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A year of war against Ukraine: What now?

After a year of war against Ukraine, professors André Gerrits, Antoaneta Dimitrova and Frans Osinga look back at Russian aggression and Western unity and ahead to the new offensive.

The city of Kyiv holding out against expectations, global sanctions against Russia, the total destruction of Mariupol and the West’s increasing supply of weapons to Ukraine: these are just a few emblematic events in a year of war against Ukraine. Professors André Gerrits (International Studies and Global Politics), Antoaneta Dimitrova (Comparative Governance) and Frans Osinga (War Studies) have frequently been asked to comment on these events over the past year. How would they sum up a year of war against Ukraine? And what military and political events do they expect in the coming year?

The West united against the Russian aggressor

For Gerrits, the unity of the West has stood out the most. ‘If we don’t act now, Russian aggression will only increase, putting democracy and safety in Europe in peril: that’s the prevailing thought. It is in Europe’s interest to help Ukraine. Interestingly enough, this has changed the framing of the war. Whereas for Russia it started as a “special military operation” to “denazify” and “demilitarise” Ukraine, Russia now claims to be at war with the collective West.’

Unwavering EU support

For Dimitrova, the radical change in the European Union and its member states’ stance on Ukraine as a potential EU member state is illustrative of the shift that took place in the past year. ‘Take the Netherlands, for instance. Before the war, the government was vigorously opposed to Ukraine getting an accession perspective to the European Union, among others because of the result of the advisory referendum in 2016. The Netherlands had also ensured that the current Association Agreement with Ukraine included a clause explicitly stating that it offered no future prospects to Ukraine. But the Netherlands now supports the candidate status granted to Ukraine in June 2022 and is supplying weapons to Ukraine.’

Ukraine’s steadfast resistance

For Osinga, the steadfast resistance of the Ukrainian state and its citizens has been surprising. ‘We knew from the start that for Putin it was about overthrowing the Ukrainian regime. But he didn’t succeed. Kyiv held firm, ultimately forcing Russia to retreat to concentrate on the eastern part of the Donbas. Ever since, Russia has only managed to capture the cities of Lysyschansk and Severodonetsk and has lost cities like Kherson and Kharkiv. Where the Ukrainians have made very clever strategic and operational moves, the Russian army has made strategic, operational and tactical mistakes.’

What more can we expect?

Gerrits expects the war to turn into a war of attrition that could rumble on for years because neither side is currently prepared to make diplomatic concessions. Other than that, it is anyone’s guess what the ideal resolution might be, he says. ‘We at least want Ukraine not to lose this war, but how? Do we want to weaken Russia to such an extent that they won’t even be able to think of aggression outside their borders for the next 30 years? Or do we want to force Russia and Ukraine to negotiate? And what would be the conditions of such negotiations? From a moral standpoint, Ukraine should be able to determine the terms of a peace agreement, but from a political one this could be otherwise, given the huge amount of financial and military support from the West.

Continuing support

Dimitrova expects that the EU will continue to support Ukraine in the coming year, also because it is becoming increasingly difficult for European leaders to even consider Russia’s perspective after the Russian atrocities and war crimes in the cities of Bucha, Irpin and Mariupol. Furthermore, the European Union member states have seen that their citizens aren’t dying of cold without Russian gas. ‘Russia used gas as a geopolitical weapon to force the EU to stop supporting Ukraine,’ she says. ‘But it hasn’t worked. Indeed, the EU has taken great steps to reduce its energy dependence on Russia towards, in some cases, zero.’

New offensives

According to Osinga, much will depend on the offensives that are now being prepared and launched by Ukraine and Russia. Both countries face a dilemma, he says. ‘Whereas Ukraine needs time to receive the promised weapons from the West and train Ukrainians to use them, Russia is running out of supplies of people and weapons and must therefore deploy untrained soldiers. But the past has shown that Russia has no qualms about that and has criminally little concern for human lives. So Western leaders have to provide supplies and fast.’

Various events about the war against Ukraine will be held at Leiden University relating to the war over the next few months. On Thursday 23 February (17.00-19.00 hrs.) there will be a meeting (in Dutch) at the Wijnhaven building in The Hague, ‘The effect of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on the trans-Atlantic security landscape’. One of the speakers is PhD candidate Willemijn Aerdts (Institute of Security and Global Affairs) who will discuss the role of the security services in the war and look back at the action they have taken.

The day after, on 24 February (15:15-17:00 hrs.), there will be a roundtable meeting (in English) at the Wijnhaven building in The Hague, called 'Reflections on a year of Russia's war of aggression on Ukraine'. At this roundtable meeting, a couple of researchers of Leiden University will reflect on the past year.

In addition, ProParte, the association for professors and their partners, is holding a Ukraine evening on 14 March (in Dutch). André Gerrits and Frans Osinga will both be speaking and will discuss matters such as current political developments in Russia and possible negotiations between Ukraine and Russia. The evening is a follow-up to the Ukraine evening on 11 April 2022.

Text: Sabine Waasdorp

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