How European universities provide support to Russians in the name of solidarity with Ukraine

How European universities provide support to Russians in the name of solidarity with Ukraine

Photo: / IgorVetushko
21 April 2022

Since Russia started a full-scale war on Ukraine on February 24th, 2022, Ukrainians have had to fight on multiple fronts – military, humanitarian, informational, etc. One may think that the picture is black and white but many global actors appear to struggle with basic definitions which shape their responses to the war. The names of the Russian aggression range  from the “crisis in Ukraine”, “war in Ukraine”, “Putin’s war” to even “Russian government’s war”. All of these represent the efforts of governments, international organizations, politicians, media, and even educational institutions not to blame Russian citizens for the war and continue business as usual wherever possible.

Some people may doubt whether Putin alone is responsible for the war or it is a much broader movement but the facts are there for anybody willing to see the truth. On March 3, 2022, hundreds of university rectors in Russia published a letter expressing their solidarity with the Russian government and President Vladimir Putin. Students at the leading Russian university MGIMO voiced their support for the war. Members of Russian soldiers’ families instructing them by phone how to “defeat enemies”, loot Ukrainian homes and rape Ukrainian women, ordinary citizens calling to “go all the way to victory” on their social media, “Z” branding users clearly support the war. Multiple polling data confirm Putin’s support and widespread pro-war moods among Russians. Hundreds of thousands of Russians are directly involved in this inhuman aggression against Ukraine. Millions are involved indirectly and tens of millions are supportive.

These patterns raise a number of ethical considerations and call into question collaboration with Russian academia. Indeed, if Russian academic institutions, universities, and students are backing the war, what kind of cooperation with them is possible? Ukrainian academics gathered more than 9200 signatures of Ukrainian and Western academics (including three Nobel Prize laureates) for the public appeal on de-putinization of academia calling to impose sanctions against Russia’s scientific and educational institutions. More than 1940 Ukrainian academics called the international academic community to show solidarity and fight for academic values and responsible science that cannot serve the war. Recently, another appeal was rolled out to collect signatures on a petition demanding universities and academic institutions from abroad to ensure that solidarity funds and other solidarity opportunities no longer benefit Russia’s citizens who must not be equalized with Ukrainians, the only party directly affected by the war.

The latter appeal was a reaction to the growing tendency among the European institutions of higher education to draw a clear line between Russian people and Putin or the Russian government. Labeling the Russian-Ukrainian war as an act of lunacy of a single person and so called “senseless violence” allows to extend all solidarity activities to Russians regardless of their position toward the war, Putin’s regime, Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Working around the economic sanctions which their governments imposed on Russia, European universities provide  not only Ukrainians with psychological and financial support but also  Russian students who “are victims too” and “can no longer access their bank accounts”.

A snapshot of the master narratives which are spread by the European universities is the following:

  • The TU/e is shocked by the Russian invasion of Ukraine and sympathizes with all who are affected… With the emergency fund the TU/e offers financial help for students with a Ukrainian, Belarussian or Russian (double) nationality who are directly affected by the war in Ukraine”. (source: Eindhoven University of Technology
  • In addition to students from Ukraine, students from Russia and Belarus can therefore also apply to the fund. They form part of our academic community and are not held personally responsible for the Russian invasion. The Ministry of Education, Culture and Science has explicitly asked universities to do this.” (source: University of Amsterdam)
  • “The war in Ukraine is having devastating effects on the nation, its people, and its economy… Similarly, students from neighboring countries, including Russia, Moldova, Estonia, Romania, Poland, Belarus, Hungary, Lithuania, Latvia, Slovakia and others in the region, are facing economic hardship as their countries are stressed by millions of refugees and the threat of additional uncertainties to their independence and stability” (source: Georgia Tech

European ministries, in particular the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science for all Dutch universities (Netherlands) and the Norwegian Ministry of Research and Higher Education joined this narrative too. “Many Ukrainian students in Norway are going through a very difficult time, both mentally and financially. It is important to us to include Russian and Belarusian students in this scheme, too. These students share as little responsibility for the war as you or me, says Norwegian Minister of Research and Higher Education Ola Borten Moe.

