Professor, Ukraine Native: ‘Ukraine Should Not Be Left Alone in its Fight for Survival’
Olena Lennon, Ph.D., an adjunct professor of political science, international affairs, and national security, hails from eastern Ukraine and has family and friends throughout the country, as well as in Russia. She discusses the history of the conflict between the two countries, her concerns for the safety of her loved ones, and what people around the world can do to support Ukraine.
March 24, 2022
By Renee Chmiel, Office of Marketing and Communications
Olena Lennon, Ph.D., has been closely following the war in Ukraine. Not only is she an academic whose research has focused on the politics of Ukraine and Eurasian geopolitics, she is also a native of eastern Ukraine. Her immediate family is still there, and she also has extended family and friends throughout Ukraine and Russia.
Dr. Lennon has remained in touch with her loved ones as much as possible since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last month. Dr. Lennon has friends who are still in Kyiv and remain in touch, sending photos and videos of the missile strikes that are occurring daily. They have been spending most nights in bunkers. A particularly scary time followed after the launch of the invasion, when her family in eastern Ukraine lost their internet connection for some time.
“When you don’t see text messages going through for a couple of days, you start assuming the worst,” said Dr. Lennon, an adjunct professor of political science, international affairs, and national security at the University. “Their internet has since been restored, but shelling is still ongoing. Some of my family members who live outside Kyiv were forced to evacuate to western Ukraine when the Russians besieged and pounded the town of Irpin, as they were trying to push into the capital.”
'That could have been my situation, too’
Dr. Lennon had planned to travel to Kyiv herself in mid-February, but because the buildup of Russian troops had already reached a point of concern, her plans changed. Then, two days before she was supposed to leave the U.S., the Biden Administration issued evacuation orders for many American personnel in Ukraine. While her flight still left for Ukraine, Dr. Lennon remained in the U.S. – a decision that she’s grateful she made.
“In retrospect, it was a good decision as I would have still been in Kyiv on February 24 when the city came under attack,” she explains. “A lot of people started to flee that day, resulting in massive traffic jams despite the risk of aerial bombardment. It took some of my friends several days to reach the Polish border by car, and several more days to wait in line at the border to go through customs.
"That could have been my situation, too,” she continued. “I am glad I didn’t go, but I also felt immense guilt as a result.”
‘Underestimated Ukraine’s resistance’
Dr. Lennon, who has brought her students to her home country in the past, says the most devastating location in Ukraine so far has been the destruction of the southeast port city of Mariupol. She explains that Russia has heavily attacked the city since the beginning of the invasion, leaving hundreds of thousands of people trapped without water, food, or electricity.
“The city has by now been almost completely leveled by Russian missile strikes, with thousands left dead or missing,” she said. “One of my old college friends from Mariupol has not heard from her parents for weeks. She and her family are always on my mind now. I often reminisce about the time she and I spent in college together and how innocent, fun, and normal life was then.”
She says that, despite an apparent stalemate as Ukraine has “successfully denied Russia a swift capture of Kyiv and other key cities,” Russia may regroup, and the next phase of the war could be even more devastating.
“Russian President Vladimir Putin seems to have underestimated Ukraine’s resistance and overestimated the Russian military’s ability to deliver on his maximalist political aims of a quick subjugation of Ukraine,” she explains. “As a result of many strategic and tactical mistakes, the Russian military has suffered massive losses and made much slower advances into Ukraine.”
'United Ukrainians in their defiance’
Excluding Russia, Ukraine is the largest country in Europe in terms of area, and Dr. Lennon describes it as very ethnically, linguistically, and politically diverse. She also says it has a “complicated history,” noting that the conflict between Ukraine and Russia is not new.
Dr. Lennon, whose research has focused on the fight for freedom and democracy in Ukraine, says the country has endured a long and, at times, tumultuous fight for independence. She refers to the 2014 revolution as a “turning point,” as it led to the ousting of Ukraine’s then President Viktor Yanukovych, who was pro-Russia, and triggered Russia’s annexation of Crimea, a peninsula extending into the northern Black Sea.
“The revolution led to the rise of civil society and civic identity in Ukraine,” she said. “More people began to identify as Ukrainian as their primary identity – not in terms of their ethnic or hereditary lineage, but in terms of their loyalty to the Ukrainian state as one different from Russia.
