faculty & experts
27 February 2023

The Russia-Ukraine War: Widening Polarisation and Escalatory Dynamics

Oksana Myshlovska, previous Pierre du Bois Visiting Professor and current Lecturer and Researcher at the University of Bern, views the Russia-Ukraine war through the lens of identity, ideas of political community and conflicting narratives. 

Around the one-year milestone since the Russian invasion, an increasing number of analysts and the public at large asked the question on how the conflict will end and on the prospects of peace. American President Joe Biden’s surprise visit to Ukraine on 20 February and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s address to the Federal Assembly a day after are two recent seminal events that indicate that peace talks and de-escalation remain distant.

While military strategies and dynamics have been analysed in detail, here the focus is on the role of identities, ideas of political community and conflicting narratives that feed the vicious escalatory spirals of conflict. Research on socio-psychological factors in conflict escalation by scholars such as Daniel Bar-Tal, Herbert Kelman and others highlight several key elements. First, physical violence dramatically changes the nature of conflicts. Because of the sanctity of life and the irreversibility of losses, conflicting parties feel that they need to continue to fight as otherwise sacrifices will be in vain and any compromises with the enemy are seen as a betrayal of the fallen. Furthermore, societies in conflict develop what Kelman calls the “parallel images of the self and the other” that create a spiraling effect as each action of the enemy side is interpreted as offensive while one’s own actions are framed as only defensive. Finally, as argued by Kelman, identities also become the key arenas of struggle. As conflicts evolve, groups come to see the identity, national community and culture of the other as a threat to their own group existence and thus integrate the negation of the other into their own identity.

The positions of Ukraine and Russia on the nature of the conflict in Eastern Ukraine and its regulation became unbridgeable between 2014 and 2022, and the inter-state relations continued to deteriorate. Since 2014 Russia has never opened the question of Crimea for negotiations. It blamed Ukraine and the West for the initiation of the conflict, seen by Russia as a strictly internal Ukrainian conflict, and for the peacebuilding failure. In Ukraine, the implementation of the Minsk agreements remained a highly contentious regionally dividing issue, and gradually a one-sided interpretation of the conflict as “Russian aggression” became dominant. Russia had never acknowledged its threat and the use of force in Ukraine, and the Ukrainian-Russian dimension of the conflict had remained without formal regulation. The West was also reluctant to acknowledge the irregularities in the change of power in February 2014 in Ukraine and a complex array of factors in the initiation of conflict in 2014 that could not be limited just to the role of Russia. 

Delegitimisation and negation of the other’s identity escalated. Russia, de facto republics and Russian-occupied Crimea denied the legitimacy to the Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar identities, and nationhoods defined in opposition to the Soviet and Russian imperial political communities, and prohibited organisations representing them. The Ukrainian authorities implemented “decommunisation” and prohibited entities representing the Soviet and “Russkiy mir” communities.

The positions have further radicalised since February 2022. In December 2022, Russia reiterated the same demands concerning “security guarantees” formalised in a treaty with the US on the reversal of the weapons supply to Ukraine and the non-expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance (NATO) it made a year earlier. Also, Russia added the recognition of the previously and newly annexed territories as a non-negotiable demand. Amid the overwhelming feeling of hatred and demands for justice for the irreversible losses, in Ukraine, there has been a notable increase in the support for NATO membership, the return of all occupied territories as the dominant vision of victory and a decrease of support for peace talks. 

Putin’s address on 21 February 2023 reiterated the key messages laid out starting with his infamous article on historical questions in 2021, but importantly redefined the “special military operation” as “the war” started by the West and legitimised the use of force by Russia as a way to stop the war. Surveys by the Levada-Center in 2022 showed that the group of key regime supporters shared the key messages, seeing the war as “defensive” and “an unavoidable measure”.

While some analysts assume that a “mutually hurting stalemate” on the battlefield could open space for peace initiatives, the latter would not get a chance without also paying attention to the broad societal attitudes to conflict and peace and conflict-related transformations. What we also have seen in the last few months is the discreditation of the very idea of peacebuilding when it is most needed.