The people behind the panel

Contextualizing the Ukraine crisis

Two historians, a Russian professor living abroad and a U.S. Marine Corps Reserve Officer quarantining in Poland joined forces to offer context and reason to an eager Zoom audience following President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. 

Putin’s actions inspired Dr. Christian Peterson, a Ferris history professor with a PhD in foreign relations and Russian history, to “bridge the gap” between academics and real-world conflict. He teamed up with Dr. Tracy Busch, a Ferris history professor with a PhD in Russian and European history, to educate the Ferris community on the Feb. 24 invasion. 

Busch felt “tortured” watching the events in Ukraine unfold. When planning last Tuesday’s event, titled “The End of the World as We Know it?,” she recruited two additional speakers. Benjamin Busch, U.S. Marine and “professional husband of Tracy Busch,” joined from a hotel in Poland after training Ukrainian citizens to fight. Russian-born English professor Lilia Caserta spoke on behalf of those mourning their country’s innocence.  

The four panelists could hardly stop their words from flowing. Centuries’ worth of history, decades’ worth of expertise and immeasurable empathy poured out of each of them.  

Why now, why ever? 

Like many others, Caserta felt “disillusioned,” “depressed” and desperate for reason following the invasion.  

“On Feb. 24, I really could not grasp reality,” Caserta said. “It took me a lot of conversations with my colleagues in Russia. I came to a deep disillusionment—almost to the verge of depression—to kind of associate myself and take full responsibility as a Russian citizen. My country, my home country, is now [an] aggressor.” 

The panelists used their historical, political, military and personal knowledge to explain how such aggression is formed. As Tracy explained, this pivotal war does not exist in a vacuum. America’s own “cluelessness” regarding the Russian perception of NATO’s actions contributed to the current situation. 

“[America] thought everybody wanted to be free and just like us, and we didn’t really recognize that there’s a long history in Russia… that has created a certain Russian mindset,” Tracy said. “I don’t think that mindset in any way justifies what happened. I think that Putin cynically manipulated that mindset” 

Part of this mindset is the denial of Ukrainian sovereignty. To dispel Putin’s belief that Ukraine is not its own independent nation, Tracy presented over a thousand years of territorial history.  

“If you are Russia[n] today, and you’re saying that Kiev doesn’t exist, that Ukraine doesn’t exist, that is basically the same thing as saying your own mother does not exist,” Tracy said.  

Tracy began to wonder about the delicate balance of peace and why it is ever interrupted.  

“I think that’s why this is resonating with us so much; there wasn’t any Ukrainian aggression here,” Tracy said. “This was Russia’s decision, like they say, ‘Putin’s war.’ I think that’s a good way to think about it.” 

Putin has still been able to convince Russian citizens that his actions are appropriate.  

“I can compare [an] average Russian to a mushroom. You grow in the dark and very much underground because you don’t seek information outside of what is given from the television,” Caserta said. 

Even if his own citizens remain unaware, Putin’s unprovoked attacks are heard around the world. 

As an American 

Despite the American government’s impact on foreign relations, some American citizens are unfamiliar with what’s beyond our borders. One of Tracy’s students noted that Americans “just don’t know where places are unless we’re at war with them.” 

When Peterson was asked by a student why someone living in America should care about what happens in Ukraine, he explained that we live in an interconnected world.  

“What happens if the world [allows] countries who feel more emboldened to wage war against their neighbors?”Peterson said. “… It could create a different type of world that’s not as congenial to the United States, as many Americans have grown accustomed to.” 

Peterson took it upon himself to analyze the international response. The invasion damages more than Ukraine, it undermines the “idea that democratic states are the most legitimate, or the most prosperous, and should really set the norms of how human beings should govern themselves.” 

Following the Trump administration, which Peterson believes could not have been any weaker in defending Ukraine, America is now enforcing the “most systematic economic blockade of a country in world history.” The Biden administration has worked with the European Union to cut Russia off from nearly half of its foreign resources.  

Benjamin felt a sense of responsibility when his friend and fellow Marine encouraged him to fly to Ukraine. From there, they helped prepare a civilian defense force. They had no shortage of men, as all males aged 18 to 60 were expected to stay and fight under martial law.  

“All the men were expected to stay and fight. So, the border was just clogged with people carrying nothing but a suitcase. I’m talking [about] entire lives consolidated to a single suitcase or two and children,” Benjamin said. 

As a Marine infantry officer, Benjamin trained around 60 volunteers in a small unit of a former Soviet factory. He called this work “training irregular sources to fight conventional forces.”

Most of the volunteers were using store-bought weapons.  

“My thinking was [that] a city is a tremendous weapon against somebody trying to invade. Every house becomes a fortress you can sacrifice, it just becomes ground,” Benjamin said.  

Benjamin was impressed by the Ukrainians’ commitment. These volunteers left their jobs as IT workers, construction workers, machinists or lawyers for two weeks to become guerilla fighters. 

“My notes to them after every single training period were to go home and imagine fighting your way out of your house,…make sure you have a way to get away,” Benjamin said. “Make sure you understand everything about your community and how to organize it as a fortress. I don’t think we think about that very often because it’s been a long time since the U.S. has felt the presence of invasion.” 

Benjamin contracted COVID-19 while working in Ukraine. Fortunately, a Ferris Fulbright Scholar from Poland was able to send a computer to his Krakow quarantine hotel, ensuring his attendance on Zoom.  

Not everyone has the resources or knowledge to train civilians for combat. However, each of these speakers truly believed that smaller actions, some as simple as speaking the truth out loud, have undeniable impact. 

Small actions in a big world 

“My years in the United States really taught me not to be afraid to speak the truth,” Caserta said. “What I now see, and it hurts me personally and professionally, is how many of the Russian people are forced to be silent because they’re afraid to lose employment or particular social status.” 

Caserta wants young Americans to understand that many Russians oppose this war, even when it makes them a political minority. Some of Caserta’s colleagues and family members call her opposition unpatriotic, and her mother questioned her own parenting. 

“[My mother] accused me of not being a patriot and said, ‘I feel really bad. I feel like I did not raise you well because you are speaking against your country.’ I think it’s a high level of patriotism when you can criticize your country and say we need to do better,” Caserta said. 

While living abroad, she feels the need to express that this war is not representative of all Russian people and culture.  

Russian protestors are being arrested in droves for their defiance. Caserta depicted a scene of female protestors being physically and verbally abused by police officers. Their bones are broken, and their heads are shaved as they are called “Western sluts.”   

“There are fines, the Russian government can revoke my citizenship, but I [would] rather speak instead of being silenced. I want to look at the face of my children and my students and say, ‘Yes, this is what I think based on the information I have and my experiences, and I’m not afraid to say it,’” Caserta said. 

Tracy not only holds on to the belief that her words and actions matter, she depends on it.  

“[My motivation] is similar to my work in the Museum of Sexist Objects. The reason I took a pay cut to come in and teach in the classroom, the reason I live in West Central Michigan,” Tracy Busch said. “I can’t do it without the thought that the little things I do will ultimately, maybe, make a little bit of difference. It’s pretty much my whole ethos of the way I live my life.” 

Though each panelist aches for the other side of the world, there was a collective exhale as Caserta wrapped the night up with bittersweet sentiments. 

“Great questions [and] a great time. I’m very proud of myself that I did not [break] and cry. [This is] the first time I talked about this without crying. Thank you. I really feel like I accomplished a lot emotionally today,” Caserta said

In the print edition of this story, News Editor Noah Kurkjian incorrectly attributed the pull quote to John Caserta when it should have been attributed to Lilia Caserta.