University of Michigan: U-M business expert with roots in Ukraine, Russia finds war ‘painful’ and ‘incomprehensible’

The dispatches of destruction, suffering and death coming out of Ukraine since the Russian invasion began have been unrelenting—much of it is hard to take in yet so difficult to look away.

Maxim Sytch, a University of Michigan business professor, is struck by all of it with his links to the strife and the countries involved.

“It’s all so particularly painful and incomprehensible to me. … I want all of us to appreciate the severity of the situation,” he said recently during an online session he facilitated with a U-M alumni group about the war on Ukraine.

He uses his knowledge as a management and organizations expert to observe leadership, influence and power dynamics. He also draws on his memories and experiences growing up in both places, and regularly visiting them in recent years.

In a follow-up interview with Michigan News, he shared that among the many images to prompt family conversations are those of the scenes of trains that have carried masses of people out of harm’s way—to areas deemed safer from attacks—or out of the country entirely.

For his mother, they instantly called to mind the trains out of Kyiv in 1986, when people were evacuating in the wake of the explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear plant.

When Sytch was 8, he and his family left Ukraine for Russia, both then part of the Soviet Union, because of that disaster. Now, many more flee for safety, and trains travel at night with the lights out to avoid becoming a target of shelling.

Sytch, who came to the United States as a college student and still has relatives and friends in Ukraine and Russia, can understand both languages. What he can’t understand are the atrocities being committed in Ukraine given the close ethnic and cultural bonds between the people of Ukraine and Russia.

He is receiving first-hand accounts of war from people he knows and loves in familiar places. He hears from people who have stayed in cities despite heavy bombardment, as well as others who fled to safer places—though as Russia’s invasion and attacks widen, he says, “I’m not sure you can be truly safe anywhere in Ukraine.”

Some have no water, heat or electricity, but have a generator to provide some power for short periods. They send their kids outside for fresh air and to run laps in between air-raid sirens to stay warm.

Despite the sad surreality, there is humor: People joke about finally getting to know their neighbors—in bomb shelters. He marvels at their ability to laugh “in the midst of the most dire circumstances.”

As tough as it is, Sytch can also step back and examine the situation as a social scientist who studies leadership and history. He stresses how important it is for students as future leaders to understand they will be running their organizations and having to make tough decisions on behalf of their organizations in complex political environments.

He discusses the war in Ukraine in his classes, particularly the differences in leadership styles of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“We often say the great leaders rise to the occasion and President Zelenskyy has certainly done so,” Sytch said. “He’s such an incredible force for the Ukrainian people during this war—he’s direct, honest and an incredible communicator.”

Sytch sees a leader who empowers his team to speak to the Ukrainian people and the world—and one who inspires thousands and thousands of citizens to stand up to Russia. In war, Sytch says, “Ukraine has become as united as it’s ever been, in part because of Zelenskyy and his government emerging as the beacon of the fight for their country and freedom.”

Conversely, Sytch observes that Putin has “generated a wave of resistance to his actions” unseen since World War II. He has created an “echo chamber” in his leadership team, which “makes him a terrible leader,” Sytch adds.

“I would not use the words Putin and leadership in the same sentence,” he said. “Whom does the world want to follow, support? Not Putin. In my view, he abdicated from the responsibility of leading Russia.”

It’s also important, he says, to understand how the information vacuum in Russia shapes the perception of the Russian people, many of whom support the war. The elimination of independent journalism and the censorship of any dissenting political views have created an incredibly lopsided informational space that actively perpetuates the blatant falsehoods from Putin and his immediate circle.

Among them: Nazis rule Ukraine, there is genocide against the Russian people in Ukraine and Russian armed forces are fighting the nationalistic battalions to liberate Ukrainians.

For many Russians lacking access to accurate information for years, these falsehoods have morphed into an entire worldview that is difficult to unseat. He also cautions the public from taking their anger out on the Russians they encounter.

“We have inflicted so much pain with the anti-Asian sentiment linked to COVID-19. Let’s not repeat it again,” Sytch said. “Many of the Russians you meet are likely to oppose the war and quite possibly left Russia because they don’t accept Putin’s regime.”

With Russia’s escalations, it’s hard for Sytch to be optimistic, but he’s holding out hope for “massive diplomatic efforts” leading to a peaceful resolution. And efforts need not be reserved for political leaders: Everyone can do something, from simply speaking out to donating to myriad efforts, including the Red Cross and the National Bank of Ukraine.

“Please continue to spread that awareness,” he said. “Talk to others who are perhaps less aware. And please consider helping the people of Ukraine.”

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