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Teach-In on the War in Ukraine

By Jackson Prieto ‘22

On March 22, the Human Rights Center sponsored a teach-in on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Speakers from across campus shared their perspectives on the history, politics, and legal implications of the invasion, as well as the impacts of war and the prospects for peace. Along with more than a hundred classmates, I was able to attend this event and learn a great deal about this ongoing conflict.

As a history major, the first session was of particular interest to me. Dr. Masha Kisel of the English Department led off with an incredible synopsis of Ukrainian and Russian cultural ties through the lenses of literature and language. She emphasized the importance of linguistic connections and explained how the conflict today is truly like pitting brother against brother. Next, Dr. Megan Welton of the History Department discussed how President Putin has been drawing on old imperial and medieval Russian rhetoric as a means of justifying the conflict. Through a close reading of President Putin’s 2021 article “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians,” she highlighted how his use of such rhetoric manipulates the medieval past for present-day ends. The last speaker in this session was Dr. Anca Glont, also from the History Department, who discussed the historical and cultural bonds that link nations in Eastern Europe such as Hungary, Poland, and Romania. These bonds help explain why Ukrainian refugees were welcomed so enthusiastically in the first weeks following Russia’s invasion. 

The second session, highlighting the effects of the war on domestic and international politics, began with a presentation by Dr. Jaro Bilocerkowycz. His talk focused on President Putin’s motives for invasion, why that invasion is failing, and why the outcome is pivotal to the future of world politics. Dr. Bilocerkowycz argued that President Putin feels threatened by having democracy on his doorstep, wants to restore the Russian Empire, and wants to cement his legacy in Russian history. He asserted that Putin had miscalculated on a range of fronts, including the leadership of President Zelensky, the professionalism and bravery of the Ukrainian military and people, and the support shown to Ukraine from the international community. The next two speakers in the session both shared powerful stories of personal connections to the conflict. Tatiana Liaugminas, a lecturer in the Department of Global Languages and Cultures, sketched her background as a daughter of Ukrainians who met during the Second World War, before explaining the efforts of her niece and other family members currently to flee from Kharkiv. Yana Crossland, a graduate student in psychology, described growing up in a Ukrainian-American household and the difficult choices her cousins and grandparents in Ukraine have had to make during this war. The speakers encouraged students to show support by becoming informed about the conflict and by recognizing the fact that this war affects all of us. 

The third session emphasized legal issues raised by the invasion. Professor Andy Strauss, Dean of the Law School, began by discussing why the invasion represents a violation of the UN Charter, and particularly the prohibition on aggressive war. Next, he explained how Russia came to have its role as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, and what options there were for circumventing its veto power. Professor Shelley Inglis, Executive Director of the Human Rights Center, spoke next, discussing the 20th-century history of international courts and tribunals, and noting that neither Russia nor Ukraine are members of the International Criminal Court, though Ukraine has accepted ICC jurisdiction over crimes committed on its territory. Professor Ericka Curran, the final speaker in this session, pointed out the challenges for Ukrainians seeking asylum in the United States and noted how this compared to challenges faced by other asylum seekers at the US-Mexico border. 

The final two sessions of the teach-in focused on the themes of war and peace. Fr. Silviu Bunta of the Religious Studies Department addressed the anti-war doctrines of the Byzantine church and suggested that these provided an alternative to the Catholic Just War tradition. Sarah Cahalan, Director of the Marian Library, then discussed the challenge and the importance of protecting cultural heritage sites and objects from destruction in war. Her presentation noted how Catholic artifacts from Ukraine were treated during the Soviet period, while suggesting that damage to cultural heritage occurs across religious, national, and ethnic lines during conflict. Dr. Viorel Pâslaru of the Philosophy Department ended the session by discussing parallels between the historical memory of Germany and Russia today. He argued that while Germany was forced to undergo a period of intense soul searching following the Second World War and the Holocaust, Russia never properly processed the trauma of Joseph Stalin’s regime, nor has it confronted its legacy of occupation across Eastern Europe for nearly half a century. 

The fifth and final session, covering the topic of peace, was kicked off by Dr. Nicholas Rademacher of the Religious Studies Department who discussed conscientious objectors to war, focusing on those who refused to fight in the First World War. Rademacher argued that our disposition today towards patriotism makes military service a moral good in modern society. He noted that peace is an option, one which we are responsible to pursue every day. Dr. Kelly Johnson, also of Religious Studies, followed by giving an excellent breakdown of the Just War tradition within the Catholic faith, discussing its elements, as well as what she described as the “Cult of Sacrificial Violence.” This cult glorifies and romanticizes sacrificial violence for a greater cause, and even if the invasion is a classic case of just war, it simply becomes an occasion for pure hatred of the enemy. Dr. Johnson argued that civil resistance, over long periods, is more effective at dealing with injustice than warfare is. The last speaker at the teach-in, Dr. Jacob Bauer, also discussed nonviolence in times of war. He focused on “Gandhian Nonviolence” which is an active approach, and a commitment to always be more nonviolent. It also requires that we refrain from wishing harm upon all living beings, as well as wishing well-being to all living beings.

My takeaways

Although I am a history major, I am still a young man. Over the past four years at the University of Dayton, I have researched countless wars and tragedies throughout human history. However, none of those classes, textbooks, or seminars could have prepared me for this conflict. The Russian invasion of Ukraine is the largest conventional conflict in Europe since the Second World War. In a society that increasingly relies upon social media to communicate news, images from the war have been readily available since it began on February 24th, 2022. This teach-in was held on March 22nd, nearly a month after the war had begun, and as I sit here writing this report on April 27th, the war has no end in sight. Last month, Ukrainian forces took back the city of Bucha, a suburb of the capital Kyiv. What they found was the civilian cost of the war: bodies strewn across the streets, accompanied by mass graves. The bravery of the Ukrainian people, as what can only be described as a David versus Goliath battle against the Russians, is unprecedented in this century.

At the beginning of the war, conscripted Russian soldiers, boys younger than myself, were thrust into an invasion they didn’t even know was happening. The Ukrainian government has enacted a general mobilization, with all men of fighting age being called up into service, conscripted to fight in a war they didn’t ask for. Many women and children who are able have fled the country, causing a humanitarian crisis the likes of which Europe hasn’t seen in decades. All of this suffering, directed by Vladimir Putin, a man seemingly intent on cementing his legacy as the founder of a new Russian Empire. This is the same story that we unfortunately see time and time again throughout history. Old leaders, sending the young to die, in their wars.

So, what can be done? Raising awareness amongst young Americans - like with the Teach-In - about events happening across the world and in Ukraine, is a vital step in providing support to the Ukrainian and other people suffering in conflicts. The amount of fellow students that I saw at the event was inspiring, and I took pride in the amount of people my age who were genuinely concerned. The next step is concrete action. Ukraine is a fledgling democracy, on the doorstep of Putin’s authoritarian Russia no less. Its very existence poses a threat to Putin’s regime, as it offers an alternative style of governance. Ukrainians are fighting, and dying, for the very democratic values which we have sought to project across the world. As one of the leading nations of the free world, it is up to us, and other democratic nations, to arm and support a fellow democracy against an foreign invasion. While we must avoid getting directly involved, we must make it abundantly clear that the free world stands united against autocracies. Putin must be made to realize that the costs of the conflict outweigh the potential benefits, forcing him to come to the negotiating table.

Jackson is a recent graduate of UD with a major in history and minors in pre-law, political science and business administration. At the Human Rights Center he worked as an archival research assistant on the Vietnam Legacies Project.

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