Preparing the next generation of Ukrainian leaders

The Ukraine Recovery Youth Global Initiative, founded by a Yale grad student, is training young Ukrainians to lead the country when the current war ends.
Veronika Makoviak and Anastasiia Pohoretska engage in an arm-wrestling contest

Veronika Makoviak and Anastasiia Pohoretska engage in an arm-wrestling contest as part of an exercise highlighting the importance of trust in diplomatic negotiation.

During a recent class at the Yale Jackson School of Global Affairs, a discussion about changes to the global order over the past century ended in a series of arm-wrestling matches.

Literally. At the instructor’s urging, the students broke into pairs and squared off with their hands clasped and elbows set firmly on the seminar tables.

The competitors, Ukrainian students visiting the Yale campus for a four-day leadership workshop hosted by the Jackson School’s International Leadership Center (ILC), were urged to complete as many matches as possible within three minutes. Winners earned 100 points per victory. The vanquished got zilch. While most sought to pin their opponents, giggling as they did so, one pair — Arsenii Litus and Veronika Schur — took turns letting each other win.

It proved a shrewd strategy. The contest was an exercise in negotiation and compromise, not a test of upper-body strength. By alternating quick victories, Litus and Schur amassed 5,000 points each, far outpacing the other pairs.

You’re told you’ll be arm wrestling and you immediately want to win. That’s inherent to who we are as human — we are competitive animals,” said ILC Director Emma Sky, who led the session with Yuval Ben-David, the center’s program manager. “But the exercise shows you can redefine winning to getting the most together through cooperation rather than approaching it as a zero-sum situation…

For it to work, you must trust that the other person will let you win as you let them win.”

URYGI participants with Emma Sky, center, and Yuval Ben David, far left, who led a session on the global order.
URYGI participants with Emma Sky, center, and Yuval Ben David, far left, who led a session on the global order.

The workshop was part of the Ukraine Youth Recovery Global Initiative (UYRGI), a collaboration between the ILC and Brave Generation, a nonprofit organization focused on empowering young people to become Ukraine’s future leaders. The nonprofit was co-founded by Tanya Kotelnykova, a student in Yale’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, who has been displaced twice by Russian aggression since 2014.

The initiative, one of several programs under Brave Generation’s umbrella, provides 20 young Ukrainians training in democracy, diplomacy, and good-government practices.

There is a pressing need in Ukraine for leadership development,” said Kotelnykova, 25, who is pursuing a master’s degree in Russian, East European, and Eurasian studies in Yale’s MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies. “I want to ensure that when this war ends, Ukraine will have bright, trustworthy leaders able to build a stronger democracy and strengthen the country’s international reputation so that we can protect ourselves from future Russian aggression. I don’t want future generations to experience what I’ve gone through.”

This is my mission’

Kotelnykova was 10 years old when Russian separatist forces occupied her hometown of Horlivka in eastern Ukraine. She fled and has been unable to return since. Eventually she made her way to Kyiv. In February 2022, she was finishing law school at Taras Shevchenko National University when Vladimir Putin launched Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

Tanya Kotelnykova, founder of the Ukraine Recovery Youth Global Initiative
Tanya Kotelnykova, founder of the Ukraine Recovery Youth Global Initiative

I was in Kyiv as Russian forces were advancing toward the city, and everyone thought it would be taken,” Kotelnykova said.

It was during this dark period that Kotelnykova learned she was the first Ukrainian to be awarded Columbia University’s scholarship for displaced students, allowing her to leave Ukraine and pursue a master’s degree in human rights.

After relocating to New York City, Kotelnykova began working to provide similar opportunities to other young Ukrainians. In short order, she launched MentorUkraine, a program in which American students help peers in Ukraine apply to undergraduate and graduate programs, providing them help with test preparation, application essays, and adjusting to the culture shock of attending school in a foreign country. Over two application cycles, the program has helped 287 Ukrainian students gain admission to universities outside of Ukraine. It recently enrolled 120 students seeking admission to schools next year. 

The motivation, inspiration, and empowerment that the American students offer their Ukrainian peers, who are in very challenging emotional and mental situations, is so important and appreciated,” Kotelnykova said.

Last year, Kotelnykova and co-founder Reed Cohen, who at the time was a fellow graduate student at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs, incorporated Brave Generation in New York so that they could apply for grants and seek sponsorships to fund initiatives to benefit Ukrainian young people. In addition to UYRGI and Mentor Ukraine, the organization supports TeachUkraine, which provides students financial support and guidance in college applications, and HealUkraine, a network of mental health care to help young people deal with the heavy burden that conflict and displacement imposes on them.

It’s a philosophical point, but I feel like this is my mission,” Kotelnykova said. “I was fortunate enough to have these amazing opportunities, and so many people have helped me on my way. Their kindness inspires me to do what I can to help others in Ukraine.”

Hope for Ukraine

After arriving at Yale last fall, Kotelnykova reached out to the ILC with her vision for UYRGI.  She received a quick reply from Sky, who was eager to learn more about the idea. Soon, a partnership was formed.

The program was an obvious fit for the ILC, which facilitates the growth of leaders dedicated to preventing conflict and building better societies.

