Content warning: This article contains graphic descriptions of war.
Oleksiy Sorokin remembers the night when he knew the war was becoming real.
He was at work until 3:00 am that day, which had become normal for him as his paper’s politics editor in the middle of a weeks-long military build-up at the Ukrainian-Russian border. Although conflicts and shelling in eastern Ukraine had been happening for days, Sorokin still smelled change when Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky addressed the nation after his final plea for peace went unanswered by Russia.
Sorokin didn’t sleep that night — too busy reading the news and waiting — until he saw a video of Russian President Vladimir Putin speaking. Before Putin even mentioned the word, Sorokin knew it was war. He called all his relatives and friends to let them know: start packing, prepare for the worst.
Hours later, the sounds of bombing and shooting shattered the silence of the early morning as Russian troops attacked military facilities in the Kyiv region.
“It became so real, so fast, that the whole night, we just remember packing and gathering family, looking for a bomb shelter and expecting the worst,” said Sorokin. His family moved to his grandmother’s house, whose large basement they used as a bomb shelter. One night, he recalled, they had to move down to the shelter three times, while sirens went off repeatedly.
A lot of residents stay in the subway stations to shelter. For others living in eastern cities like Kharkiv, where air raids are even more frequent, Sorokin said, some spend their nights running for their lives between apartments and shelters.
Now, Sorokin said, as Russian military convoys approach and encircle the city, Kyiv is preparing for combat: placing anti-tank barricades, deploying territorial defence units, and organizing civilian militias with guns to patrol the streets.
“You can feel war on every corner,” said Sorokin. “Those who remain in the city… are ready for the worst.”
After graduating from U of T in 2018, Sorokin became a journalist in Ukraine, first with The Kyiv Post and then with The Kyiv Independent.
Last Tuesday, U of T President Meric Gertler condemned Russia’s decision to invade Ukraine, calling for diplomatic efforts to end the war and restore peace, security, and democracy. Gertler stressed U of T’s responsibility to foster an understanding of complex issues, bring about unity by way of dialogue, and “advance the human condition” around the world through education.
“In the face of this shocking human suffering, our thoughts turn to the many University of Toronto students, faculty, librarians, staff, alumni and friends who have personal connections to Ukraine and the wider region, and to all members of our community who have been impacted by these recent events – including members of our Russian community who oppose the war and seek a peaceful resolution,” reads Gertler’s statement.
U of T’s connection to Ukraine is not only characterized by its many Ukrainian students and the numerous researchers it hosts who study the region — it was also the hosting institution for the Ukraine Reform Conference in 2019. Delegates and leaders from over 30 countries — including Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Deputy Prime Minister and then-Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland — attended the conference. “I was struck then by President Zelensky’s personal warmth and great commitment to Ukraine and its people,” Gertler wrote in his statement.
A U of T spokesperson confirmed that there are no U of T students currently in Russia or Ukraine on university activity, but they do not have information on students who may be studying remotely from either country. More than 100 Ukrainian citizens are currently enrolled at U of T and several dozen alumni are living in Ukraine. The spokesperson also mentioned that both Canada’s current ambassador to Ukraine, Larisa Galadza, and former ambassador Roman Waschuk are U of T alums.
Invasion leaves Ukrainians shocked and grieving
Nadiya Kovalenko was born and grew up in Ukraine and is a first-generation immigrant to Canada. She is a third-year student and the current co-president of the Ukrainian Students’ Club. In an interview with The Varsity, Kovalenko said she is still in touch with families and friends in the war-torn region, who have told her what it’s like to live there at the moment. “There were things exploding around them… and they had no one else to turn to,” said Kovalenko.
Kovalenko said that, like many others, she did not anticipate the situation on Ukraine’s borders to escalate so quickly. She pointed out that the war between Russia and Ukraine has been going on since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014.
“I feel like people in Ukraine didn’t really believe that this was going to go any further than that, to be honest,” said Kovalenko. “And then seeing bombs being dropped on peaceful cities, you know, airstrikes, troops coming in on tanks. It’s just… I feel like none of us can believe that this is really happening.”
Kovalenko said some of her childhood friends and classmates have taken up arms. One of her friends almost lost his life in combat recently and has lost an arm. “I’m speechless. I just can’t believe this has happened to someone that I grew up with, that I went to the same school with,” she said.
Kovalenko said she and her community are very grateful for the support they received from around the world. For Kovalenko, the worldwide solidarity with Ukraine is reassuring and provides hope.