Many students and faculty can experience stress from the war but the shared experience does not mean people should be put into one group. Indeed, a rape victim and a perpetrator should not be mixed together. For anybody who has experienced the hell (kill lists, rape, atrocities, and other war crimes) of the Russian war in Ukraine, attempts to roll everybody – Ukrainians, Russians, and Belarrusians – under the “Solidarity with Ukraine” slogans is insensitive, hypocritical and manipulative. This may seem like a far-fetched scenario but the reality is more cruel. Shockingly, some  European universities started to launch emergency funds and for the sake of solidarity with Ukraine are fundraising money to support both Ukrainians and Russians. For example, the KU Leuven, a research university in Belgium, called for donations to the newly emerged fund with the aim to support Ukraine, stating that “We want to be a strong ally in this conflict. To offer a safe haven to Ukrainian students and researchers. We also reach out to our Russian colleagues and students in a spirit of peace, openness and academic solidarity. They too are victims and do not choose war against their neighbors.” (source: University of Leuven).

The University of Osnabrück has set up an emergency fund and appeal for donations to support “international students at our university who have fallen on hard times due to the war in Ukraine…to enabling those affected in Osnabrück to receive fast, unbureaucratic help on the spot”. (source: University of Osnabruck). In a similar spirit, the Leiden University Fund (LUF) has launched a crowdfunding campaign for an Emergency Fund for Ukrainian and Russian students that will contribute to emergency financial assistance, study progress and residence status. It states that “Putin’s war also has major consequences for the Russian students here… they can no longer access their Russian bank accounts and their family can no longer transfer money to them… We feel a responsibility towards all affected students, regardless of their origin or nationality. Students from Ukraine and Russia who are studying at Leiden University can count on our support. Donate and help these students who are also victims of this terrible war.’

Many of such statements are far too general to understand what kind of aid and what exactly is the share of funding offered to Russians and Ukrainians. But what we do know is that there are far more students from Russia than Ukraine who are currently enrolled into the European university programs. For example, Leiden University reported that this academic year it has more than twice as many Russian students as Ukrainian (80 and 35 respectively). Figures from the Norwegian Directorate for Higher Education and Skills for the spring of 2022 show that there are 150 Ukrainian, 400 Russian, and about 50 Belarusian students in Norway. Therefore, Russians will constitute the main beneficiary group enjoying support within “Solidarity with Ukraine” activities in quantitative terms.

This approach of launching joint opportunities for Russians and Ukrainians was quickly mainstreamed in academic and exchange programs targeted for scholars rather than students. For example, Sapienza Università di Roma (Italy) announced a scholarship noting that it “will be hosting scholars currently affected by the war for up to 6 months, thanks to new funding.. The new call for visiting professors…will prioritize scholars from Ukraine and the Russian Federation”. 

Needless to say, Ukrainians feel outraged by putting them in one line with representatives of the aggressor country. Could one imagine putting Germans and Jews in one educational program during World War II? Not every German was a Nazi, but who would care during a shooting war? Could one have a joint fundraising campaign and split the proceeds in these circumstances? The current approach to equalize Russians and Ukrainians is equally insensitive and shows the fundamental lack of understanding of the Russian war in Ukraine. Ukraine fights for its survival, for its freedom, for its independence from Russia.  On the other hand, Russia fights a war of aggression aiming to erase Ukraine from maps and to get rid of anything Ukrainian. 

If there is interest in supporting Russian students or scientists, it should be separate from “Stand with Ukraine”, “Support Ukraine”, “Solidarity with Ukraine” or similar programs. This approach has nothing to do with discriminatory policy toward individual Russian scientists or students. If there is interest in supporting Russians seeking asylum in the West, nothing prevents anybody from setting up such a program. But please understand that Ukraine does not want to be with Russia. How can this not be clear?



The authors do not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and have no relevant affiliations