Good morning, and (belatedly) welcome to March!
For 2 years, the world has been transfixed (and polarized) by a life-and-death battle against an invisible foe, as COVID19 seemed poised to radically change the trajectory of internationalization, the economy, campus life and educational technology.
A week ago, as much of the world was finally emerging from its long pandemic winter, Vladimir Putin created an entirely new pivot point for European history, the global economy, and the geopolitical world order, by bringing about an abrupt end to the post-Cold War era.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine will have immediate and more lasting impacts on higher education. It’s taken me a few days to switch gears from epidemiology to politics, and to make sense of some 500+ articles from around the world. There’s a ton to unpack, and I suspect we’ll spend the next week or so on various impacts and implications for PSE…
Not since the end of WW2 has Europe seen such a deadly invasion of one sovereign nation by another…
War Returns to Europe
As uToronto’s Janice Stein points out, Russia’s war against Ukraine began 8 years ago when it invaded and annexed the Crimean Peninsula in 2014. The invasion escalated last Monday, Feb 28, when Putin sent “peacekeepers” into Luhansk and Donetsk, and recognized the separatist regions as independent nations. But last Thursday, Feb 24, the world’s second most powerful military launched a full-scale invasion of neighbouring Ukraine by land, air, and sea. Russia has unleashed 150,000 ground troops and fired thousands of missiles at Ukrainian targets, many hitting non-military buildings like apartment buildings, hospitals and schools. The barrage continues as of this writing, with key cities near the breaking point as Russian forces advance. (Russia claims to have occupied the port city of Kherson.) The UN confirmed 536 civilian casualties as of Tuesday, and Ukraine reports 2,000 civilian deaths as of Wednesday.
“We now have war in Europe on a scale and of a type we thought was left to history.” – Jens Stoltenberg, NATO secretary-general
Although Ukraine has sought NATO membership for years (over vocal opposition from Russia), Putin’s invasion seems to have backfired and sparked greater European unity than ever. In a joint statement last Friday, NATO heads of state condemned the “unconscionable” Russian aggression as “the gravest threat to Euro-Atlantic security in decades,” and lamented that “peace on the European continent has been fundamentally shattered.” In an emergency session yesterday, the UN General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to denounce Russia’s invasion and demand it withdraw from Ukraine – 141 to 5, with 35 abstentions. (The 5 opposing votes are now the world’s pariahs: Russia, Belarus, Eritrea, North Korea and Syria.) Late last night, the International Criminal Court in the Hague launched an investigation into possible war crimes, crimes against humanity, and/or genocide by Russian officials in Ukraine. (“The ICC is created to circumvent Putin’s head of state immunity in foreign courts,” although they require international support to actually arrest those they charge and bring them to trial.)
At an emergency summit on Sunday, NATO committed “significant additional defensive deployments of forces” to eastern member countries bordering Russia, Belarus and Ukraine, and activated some Rapid Response Force elements, putting 100 fighter jets in 30 locations on high alert, and potentially mobilizing up to 40,000 troops. Instead of reducing its presence in Central Europe as Russia has demanded, NATO will continue to support non-member democracies including Georgia, Moldova, and Bosnia/ Herzegovina. “We have deployed defensive land and air forces in the eastern part of the Alliance, and maritime assets across the NATO area.” New York Times
“President Putin’s decision to attack Ukraine is a terrible strategic mistake, for which Russia will pay a severe price, both economically and politically, for years to come.” – NATO Heads of State, joint statement
“A 1939 Moment” in Germany
