One year of war in Ukraine: is there a way out?

A look back and forward from four humanities perspectives

Oekraïense tank. Foto: 93rd Mechanized Brigade of Ukrainian Ground Forces, via Wikimedia Commons (public domain)
Ukrainian tank. Photo: 93rd Mechanized Brigade of Ukrainian Ground Forces

24 February marks one year since Russia invaded Ukraine. An invasion followed by a war with hundreds of thousands of casualties, increasing arms supplies from the West, large refugee flows, and war rhetoric that makes one fear the worst. With four humanities scholars from different disciplines, we analyse the current state of affairs and look ahead: what are possible outcomes of this war?

The current situation

Right now we are in a state of war, observes Professor of Conflict Studies Jolle Demmers. She sees risks of a long, horrific war. “With the increase in violence and suffering, positions in war harden. It becomes increasingly difficult for warring parties to step out of the dynamic of escalation: every new death has to be avenged. With that, it becomes increasingly difficult to compromise.”

Tanks, aan Oekraïne gedoneerd door Polen. Foto: General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 4.0)
Tanks, donated to Ukraine by Poland. Photo: General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 4.0)

Laurien Crump, Affiliate Researcher in the History of International Relations, agrees. “Offensive weapons are now being delivered. Prime Minister Mark Rutte even said recently in Kyiv that there are no more taboos. The clash between NATO and Russia seems to be getting closer.”

“Within the EU, a politics of principles still predominates: one of fighting on to the bitter end,” Demmers argues. “Not only are the warring parties on a collision course, the European Union has also locked itself into inflexible principles.”

“The longer the war continues and the higher the stakes, the more dangerous, including for us,” Crump warns. “Moreover, it plays directly into Putin’s hands: for a despot, there is nothing better to keep his citizens in line than a common enemy. The more offensive the West is towards Russia, the easier it is for Putin to paint a public image of the West as the aggressor and the more he can pressurize the home front.”

Support among Russian minorities grows weaker

“Russia has a completely nihilistic president,” Laurien Crump says, “who will endlessly send his own people to the front as cannon fodder.” Many of the young men Russia is sending to the front belong to an ethnic minority. “The mobilisation is obviously very selective,” Associate Professor of Cultural History Gertjan Plets explains. “For example, relatively more Altai people were called up than other nationalities.”

Een plechtige viering van de mobilisering in Altaj.
A solemn celebration of mobilisation in Altai. Photo: © Government of the Altai Republic

As ethnographer, Plets has been conducting research in Siberia’s Altai region since 2019. Altai is a semi-independent republic home to many non-Russian minorities who are at odds with Moscow. He sees support for the war waning as unrest increases. “Many young Altai people have already died, but many have also fled to Mongolia. Since the mobilisation, tension among minorities are mounting and there is now more explicit negative talk about the war.”

A year of offensives, escalation and losses

Putin will, in any case, carry on the war until the end, Laurien Crump fears, regardless of the cost to Russia, humanity in general or otherwise. “On the Western side, however, there seems to be no exit strategy either. Western government leaders, such as Joe Biden, but also Mark Rutte, explicitly proclaim their support of Zelensky and Ukraine, and Zelensky gets to decide when it ends. That end could be bitter.”

Assistant Professor in International History and genocide researcher Iva Vukusic also finds the lack of an exit strategy problematic. “The civilian suffering is immense, and we should never forget that, while we talk about the more abstract ideas of geopolitics or justice. The destruction of infrastructure, the emotional scars that people who lost loved ones carry, the people who lost everything. How will they live on? These are things I am very concerned about. I worry about Putin staying in power, but I also worry about what happens if he loses power.”

De begraafplaats van Novovolynsk (Oekraïne). Foto: Gemeente Novovolynsk, via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 4.0)
The cemetery of Novovolynsk (Ukraine). Photo: Municipality of Novovolynsk, via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 4.0)

“Western governments are also starting to get a bit nervous,” Laurien Crump observes. “We occasionally hear cautious calls for de-escalation, especially from the Germans and French.” Demmers continues: “In recent months, there have also been voices around Washington advising a ceasefire. Look, for example, at the recent report ‘Avoiding a Long War’. It takes to account the risk that the current dynamics of violence pose – dynamics that could eventually lead to a war between Russia and NATO.”

Russian perspective increasingly stays out of sight

As a historian, Iva Vukusic sees how the Russian perspective seems excluded from the public debate. “That is a worrying development. Russians are being excluded from all conversations, under the assumption that they all support the government.” Gertjan Plets also sees Russian public opinion disappearing from the debate. “I think in the last year we have been too focused on the geopolitical context and power relations. In the process, we have unfortunately forgotten Russian public opinion, and especially the voices outside Moscow.”

