UCL analyses of Russia’s war on Ukraine

Kristin M. Bakke: What do people in Ukraine want? 

The Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022—a drastic escalation of an already devastating armed conflict ongoing since 2014—violates the right of the people of Ukraine to live their lives in a sovereign state and independently shape their future. While much focus has been on the geopolitics of this conflict, it is the people in Ukraine who are at the heart of it—and will bear the brunt of war.  

Ukrainians do overwhelmingly not want to be part of Russia, but their views towards Russia have been positive for much of their country’s post-Soviet independent history. Prior to Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, the vast majority felt positively about Russia. These attitudes cooled dramatically with the annexation—and have stayed that way, also due to the war in the Donbas.  

Russia’s annexation of Crimea encouraged the Ukrainian leadership to seek closer ties to NATO, though popular support for NATO has been more divided. A survey that my collaborators and I did in December 2019 showed that while 44 percent of Ukrainians supported NATO membership—and more so in the western and central vs. eastern and southern regions—only a quarter would want NATO troops and bases stationed in Ukraine. Support for military cooperation with Russia was much lower, with about a quarter favouring military cooperation but only four percent wanting Russian troops and bases stationed in Ukraine. About half favoured a neutral position, though again with regional variation. The survey also shows that people are quite divided in how they view historical vents, for example whether the dissolution of the USSR was a right or wrong step. More recent surveys show that Ukrainians have become more open to an alliance with NATO, with 56 percent in favour in February 2021.  

Views are different in the Russian-backed separatist Donetsk and Luhansk Peoples Republics, which are not controlled by the government in Kyiv. A survey we conducted in these territories in 2020 showed that about half of the respondents wanted to join Russia. A separate and more recent survey, from January 2022, in both the government-controlled and separatist-controlled territories in the Donbas, shows that for the majority of this war-weary population who have long suffered, everyday economic concerns are more important than which country they live in. 

On February 24, war came to the rest of Ukraine as well. Ukrainians do not want this war, but surveys results from as recently as February 2022, from the reputable Kyiv International Institute of Sociology (KIIS), show that they are prepared to resist Russian aggression to defend their independence.  

Kristin M. Bakke is Professor in Political Science and International Relations in the UCL Department of Political Science. 


Uilleam Blacker: History, memory and Putin’s neo-imperial worldview 

Putin has framed Russia’s aggression against Ukraine in terms of history. In July 2021, he published a long essay on Russian-Ukrainian historical relations; immediately before Russia invaded Ukraine, he gave an hour-long history lecture on Russian television. Putin’s historical justifications for war stretch from the 10th century Christianisation of Kyivan Rus all the way to claims about NATO expansion in the 21st century. Ukraine, in his view, has always been a part of Russia (even in times before Russia existed); its separate existence is artificial and a result of betrayals and aggressions against Russia. Capitalising on memory of Soviet victory over Nazism in World War II, which has strong resonance for Russians, Putin paints contemporary opponents as the heirs to the Nazis. Even if those opponents are Jewish and lost family members in the Holocaust. 

Whether Putin believes his own illogical propaganda is irrelevant. What is certain is that his historical harangues distract attention from his violent drive to retain power and wealth. No historical argument justifies invading Ukraine. European borders have changed constantly over the centuries, but this is not used as the basis of interstate violence; security in Europe depends on states respecting legally recognised borders. 

Putin has built his power on an eclectic populist vision of history that combines imperial and Soviet elements. He paints Russia as having been humiliated after the collapse of the USSR. Part of that humiliation is the absorption of territories formerly controlled by the Moscow into the EU and NATO. What Russia sees as aggression against it, however, is seen in the countries in question as a defensive measure against historic Russian domination. Ukraine was arguably Russia’s first colony, coming under Russian control in the 17th/18th centuries. Ukraine’s move westwards and its rejection of the Russian view of history has profoundly threatened the central pillar of Putin’s neo-imperial worldview. 

Uilleam Blacker is Associate Professor in the Comparative Culture of Russia and Eastern Europe at UCL SSEES. 


