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Ukrainian children sitting on playground equipment in war-torn territory

The views of the blog are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions and views of the School of Leadership Studies.

In a recent meeting of President Zelenskyi with the academic Community of Canada, a student asked – “What can we do to help, and how can we encourage our political representatives to provide continued support to Ukraine?” The President’s response was emotionally charged – “Please, don’t get tired of hearing about us, and use social media to not let the world forget about this horrible war”. While this was an honest plea for help, I believe academics can do more than just be good global citizens. Their primary asset – brainpower, could help their governments make sense of the complexity of Ukraine crisis and guide political decisions related to the amounts and the speed of provided aid. 

It has been well established that most western analysts were wrong in their early assessments related to the conflict: the overrated might of the Russian military machine, miscalculated battlefield capacity of the Ukrainian army, and discounted resolve of the Ukrainian people all contributed to the skewed prognoses.  This was not a big surprise – however globalized, the world proved to understand very little about Ukrainians OR Russians. But I can safely assume that those, who are familiar with the concept of complex adaptive systems were at least somewhat confused by the media speculations as to “what exactly putin wants” and “where will he stop” ... I mean, wasn’t he always clear about his ambitions, and shouldn’t we know better than to look for “red lines”? 

Almost five months since the beginning of the Russian aggression into Ukraine, there is no denying the complexity of this crisis and its implications for global geopolitics, physical safety, planetary health, and food security, to name a few; so, the study of complex systems comes vividly alive. Unlike simple systems, complexity is chaotic, volatile, and uncertain, which makes long term plans and finite outcome-oriented goals obsolete. Instead, a feasible course of action includes assessing the situation and discerning the direction of a desired change. From that point on, it’s all about “adaptive action”: probe – reassess – regroup – and act again. With the original “vectoral goal” in mind, new targets present themselves in response to new emergent conditions. Since at least 2005, putin has been abundantly clear about both his assessment of the status quo (the “tragic fall of the Soviet Union”) and his intent to rebuild the empire. Despite the delusions of the Global North, he has stayed the same course ever since setting up the conditions for military intervention. Which scenario will he try – stopping at the old Soviet borders, claiming the land of the former Warsaw Treaty, or following the prophecy of his mad tribune Zhirinovskiy (Russian soldiers washing their boots in the Indian Ocean) will only depend on what becomes possible at the moment. Meantime, consciously or intuitively the Russian army goes through the cycles of iterative adaptive action. While the larger game is not finite (and the endgame is not pre-defined), so far, implementing each of these cycles has taken weeks and months. 

Russians’ endless natural resources coupled with billions of dollars paid for their fossil fuels seem to take care of the supply flows. But as his brutal, unhinged horde continues probing their way through the northern, eastern and southern edges of a sovereign neighbor; the resource putin needs more than money is time. If the collective democratic alliance commits to providing military aid, they better do it fast. Of course, the perception of speed depends on the perspective – what might appear fast and plentiful to those who give, looks painfully slow and lacking on the receiving end. But emotions aside, the traditionally paced and reactive routine of aid delivery under conditions of acute crisis does not only cost thousands of lives but allows the system to adapt and regroup risking to make the aid less relevant.

If I could complement President Zelenskyi’s response to the young Canadian student, I’d say - don’t just ask your political representatives to act, ask them to act fast. Try to apply what you learned in class and discovered through research to this real-life crisis; let your intellect, your curiosity, and your courage to ask inconvenient questions guide your public servants as they help put an end to this brutality and save lives.


Image credit – courtesy of President Zelenskyi's official press - https://t.me/V_Zelenskiy_official/2596  

Bohdan Yarema is a student of the MA in Global Leadership Program. He is originally from Ukraine, where he worked in various leadership capacities in International Development organizations including Peace Corps and the United Nations.

Note that Putin is written without the capital in the text, with putin (small p) in line with a Ukrainian movement.