It’s a privilege to partner with UYRGI on this initiative,” said Sky, whose extensive background in international affairs has included working in the Palestinian territories and as political advisor to the commanding general of U.S. Forces in Iraq. “These young Ukrainians are talented, inquisitive, and hard-working. And they are committed to helping rebuild their country post-war. They give me hope for the future of Ukraine.

I’m pleased that we were able to increase their understanding of great power competition and a changing world order, while helping them imagine the better world they will build.”

The initiative’s initial cohort includes 20 students who are pursuing degrees at universities in the United States, Ukraine, and elsewhere in Europe. They were selected based, in part, on a demonstrated commitment to contributing to Ukraine’s post-war recovery.

The nine-month program, which began in February, has three stages: The first was a series of online discussions with prominent scholars, elected officials, and other practitioners, including the political philosopher Francis Fukuyama, Yale historians and Ukraine experts Timothy Snyder and Marci Shore, and members of the European Parliament.

The visit to Yale was the second component. Nine of the 20 participants — all presently based in the United States — were able to attend in person. They had sessions with Snyder and Shore and participated in mock negotiations concerning the Russian-Ukraine War with Yale students.

They attended classes focused on communication, diplomacy, and other subjects key to leadership in the wake of a war. James Holtje, adjunct professor of international and public affairs at Columbia University, and Tim Kiddell, speechwriter to six British prime ministers, led speechwriting and public speaking sessions.

David Simon, director of Yale’s Genocide Studies Program, spoke to the students about the worldwide experience of rebuilding nations after atrocities. David Morse, director of the Jackson School’s writing program, spoke to the students online about disinformation and ethical persuasion. Also online, Oleksiy Goncharuk, former prime minister of Ukraine, led a course on leadership and governance, and Iuliia Mendel shared her experience working as a former press secretary for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

At the conclusion of the workshop, participants will be split into five groups, each of which will pursue a research project. Topics could include Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014, other occupied Ukrainian territories, Russian propaganda, and reintegrating Ukrainian soldiers after the war. The students will present their projects next year at conferences at Yale and Harvard, Kotelnykova said.

In the program’s final stage, the participants will serve internships in the Ukrainian Parliament. 

It’s important to have this practical component where participants gain real-world experience working for people in the government who make important decisions,” Kotelnykova said. “This also will help them grow their networks, which is crucial.”

Common values, common goals

In her session with the students, Shore, a professor of history in Yale’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, emphasized the importance of not idealizing Ukraine’s past.

I told them that their credibility will come not from belonging to an innocent nation — for there is no such thing — but from the integrity with which they face the past with eyes wide open, and tell the truth moving forward,” said Shore, a member of UYRGI’s  advisory board. Her 2018 book, “Ukrainian Night: An Intimate History of Revolution” (Yale University Press), provides an intimate account of the Maidan Revolution of 2013 and 2014, which culminated in the ouster of pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych.

She believes that scholars of Ukraine and Eastern Europe have a responsibility to step up during this time of crisis  to support the Ukrainian people and help train its next generation of leaders.

Tanya and the students that her work supports are thinking about the kind of society they want Ukraine to be,” she said. “The only chance Ukraine has, in some sense, is for this young generation to come out of this grotesque and gruesome war unbroken. They need to put aside the proverbial ‘catching up with the West’ and instead rebuild in such a way so as to be the vanguard not only for Ukraine, but for all of us.

These young people are in an excruciatingly difficult situation, and this will be very, very hard, but I believe they can do it. I also believe it’s our responsibility here to support them as much as we can.”

For their part, the participants said they enjoyed their brief time at Yale, embracing the opportunity to learn about international relations and history from top scholars and practitioners, build their professional networks, and learn from each other.

Nowadays public and cultural diplomacy is more important than ever,” said Anastasiia Pohoretska, a filmmaker and advocate for youth empowerment, who is completing a master’s degree in international business at the University of Miami in Florida. “It’s important to know what messages to deliver, how best to deliver them, and how to make the most out of the union between Ukraine and the rest of the world. The program helps provide the knowledge and tools to accomplish these things.”

Participant Viktoriia Scherba says she felt an instant bond with her fellow participants. 

We have different interests and majors, but at the same time, we are united by common values and common goals, specifically to contribute to a Ukrainian victory and help our country recover after the war,” said Scherba, who credits Mentor Ukraine with helping her secure admittance to the University of Chicago, where she is pursuing a master’s degree in public policy.

Yan Earl-Ruzhytskyi, who just completed a semester at American University, said the arm-wrestling “contest” and a similar exercise in the session led by Sky and Ben-David helped him better understand the role of game theory in international relations and the importance of trust to successful diplomacy.

Programs like UYRGI  are important in building connections between Ukrainians and others around the globe sympathetic to their cause, said Earl-Ruzhytskyi, who is  returning to Kyiv where he studies at Taras Shevchenko National University.  

Everything depends on how well our partners realize the importance of supporting Ukraine and winning this war,” he said. “But it is not only about Ukraine, it’s also about global security and the values for which the free world stands.”

For Earl-Ruzhytskyi and the other participants, the matter is also deeply personal.

 “A few days ago I received a message from my friend telling me that my university was listed on the targets for Russian airstrikes,” he said. “I don’t want to be killed in an airstrike.”

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