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Maastricht University

Seminar Report: The Russian Invasion of Ukraine – An Interdisciplinary Discussion on Occupation

Christopher Knowles, King’s College London

Like many around the world, the convenors of the Occupation Studies Research Network were deeply concerned about the situation in Ukraine and the suffering faced by the local population following the Russian invasion. They therefore decided to organise a seminar, held on 24 March 2022, in which five distinguished scholars with expertise in different fields reflected on possible future scenarios for a Russian occupation. The panel, comprising two historians of Russia, Ukraine and Eastern Europe, an expert on the history of occupation, a political scientist and an international lawyer, were asked to reflect on the following sets of questions:

  1. Which specific political, social, economic and cultural circumstances in Ukraine, Russia, and in Eastern Europe more widely would condition the trajectory and outcome of any Russian occupation?
  2. To what extent can we draw on our wider knowledge of historical cases of occupation to hypothesise on the conditions that might obtain in Ukraine under occupation? What lessons can we derive from the history of previous cases of military occupation?
  3. What will be the problems and difficulties in applying and enforcing the international law of occupation? To what extent is the existing legal framework suited for protecting the occupied population? What, if anything, can we expect from international law?

The seminar was chaired by Camilo Erlichman and Ferenc Laczó (Maastricht University).

The first speaker, Tarik Cyril Amar (Koç University, Istanbul, Turkey) reminded participants that parts of Ukraine – including the Crimea and Donbass areas – had already been occupied for several years, but he did not intend to discuss the situation in these areas, focussing instead on the territory more recently occupied by Russian troops during the war. He had selected cuttings from Ukrainian newspapers to illustrate various aspects of the current situation from a Ukrainian perspective. The material selected revealed the complexity of occupation and the uncertainty and unpredictability of possible outcomes, especially over the longer term. Issues discussed in the newspaper cuttings included:

  • Gender; women were already especially badly affected by the war, and this would become worse, not better, in any subsequent, more widespread, occupation.
  • Life under occupation; the ‘resistance of the citizens’ highlighted by the Ukrainian media sought to underline the illegitimacy of the occupation as contrary to the will of the Ukrainian people. A code of behaviour for the occupied emphasised resistance, but did not state in any detail what local civilians should do under occupation.
  • Expectations for the future were uncertain. Would the incumbent (Ukrainian) authority return, or not? Would significant support be forthcoming from Western European countries and from the United States? How much power did the Russian state actually possess, and how stable was the Russian state likely to be in future? How would the civilian population in Ukraine respond to sustained Russian media propaganda, and how effective would this be over a long time period?
  • Heterogenous perceptions of the Russian troops. One report stated that the enemy (the Russian occupier) ‘has no place in our land’. But other reports made a distinction between the first Russian invaders, described as foreign enemies, and the paratroopers who came later, perceived as relatively normal ‘people like us’. Would perceptions change further if the occupation lasted a long time?
  • The question of return. One account described a woman who had lost her house, become a refugee, but still wanted to return home, even though all that was left was her chicken coop. This showed that the millions of refugees were also part of the occupation. They too would influence its outcome and how it was perceived.

Amar concluded by saying that contrary to many reports in the Western European press, occupation should not be made into a test of Ukraine’s status as a truly independent nation, which is a given. At the same time, all the social, ethnic, and cultural complexities of Ukrainian national identities remained in place, regardless of its citizens allegiance to one side or the other, during the war.

Tanja Penter (Heidelberg University, Germany) opened her reflections by saying that she had considered withdrawing from the discussion on occupation, as a Ukrainian victory in the war, and therefore no Russian occupation, should not be discounted as a possible outcome. However, she had decided not to withdraw, as she believed that it was important to make the point that an occupation would be disastrous, for Ukrainians, especially women, and also for other countries in Europe:

  • Occupation would turn Ukraine into an unstable region that would spread to neighbouring countries. Occupation may also generate division among other European states within the European Union.
  • Ukrainians wanted to keep their freedoms. There would certainly be resistance to any occupation, increasing the instability. If the Ukrainian army was defeated, popular resistance would continue.
  • The degree of collaboration with Russian occupying authorities was likely to be less than had occurred during the German occupation during the Second World War.
  • A purge of Ukrainian elites was planned by the Russians and a purge of those attempting to resist was already taking place in areas they controlled. So-called denazification, as the purges were called by the Russians, would result in massive suffering. The Ukrainian population recalled Stalin’s earlier purges as a precedent for what had already started and would continue during any occupation, evoking memories of the Ukrainian resistance to Soviet occupation, which continued after the end of the Second World War until 1950. Painful memories of earlier purges would only fuel further resistance.
  • There was a possibility of a radicalisation of violence by Russian armed forces. According to her best estimates, Russian casualties were already at a level of 7,000, which was half the total number of casualties incurred by Russian forces during the fifteen years of the Afghan war.

Sophie De Schaepdrijver (Pennsylvania State University, US) discussed five issues which were significant in other cases of occupation, and were likely to prove so in any future Russian occupation of Ukraine, should this be the outcome of the war.