Een deel van de op Charkiv afgevuurde raketten. Foto: Kharkiv Regional State Administration, via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 4.0)
Part of the rockets fired at Kharkiv. Photo: Kharkiv Regional State Administration, via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 4.0)

According to Plets, this goes both ways. “A dear colleague of mine who works in Siberia, asked the other day if I could update her on how the war is talked about in the West. She wanted to know because she has difficulty accessing Western media and Russian propaganda is deafeningly loud.”

What next for the war in Ukraine?

The war reminds Plets of the Afghan War (1979-1989). “I interviewed many veterans of that war and their relatives. It was a long war in which there were many deaths and legions of young conscripts had to fight. Eventually the Soviet regime fell due to a multitude of factors, but the Afghan War played an important role. I think the war in Ukraine could play out in a similar way.”

A worrying prospect for the future, Laurien Crump thinks. “The Russians were in Afghanistan for ten years and today the Taliban is still fighting with the weapons the Americans supplied to the Afghan Mujahedeen in the 1980s. I think that’s a terrifying prospect in every way, including for Ukraine.”

Hoping for a tipping point or solution: will there be any in the future?

Waging war to the bitter end is not the solution, Jolle Demmers believes. “A new narrative about what ‘winning’ means is needed. In time, this can offer a way out of a dangerous dynamic of escalation.” As far as she is concerned, the Netherlands should encourage that. “Through the billions in arms supplies, intensive training operations, and intelligence, we bear joint responsibility for both the escalation towards even more atrocities and a way out of this hell.”

Straten van Boetsja, een voorstad van Kyiv. Foto: Oleksandr Ratushniak, via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Streets of Baksha, a suburb of Kyiv. Photo: Oleksandr Ratushniak, via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

As a consequence we must be realistic, Demmers believes. “There is virtually no chance that Ukraine will achieve the goal of full territorial control. By focusing on deploying instruments such as reconstruction and security of Ukraine, conditions around neutrality guarantees and sanctions relief towards Russia, we can begin a process that could eventually culminate in peace negotiations.”

“It is necessary to bring both sides to the table,” Laurien Crump agrees. “This will require extremely painful compromises. On one hand, security guarantees must be offered to Ukraine, but no NATO membership. On the other, there has to be a compromise on the status of the Donbas and Crimea that Putin can sell within Russia as a victory. If he cannot, he will not agree.”

Moreover, the European security structure needs to be looked at, Crump stresses. “That has been unfinished since the end of the Cold War – the place of Ukraine, but also of Russia, has never been sufficiently thought through.”

Regardless, the resolution of the Ukraine-war and its aftermath will be complicated. Iva Vukusic foresees many problems around questions of justice and accountability. “It looks like a new tribunal will be set up to try Russian leaders for the invasion and its aggression. The International Criminal Court cannot prosecute the invasion of another country, but a new tribunal should be able to punish these crimes.” The question remains, however, how such a Ukraine tribunal would fit within any joint peace negotiations.

Een winkelcentrum in Kremenchuk na een Russische aanval. Een oorlogsmisdaad, zei de Franse president Macron. Foto: State Emergency Service of Ukraine, via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 4.0)
A shopping center in Kremenchuk after a Russian missile atack. A war crime, the French president Macron said. Photo: State Emergency Service of Ukraine, via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 4.0)

“Through analysis, scholars can help prevent tunnel vision”

The role of scholars in this war is limited, but certainly not insignificant, all four humanities scholars think. “We document, file away, collect, and note down for history, in order to analyse, in a careful, nuanced way, what is happening,” Vukusic says. “We cannot influence the big developments and we will not save lives, but maybe we can move the needle a little bit. And that little bit can be significant if we know how to share the lessons of the past.”

Laurien Crump finds it is important to broaden context and look at the long term. “What are the roots of this war? As a historian, I can help avoid tunnel vision. This war is close and frightening, but with a clear and well-founded analysis, as a scholar you can bring some calm to the debate and give people tools to grasp the constant flow of information.”

“As scholars, we can draw attention to certain aspects that might be key to a way out of this conflict,” Gertjan Plets adds. “We should dare to turn the spotlight on those aspects that remain underexposed. We need to share our knowledge. That means we sometimes have to go against colleagues who do not have that knowledge and look at the conflict as an outsider. Their analysis is important and usually very good, but Russia is a strange beast that needs contextual interpretation.”