“In that way, by trying to fracture Ukraine, Putin accomplished the opposite,” she continued. “He united Ukrainians in their defiance against Russia’s aggression and in their desire to integrate with western political institutions that represent a value system centered on individual freedoms and rule of law.”
‘Nothing short of awe-inspiring’
Ukrainians’ loyalty to protecting their country has captured the attention of the world since the invasion. The resistance of Ukraine’s military and the bravery of civilians have impressed people around the globe – including Dr. Lennon, who notes that many people have joined the territorial defense units – a volunteer branch of the country’s Armed Forces – after the invasion.
"Ideas matter, and they are worth fighting for."Olena Lennon, Ph.D.
“What was truly remarkable was seeing the courage of unarmed civilians blocking Russian tanks and armored vehicles from entering their towns and villages,” she said. “They also organized mass protests against Russian occupation forces taking over local administrations.
“Some of my friends returned to Kyiv after moving their families to safety because they wanted to be there to defend the capital,” she continued. “It’s tragic that so many people’s lives were so brutally interrupted, ruined, or ended by the Russian invasion, but the Ukrainian people’s courage and resilience are nothing short of awe-inspiring.”
‘It is a global event’
While their bravery and resistance have been remarkable, Dr. Lennon acknowledges that Ukraine’s fight is challenging for a variety of reasons. Ukraine faces the largest military power in Europe and one of the two largest nuclear powers in the world. Despite the support and the supplies Ukraine has received from its NATO allies, there are concerns that direct involvement could lead to more conflict – including, possibly, a wider war with Russia.
Ukraine’s allies have been attempting to weaken Russia while strengthening Ukraine. They have been supplying Ukraine with weapons, ammunition, and other material; providing intelligence; and attempting to sanction Russia to weaken its economy. While Dr. Lennon is hopeful these measures will make a difference, she says they may not be enough.
“These sanctions are expected to devastate the Russian economy, but it is unclear whether these sanctions will deter Putin in the immediate future,” she said. “In the long term, sanctions will definitely set the Russian economy and military power back by several years, and they will hopefully deter Russia from embarking on such maximalist military campaigns in the future. But until that happens, Ukraine needs more immediate help to save more lives and survive as an independent state.”
‘It is a global event that has already ushered in a new historical era’
Dr. Lennon describes Ukraine’s needs as “vast.” There has already been an outpouring of support from individuals around the world. For those who wish to support Ukraine with a monetary donation, Dr. Lennon recommends supporting Come Back Alive, an organization that raises money for Ukraine’s armed forces; Razom for Ukraine (Razom means “together” in Ukrainian), an organization that helps Ukraine foster democracy and prosperity; or international organizations such as UNICEF and Voices for Children.
For those looking to support Ukraine in other ways, Dr. Lennon suggests contacting local offices of refugee resettlement agencies, writing to congressional leaders, and helping local Ukrainian organizations with advocacy and public awareness efforts. That is critical, she says, because this conflict is not limited to just Ukraine and Russia.
"It is a global event that has already ushered in a new historical era,” she said. “The war has real potential to become a wider regional and global war involving nuclear powers, and it has already changed global security and the global economy. Punitive sanctions against Russia, combined with Ukraine’s loss of productivity, will send shockwaves through the world.”
‘We cannot stand aside’
The war is already impacting people in the United States as well – in terms of higher energy and commodities prices. Dr. Lennon also expects that the war in Ukraine will bring about significant shifts in the U.S.'s foreign policy and defense spending. But, she says, the impact in the U.S. pales in comparison to the plight of Ukrainians, for whom their safety and well-being are now “very relative terms” as the situation continues to change and remains difficult to predict.
These additional costs and challenges for the U.S. will not be insurmountable relative to the price Ukraine is paying for fighting one of the world's largest military powers,” she said. “Ukraine is fighting for the very ideal of freedom from authoritarianism and oppression.
“These ideals inspired American revolutionists and led to the creation of the United States of America,” she continued. “I’m sure at that time many people didn’t think it was possible or practical, but, in the end, ideas and ideals prevailed. Ideas matter, and they are worth fighting for. Ukraine should not be left alone in its fight for survival, as it is fighting to preserve a value system we all benefit from. We cannot stand aside.”