make this about Myanmar and to give them space for their own grief and trauma. It was not empty words of sympathy. It was a shared moment.
This is why across-movement international solidarity is important. When you are in it together, when vocabulary falls short to describe the immense trauma you are going through, when you are far from home watching your home burn, it’s the tears, it’s the silence, it’s the tremor in your voice, it’s a hug — that reminds you are not alone.
Living By the Ideals of Democracy
In political science classes at Stanford, we talk a lot about the ideals of democracy and legitimacy, about sovereignty and independence. Ukrainians don’t just talk about these ideas— they live by them.
A week ago, Russia invaded my home, bringing war to a peaceful democracy. Since then, my days and nights have been full of fear. However, my experience as a Ukrainian living abroad doesn't compare to what my friends and family are going through back home. Even under the constant threat of enemy fire, they still manage to help — collecting humanitarian aid,organizing transportation, coordinating national and local volunteering networks.
This way of living did not begin this month. For centuries, my nation has fought heroically for our independence and distinct cultural identity: our people defended Ukrainian symbols in the face of repressions, broke free of the Soviet Union, and shook off dictators time and time again to re-establish our democracy. For the first time, the world sees our fight. You see us face devastation the post-WWII world vowed would never happen again. As Russians bomb cities —destroying kindergartens, hospitals, orphanages, and schools — you witness our resilience. You watch our people take to the streets and stand against the occupying forces trying to enter our cities, singing the national anthem and telling Russians to leave our land.
This time, our fight is global, and, Ukrainians abroad are united in the fight. In under a week, the Ukrainian community at Stanford has launched a Joint Statement on Russia's War Against Ukraine, obtaining more than 800 signatures so far. We created the StandWithUkraine website with resources in 15 languages on organizations accepting donations, volunteering opportunities, reliable information sources, and templates for political advocacy.
The broader Stanford community has inspired me with their support as well. I appreciated Prof. McFaul's event that brought Ukrainians and MIP students together, especially because it demonstrated the FSI's community's unique ability to help. I hope that this potential can result in concrete actions, including further advocacy, donations, and volunteering. As scholars who have devoted their lives to the study of democracy, your time to act is now: join the fight to save Ukraine and Europe.
Uniting Abroad and at Home
As students of international policy, it is easy to distance ourselves from conflicts around the world. We are taught to examine them analytically through an international relations lens, hypothesizing what might be motivating a leader like Putin, Xi, or Biden to act in a certain way. But having the chance to hear from Ukrainian students and leaders across the Stanford community bridged what we study in the classroom and read in the news with what is actually happening to families and friends on the ground.
Listening to their stories and learning how we can assist, as policy students and citizens, was a reminder that we are not powerless — public opinion and advocacy can push policymakers to stand up for democracy and against violations of sovereignty and human rights.
Unfortunately, there have been too many instances of unnecessary fighting and occupying of foreign land, including by my own country the United States. The international community has shown that it can unite and respond when a foreign state violates international laws and norms – and we must not forget this should future invasions occur anywhere around the world.
Doing All We Can
The tragedy that is unfolding in Ukraine hits especially close to home for me both physically and emotionally – even more so after hearing all the touching stories of our Ukrainian friends at professor McFaul’s house.
I am from Estonia, another country unlucky enough to have an aggressive Russia as a neighbor. Should Putin meet any success in Ukraine, my homeland very well may be picked as the next target. Ironically enough, Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has only made NATO stronger, and as a member of the alliance, we should feel safe. But I also cannot overlook the irony and am even ashamed that the cost of NATO unity seems to be the complete destruction of Ukraine, who is essentially doing the fighting for all of us. Thousands of Ukrainian lives have ended, and millions will be emotionally damaged forever.
Emotionally, witnessing the thousands of casualties on both sides as a result of one man’s idea of a parallel universe and disregard of human life is heartbreaking. I also fear we are on the verge of making the same mistakes we have already made in the past. While the West has already done a lot to help Ukraine, are we doing enough? In a few months, after potentially thousands more innocent people have been massacred, will we be able to look our Ukrainian friends in the eyes and truly say we did all we could? As of now, it seems like the answer is no.
We are dealing with consequences, not the cause. While it is controversial to advocate for NATO to get directly militarily involved for the defense of Ukraine, there is a good chance that if we don’t intervene now, we will have to do so at a much higher cost in the future. The risk is huge, given Russia’s nuclear arsenal. In that line of thought, my own Estonia would probably be among the first targets, should a NATO-Russia war break out.
But in moments like this, it is important to have a higher risk tolerance than in times of peace. We are past the diplomatic appeasement period. The Russian Army is not the mighty creature it was portrayed to be and can be defeated. But for that to happen, we must all stand up to it, and support the conditions for the Russian population to stand up and reclaim their country from the dictator. There is no more peace in Europe, and peace elsewhere will also not last if Putin is not stopped now. My heart is broken for Ukraine already. I do not want it to be broken again for Estonia or Latvia, or for Germany and France.
As an international policy student and as a citizen of the free world, I invite all Western decision-makers to ask themselves this: when Ukraine may be in complete rubbles, when a ruthless dictator has gotten his way at the cost of an entire nation and is hungry for more, when the history books are written, will I be able to comfortably say that I did everything I could to prevent it? If the answer is no, then it’s time to get back to work. Long live free Ukraine!
Resources on the Ukraine-Russia Conflict
As the war in Ukraine evolves, the Stanford community is working to provide support and perspectives on the unfolding crisis. Follow the links below to find FSI's resource page of expert analysis from our scholars, and to learn how to get involved with #StandWithUkraine.