Ukraine in the Classroom

How contemporary issues shape classroom discussions

M.A. in Political Science, European Union Policy Studies

By Federigo Argentieri, Ph.D.

In the spring semester of last year, while I was teaching my first class about EU foreign policy at JMU, Russia attacked Ukraine. It was February 24, 2022. Consequently, the course had to change quite drastically, and my teaching became almost entirely focused on following and analyzing the unfolding of this crucial event and its impact on the European continent and beyond. This unexpected development also gave me the opportunity to put into practice, for the first time in such a complete manner, one of the domains of my scholarly activity, which is a privilege not often granted to a professor who also does research. Such domain is Ukrainian studies, which I began working on at the end of last century, alongside Hungarian studies, and which has proven particularly useful to help explain the Russian invasion. The current war, in my opinion, is rooted in the November 2013 Ukrainian political crisis, originating from the rejection, by then president Yanukovich, of the Association Agreement with the EU that he was slated to sign. 

After four months of atrocious war, marked by a frantic turn of events, on June 17, 2022, the European Commission recommended that “Ukraine be given the perspective to become a member of the European Union, '' and hence granted candidate status. Almost ten years since Yanukovich’s rejection of an EU future for his country, the process interrupted in the fall of 2013 could be finally restarted and Ukraine’s path to EU membership could be resumed, albeit at an exorbitant price. These ten years included a partial Russian occupation of two Ukrainian regions, followed by a low-intensity (yet destructive) war of eight years, until the current, full-scale invasion, which has caused and is still causing a major devastation of most assets of the Ukrainian economy, infrastructure, cultural sites, environment, let alone the war crimes its population is the victim of. 

Following such developments with a group of great master students, who proved genuinely interested in the unfolding of history before their eyes, was quite the experience. We may have slightly overlooked other parts of the world, but in turn we embraced all possible aspects of the conflict - from remote Soviet antecedents to mutual perceptions, the cultural and linguistic dimension, Czarist-Soviet-Russian imperial ego and the chances of it being diminished or erased by a multipolar Euro-Atlantic community, cyber war and asymmetric conflict, use and abuse of fake news, and much else. The learning experience was definitely productive for all of us, as I myself had to test my acquaintance with the European continent, its organizations, and the constantly shifting dynamics between countries, regions, and identities. I am convinced that the hands-on approach we apply to our teaching in the EUPS program, whereby students follow events on the European continent as they unfold, makes the object of their studies less dry and more digestible. 

In class, students were able to literally see the EU in action in real time as we followed the EU’s daily response to the war through videos, journalistic reports, parliamentary sessions, speeches by the leaders. From newly elected Roberta Metsola of Malta, Speaker of the European Parliament, to EU Commission President Von der Leyen, to European Council President Charles Michel and High Representative Josep Borrell, they all traveled repeatedly to Kyïv, delivered speeches, came out with declarations, press statements, grand gestures. They conveyed encouragement and solidarity to the Ukrainians, denounced Russian aggression, required investigation of war crimes, and transmitted an image of cohesion and efficiency seldom seen ever before in what are unprecedented circumstances. 

The only term of comparison can be the conflict in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. However, the different size of the countries involved, the absence of nuclear weapons and other factors created a rather different situation. In the Yugoslavia crisis, the then-newly born EU produced an initial period of great confusion before NATO arrived in 1995 with a strong mandate to streamline action and impose a truce in the tormented Republic of Bosnia. By contrast, the train ride from Poland to Kyïv on June 15-16, 2022, by Mario Draghi, Emmanuel Macron, Olaf Scholz, who were eventually joined by Klaus Iohannis, president of Romania, belongs to the iconography of the current conflict and is already recorded in history. Four top executives of significant EU member states joined forces to show their commitment to the Ukrainians, raising bitter sarcasm from the Kremlin leadership and much approval worldwide. As mentioned above, the whole process was capped with a unanimous approval, on June 17, 2022, of the path ultimately leading to EU membership of not only Ukraine, but also Georgia and Moldova, two other countries long tormented by Russia’s revanchist appetites.

In sum, after nearly a year of war in the heart of Europe, the EU has been tested in a radical manner as to its ideals, purposes, objectives, medium- and long-term perspectives – and has responded convincingly. Aiding Ukraine to defend itself from an illegitimate criminal aggression has become THE foreign policy priority: the outcome of the conflict will no doubt define the future of the continent for a long period of time. Just as WWII paved the ground for the creation of the EU itself, the Russian war of aggression might trigger its final transformation into a stronger political, diplomatic, and military entity. 

While I am starting to teach the EU foreign policy class this semester to a new cohort of graduates, I will continue to use this successful hands-on approach, with the confidence that it will help them make sense of the current tragedies and the institutional developments they may trigger on the European continent. Nothing can compare to studying events happening in Europe as they happen, while living for a year in one of the member states of the Union.  

Dr. Argentieri studied politics, history, and languages at the Universities of Rome, Budapest, and Harvard. He is widely published on the contemporary history and politics of Central Eastern Europe and Italy. He currently teaches a course on Foreign Policy and Internal Security to the EUPS students. 

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Published: Thursday, January 26, 2023

Last Updated: Wednesday, April 24, 2024

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