The war in Ukraine – unexpected but possible to explain

No, Putin is not insane – it is not that simple. The war in Ukraine is cruel and unpredictable, but it can be explained. However it is impossible to know how it will end.

Johanna Dahlin. Johanna Dahlin is a social anthropologist who studies Russia and the Soviet Union. Her doctoral thesis from 2012, “Kriget är inte över förrän den sista soldatenär begraven” (The war is not overuntil the last soldier is buried) concernsthe “search movement”, which looks for fallen soldiers from the Second World War.  Charlotte Perhammar

"Was shocked"

Johanna Dahlin – Russia scholar and assistant professor at LiU – reacted just like most other people when Russia began its war of aggression against Ukraine on 24 February: with shock. Yes, there was a longstanding conflict between the countries. Yes, Russia felt threatened and cornered by NATO. And yes, since 2014 a low-intensity war had been ongoing in the eastern region of Donbas. But full-scale war? No, that was completely unexpected.

Volodymyr Zelenskiy visits Bucha.Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy visits the town of Bucha April 2, 2022.  Photo credit UKRAINIAN PRESIDENTIAL PRESS SER

“I never thought it would happen. I was shocked, and so were most Russians. There was sabre-rattling at the border, but no indications that there would be full-scale war”, she says.

Many have described the war as “Putin’s war”, but Johanna Dahlin feels this description is too simplistic. Rather, it is “the Russian leadership’s war”, with wide support from the Russian population. Putin has long been popular with Russians, because after the fall of communism and the chaotic 1990s, he has brought two things: stability and welfare.

If the initial reaction to the outbreak of war was surprise, public opinion in Russia has since grown polarised. In late April, when this article was written, surveys showed that two-thirds of the Russian people support the war.

“Of course, one must take care with those surveys. They are conducted by state-run opinion-polling institutes, and many respondents say what they are expected to say. But in any case, there is certainly public support”, says Johanna Dahlin.

Historical explanations

People looking for historical explanations for the war can begin in the ninth century, when the first Russian kingdom – the precursor to modern-day Russia, Belarus and Ukraine – was founded by Scandinavian vikings in Kyiv. This kingdom is the reason why many Russians view both Ukraine and Belarus as part of their own country, or at least as closely linked sister countries.

Vladimir Putin.Russia’s President Vladimir Putin on Victory Day in Moscow May 9, 2022. Photo credit KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV

In modern times, Ukraine was liberated from the Soviet Union in 1991, and was accepted as in independent state as long as it did more or less what Russia wanted. The Orange Revolution in 2004 and the Maidan Revolution in 2014 (named after Independence Square in Kyiv) changed this. Ukraine shifted focus to the West, and began to talk openly about both EU and NATO membership.

The Russia-friendly president Yanukovych won the election in 2010, but was removed in the revolution four years later. Russia responded by annexing Crimea and, until the current war, more or less openly supported rebels in the eastern provinces of Luhansk and Donetsk.

“Ukraine is extremely important to Russia and has special significance, together with Belarus. For this reason, I don’t think Russia would continue and attack Poland, for instance, if they won the war. Ukraine is special”, says Johanna Dahlin.

Superpower dream

Apart from the historical ties, the war is also about Russia’s sphere of interest. That is, Russia believes it has the right to push its neighbouring countries in a Russia-friendly direction.

“The Russian leadership thinks in the same way as it did during the Cold War, and is worried by NATO’s expansion, especially if Ukraine were to become a member. They feel cornered by the West, while retaining their superpower dreams from the Soviet era. A large part of the population also thinks this way.”

How will the war end?

“Russia has said that the aim is that Ukraine will be neutral, that Crimea is incorporated into Russia and that the republics of Donetsk and Luhansk are recognised. Right now it is very difficult to see that Ukraine would agree to this. It feels like the war could continue for a very long time.”

Soldiers’ mothers

Johanna Dahlin.The cruelties against civilians are difficult to understand, and actually impede Russia’s chanses of winning the war. "I can't explain it in any other way than that people do horrible things in war", says Johanna Dahlin.  Photo credit Charlotte Perhammar

What may increase opposition inside Russia, and in the long term help bring peace, are protests from the families of dead Russian soldiers. Ukraine claims to have killed more than 20,000 Russian soldiers, and even if this figure is exaggerated, the war has doubtlessly been very costly in terms of human life. It is sometimes said that Putin listens to soldiers’ mothers, and after the war in Afghanistan there was extensive criticism from relatives of fallen soldiers. These protests led to change, especially thanks to glasnost.

“On the other hand, there have been other wars where this didn’t happen, such as the Second World War and the war in Chechnya. The decisive factor will be if a movement is formed and the families mourn not only as individuals”, says Johanna Dahlin, who in her own research has studied how dead Russian soldiers from the Second World War are viewed.

Of course, the ongoing war has hit Ukraine the worst, but Russia is also affected. The country is isolated from the rest of the world, censorship is being tightened and domestic oppression is increasing.

“I’m also very worried about Russia. The war will affect our view of the country for a long time”, says Johanna Dahlin.

Footnote: This article was published in LiU magazine #2 2022

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