Anton Ivanov is a Ukrainian-Canadian in his third year at U of T. His parents were born in Ukraine and his extended family still lives there. He said that since the invasion has started, he sometimes finds it hard to fully invest himself in his own work, because he’s worrying about his relatives. “A lot of the times my mind would drift to, ‘There’s an invasion going on. My family is living in danger,’ ” he explained.
Ivanov also spends a lot of time reading the news about what’s going on at the front line, hoping for good news. He feels encouraged when he reads about Ukrainians resisting the invasion and about Ukrainian cities that are still standing. “There’s a chance that my family’s gonna be okay,” he said.
Marta Perehinets, a first-year undergraduate student, has a cousin deployed in the Luhansk region, which has been intensely bombarded by Russia. She told The Varsity that her cousin describes the situation there as a “hellscape.” Fire, flying bombs, constant shooting — these are hallmarks of daily life. Perehinets said that even staying in touch with her cousin can be difficult.
Beyond Ukraine: A world order under assault
Aurel Braun is a professor of international relations and political science at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, as well as a visiting professor at Harvard University’s Centre for Russian and Eurasian Studies. In an interview with The Varsity, Braun spoke to the international implications of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Braun said that he believes Russia’s invasion is not just about war with Ukraine, but is meant as an attempt to challenge the international order. He added that, while it’s also taking expansionist actions toward other countries, Russia is also repressing its own people for the purpose of encouraging expansion.
“In parallel to Russia’s aggressiveness internationally, they have become ever more repressive domestically,” said Braun. As evidence, he pointed to the near assassination of opposition leader Alexei Navalny under the Kremlin’s order, who later faced a long jail time after returning to Russia.
Additionally, according to Russian authorities, 3,500 anti-war protesters have been arrested in cities across the country. Some outlets — such as OVD-Info, an independent Russian media outlet that reports on human rights and political persecution — have stated that the number is over 7,000.
Braun explained that Russia’s expansionism and oppression inside the country are the result of Russia trying to avoid domestic failure. Russia compensates for citizens’ loss of freedom with promises of global prestige and security from international ‘threats.’ He said that Putin’s Russia has failed to take advantage of opportunities to modernize its economy, and that the country remains highly dependent on exporting fossil fuels.
At the same time, Russia has also shown ambitions to expand in the Arctic region as an attempt to find new sources of oil and gas — a concerning trend for Canada, as it directly faces Russia in the Arctic. “An accident in the Arctic would have a devastating impact on the Canadian coastline,” said Braun. He added that as Arctic ice melts, Russia’s ability to navigate and control that area increases.
One of the major arguments Russia has used to justify the war has been Ukraine’s bid for NATO membership. Russia opposes NATO’s acceptance of Ukraine as a member state, wanting to keep NATO troops out of eastern European countries.
However, Braun doesn’t accept this justification. “Some will say, well, maybe NATO should not have enlarged. But I don’t think that was a problem,” said Braun. He pointed out that some eastern European states have actively sought NATO membership out of fear of Russian aggression.
And the invasion is about more than just the security alliance, Braun argued — Putin fears the successful democratization of Ukraine. “He fears his own people. He fears democracy. And what he did not want to see is a Ukraine that would become a successful democratic state on his borders — a large, Slavic country, speaking a similar language, sharing some similar historical legacies, that will become a prosperous, modern, successful democracy, that will offer a contrast to the very repressive, corrupt dictatorial rule that is running inside Russia,” he said.
The global West’s failure to deter Russia’s aggression, Braun said, could have further ramifications. For example, Ukraine denuclearized following promises of protection from the West. If Ukraine falls, Braun argued, other countries may consider seeking out nuclear weapons of their own.
Entanglement, determination, and hope
Some Ukrainian community members also talked about the global implications of the invasion. “We are fighting not only for ourselves,” said Sorokin. “We are fighting for every democratic country, for every developing nation, for every nation that felt oppression during its history, for… those who are oppressed, for those who want democracy to prevail.”
Perehinets echoed Sorokin’s call to uphold liberal democratic principles. To her and her fellow Ukrainians, Perehinets said, freedom has always been a part of Ukrainian identity. “We are free and we fight for our own freedom,” said Perehinets.
Perehinets also slammed Putin’s claim that Russia created Ukraine, as well as his denial of the legitimacy of Ukrainian statehood. She described the statement as a rewriting of history. But the important thing, she said, is that Ukrainians know their history and heritage. “It doesn’t matter what some psychopath in the Russian government says — we know who we are.”
Kovalenko shared this sense of pride, especially about the courageous resistance she’s seen demonstrated by everyone in Ukraine, from the president to ordinary Ukrainians. To the people of Ukraine, she said: “You have put up such a fierce resistance. I am so proud of you and… I’m very proud of my heritage.”