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Michigan Ross Prof With Roots in Ukraine and Russia Discusses the 'Painful' and 'Incomprehensible' War; MBAs Rally in Support

By Jeff Karoub and Bridget Vis

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, professor of management and organizations at the Ross School of Business, 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 Michigan Ross alumni group about the war on Ukraine.

Looking at the war from a personal and academic expert lens

Michigan Ross Professor Maxim Sytch

Sytch 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, 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 firsthand 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."

Using the conflict as an important teaching moment

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 Michigan Ross 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 added.

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

Maxim Sytch, management and organizations professor at Michigan Ross

It's also important, he said, 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. Sytch 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."

Michigan Ross MBAs launch fundraising and awareness campaign

A group of Michigan Ross MBA students with a strong connection to the region have been working in different ways to support Ukraine through fundraisers, awareness, and volunteering at Ross and beyond. 

The students’ efforts — led by Maksym Palazov, MBA ’22; Kris Ivanov, MBA ’23; Ivan Kudenko, MBA ’23; and Iryna Bocharova, MBA '23 — have included issuing a statement on the war in Ukraine in February and placing posters with QR codes linking to various resources, events, and donation options around the business school. They are also planning on setting up a station in the Ross Winter Garden to raise awareness and direct people to donation options. 

“After the initial wave of support, the enthusiasm has definitely decreased, so we want to spread the message that the conflict is still very active and actually now it's gotten worse because the Russian forces have started a campaign of deliberate targeting of civilians,” said Palazov. “For me, it is very personal because many of my relatives are currently living in basements trying to avoid being hit by Russian bombs.” 

In addition, Palazov said they have reached out to Michigan Medicine to see if they had any supplies that could be donated and that they have joined the Ukrainian diaspora in Chicago to volunteer. 

“The amount of donations there has been so high that they have been sending out planes with aid on a weekly basis,” he said. “As such, the need for people who can receive the donations, sort through them and pack for shipping has been very high.” 

Explore ways to donate to Ukrainian aid efforts

Featured Faculty

Maxim Sytch
  • Professor of Management and Organizations