Uilleam Blacker: Contesting language 

One of Russia’s justifications for attacking Ukraine is the idea that it is protecting Russian speakers. The narrative is that Ukraine divided between a Russian-speaking east and a Ukrainian-speaking west, there is political conflict between these groups, and the government oppresses Russian-speakers. The narrative is false. There is no simple coincidence between language, identity and political views in Ukraine. 

Ukraine is bilingual. Most Ukrainians speak both languages, but most consider Ukrainian their native language (census data shows Ukrainian chosen as native language by majorities in all regions except Crimea). However, many of these people use Russian more frequently in everyday life. They may speak Ukrainian at home, Russian at work; Ukrainian with some family members, Russian with others. Mixing languages is common. Distinguishing exactly who is a ‘Russian-speaker’ is not easy. 

Ukraine has enacted reforms in recent years to promote Ukrainian. These require quotas in media, use of Ukrainian in official settings and education. They are needed because the Russian language has dominated many spheres of life in Ukraine for centuries, while Ukrainian has been deliberately marginalised. Ukrainians even today often struggle to find everything from Ukrainian-speaking creches to quality Ukrainian-language TV shows. Only a few years ago, most books in stores and music on the radio were in Russian. The quotas are not draconian: for example, at least 50% of titles at newsstands must be in Ukrainian. Some Ukrainians dislike the reforms, but the majority supports them. 

The idea that external military force is needed to intervene in these questions is absurd. Ukrainians, unlike Russians, can vote freely for candidates who will implement their preferred language policy. Indeed, Russian-speakers in Ukraine have greater freedom in what they say in their language than Russians in Russia. The Ukrainian president is a Russian-speaker who built a career satirising Ukrainian politics in the Russian language. No such satire is possible in Russia. 

Uilleam Blacker is Associate Professor in the Comparative Culture of Russia and Eastern Europe at UCL SSEES. 


David Dalton: A geo-economic motive for the Russia-Ukraine war   

Russian leaders have presented their hostility to Ukraine largely in terms of security—that is, as a response to their fears of Ukraine joining NATO, popular support for which has risen sharply in Ukraine since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.  

In the current context, my research on the political economy of the Ukrainian oligarchy ties in with an alternative explanation of the motivation for the drastic actions undertaken by Russia since 2013.  

This reading holds that Russia’s leaders fear the competitive economic rules that Ukraine’s EU integration would bring, undermining their own political and economic governance model. The aim, therefore, is to keep Ukraine corrupt as a means of self-preservation. In 2013, in the run up to war, Russia’s warnings were focused on the supposed catastrophic effect on the Ukrainian and Russian economies of an influx of cheap goods from the EU. This, it was claimed, would be the result of Ukraine’s then upcoming EU Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA)—a geo-economic rather than a security concern.  

Of course, no event as significant as Russia’s latest invasion of Ukraine—which appears now as a war of colonial reconquest—can be explained by a single cause. This geo-economic factor, however, is likely to be a weighty one in the mix.  

David Dalton recently completed his PhD on the political economy of Ukraine at UCL SSEES. He is a former Ukraine and Poland editor/economist at the Economist Intelligence Unit.  


Mark Galeotti: Forward to the past 

Vladimir Putin regularly entertains historical parallels for himself, inclining towards great state-builders like Tsar Peter the Great or modernising prime minister Peter Stolypin. Who’d have thought it would turn out to be Leonid Brezhnev?  

There appears no public enthusiasm for the war; quite the opposite, the first days saw protests online and on the streets. If – as seems most likely – it drags on, from the high-intensity early days of invasion to the ugly, messy work of counter-insurgency, then there will be a steady flow of wounded returning to tax an overstretched health system and dead to tax public patience.  

That said, it is unlikely that Putin’s regime will be toppled by public protest or even elite discontent. After all, he retains control of the security apparatus, and will have to rely ever more heavily on them to maintain the system. Given its personalisation, any thought of some kind of managed succession, even if it was being entertained, would seem to be too dangerous now, and Putin and presumably many of his current allies and officials will have to stay in post.  

