Eastern European students seek solidarity amidst Putin’s invasion of Ukraine

Lily Yost, News Reporter

The largest European invasion since World War II is unfolding along the Ukrainian border, seeping further and further into a country tipping between Russian expansionism and national sovereignty. Putin’s invasion is an attempt to regain control of a country with strong historical ties to Russia. 

“I didn’t expect it, first of all. Up to the last moment I was hoping it wouldn’t happen,” Uladzislau “Vlad” Voinich, a senior from Belarus said. “There’s no justification for what Putin and his government are doing… It’s terrifying… I feel betrayed.”

Despite the disapproval of Belarusian citizens, Putin has been using Belarus to launch attacks on Ukraine. Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky has shamed citizens for allowing their dictatorial government to aid Putin.

Ukraine’s recent flirtation with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) represents the country’s tightening relationship with the West. After World War II, countries from Europe and North America formed NATO to curb Soviet expansion and encourage capitalism and democracy abroad. As Ukraine cemented their relationship with the West, the Russian government decided to respond with war.

The invasion started when Putin announced the sovereignty of two states in eastern Ukraine known as Donbas. Shortly after, people in Ukraine reported hearing explosions. 

Many Ukrainians have been hunkering down, seeking shelter in train stations and bunkers. Among them are sophomore Nadiia Balbek’s parents. Balbek is from Ukraine’s capital city Kyiv. 

“My parents are sitting, mostly hiding during the air raids like in the closet, in the bathroom,” Balbek said.

 Her family has decided to stay put while some of her friends fled to different regions or neighboring countries. Most of the Ukrainian migrants have crossed into Poland, while others have fled to Slovakia, Romania and Hungary. 

“It’s really surreal to be here [at Whitman] in such an idle place. People are doing their homework and living their life… I don’t live here right now—I think I live there [in Kyiv] with my thoughts,” Balbek said. “I keep reading the news and all that every single hour. There’s this feeling of talking to your family or friends and you don’t know if this is the last time you are talking to them. Yeah, they’re staying safe, but you don’t know where or when the missile is going to land.” 

According to the United Nations refugee agency, more than a million people have fled Ukraine. The country has a population of 44 million, and Putin’s militarism will exacerbate a preexisting refugee crisis. 

President Zelensky remains in Kyiv. He has urged citizens to take up arms and fight for their country. 

“The resistance they are putting up to the Russian military is incredible, and nobody expected that, Russians included. That’s why their plans are backfiring—they didn’t expect so much resistance, so much unity between people,” Voinich said. 

Since Russia’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula, the United States has poured over $3 billion in weapons, military equipment and training into Ukraine. So far, Ukraine has blown up bridges to offset Russian forces and have prevented Russian fighter jets from flying into Ukrainian skies. 

“I’m so, so proud. I’m beyond proud. It’s really amazing. I’m just hoping Ukraine will stay free and regain its sovereignty sooner than later,” Balbek said. 

The people of Ukrainian and Eastern Europe have rallied together to support each other. Many Ukrainian citizens are volunteering to join the fight, especially men ages 18-60, who have been barred from leaving.

“Everybody is scared there, but at the same time there’s unity, there’s a sense of mutual aid, mutual help between people, a lot of volunteers. Everybody’s trying to do something,” Voinich said. 

Grzegorz “Greg” Lecki, the Director of International Student and Scholar Support Services at Whitman, has been receiving phone calls from Ukrainian friends asking him for help. Many Ukrainians have fled to Poland, Lecki’s home country. 

“I was speaking with a good friend…he’s in late 40s, his wife could leave, but he cannot. So he’s trying to convince his wife: you should go. But she doesn’t want to leave him. Their children have already left, but this is a decision you never want to make,” Lecki said. 

International students from Eastern Europe have been meeting on a regular basis, looking for mutual support as their countries wage war with each other, pick sides or manage an influx of Ukrainian migrants. Most of them have friends or family members directly affected by the invasion. 

“It’s excruciating to be apart from my family but I know that they want me to be here and they want me to be safe, but it’s just horrible,” said Balbek.

To tackle a feeling of idleness, Lecki set up a Go Fund Me page for Ukrainian families seeking refuge in Poland. People reading in print can access the page at tinyurl.com/ycktz6hk