Western University course helps students contextualize the war in Ukraine

The Charlatan (Carelton University student newspaper) by Alea St. Jacques, posted January 30, 2023

The University of Western Ontario has established a new course this semester titled Russia’s War Against Ukraine that will dive into the causes of the conflict and fill information gaps for students about the relationship between the two eastern European countries.

Designed and launched by history and political science Prof. Marta Dyczok, the asynchronous online course will draw on both her extensive knowledge of east-central Europe—emphasized by several books she has written on the topic—and her first-hand experience in Ukraine.

Though Dyczok has been knowledgeable about Russia’s war in Ukraine since well before the Russo-Ukrainian War began in early 2014, it was following the escalation of the conflict in February 2022 that set the construction of her course in motion.

“Once Russia escalated its war against Ukraine and it became a major news story, I started getting interview requests,” Dyczok said. “I did over 100 [interviews] last year.”

Facing countless questions from media, students and colleagues, Dyczok decided to design a course that would outline the conflict’s bigger picture.

The course covers 12 topics, including an examination of the broader issues behind the war, an outline of the war’s history to date and the major leaders at play: President Vladimir Putin and President Volodymyr Zelensky.

The war can be a challenging topic to wrap one’s head around. According to Oleksa Drachewych, a fellow Western professor and expert in Soviet and Russian history, students’ difficulty understanding this conflict is largely due to the lack of exposure generation Z has had to geopolitically significant moments.

To help understand how things got to this point between Russia and Ukraine, Drachewych highlighted the importance of looking beyond the events of February 2022. He turned his focus to the 2014 invasion of Crimea and the long line of Soviet imperialism that still guides Russia today.

“We have this simplified view of how diplomacy works,” he said, adding the solution to the war is more complex than many comprehend. “It is honourable to want peace, but atrocities are taking place and justice will need to be done.”

Drachewych added Cold War narratives of the past have been convenient explanations for those finding the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine inexplicable.

Staying informed in an information war

Another factor in the confusion, according to Dyczok, is that people do not know where to look for answers. While many daily news outlets report on current events of the war, she said people must find answers at a scholarly level to get to the roots of the conflict.

A portion of Dyczok’s course is devoted to information warfare, which inspects Russia’s consistent distortion of events. There will be a discussion of the ongoing and well-documented war crimes taking place in Ukraine, as well as the conflict’s international context, with a week of the course dedicated specifically to Canada’s response

Dyczok also plans to invite guest speakers, many of whom are on the ground in Ukraine, to engage with students directly, though she did not reveal any names. The course will end with a look into the future of the conflict and the potential for peace. Dyczok said it will give students context for current events, while showing them how to consume news about the war critically.

Matt Kowalchuk, a fourth-year Western criminology student enrolled in the course, said though it’s within the political science sector, its content centres around educating any student about the conflict, regardless of their program.

While he said it’s difficult to be reminded of the war, Kowalchuk, who’s originally from Lviv, Ukraine, added that learning new information about the conflict and Ukrainian culture will benefit him and his peers.

As he and others enrolled in the course will learn, there is more to being a student than simply attending class, Dyczok explained. She intends to help students use their learning to engage with the world as active and informed citizens.

“The only way that Ukraine can actually defend itself and get rid of this occupation is with help, and that’s where active citizens internationally can help,” she said. “That’s part of the student experience—to be active citizens.”

Kowalchuk hopes to gain additional insight from Dyczok’s course into how the war is affecting others and looks forward to hearing first-hand accounts from experts who can provide further context on the conflict.

“I want to see my fellow students as well get a concept of what is actually happening beyond just CTV News,” he said. “There’s more to Ukraine than just a headline.”