Meanwhile, economic sanctions will grind away at an economy that is already stagnant, with the best-case target for 2030 being no further deterioration in incomes in real terms. With restricted access to external credit and technology, the challenges of modernisation – and especially of responding to the de-carbonisation agenda – will become all the more formidable.  

At dagger’s drawn with the West, engaged in a vicious conflict in a neighbouring country. An ageing leadership relying on repression over legitimacy, an economy characterised by heavy state-control and low productivity. Ukraine 2022 is not Afghanistan 1979, and today’s Russia is not Brezhnev’s Soviet Union, but the parallels with the late USSR can only grow.  

Mark Galeotti is Honorary Professor at UCL SSEES. His new book The Weaponisation of Everything is just out with Yale University Press.  


Jakob Hauter: The Kremlin’s dangerous  fantasy world 

For the last three and a half years, I have looked at the outbreak of war in Ukraine’s Donbas in 2014. All evidence suggests that this was primarily a Russian attack and not an internal Ukrainian conflict. Nevertheless, until about a week before it happened, I remained confident that a large-scale invasion beyond the Donbas was unlikely. Like too many others, I did not think that any cost-benefit analysis in the Kremlin could conclude that such an endeavour would be worth it. 

Has the Kremlin lost touch with reality? It certainly seems that the Russian leadership lives in a fantasy world fuelled by its own propaganda. In this world, Ukraine is governed by a US puppet regime that can be overthrown in a swift military operation. Large parts of Ukraine will acquiesce to new pro-Russian rulers. Civil society does not exist. Pro-Western activists are a small group of paid agents that can be driven out of the country, arrested, or killed. At the same time, the West is too weak and divided to stand up for Ukraine.  

This narrative has little to do with reality. The war will prove costlier than the Kremlin expects. This reality check will be dangerous because it could trigger even more irrational behaviour. But there does not appear to be any alternative. The only thing that seems more dangerous than letting the fantasy world implode is sustaining it. If the Russian leadership is allowed to delude itself even further into believing that the invasion was a success, they might well develop an appetite for more. The West should therefore use all available options short of direct military engagement to support Ukraine and sanction Russia, with the aim of making an armistice become a military and economic necessity that even the Kremlin can no longer deny.  

Dr Jakob Hauter successfully defended his PhD on the outbreak of war in Ukraine’s Donbas UCL SSEES recently. His publications are available at: https://www.ucl.ac.uk/ssees/jakob-hauter


Brian Klaas: Why the West’s entanglements with corrupt autocrats matter

Vladimir Putin is an autocrat, presiding over a country that holds frequently rigged elections. That means his ability to stay in power isn’t contingent on voter support. Instead, he’s able to stay in power thanks to the support of a network of rich, corrupt oligarchs. Understanding those dynamics of Putin’s power base is essential for comprehending two linked facets of the ongoing crisis. First, how might Putin be forced to reverse course? And second, how does the unfolding punishment coming from Western countries highlight our own entanglements with a world that is awash with tainted Russian cash from illicit sources?

In order to truly deter and punish Putin, any sanctions would need to inflict real pain on his core network of supportive oligarchs. Most of those people, however, vacation in the Mediterranean on their yachts, send their children to elite educational institutions in Europe and the United States, stash their cash in offshore bank accounts, and largely don’t have to care whether the buses in St. Petersburg run on time – or whether ordinary Russians are suffering. Therefore, to change Putin’s calculations, the West would need to make the lives of the oligarchs more Russian – more intertwined with life in their home country.

To some extent, that has happened with remarkable sweep and resolve from Western countries, who have coordinated some truly biting economic consequences. But the limits of the sanctions from the West has also showed how intertwined our own societies are with the fates of corrupt autocracies. For example, because 40 percent of Europe’s imports of natural gas come from Russia, the punitive response has largely spared those sectors. Furthermore, some figures who are clearly part of Putin’s corrupt network have not been sanctioned or have only faced slaps on the wrist, because they themselves have ties to Western companies, banks, politicians or sports teams. What I’ll be watching for, therefore, to understand the scale of the geopolitical shift ushered in by the invasion of Ukraine is this: to what extent will the response to Putin actually go after the money, the corruption, and the oligarchs? The answer to that question will help predict the political fates of Vladimir Putin – and the West’s ability to deter future aggression from Russia.

