Students identify global issues, assess national priorities, and decide for themselves the role the United States should play in the world.
- Explore the current situation in Ukraine and its historical origins;
- Analyze political cartoons that depict the Ukrainian crisis;
- Identify the techniques used by cartoonists to express political opinion;
- Monitor the Ukrainian crisis and consider international responses.
Note: This lesson has three distinct parts—the first provides information about the ongoing Ukraine crisis and its origins; the second is a political cartoon analysis; and the third asks students to monitor the crisis in the news. You may choose to use all three components, or alternatively, just one or two.
Though this lesson can be completed as a stand-alone activity, the following curriculum units provide additional context on the history of Russia and U.S.-Russia relations:
- Russia’s Transformation: Challenges for U.S. Policy
- The U.S. Role in a Changing World
- The Russian Revolution
Introduction: Setting the Stage
Begin the class by asking students if they have heard about the ongoing Ukraine crisis. If yes, what do students know about these events? Record students’ answers on the board. If students are unfamiliar with the situation, share with them that Ukraine is currently facing the threat of an invasion by the Russian military and a war, a crisis that involves the European Union, Ukraine, the United States, and Russia. Tell the class that they will be exploring this crisis through videos, readings, and political cartoons.
Part I: Understanding the Crisis in Ukraine
Distribute a copy of the map to each student. Have students identify Ukraine on the map. Remind students that Ukraine was controlled by Moscow for centuries and was one of fifteen republics of the Soviet Union until its independence in 1991. Tell students that they are going to watch three short videos that give some important historical background on the current crisis. Pause after viewing each to discuss the key points of each video. Give students time to mark their maps and ask questions.
Show students the short video of Professor Robert Legvold answering the question, “What is the ‘near abroad’?”
Ask students to describe the “near abroad” in their own words. Have students mark each country of the “near abroad” on their map. What does Legvold say some people believe Russia is trying to do in the “near abroad”?
Show students the short video of Professor Douglas Blum answering the question, “How do Russia’s neighbors regard Russia?”
What factors have influenced the policy decisions of Russia’s neighbors? What former Soviet republics have joined NATO? Have students mark those countries on the map. Which former Republics have wanted to join NATO, but have not joined? Tell students to find and mark those countries on the map. What happened in the country of Georgia in 2008?
Show students the short video of Professor Patricia Herlihy answering the question, “What is Russia’s relationship with Ukraine?”
What view do many Russians have of Ukraine’s independence? What are some of the historical origins of disagreement between Russia and Ukraine?
Form groups of three or four students and distribute the handouts “Ukraine Crisis—Background” and “Graphic Organizer—Charting the Crisis.” Ask students to follow the instructions on the handouts and to be prepared to share their answers with the class.
Bring students back together. Go over groups’ responses to the questions. What prompted the crisis in Ukraine? What stake do members of the international community (Ukraine, Russia, United States, and the European Union) have in the crisis?
Part II: Political Cartoons
Distribute “Political Cartoons” to each student. Review the introduction with the class, emphasizing the techniques cartoonists use to convey an opinion on political issues. Assign each group a cartoon to analyze. Have students discuss the cartoon and then answer the questions provided. Inform students that they will be presenting their work to the class.
Have each group present their political cartoons. Since you might have multiple groups analyzing the same cartoons, you may wish to have them present together or on different questions from the activity.
As a class, discuss how the political cartoons provide perspective on the crisis in Ukraine. Were students able to identify the message of each cartoon? If so, what were the cartoonists trying to express? Which techniques did students think were most effective in getting the message across? Ask students to imagine that they are the editor of a top U.S. newspaper. Which political cartoon would they feature alongside an upcoming, front-page article on the Ukrainian crisis? Why? Does the cartoon they selected provide the best visual representation of the crisis? Or is it the most thought-provoking?
Part III: Monitoring Ukraine in the News
Distribute “Monitoring the Ukraine Crisis in the News.” Tell students that over the course of the next month, they will be following the Ukrainian crisis in the news and taking note of how the crisis evolves. (Please see the list of news sources below that students can use for this activity. Teachers might want to take this opportunity to review with students how to assess media sources for reliability. See the handout “Evaluating Media Sources” for eight steps for assessing source reliability. You might choose to have students use these steps as they monitor the news about Ukraine.) Students should consult at least two or three news sources and write a short update about the crisis every week on Part I of the handout. Encourage students to refer to Ukrainian, U.S. or European, and Russian news sources. At the end of the month, students should answer the questions listed in Part II.
After students have completed the activity, bring the class together to debrief. How has the crisis evolved? Have conditions improved or worsened? What steps has the international community taken? Have the positions of Russia, the United States, and the European Union changed at all? If so, how? What challenges do the Ukrainian people face? Do students believe that a resolution to the conflict is within sight? What sources were most useful? Did students find sources that were unreliable or inaccurate? For example, what do students know about press freedom in Russia and government influence over media outlets? Did students find interesting information in any of the sources they thought were unreliable?
You may find these additional short videos that explore U.S.-Russia relations helpful.
What are some major sources of tension between Russia and the United States?
What are the broader implications of the Ukraine crisis?
What kind of a relationship should the United States strive to have with Russia?
News Coverage of the Crisis
You may find the selected resources below useful for Part III of the lesson. This list is not exhaustive. There are traditional media sources, U.S. government sources, and Russian government-controlled media sources (Sputnik and RT). Teachers should use this as an opportunity to help students consider the value and limitations of different media sources.
Russian Sources (in English)
The Moscow Times
Ukrainian Sources (in English)
Russian Government-Controlled Sources
Photo credit: White House photo. Public domain.