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War in Ukraine: One year on

On 24 February, 2022, Russian troops crossed the border into Ukraine and brought war to the European continent for the first time in decades. Military experts, commentators and even governments believed Vladimir Putin’s plan to take Kiev and replace its democratically-elected president with a puppet government would be complete in less than a month. However, Putin had not counted on the resilience and capability of the Ukrainian response, as well as the support of the international community, and his invasion quickly descended into shambles following a catalogue of blunders. Now, some 12 months on, the conflict has ground to an attritional stalemate while the fallout from the invasion has continued to reverberate around the globe. Here, our experts from the King’s Russia Institute reflect on a year of conflict and what has changed for Ukraine, Russia and the wider world…

Gulnaz Sharafutdinova
Professor Gulnaz Sharafutdinova

Professor Gulnaz Sharafutdinova: A catastrophic decision by Russia to invade Ukraine brought a tragedy of the scale the region has not seen since the Second World War. It revealed the best and the worst of humanity, juxtaposing abhorrent injustice, violence, destruction and torture to courage, solidarity, resistance and determination – all displayed to the world in real time. It is a moral choice for each and every European citizen to step in - to support Ukraine. It is also crucial not to slip into condemning everything and everyone Russian. The Russian government and Russian citizens will have to carry responsibility for the war. The Russian society and elites will have to confront the problem of a strong imperial imprint in the country’s history and culture. But we also need to think about the future. As Aristotle said: “it is not enough to win a war, it is more important to organise the peace.” Working towards Ukraine’s victory and imagining a common future – where a fundamentally transformed Russia will have its own place - is imperative for a more stable and peaceful Europe.

Dr Maxim Alyukov

Dr Maxim Alyukov: Beyond personal and emotional impact, Russia's brutal invasion of Ukraine has put into question many assumptions underlying my research and the field more generally. While some bravely protested the invasion and continue to resist the regime’s policies in Russia, by and large, the initial shock resulting from the invasion led to adaptation rather than expected protest; evidence of war crimes led to denial rather than expected anger; and apparently heavy-handed propaganda led to detachment from politics rather than declining authority of state media.

This mismatch between expectations and events has revealed a multitude of issues demonstrating how little we know about how citizens engage with political information, make sense of it, and convert opinions into behaviour in a repressive autocracy - let alone making predictions. First, it demonstrated that there is not enough research on political psychology and communication in authoritarian contexts. Academic knowledge in social sciences is contextual and not easily transferable. The results of a study exploring how citizens make sense of propaganda or protest in 2020 might not be applicable to 2022 due to rapidly changing context and conditions. Few scattered studies can help one understand a phenomenon as much as confuse by giving a false sense of understanding. Second, it demonstrated that there is not enough research on political psychology and communication geared towards authoritarian contexts.

Most theories and concepts which are essential for understanding the Russian public's reaction to the war, such as motivated reasoning or rally-around-the-flag, were developed in the environments characterised by more democratic regimes, diverse media systems, and functioning institutions. These concepts are not free from assumptions about degree and duration of patriotic consolidation in the face of war, conditions under which individuals can overcome their political biases, perception of own political agency, and so on. Without numerous studies testing these concepts, they can generate wrong expectations. Finally, it demonstrated that there is not enough holistic research drawing on different fields and subfields. For instance, just because people do not find state propaganda credible does not mean that they will protest. While mismatch between reality and propaganda can lead citizens to re-evaluate some beliefs, cognition does not translate into protest behaviour easily as the latter is governed by completely different sets of factors, such as strength of oppositional networks, potential coalitions across social groups, reaction of the state, etc.

Dr Marc Berenson

Dr Marc Berenson: A year ago, the entire world, it seemed to me, began to discover what I had first learned to appreciate when I lived in Kyiv in the 1990s – that Ukraine really, really matters. Ukraine matters not just because it is the second most populous former Soviet nation nor because it is the largest country entirely in Europe.  Nor does it matter simply because it stands in many ways as an alternative to the path Russia has taken, although the successful guarantee of Ukraine’s independence will ensure that Russia focuses its own development within itself, where its greatest and true strengths lie.

Ukraine matters now as it finds itself at the centre not just of a war over territory but at the heart of a historical juncture that will define what world we all will live in. 24 February, 2022, marked a true inflection point for global politics, transforming how East and West, democratic and authoritarian states will interact going forward – and the resolution of Russia’s war on Ukraine will define how many resources and lives the democratic world will need to allocate to secure its own sovereignty in the decades ahead. In academia, 2022 also exposed and solidified a shift that some had recognised 30 years before – namely, that what once was labelled as “the periphery” in “Soviet” or “Russian” studies has become “the centre” of much scholarship across the region. Greater attention is now being paid to understanding and respecting the peoples within the newly-independent states who shape political and economic change.

And, as the UK has become the second largest financial supporter of Ukraine’s current fight, the rising interests and opportunities in Ukraine and other European borderland states alone will cement the need for British universities like King’s to attract and train students seeking to gain expertise in the non-Russia areas of Eurasia for years to come. Further, as discussions are now under way for a Marshall Plan for Ukraine, the world, perhaps, should recognise that it might have an even greater obligation to Ukraine, whose lands likely endured more state-sponsored killing than any other country over the past century (from the two world wars, the Stalin-imposed famine known as the Holodomir, the Stalinist purges, to the ‘Holocaust by bullets’). The time has come to give voice and greater recognition to Ukraine and to all those nations demanding to be the subject of their own stories.  Humanity will be richer for it.  Слава Україні! (Slava Ukraini).

Dr Alexander Kupatadze

Dr Alexander Kupatadze: Russia’s invasion in Ukraine and sanctions on Russia have led to tectonic changes in illicit trafficking and organised crime scene of Eurasia, the topic that I have been watching for 20 years. Serious organised crime is taking new forms in the region, in its borderlands, and its seaports. The war has disrupted or altered illicit supply chains throughout the region, changed routes of trafficking and shifted production of illicit commodities. Sanctions on Russia made formerly legal forms of trade illegal but the continuous demand on these commodities means that they can be only supplied illicitly with potentially high profit margins for criminals. These changes lead to new research questions and new puzzles that need to be solved. Understanding the implications for illicit activity and illegal structures is crucial from the perspective of medium- and longer-term regional security in Eurasia.

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