German chancellor Olaf Scholz, calling Putin a “warmonger” and Feb 24 “a historic turning point in the history of our continent,” reversed decades of foreign policy that attempted to maintain balanced diplomatic ties with both Russia and Europe. Scholz announced Sunday an increase in military spending to more than 2% of Europe’s largest GDP “from now on, every year,” starting with an immediate $113B – tripling Germany’s defense budget. The moves are “a seismic shift for a country that has been allergic to involvement in international conflict since the end of [WW2].” Germany also committed to sending 1,000 shoulder-launched anti-tank rockets and 500 surface-to-air Stinger missiles to Ukraine immediately – and released other EU countries from restrictions that prevented them from sharing German-made armaments. New York Times | Washington Post
“Watershed Moment” for the EU
In the wake of Germany’s pivot, for the first time in its history the EU announced that it will spend $507M on lethal arms and $56M on other supplies (such as fuel and equipment) for a non-member country. “Another taboo has fallen: the taboo that the European Union was not providing arms in a war.” Ukraine’s application for membership in the EU is also being considered, with some form of “temporary protection” expected to allow refugees to work legally throughout the EU for up to 3 years. National Post | CTV
“It is going to be a sea change because all of Europe is looking at this in a different way. The EU has discovered its heart and spine.” – Ben Hodges, retired Lt General, US Army Europe
In a show of global solidarity, the EU, Britain, Canada, Albania, and many other Western countries have banned all Russian aircraft (including the private jets of Russian oligarchs) from their airspace. (Of course, within hours an Aeroflot flight from Miami entered Canadian airspace anyway, claiming it was a “humanitarian flight.” And yesterday, 4 Russian fighter jets entered Swedish airspace over the Baltic Sea.) In his State of the Union Address on Tuesday, US president Joe Biden announced that American airspace would be closed to Russian aircraft as well. Europe and the Western hemisphere are now effectively out of reach for Russian flights. Of course, what Ukraine really needs is a NATO-enforced no-fly zone of its own, to prevent Russia from establishing air superiority and dominating the country with helicopters, missiles and fighter jets. Ukrainian leaders are appealing to NATO, but a no-fly zone is “not on the table” because it would represent a severe escalation, should NATO fighters have to engage with Russian ones. (No-fly zones in Iraq, Bosnia and Libya were not imposed on a nuclear power with the potential to start WW3. They would be effectively “an act of war.”)
Thankfully, North American campuses haven’t found themselves in an actual war zone in living memory. (Although 57 HBCUs were subject to bomb threats last month, and a Brigham Young U student managed to blow up his dorm last week while brewing rocket fuel.) But in Ukraine, some 1.6M students were attending about 800 universities across the country as Russia began its invasion. A brand new American U Kyiv was even preparing for its grand opening, just days earlier…
Research institutions in Crimea were transferred to Russian control in 2014, and 18 Ukrainian universities have relocated out of Luhansk and Donetsk as hostilities escalated since then. Most Ukrainian researchers cut ties with Russia and turned instead to European partners, even gaining access to EU research funding. Russian occupation would threaten all of that, as well as their physical labs and homes, and would drive many researchers to leave Ukraine altogether – setting back higher education in the country significantly. Other international research partnerships could also be disrupted by the invasion, such as studies of long-term effects of radiation on wildlife in the Chernobyl exclusion zone by researchers at McMaster.
As Russian tanks began their ground offensive last week and martial law was declared, universities in eastern Ukraine calmly evacuated their personnel, computers and key documents. (Fortunately, most students were learning remotely anyway due to COVID19 outbreaks.) Times Higher Ed reports that students and faculty in Kyiv are dodging unexploded bombs on campus, and joining civil resistance groups to fight occupying troops. Most students evacuated their dorm at National U of Kyiv when an unexploded Russian bomb landed outside. Chemistry students at Kyiv Polytechnic are reportedly manufacturing Molotov cocktails. On Monday, 2 cruise missiles hit Freedom Square in Kharkiv, a city with 20 universities, damaging several campus buildings. Another trade school near Kyiv was decimated by missile strikes.