Brian Klaas is Associate Professor in Global Politics at UCL SELCS.


Mart Kuldkepp: Learning from hindsight 

The current phase of Russian aggression against Ukraine started with the beginning of the Russian military build-up in October 2021. Unlike in 2014, these preparations were conducted more or less out in the open, and Western intelligence on Russia’s intentions was solid – as we now know with the benefit of some hindsight. Nevertheless, we failed to organise an effective response.  

The cognitive challenge of taking in what the intelligence channels were telling us was simply too great. Ukraine, already at war with Russia for eight years, was unwilling to accept the role of a pre-determined victim. NATO and other Western countries, fearful of provoking Russia or cutting the channels of communication, avoided serious pre-emptive measures. After all, hadn’t intelligence been wrong before, not least during the run-up to the Iraq War? And surely, even Russia would not want an all-out war in the heart of Europe? 

Now, we sadly have the answers to these questions. Through no fault of its own, Ukraine has become a frontline country, fighting a senseless war, initiated by a blatantly criminal aggressor. Whatever Vladimir Putin happens to believe, even his acolytes cannot possibly be happy about this war, and it cannot but end badly for Russia.

Temporarily, Putin has put Russia on the wrong side of history. But what we have also seen is an impressive display of Ukrainian resolve, notwithstanding the mounting casualties, and a display of Western unity standing with Ukraine. Of course, more should be done to help. Most sanctions have long-term, not immediate consequences. Ukraine urgently needs defensive weapons and humanitarian assistance. But if Ukraine saves us, then there can be no more excuses not to stamp out the corruption in our societies, not to stop our reliance on fossil fuels, not to stop enabling the murderous autocrats of this world. 

Mart Kuldkepp is Associate Professor of Scandinavian History and Politics at UCL SELCS. 


Philippe Marlière: Ukraine’s right to security and self-determination vs. ‘campism’

In the run-up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, I found it disturbing that people minimised or even dismissed altogether Putin’s bellicose intentions. Some even presented him as a ‘victim’ arguing that Russia’s war on Ukraine was a reaction to ‘NATO’s expansionist policy in Ukraine’, and they hardly had a critical word against Russia.

Individuals kept criticising Ukraine for not implementing the Minsk Agreements, but kept silent on their violations by Russia and its allies in the Donbas region. Some exaggerated the importance of the far-Right in Ukraine but did not mention the role of neo-Nazis in the ‘People’s Republics’. Such denial was strong on the right and far-right, but also on the radical left.

On the radical left, this phenomenon is called ‘campism’ by its critics. It existed during the war in Syria, and it still exists today. ‘Campism’ on the left essentially opposes Western interference while ignoring, or sometimes supporting, the engagement of Russia in Syria or in Ukraine. For some ‘the main enemy is at home’, and the main actors responsible for the war are never the main culprits.

Some on the Left argue that in 2003, other governments did not put enough pressure on the USA or the UK over Iraq. This may be true, but it cannot justify putting less pressure on Russia over Ukraine now.

Liberal internationalism may be flawed and cynical at times, but this does not mean that it is right to support the division of ‘spheres of interest’ between imperialist states. It would seem more useful to fight for a democratisation of the international security order under the UN’s auspices. Let’s rather defend a ‘left-wing’ democratisation of the UN.

In the meantime, to overthrow the Putin regime is in the interests of Ukrainians, Russians and the rest of the world.

Philippe Marlière is Professor of French and European Politics at UCL SELCS. 


Ben Noble:  Putin and the possibility of dissent  

Vladimir Putin is the leader of a personalist authoritarian regime. But that does not mean he can ignore what members of the elite and public think if he wants to remain in power. And that makes controlling the message about what is happening in Ukraine so vital to his position.   

