faculty & experts
04 March 2022

How to Understand the War in Ukraine: An Academic’s Perspective

In this interview, Achim Wennmann, Geneva Graduate Institute Director for Strategic Partnerships, Senior Researcher for the Centre on Conflict, Development and Peacebuilding and Interdisciplinary Programme Lecturer, highlights that academia can provide a foundation for nurturing sober judgement about the war in Ukraine.

He underlines the need to recognise the dangers of a militarising Europe and the risk this poses to the European project; efforts to end the war should also include economic disarmament to exit the weaponisation of European economies. Wennmann also notes that the United States has so far drawn the most significant strategic wins from the war in Ukraine.

You are teaching a course on peace mediation at the Institute. What do you recommend to all those trying to make sense of the war in Ukraine?

“The first casualty of war is truth”, as the saying goes, so my recommendation for those wishing to understand the reasons for and dynamics of an ongoing war is to read broadly from all sides in as many languages as possible. You might have seen that several media outlets caveat their coverage of the war in Ukraine, flagging that the information used draws on information provided by the conflict parties, however what these parties say can vary significantly. On 2 March 2022, for instance, the Russian Ministry of Defense acknowledged that 498 Russian soldiers died in the war so far; Ukraine set this figure at 7,000. As it is very difficult to verify information, the general rule of caution applies when absorbing information about an ongoing war.

Despite these difficulties of assessing ongoing conflict dynamics, how can academia help in understanding the war in Ukraine?

At the Geneva Graduate Institute, and in one of his last public appearances, Kofi Annan, the former UN Secretary General, called for “cool heads and sober judgement”, referring to the escalating tensions between the United States (US) and Russia on Syria in April 2018. This is as relevant today as it was then; academia can help by providing a foundation for nurturing sober judgement.

In my own research, I have argued that a political economy perspective debunks easy solutions based on single-factor explanations for violent conflict, and cuts through layers of misleading discourse about the nature and capabilities of fighting parties. What one might see through this lens with respect to Ukraine is that Russia exploits Europe’s vulnerability to power politics so it can exert military power in Ukraine – in the face of a militarily weak Europe and war-weary US. Through this lens one might also see why Europe and the US focus on sanctions as the primary response because here the power dynamics are inverse, according to European policy makers. The result is a battlefield on Ukrainian territory and weaponised economies.

I also like a political economy lens because it helps make sense of the ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ of a conflict. Beyond the obvious point that Ukrainian and Russian people are losing most, there is one perhaps slightly counterintuitive observation that emerges through this lens: The US draws significant strategic wins from the war in Ukraine. Literally overnight, many European governments are reinvesting in military capabilities that respond to a long-held demand by the US for European governments to invest at least 2% of their gross domestic product (GDP) into defence budgets. If Europe militarises to fight its wars in Europe on its own, then this would free up capacities for the US to fight its next war in the Indo-Pacific. When reflecting on Europe’s past, a vision of a militarised Europe is worrying and it would be a stark break with the vision of the founders of the European project after the Second World War. It would also have significant implications for agendas on climate change and against the pandemic.

A new Cold War in Europe also strengthens the US’s sphere of influence that has started to wane. In the Trump era, the notion of ‘European strategic autonomy’ balancing the US and China gained momentum but this strand of positioning seems now much more difficult to maintain, even if it’s in Europe’s economic interest. At the same time, the war in Ukraine drives a wedge into the Chinese Belt and Road Project, and domestically it might help alienate Trump’s support base as he continues to express admiration for Vladimir Putin, the Russian President.

While the war in Ukraine rages, is it possible to say anything about how it might end?

Given the current degree of military support by Western nations to Ukraine, it appears a ‘quick war’ is off the table and the scenario of Russian forces facing Ukrainian soldiers and militias in urban fighting for months is likely at this point. This entrenchment comes at the cost of more casualties and displacement as well as legacy risks of weapons proliferation known from other zones of conflict.

While many Western leaders have attributed responsibility for this war to Putin, when preparing for peace they need to be reflective about their own actions that stimulated the conditions for this war. From military interventions in the Balkans, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, the Sahel and other regions, the US and most European nations have contributed to normalising foreign intervention. While European leaders have good reason to point to Putin for warfare in Ukraine, there is also a need to address the three fingers pointing backward at themselves as they reimagine a new collective peace and security architecture for Europe.

Conflict resolution also needs to adapt to the multi-pronged nature of the war. This means an integrated focus on the military and economic dimensions. Ceasefires and peace agreements that end the fighting need to be connected to processes on the exit from sanctions. The war in Ukraine has weaponised Europe’s economy and this requires a dedicated process of economic disarmament.

Finally, there will be no end to this war without China. Through Western sanctions, Russia will become more dependent on China. It will therefore will hold a unique leverage over Russia to affect its willingness to accept concessions.

In closing, we need to recognise that we have reached the future. Multiple scenarios about the future published over the last decades have made the case to get ready for a more complex world. Climate change, population growth, pandemics, geopolitical shifts and scientific revolutions are now happening all at once and interact with each other. Yet, current institutions are not ready for handing this new level of complexity, and this is why we urgently need to foster the understanding and engagement necessary to rethink and redesign the institutions to manage an era of rapid and deep transformation.