“In these difficult times, we must be aware that the enemy is trying to intimidate and make us panic. Our primary task is not to give the aggressor any chance to achieve these aims… the power of knowledge is crucial.” – Roman Grynyuk, Rector, Donetsk National University
Foreign Students Stranded
Ukraine had 76,548 international students enrolled from 155 countries, as of last count, with 20,000 from India alone. Ukraine draws particularly well for programs in medicine, pharmacy and dentistry, and 2 particularly popular universities are located in Kharkiv, just 25km from the Russian border. (On Twitter and YouTube, there have already been multiple reports about bomb damage to the Karazin National U’s school of sociology there.) Many British students wisely flew home to the UK in mid-February, “to avoid the panic,” once the UK Foreign Office advised they leave. A newly-opened Indian restaurant in Kyiv caters to thousands of students from India attending university in the nation’s capital, but now its basement serves as a makeshift bomb shelter instead. Six evacuation flights have flown Indian nationals back to Delhi. Sadly, on Mar 1 an Indian student and an Algerian student both died in Kharkiv during intense shelling. Tens of thousands of other international students are calling for help from their governments, largely in vain: “We left Iraq to escape war… but it’s the same thing in Ukraine.” Washington Post | PIE News
Already, mass evacuations of Ukraine are creating a refugee crisis in Poland, and a wave of millions may be headed toward Europe…
A Deliberate Refugee Crisis
More than 1 million Ukrainian refugee women and children have flooded toward the country’s land borders with Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania, where queues are stretching up to 35km. (Men of conscription age are not permitted to leave Ukraine.) European countries are reportedly “welcoming” the asylum-seekers, in stark contrast to past treatment of refugees from Afghanistan, Syria, Ethiopia and Yemen. Bulgarian PM Kiril Petkov sparked racial outrage when he explained, “These are not the refugees we are used to… these people are Europeans.” Explains one Oxford politics prof: “There’s the idea of a shared fate — ‘we could be next’ — and having a shared identity that stands against Russian imperialism.” (Even Airbnb is offering free stays of up to 14 days for 100,000 Ukrainian refugees.) Britain, however, which left the EU in part to regain control of immigration, is still reticent: a Home Office minister controversially suggested Ukrainians might seek seasonal work visas as farm labourers. SFU prof James Horncastle argues that Putin’s invasion from north, east and south is deliberately designed to drive Ukrainian refugees into Europe – leaving behind ethnic Russians who could democratically choose to embrace his “liberation.” National Post | Washington Post | The Conversation
The Guild of European Research Intensive Universities is urging political leaders to enable their institutions to welcome Ukrainian students and staff to their campuses, while the EUTOPIA European University Alliance says it is “engaged in supporting Ukrainian students and staff to the best of our abilities.” Europe’s Academic Cooperation Association in Brussels is calling on the EU for “immediate and tangible actions… to support Ukrainian scholars and students whose academic journeys and lives have and will be affected by the escalating violence,” including flexible visa and residence policies and an emergency scholarship/grant program within the framework of Erasmus+. Masaryk U in the Czech Republic is preparing for 500 refugee students, and universities from Lithuania to Australia have announced special scholarship programs. NAFSA and ACE are urging the US State Department and Homeland Security to provide flexibility and support to Ukrainian students and scholars in the US, or seeking to enter. PIE News
Sector Rallies on Twitter
On Twitter, the EUA is compiling “concrete” offers of support to Ukrainian higher ed and research, including lab opportunities and fast-track refugee programs in Germany, offers to host African students in France, free accommodation and €6M in support from the Czech Republic, and more. Science for Ukraine is likewise compiling offers of accommodation, funding, lab and office space for displaced academics. (I would also add my voice to that of Alex Usher, who has been urging CdnPSE to eliminate differential fees for Ukrainians for the duration of the conflict.)
