Thoughts on Ukraine – The World is Changing Right Before Our Eyes

March 3, 2022

I didn’t think I’d see it in my lifetime. Russia has invaded Ukraine, and as of the time of this writing, there is a fierce battle waging for the survival of this new and yet not new nation.

I have to admit, I did not know much about Ukraine before last week. I knew it was a rich agricultural area, and that it had been part of the Soviet Union, but not much more. I still don’t know as much as I should, but here is what I would talk to students about if this event came up while I was teaching.

  • Like many nations in the flat unprotected lands between Europe and Russia, Ukraine has been occupied/ruled by a variety of nations over the centuries.
  • After the Russian Revolution, there was a fierce Civil War in Ukraine, a war that saw pro Soviet forces emerge and subsequently join as one of the Soviets of the Soviet Union. During the Soviet rule, millions were killed in purges, Nazi genocide, and by the effects of the nuclear disaster in Chernobyl, Ukraine.
  • After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Ukraine became its own nation in 1991.
  • It has not been an easy 30+ years for a new country, as Russian has not been cooperative, and the path to political and economic freedom is never easy.

From what I am reading, Putin thought the time was right to attempt this conquest. Maybe he looked at Operation Desert Storm and saw how well the US forces did against an overwhelmed adversary. Maybe he believed, like leaders often do, that an easy military victory would boost his popularity. Maybe he felt he had to do this, as Ukraine had been leaning towards alliances with NATO and the west. Maybe he felt that that supporting pro-Russian Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk were a good enough reason to invade the rest of the country. And maybe he believed, like Soviet leaders of the past, that Russia’s military strength made this a no-lose gambit.

I wrote before that I never thought I’d see it. Let me explain. We have not really seen this since the advent of nuclear weapons. Only the USSR’s failed attempt to conquer Afghanistan comes close. The premises for other wars in my lifetime have been interventions in civil wars, attempts to halt genocides, or campaigns to prevent terrorism. But they were not intended to be conquests. The fear was always that if such an attempt started, that the USSR/Russia, USA, and now many other countries would face the threat of nuclear war. And such a strategy, as we learned from the WOPR in War Games, is “… a strange game. The only way to win is not to play.”

And yet here we are. And though Putin has raised the specter of using nuclear weapons, most do not think that is going to happen. The threat of nuclear war may no longer be the deterrent we thought it would always be to this type of military effort. I do think this threat remains the primary reason that NATO or independent major nations are not sending military troops.  But many nations are sending military weaponry. And there are other major developments that will change our world for years to come.

  • Germany is devoting more of its funds to military efforts. If this is going to be the new normal, they are going to start devoting more towards protecting themselves. While this could be helpful to the safety of a united Europe, Germany’s military history is not forgotten, and it does make many nervous. Also, the new European Union is, for the first time, financing military equipment to be used in a country under attack.
  • Switzerland is not taking a neutral stance. I use “Swiss” as a synonym for neutrality. I told my students to “not be Swiss” in their writing, and to take a clear stand in every essay they wrote. Looks like that phrase won’t work anymore.
  • The longest lines in the Ukrainian cities are the lines to sign up to be a volunteer for the military. While I love the patriotism and the desire to fight for a cause, the parent in me shudders at the thought of our children signing up for something where they will immediately be thrown into an incredibly dangerous and lethal situation. My thoughts and prayers to go all of the Ukrainians risking their lives against this attack.
  • The leadership lessons are incredible here. I don’t know what the results are going to be, but President Zelenskyy is not afraid, and he has inspired many. When it looked like this could very well be a 24-hour battle that Putin hoped for, the US offered to evacuate him to safety. His response: “The fight is here; I need ammunition, not a ride.” In a subsequent video, he stated, “I am here [in Kyiv]. We are not putting down arms. We will be defending our country, because our weapon is truth, and our truth is that this is our land, our country, our children, and we will defend all of this.” First lady Olena Zelenska, President Zelenskyy’s wife, has also expressed strength, courage, and resolve: “I will not have panic and tears. I will be calm and confident. My children are looking at me. I will be next to them. And next to my husband. And with you.”  Powerful stuff.
  • And don’t underestimate the role of freedom here. Ukrainian citizens are not required to fight, and they are lining up to do so. Russian soldiers, who are mostly drafted, are reportedly unmotivated and demoralized by how difficult this effort has been. Freedom is worth fighting for, and perhaps dying for.

I hate all of it. It’s very difficult for me to look at this with any lens other than that of a parent, and it terrifies me. But if I do go beyond that, we are living in the midst of a world changing event. I hope that history teachers around the world are pausing from their planned curriculum and devoting huge amounts of time to what this all means. To explain all of this, students can learn from the parallels to and the impact of the Russian Revolution, World War I and World War II, NATO, the end of the Soviet Union, the impact of sanctions on not just Russia, but our own economy, and so much more. Furthermore, this is an opportunity to develop students thinking around responsible citizenship, patriotism, loyalty, right and wrong. I might play Green Day’s 21 Guns and have students look at this war from the perspective of drafted Russian soldiers and volunteer Ukrainian citizens. I might discuss lessons I learned from Admiral James Stockdale, who was a POW in Vietnam for eight years, when I took powerful philosophy class he taught examining the concept of what is a just war?. This is a sad but remarkable teaching opportunity that teachers should pounce on.

I am hoping against all odds that this remarkably courageous Ukrainian effort is successful, and that Putin has to go home with his tail between his legs. But I’m not sure that’s in his DNA. I will say that Americans praising the efforts of Putin seems to be contrary to everything we believe in. This is brutal, unprovoked aggression that is destroying lives and families, and almost all of the world is trying to figure out how they can help turn it back. I am rooting for democracy, for freedom, and for self-determination, and all of us should be inspired by those fighting for what is just and good.

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Here are some resources that might be helpful to learn more:

On President Zelenzskyy

A 13-Century Timeline of Ukraine

Teaching and parenting resources for Ukraine

A great piece from London on the miserable history of Russian and Ukraine

Ukraininan Flag Photo from Wikipedia

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  1. Pam Brady says:

    Thank you Mike for putting into words what so many of us are feeling and trying to process.

    More importantly, your words are assisting us to wrap our minds and hearts on these critical times. Understanding the bigger picture, that as adults we have a critical responsibility to our children. Assisting them to process what it happening in the world while providing the ultimate hope for democracy. Thank you!

    1. Mike Matthews says:

      Thank you, Pam, for your kind comments. Sometimes it’s hard to see the big picture for all of the noise.

  2. Tracey Windes says:

    What a brilliant analysis- worthy of a spot in the New York Times and a ‘must read’ for anyone trying to make sense of the Russian Invasion. Your strength as an educator and leader has never been more evident.

    Kudos Mike!

    1. Mike Matthews says:

      Thank you, Tracey! That is very kind and I’m glad you find it useful!

  3. Kelley says:

    Well done! Doesn’t it make you want to teach again?

    1. Mike Matthews says:

      Yes it does, Kelley!

  4. Andy Trilling says:

    Nice Mike! Great summary.

    I’m hopeful Putin overplayed his perceived position and underestimated the financial consequences of his “special military operation” globally. Perhaps this might be a tipping point for the Russian people, and more influentially, the Russian Billionaires who it sounds like are seeing their wealth at risk.

    Putin better watch his 6…. et tu Brute?

    1. Mike Matthews says:

      Thanks, Andy. Hoping for the same. And thanks for classing this thread up by bringing in The Bard.

  5. Mike Matthews says:

    My friend Dermot shared an article that sheds a lot more light on the history of Russia/USSR and Ukraine. I’ll be adding it to the blog post, and here is the link.

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