For nearly a week in April, Mariia Pachenko took a respite from her studies in besieged Ukraine to share its plight with fellow college students in New York. Soon after, the 18-year-old faced a wrenching decision: Return to her war-torn country or wait out the conflict as hopes for a diplomatic remedy dimmed by the day.
Pachenko and a handful of other Ukrainian students recounted the war’s human toll and the perilous trip through Russian-occupied territories to make it to the National Model United Nations conference, relishing the opportunity to foster “communication between young people across the world because it’s so important to share ideas, to express your thoughts on the relevant political issues and to try to find the solutions.”
But despite urgent calls to end the Russian invasion, diplomacy has made little progress in the real world.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has urged Moscow and Kyiv to take “whatever urgent steps” to stop the fighting, but the lack of dialogue between the two governments has been disconcerting for Pachenko — now in France for the foreseeable future — and her peers in the widening diaspora of Ukrainians fleeing bombs, tanks and violence.
They harbor little hope that diplomacy will prevail anytime soon.
“The United Nations as an organization needs to be reformed. It has no power — no practical power in the real world,” said participant Olha Tolmachova, who has returned to her town in western Ukraine, which, for now, has been spared the Russian onslaught.
Guterres spent nearly two hours in a one-on-one meeting Tuesday with Russian President Vladimir Putin, followed by a Thursday meeting with Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. While the Russians rebuffed his appeal to halt fighting, the U.N. said Putin did agree in principle to the U.N. and the International Committee of the Red Cross’ participation in evacuating civilians from Mariupol.
Artemy Kalinovsky, a faculty member of Temple University’s Center for the Study of Force and Diplomacy, said they’re rightfully skeptical.
The U.N. can highlight the ravages of war and serve as a platform for serious discussions, Kalinovsky said. But in the end, he said, “I don’t think there’s anything that the U.N. can do … because one of the belligerents or the aggressors in this case is a member of the Security Council and can veto anything that could serve to end this conflict.”
As the students’ conference was ongoing, the Kremlin simply withdrew altogether from the U.N. Human Rights Council after the 193-member General Assembly — where there are no vetoes — voted to suspend Russia.
Planned many months beforehand, the war was not part of the Model U.N. conference’s central agenda. And there were no Russian universities taking part because of visa problems and U.S. travel rules. But the conflict wafted through as the Ukrainian delegation used the event as an informal podium from which to plead for continued dialogue and attention.
Amid all the geopolitics are the more than 5 million individual stories of those who have fled Ukraine since February.
Feelings of guilt have followed Larysa Haivoronska’s decision to delay her return. She recalls how the walls shook as the bombs fell in the distance back home. Russian jets streaked overhead and helicopters thwacked ominously. Now outside Chicago, Haivoronska last spoke to her mother nearly a week ago. Bombing damage has disrupted power lines. Without phone and internet services, her eastern hometown of Kupyansk-Vuzlovyy has been disconnected from the outside world.
“The only thing they want is for me to be safe. That’s why they told me I need to stay here,” the 22-year-old said, sobbing. “I don’t want to be safe if they’re not safe. I told my mom that if something happens to them, I will come back and go to army or do whatever. … Because I don’t care about my life if something happened to them.”
With Kalinovsky’s help, Haivoronska was recently admitted to a doctorate program in political science at Temple, but vows to return to Ukraine.
“We have to not only physically rebuild, like the roads, the houses, but we also need to rebuild our international systems and we have to rebuild the whole political system,” she said.
The students’ adviser, Halyna Protsyk, has returned to Lviv, and worries about the toll on the young people her country desperately needs to return.
“They need to make sure that our country still functions in every sphere,” she said during her visit to New York, “and my mission is to make sure that higher education still performs high quality standards.”
Those who have left Ukraine continue their studies online, much as they did during the height of the coronavirus pandemic. Some plan to enroll in new universities.
Pachenko said it’s been difficult to stay away. Bombs have destroyed the bridges outside her town southeast of Lviv, cutting it off from shipments of food and medicine.
She say it’s difficult to “live in a constant stress” so she tries not to overwhelm herself with information. But she still tracks daily updates on her phone. Friends and family alert her to the latest air sirens. She worries her mother will ignore the warnings to take cover. If she were home, she could force her mother to run to the shelters. And it’s been hard to leave a place where so many memories still reside, Pachenko said.
“I’m young, and I understand that my life and my safety are much more important than some memories,” she said. “And I want to make more memories in my life. And that’s why I want to stay safe.”
Acknowledging that some did hold out hope for a peaceful solution, she nonetheless thinks it was a mistake for anyone to believe that diplomacy could stop Putin — after eight years of fighting since Moscow’s annexation of Crimea — from further encroachment.
The hope now lies in a quick end to the war, the students’ adviser said.
“The biggest challenge for us,” Protsyk said, “will be to bring back our youth to Ukraine — after we got our victory.”
That outcome though, the Ukrainians acknowledged, remains uncertain.
Associated Press writer Edith M. Lederer contributed from the United Nations.