  • Securing political legitimacy was important for any occupier. This was not easy to achieve and required the occupier to achieve at least some degree of peace and internal stability, together with economic and political measures that offered the occupied population some prospect of improvement in their living conditions. At present, one side (the Ukrainians) acknowledged that a war was taking place, while the other side (the Russians) denied that this was the case.
  • There was no evidence that Putin’s Russia was planning any project to acquire political legitimacy, as the Western Allies had done in Germany after the Second World War, offering the local population the prospect of economic growth combined with liberal democracy. Russian views on Ukraine appeared to be essentially backward looking, referring for example to denazification and liberation from fascism. A Russian patriotic project, (as the war was presented by Putin) might appeal to Russians, but offered little if anything to Ukrainians.
  • A proxy government, nominated and installed by the occupier, was the likely outcome if the Russians succeeded in defeating the Ukrainian army. The nature of any such proxy government was not a foregone conclusion but would depend on what happened during the war.
  • An essential element is that of the expectations and horizons of an occupied population. In the current situation in Ukraine, we can expect that if the war continues, or is believed to continue, Ukrainians and their allies will define resistance to occupation – with ‘resistance’ including the denial of all political legitimacy to the occupier – as part of an ongoing and essential ‘war effort’.
  • Conversely, an end to the war (with the Russian army dominant) might ‘demobilise’ expectations. Many (though by no means all) inhabitants and returned refugees might settle into acquiescence. This is not political legitimacy: invaders’ violations of the norms of war (atrocities) precludes actual acceptance. Still, an occupation regime can work with an acquiescent citizenry, though it will find itself saddled with that citizenry’s deep disengagement. That is apart from that part of the citizenry that will continue to be actively hostile.

David Edelstein (Georgetown University, US) discussed the issue from the perspective of a political scientist. Occupation was an unfashionable subject when he was writing his book, Occupational Hazards: Success and Failure in Military Occupation, first published in 2008. At the time people believed that another occupation would never happen again and they did not realise that occupation, like war, never goes away.

  • In his view, occupation is quite distinct from annexation or imperial ventures, as it is intended to be temporary. It is currently unclear if Putin’s objective is occupation and control of a separate independent country, or annexation and the incorporation of all or part of Ukraine into Russia.
  • In most cases, neither the occupied nor the occupier wants an occupation to last for ever. The occupied dislike foreign rule, while the occupiers do not want to continue paying the costs of occupation, which can be considerable, but often find it difficult to leave.
  • From the point of view of the occupier, according to conventional thinking in the field of strategic and security studies, there are two ways that occupations can end successfully. First, the occupier has sufficient resources to succeed in enforcing their aims. Edelstein does not find this argument compelling. Claims, for example, that a certain number of occupying troops are required in proportion to the size of the local population do not take sufficient account of other factors that influence the outcome. Second, it has been claimed that occupations end successfully if they gain legitimacy among a wider international community, such as the United Nations. He does not find this compelling either, as international legitimacy is more usually a product, not a cause, of success.
  • As he argued in his book, the single most important factor in an occupier achieving a successful outcome, from their point of view, is the existence of a common external threat. This is unlikely to be the case in Ukraine.

Marco Longobardo (University of Westminster, UK) discussed the relevance of the international law of occupation to the situation in Ukraine.

  • There is a legal framework in existence to address the question of occupation which forms part of the law of conflict, dating back over 100 years to the Hague Regulations of 1907 and the 1949 Geneva Convention. This legal framework applies whether or not occupation is declared. According to international law, annexation and conquest of territory (without agreement) is invalid and illegitimate.
  • Occupation is also governed by applicable international human rights law, and specifically by the European Convention on Human Rights, to which Russia was a party. Although Russia was expelled from the Council of Europe on 16 March this year, this does not take effect for 6 months, so the convention still applies and Russia is bound by its provisions until 16 September 2022.
  • The stated Russian aim of denazification may be legally significant, as the rule (in Article 43 of the Hague Regulations) that the occupier must observe the law in force in the occupied territory was deliberately not observed by the Western Allies during the occupation of Germany, in order to enable denazification and the repeal of the Nazi race laws. This provision of the law was also not observed in Iraq by the US and its allies. A possible legal justification for sanctions imposed against Russia is that these were necessary as a countermeasure to illegal actions taken by Russia.
  • There is, however, no centralised enforcement mechanism for the law of occupation, and no international tribunal with jurisdiction at the moment. Russia is already occupying Crimea, parts of Georgia, and arguably other territories as well. The international law of occupation is therefore unlikely to be applied directly to the current situation by the Russian administration and this reduces its impact on the protection of the occupied population.
  • As has been the case after other conflicts such as the Second World War or more recently in Yugoslavia, any punishment for international crimes, if this does occur, is more likely to be at some point in the future, after the war is over. Whether or not this happens will depend on the situation at the time, the outcome of the war, and any subsequent occupation.

When this report was written the outcome of the war and any subsequent occupation was still uncertain. Historians do not usually comment on unfinished events, but in this case, all those contributing to the seminar agreed that they found it useful, the interdisciplinary approach was valuable, and they had learned something from the discussion.



Photo credits

Cover picture: 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine – military offensive starting on 24 February 2022, part of the Russo-Ukrainian War; © Homoatrox  


Christopher Knowles is a Visiting Research Fellow at King’s College, London and Joint Convenor of the Occupation Studies Research Network