Valentyn Ilchuk, '07, woke up the morning of Feb. 24 to a frantic tear-filled phone call. On the other end of the line, he could hear multi-launch rocket systems exploding in the background. The head of human resources at the creative agency Ilchuk runs, Zgraya Digital, was calling to let him know that Russia was attacking her city. Thirty minutes later, cruise missiles hit a military base two kilometers from his house.
"It's not every day you have your own city of 4.5 million being hit by cruise rockets," Ilchuk said. "It's not every day you have to send your family away because it's better for them to be somewhere else than here. It's not every day you see all the places you used to go be completely demolished."
Fifteen years after getting his bachelor's in business from the University of Richmond, Ilchuk is defending his country from Russian invasion for the second time — the first of which was a brief stint in 2014 after Russian forces invaded the Crimean peninsula in Ukraine.
"It felt like somebody had to stand up," Ilchuk said. "...I went in when I was needed most and I left six months later because I’m not a professional military guy ... I run a digital agency. I don't run around with guns, I build websites and applications.”
Stephen Long, a professor of political science and global studies, said he viewed Russia's Crimean invasion, along with its 2008 invasion of Georgia, as Russian President Vladimir Putin's way of testing the waters to see what he could get away with.
"Putin has long seen these countries as areas where Russia has a rightful kind of sphere of influence," Long said. "Partly due to the history of the Soviet Union, and partly due to the common use of the Russian language, at least for a minority of the population in many of these neighboring states, and so his claim goes back many years now.
"And for whatever reason, he determined that he thought he could [now] get away with full-scale automation, and I think that's backfired on him pretty severely."
While Ilchuk remains in Ukraine, his wife, six-year-old daughter and mother-in-law are part of the 3.8 million Ukrainians and counting who have fled the country. Although he's glad his family has moved to safety in Estonia, it's been difficult being away from them, Ilchuk said.
Ilchuk has spent the last month preparing to fight, he said.
"We’ve been learning and studying new types of weaponry, new types of tactics,” he said. “Predominantly, people with military experience — veterans like myself who fought back in 2014 and 2015 — were not active military personnel, so there’s a lot we have to actually prepare.
"The past couple of days, we finally started going out. We’re doing quite a bit of recon and trying to figure out what the hell is going on around the city, planning our next operations.”
Ilchuk is one of the many Ukrainians who has taken to social media to document the war — posting status updates, news clips and videos of him singing with other soldiers on his Facebook page. Prior to the war, Ilchuk used social media to vent, so it felt like a natural progression to share his experiences with his friends, he said.
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"I've been using Facebook as my internal pressure siphon like when I have to really talk about something that bothers me, I just go rant on Facebook," he said. "But this time around, it's significantly more important ... it's always nice to send a note that things are good, that we’re holding, we’re standing, that everything’s going to be okay."
Because he speaks English and has connections across the world, Ilchuk also sees his Facebook posts as a way for him to raise awareness about the invasion of Ukraine, he said.
"One of the things that I’m afraid of is that we’ll become another foreign war because we're in the frontlines right now, we've been on the front page for four weeks," he said. "But I’ve worked in media before, and I know that every event, it gets old, people swipe it under the carpet. So, it's very important for us that [that] doesn't happen."
One of the Facebook friends closely following Ilchuk's updates is Carl Schmitt, UR's club rugby head coach.
“He’s a little mouthy, he’s full of life,” Schmitt said of Ilchuk. “He’s just bubbling over all the time and he’s passionate.”
Ilchuk named playing on the club rugby team for four years as his fondest memory at UR.
“We just hope we can provide him moral support,” Schmitt said. "I hear a lot of talk in this country about being a patriot, and if you want to know what a patriot looks like, look at the people in Ukraine — that’s what a patriot is.”
After his time at UR, Ilchuk lived in Washington, D.C. for two years but said he had always known he wanted to return to Ukraine.
"My parents — just like old Soviet parents — for them, having a child that went over to the states or somewhere in [western] Europe and got an education, got a job and had an opportunity to stay over there, for them it was like ‘Oh my God, this is success,'" Ilchuk said. "I never treated it this way."
Last month, UR's Slavic Club organized a fundraiser to collect donations for five Ukrainian relief organizations. Ilchuk highlighted the website Stand for Ukraine as another way for UR students, or anyone across the world, to donate to vetted organizations.
Long said he doesn't think the war will escalate to the point of using nuclear weapons — of which Russia holds the most in the world — or into World War III, but that he does expect it to last quite a bit longer.
"I don't think Russia is ready to back away from its claims and it also appears not capable of achieving its objectives quickly," Long said. "That's partly because the Ukrainians have fought back very hard, and it's partly because they also have received very useful military support from European and American sources."
What Long is primarily worried about is Russia continuing to target civilians now that its territorial advances have slowed, he said. Ilchuk also expressed concerns about the targeting of civilians.
"[In] Mariupol, there's 350,000 civilians under blockade and they’re being just splattered with unguided air bombs that are being dropped in the city," Ilchuk said. "The situation is so bad that they don’t know how many casualties they have because they don’t have enough time to dig them [out from] under the rubble.
Ilchuk referenced the Russian-Syrian coalition's month-long aerial bombing in Aleppo.
"This isn’t the first time Russians are hitting specifically civilians' homes without any regard to the lives of humans — elderly, children," he said.
As of March 27, the death toll for Ukrainian civilians has reached 1,119, according to the UN's human rights office, and Ukrainian officials have announced that at least 117 children have been killed, with 155 more injured, since the war began.
"This makes me sad and angry and desperate at the same time," Ilchuk said. "...It’s our war to fight, it’s our agenda, but we need as many people to be as Ukrainian right now as can possibly be."
Contact city & state editor Meredith Moran at email@example.com.
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