State Television in Russia presents a very different view of events than those flashing across screens in the West. Russians are being told that the country’s military is involved in a “liberation” campaign to remove the government of President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, portrayed as a “neo-Nazi” puppet of the West that is coordinating a “genocide” against ethnic Russians in Donbas.   

With a view to sustaining this parallel information universe, the Russian authorities have taken a number of steps to limit access to alternative sources and to shape the narrative, including: restricting social media access; threatening to close independent media; and instructing Russian media not to use certain words in coverage of events in Ukraine, including the word “invasion”. The official line is that Russia is carrying out a “special military operation to defend the People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk (DNR and LNR)”.   

But the Kremlin’s information control, and its ability to shape popular perceptions, is far from total. Thousands of Russians have been arrested so far in anti-war protests across the country. Some notable celebrities – including the popular chat show host, Ivan Urgant, and the tennis stars, Daniil Medvedev and Andrey Rublev – have already publicly voiced their opposition to the war in Ukraine. And a number of open letters criticising military action have been signed by many people, from scientists to journalists, from politicians to members of the public.   

What about the elite? Putin is famously intolerant of public displays of disagreement between members of his leadership team. That is likely one of the reasons for the extraordinary meeting of Russia’s Security Council on Monday 21 February, during which leading figures of state were, in effect, put on the spot by Putin to publicly declare their endorsement for Russia’s recognition of the DNR and LNR.   

And yet, the very need for such a public show of unity might indicate some differences of opinion at the top. Indeed, there were some indications of such differences in the meeting itself, although nothing like open criticism of the idea of recognition. Regarding the economic elite, some key people have already called for an end to the war, including Mikhail Fridman – one of Russia’s richest people.   

Criticism of the war is, of course, not the same as criticism of Vladimir Putin personally. But, given the president’s personal, decisive role in initiating this act of brutal aggression against Ukraine, the distinction could be worryingly thin for the Russian president.   

Although it is far too soon to reach any firm conclusions about what the war in Ukraine might mean for Putin’s future, comparative research shows that Putin should be troubled by grumblings at the top. Dictators are most often toppled by coups d’état, not popular uprisings – although elite factions disquieted by actions of the leader can be emboldened by growing discontent on the streets.   

Much will, of course, depend on how the war develops – as well as the Russian state’s capacity and willingness to crack down even harder on dissent. But it already seems like a decision by the president meant to bolster his position and help secure his legacy could plausibly have precisely the opposite effect.   

Ben Noble is Associate Professor of Russian Politics at UCL SSEES. His latest book is Navalny: Putin’s Nemesis, Russia’s Future? 


Rasmus Nilsson: Is Ukraine a separate country?

Vladimir Putin does not recognise Ukrainian sovereignty. Instead, he talks about Ukraine as a fake construction, a result of crimes committed against Russia. For Putin, and those supporting him, Ukraine was created by the Bolsheviks after the 1917 revolution. In this narrative, Ukraine only made sense as a socialist republic within the Soviet framework.  

Yet Putin also believes that the Soviet Union only made sense as a link in the history of the Russian Empire, unbroken for hundreds of years and willing to stand up to the West whenever required. Yet, when the Soviet Union fell in 1991 – and Russia was temporarily weak – the West took advantage of such weakness to steal away Ukraine from its Russian home and into a chaotic, humiliating world of poverty and dependence on Western capital and slogans. And now, a renewed Russia is prepared to regain control in Kyiv and kick out the vassals of Washington and Brussels. 

Or so Putin’s story goes. But there are other understandings of Ukrainian sovereignty outside Russia – and within Russia, too. Some, particularly younger people, believe that the real Russia is not an empire but the Russian Federation, which appeared after 1991. And that the real Ukraine is simply Russia’s neighbour. Others do see Russians and Ukrainians, and perhaps Belarusians, too, as part of a community of culture and values – united by personal relations and by some common understandings of the past, present and even future. These people have often spoken of unity – but not political unity and certainly not unity under the boot of the Kremlin. One of the many tragedies of the current war is that this joint sovereignty, created by and for the many in Russia and Ukraine, might now be disappearing in battle to satisfy the domineering wishes of the few around Putin. 