While no-one wants to contemplate it, many military and political analysts believe that Russian president Vladimir Putin is becoming “unhinged” and could well turn to weapons of mass destruction – chemical, biological, or even nuclear…
Ukraine reported Tuesday that Russia deployed a thermobaric weapon, or “vacuum bomb.” Such weapons, whether bombs or missiles, create a large cloud of flammable gas that is then ignited in a massive, high-temperature blast wave. A uPortsmouth military expert explains that thermobaric blasts are “bunker busters” that can level buildings and destroy fortifications, with the effect of “a small-yield nuclear weapon without the residual radiation.” It is virtually impossible for civilians or non-combatants to take shelter, and in the words of the CIA, “those near the ignition point are obliterated.” Russia has previously deployed thermobaric weapons in Afghanistan, Syria, and Chechnya. Their use against civilian targets could be considered a crime against humanity. CTV / Reuters
Chernobyl in a Warzone
One of the first sites captured by Russian forces on Thursday was the Chernobyl nuclear plant, near the border with Belarus. (Chernobyl melted down in 1986 and caused catastrophic radioactive fallout for miles, across what remains a thousand-square-mile “exclusion zone.” Radioactive debris is contained inside a concrete “sarcophagus” and a 4-year-old $1.7B “confinement arch.”) At the time, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky tweeted “this is a declaration of war against the whole of Europe.” Russia’s defense ministry claims it merely wants to protect the plant’s infrastructure and prevent any “nuclear provocation” – but another source told Reuters that Putin wants control of Chernobyl as a warning to NATO. (Certainly the site could be used for nuclear blackmail.) Ukrainians are still haunted by memories of the 1986 explosion, which fuelled their desire for independence 30 years ago. “Russia is stirring up radioactive particles, and also Chernobyl’s painful legacy.” But Chernobyl is hardly the only risk: Ukraine has 15 active, Soviet-era nuclear reactors across the country, which require careful maintenance and monitoring. Wartime can disrupt such maintenance schedules, just as a stray missile or artillery shell could damage containment buildings, or a cyberattack could take down essential electrical systems. Wired | The Verge | Reuters | The Atlantic
“Certainly nothing is off the table with this guy.” – Linda Thomas-Greenfield, US ambassador to the UN
To discourage Western interference in Ukraine, Putin made thinly-veiled threats of “consequences… such as you have never seen in your entire history,” and then put his nuclear forces on “high alert,” supposedly because of “aggressive statements about our country” from NATO allies. Bob Rae, Canada’s ambassador to the UN, believes the move is merely a “tactic” designed to encourage the West to “back off,” because it would be “deeply irrational.” If Putin’s goal is to install a puppet government in Ukraine and use the country’s resources for Russia’s benefit, the lasting toxic effects of a nuclear strike would be counterproductive. (Just 7 weeks ago, Russia agreed with the 4 other nuclear powers that a nuclear war could never be won and should not be fought.) But of course, Putin has repeatedly defied expectations and international conventions, and has apparently deployed biological and radiological weapons on English soil: in 2018, he ordered the use of nerve agent Novichok in Salisbury against a defector, and in 2006 he dosed a former KGB agent with radioactive plutonium in London. Putin might deploy chemical or biological weapons against Ukraine: “certainly nothing is off the table with this guy,” remarks the US ambassador to the UN. Says one arms control advocate: “This is a very dangerous moment in this crisis, and we need to urge our leaders to walk back from the nuclear brink.” CTV | National Post | CTV | Wired | Newsweek
“This is a declaration of war against the whole of Europe.” – Volodymyr Zelensky, president of Ukraine
Hoping the Nuclear Risk is Low
Many political scientists assure us that Putin is unlikely to provoke or launch a nuclear strike, when Russia’s destruction would be almost assured if he targeted US or NATO territories with an ICBM. (Small tactical nukes on the battlefield in Ukraine are more likely, but counterproductive as explained above.) Brandeis U politics prof Gary Samore assures us that the US and NATO “have no intention of sending their military forces to defend Ukraine.” The Biden administration has not responded to Putin’s heightened alert status, in order to avoid overreacting and causing further escalation.
But all that being said, many have also observed that Putin is not behaving as his usual rational or cool self. More on that tomorrow, along with the international and academic backlash…
Forgive me if it’s difficult to choose an upbeat PSE marketing vid to accompany today’s news. Instead, here’s one of many videos I’ve watched depicting the plight of international students inside Ukraine, from last Friday…
Indian Students in Ukraine
In “Gravitas: The Plight of Indian Students Stuck in Ukraine,” India’s the World Is One News reports on the escalating anxiety and frustrations facing international students trapped and facing challenges leaving the country. YouTube
As always, thanks for reading! My thoughts and prayers are with all affected personally or professionally by the tragedy unfolding in Ukraine.
Once again (as with the COVID19 pandemic) I’ll do what I can to help by gathering and digesting breaking news, and trying to make sense of the repercussions and responses of higher education in Canada and elsewhere.
Wherever you may be, stay safe and be well!
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