Ukraine is fighting the war that we should be fighting
The following letter is adapted from the speech given at the MIT Vigil Rally that took place March 3.
In the past week, the world has seen heroic images of Ukrainian resistance against Russian invasion. Students picking up arms to defend their homeland; civilians forming human walls to stop the enemy’s advance; Ukrainians abroad organizing awareness and fundraising campaigns; Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky standing his ground, unwavering on the front lines in Kyiv. Ukrainians’ efforts have been portrayed as an act of self-defense, of patriotically defending their country against foreign invaders. What we need to realize is that Ukraine is not just fighting for itself — it is fighting for the freedom of people around the world.
Just a few hours after Russia invaded Ukraine, China sent a sortie of warplanes into Taiwanese airspace. North Korea fired yet another ballistic missile. The governments of Venezuela and Myanmar are continuing their human rights abuses. These incidents continue to happen because Russia is empowering these countries. The Ukrainian army is fighting, right now, not just to defend their homeland and their people but to defend us, to defend our freedom, and to defend democracies around the world.
In 2014, Russia annexed Crimea, and the world watched in silence: even the sacrifices of the Euromaidan protests were not sufficient for us to act. In 2019, when China killed democracy in Hong Kong and in 2020, when Belarus brutally cracked down on peaceful protesters calling for fair elections, the world stayed silent. All these events, directly or indirectly, have contributed to the war in Ukraine today. Putin is sending troops to Ukraine through Crimea and Belarus; and it is because we, as democracies, failed to act in the eight years leading up to this war that now the Ukrainian people are suffering.
This war is not just about Ukraine. It is not just about Taiwan, South Korea, or some other far-away democracy that stands as the next domino to fall after Ukraine. Any country could be next. Any home, any family could wake up to the sounds of shelling and missile strikes. On March 2, Russia sent warplanes into the airspaces of Sweden and Japan. If the war in Ukraine isn’t proof enough, this further demonstrates that being an ally of the free world — even being part of NATO — is not a guarantee of safety. Even in the U.S., there are people waging a war of misinformation; there are Americans supporting Putin unapologetically; there is the looming threat of authoritarianism trying to take over. This is what we are fighting against.
The current situation is not one in which we are trying to help Ukraine fight their war. It is one where brave Ukrainians are fighting our war, the war that we should be fighting in the first place. Ukrainians are fighting and dying to protect the ideals that we claim to uphold: freedom, liberty, democracy. Why is it that we are not fighting with them?
The free world has been large on words and small on actions in the past eight years. While a general atmosphere of appeasement certainly played a role, it has also been frustratingly vague when it comes to “how to help.” For governments, traditional diplomacy seemed to have lost its viability. For individuals, there have been very few options beyond “raising awareness” via social media. This time, however, the movement supporting Ukraine seems to have succeeded where previous attempts have failed.
Ukraine is remarkably adept at resisting their foe in this modern, digital age. Their proficiency spans all levels, from the highest echelons of government to each and every individual. President Zelensky, who won the 2019 election with a mostly virtual campaign, has forged an online persona of staunch, unwavering resistance. The Ukrainian Army has mastered the modern art of crowdfunding, which it has been practicing since 2014. Perhaps most awe-inspiring is the fortitude of individual Ukrainians, from those resisting the invasion on the front lines to those helping abroad. We see many displays of this courage here at MIT — Ukrainian members of our community who, despite bearing the pain, anger, and incessant dread of war, stood up and organized a massive ongoing campaign to offer us a chance to help.
Our Ukrainian friends are doing so much to tell us exactly how we can help. They are swallowing back tears to publicly recount the atrocities committed against their families. They are resisting the urge to fly home and pick up a rifle, so that they might be able to find some help for their country abroad. They are mustering the tenacity to not constantly check the news and their messages, but instead focus on creating an entire support campaign from scratch. They are doing this for our sake, so that this time, unlike our past blunders, we actually have a chance to pull our weight in our own fight. Donate to support Ukraine — the National Bank of Ukraine has already made it as easy as clicking a few buttons, and the MIT Ukrainian community has made it even simpler. Pick up your phone. Call your representative. Demand MIT to act now.
MIT as an institution has valued the critical importance of ethics in science and the significance of science in ethics. It is time for us to once again stand up for these values and ensure that our actions reflect our beliefs. MIT should continue to publicly support its Ukrainian community. The administration should disclose its ties with Russian oligarchs, Russian oil, and reconsider the ethical implications of their investments. We should also leverage our political influence as an institution to amplify the voices of our Ukrainian community, and do our best to support Ukrainian students both financially and academically. Only in such a way can we, as an academic institution, live up to our commitment towards ethics and our responsibility towards society.
I am so proud of my Ukrainian friends for organizing this powerful, coordinated effort. They are doing so much just to offer us the chance to help, handed to us on a silver platter. Now, it is up to each and every one of us to act for Ukraine, and to defend ourselves.
Yu-Chi (Jacky) Cheng ’23