Dr Rasmus Nilsson teaches Russian foreign policy and post-Soviet politics at UCL SSEES. 


Aglaya Snetkov:  Putin’s domestic framing of war  

The image of the West, and especially of NATO trying to undermine Russia and re-draw the map of the region, articulated by the Putin regime has now culminated in the tragedy that is a Russian invasion of Ukraine.  

This storyline in which Russia faces an aggressive West has grown ever louder since the mid-2000s. At the same time, the Putin regime has embarked on regular wars, conflicts and ‘special operations’, including the Second Chechen War (1999), Georgia (2008), Ukraine (2014), Syria (2015), and Ukraine (2022). These conflicts, and the accompanying definition of ‘enemies’ at home and abroad, have all played a central role in the way the Putin regime has sought to present itself and the world to the Russian population.  

With the exception of the Second Chechen War, these conflicts have had limited direct impacts on the wider Russian population. The Putin regime has thus been able to present its narratives on these conflicts without concern about pushback created by major day-to-day impacts on the domestic population.  

This time the situation is likely to be different. Due to the sanctions regime currently being imposed on Russia and the heavy military losses incurred by the war in Ukraine, the wider Russian public will be directly impacted by Putin’s decision to wage war against Ukraine.  

What remains uncertain is whether the regime will be able to frame the narrative of these impacts to galvanise public support for its efforts to withstand economic sanctions imposed from abroad, or whether the invasion of Ukraine launched on 24 February 2022 will have a similarly destabilising impact on the Putin regime as the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan had on the Soviet Union during the 1980s. Only time will tell. 

Dr Aglaya Snetkov is Lecturer at UCL SSEES. 


Andrew Wilson: A Schmittian reading of Russian thinking  

Most explanations devolve to ‘What is Putin thinking’? The Finnish president, Sauli Niinistö, for example, who was been in regular contact with Putin during his ten years in office, notes how Putin has become more emotional in recent years.

But there is an intellectual background to Russia’s otherwise irrational aggression. I highly recommend the recent book Russia’s New Authoritarianism: Putin and the Politics of Order by David G. Lewis, which looks at the influence of the Nazi German philosopher Carl Schmitt on modern Russia. I paraphrase what Lewis says; but am drawing heavily on his analysis. For Schmitt, the world is divided into Großräume (‘Great Spaces’), for Russia ‘civilisations’. Each has a ‘hegemon’. Hegemons are equal to each other – Russia should talk to the USA, not to Ukraine. But hegemons are superior to the other limited sovereignty states in their civilisational space. The hegemons, moreover, understand the unique nature or their own civilisation; outside powers do not. They are raumfremde Mächte or ‘powers alien to the space’. The job of the hegemon is to police the Großraum, keep out the alien powers whose interventions would destabilise the civilisational space, and make correct decisions for the limited sovereignty states.   

Sound familiar? This was Schmitt’s justification for the German invasion of Poland. It is a good frame for understanding how Russia thinks about Ukraine. As Ruth Deyermond writes in another excellent piece The Uses of Sovereignty in Twenty-first Century Russian Foreign Policy, Russia sees two types of sovereignty in its civilisational space. Full Westphalian sovereignty has to be earned; it is only available to those with konkurentnosposobnost – the ‘ability to compete’. Then there is the post-Soviet sovereignty of minor states, which are not equal to hegemons. The West, however, believes there is only one type of sovereignty.   

Andrew Wilson is Professor of Ukrainian Studies at UCL SSEES. His latest book Belarus: The Last European Dictatorship has just been published. 


Featured image by Uilleam Blacker. It shows a plaque at Kyiv’s World War II Museum commemorating WWII battle-sites. The writing underneath says ‘The war is still going on’.


NoteThe views expressed in this post are those of the authors, and not of the UCL European Institute, nor of UCL. 

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