Ukraine – one year on: Reflections on the Russian invasion and occupation of parts of Ukraine
David Edelstein (Georgetown University), Sophie De Schaepdrijver (Penn State University), Ferenc Laczó (Maastricht University), Tarik Cyril Amar (Koç University, Istanbul)
One year ago, the Occupation Studies Research Network organised an interdisciplinary seminar on the Russian invasion of Ukraine, in which five distinguished scholars reflected on possible scenarios for a Russian occupation. The seminar was held on 24 March, exactly one month after the start of the Russian invasion on 24 February 2022, and a report was published on the Network blog.
Earlier this year the Network convenors invited the speakers to provide a brief update with their views on:
a) what has changed over the past year
b) what has stayed the same, and
c) have their own views on the situation changed?
Three of the previous speakers contributed an update and their views are published below, together with a contribution from Ferenc Laczó, who was the joint chair of the previous seminar.
The war has lasted longer, and a smaller area of the country is now occupied by the Russian army, than was generally expected a year ago, but the level of destruction in both occupied and unoccupied areas has been higher than even the most pessimistic observers had anticipated.
We are therefore facing a situation of occupation during war, not occupation after war. Can our knowledge of previous cases of occupation help us understand better what is happening now, and possible future outcomes?
David Edelstein (Georgetown University, USA)
The task of reflecting on the war in Ukraine a year after the Russian invasion contains within it an underexplored question: how to think about the temporal dimensions of war and occupation. Let me begin, then, with three temporal observations about the war so far. First, as has been widely observed, the war has lasted longer than Vladimir Putin appears to have expected it to last. By all indications, Putin expected a quick victory in Ukraine that would have cleared the way for the easy annexation of as much of Ukraine as he would have liked. This clearly has not happened, and Putin has had to adjust both Russia’s strategy and tactics as the temporal reality of the war has set in. Second, allied support for Ukraine has not only been sustained over this first year of war, but has also expanded in meaningful and demonstrable ways, including the steady escalation of the military hardware being made available to Ukraine. Third, not only has both the war and the allied support lasted longer than many anticipated, but there is no sign that the war will abate anytime soon. Discussions of the war in Ukraine have evolved from the likelihood of a quick Russian victory to uncertainty about how and when the war will ever come to an end.
One consequence of these three temporal developments is the emergence of a wartime occupation in eastern Ukraine. This is neither the familiar post-war occupations of Japan and Germany after the Second World War, nor is it some ideal-typical model of warfare in which opposed sides are engaged in pitched battles along a fixed front. While appreciating the temporal dimensions of the overall war, then, we should also engage the temporal dimensions of this occupation within war. For how long is such an intrawar occupation sustainable? How are the challenges of governing a resistant population in such an occupation more or less difficult than those of a post-war occupation? At what point does such an occupation become part of a stalemate in eastern Ukraine that could conceivably last for an indefinite period of time? As the war in Ukraine continues into this next phase, I will be focusing on the adjustments occurring as this intrawar occupation continues. How might Russian strategy and tactics in eastern Ukraine shift and change? And how might the Ukrainian resistance evolve in response?
Sophie De Schaepdrijver (Penn State University, USA)
Last year’s seminar on the Russian invasion of Ukraine concluded, among other things, that it matters whether a military occupation unfolds in a time of war or in a post-war context. I myself pointed to an occupied population’s expectations. A decisive victory by the invading army – with the opposing army and state having, say, signed a peace treaty ceding all or some of the invaded area(s) – will force a reset of the occupied population’s long-term view. This does not mean that all occupied citizens will then make the same choices. Some will continue to resist; many will leave; many will stay and try to rebuild their lives, which may or may not amount to acquiescence; and some will actively offer their support to the occupation authorities. But all of these choices will happen against the backdrop of a radically changed ‘expectational horizon’ (to borrow Reinhard Koselleck’s term) – because the war is over.
The war in Ukraine is not over. As of the time of writing (5 March 2023), the regional capital of Kherson, taken by the invading Russian forces in early March 2022 and liberated in early November 2022, is under devastating artillery fire from across the Dnieper. The city of Kupiansk, occupied from late February to early September 2022, faces renewed occupation.
But this does not translate into a static situation. The war’s continuation affects occupation. We can identify three ways in which this is so.
1) At a basic level, the amount of destruction turns occupied or just-liberated cities and regions into depopulated, bombed-out shells.
2) Putin’s regime mobilizes Russian society by portraying the war as an existential conflict: preserving Russian-ness means obliterating Ukrainian identity. The resulting zero-sum logic explains violations of the norms of war such as the staging of ‘grateful’ children from occupied Mariupol at the 22 February Moscow rally; the transfer of thousands of children from occupied Ukraine to Russia to be adopted and re-educated; or the way that the Russian occupation forces in Kherson used torture to silence Ukrainian civic and cultural leaders, including teachers.
3) The invaders’ zero-sum policy in turn, from the point of view of the defending society and state, defines occupied civilians as either resisters or collaborators, with little in between. One example is that of school teachers in the city of Kupiansk, where the Russian occupation regime enforced a russification policy. According to a report by Florence Aubenas published on 5 January 2023 in Le Monde international, an estimated 70% of teachers continued to teach – some out of conviction; others to keep their jobs. After liberation, some of those who had accepted the Russian school curriculum fled; those that remained, faced prison.
It is unclear where this last matter stands: as of the time of writing, Kupiansk is being evacuated under Russian shelling. But one conclusion seems warranted: the continuation of the war in and of itself determines the circumstances of, and, more importantly, the perspective on Russian occupations in Ukraine.
Ferenc Laczó (Maastricht University, The Netherlands)
A year into the escalation of the Russo-Ukrainian war by the Putin regime, a number of crucial things have changed little since our discussion in March 2022: the delusional fanaticism of the Russian regime; the sheer brutality and underperformance of the aggressors aiming to wreck a country; the valiant resistance of the Ukrainian military and society; the approximate frontline; the intensity of the fighting and the resulting immense sacrifices; the strong, if partly contested Western dedication and resolve; and our inability to foresee the war’s end and outcome. All these factors look fairly – and surprisingly – similar today.
Given those remarkably stable main features, the most important changes since March 2022 concern developments that have proceeded even further in the same direction: the drastic internal autocratisation of Russia reinforced by the recent mass exodus; the European Union’s commitment to Ukraine’s future membership and growing willingness to meet the Russian challenge in the key areas of both military and energy policy; and – most importantly – the ever clearer sense that the Russian objective is to wreck as much of Ukraine as possible rather than incorporate significant parts of it within a greater Russian state. To express the latter difference in the Kremlin’s utterly warped language: there are many more reports of attacks on imaginary Nazis than offers of a helping hand to ‘our little brothers’.
The basic equation – or paradox – of this senseless drama, in place since 2014, still applies: the more the Putin regime intervenes to disable Ukraine’s shift westward, the more it alienates Ukrainian society and necessitates what it is seemingly trying to avoid the most. The Russian regime’s ‘success’ in pursuing such a paradoxical policy has by now become almost complete.
It is fitting then that the distinguished US historian Stephen Kotkin, who appears to believe in a negotiated settlement and even advocates territorial concessions to achieve an exit from this gratuitous conflict, sees such concessions as amounting to the creation of a new North Korea, counterbalanced only by the resulting prospects for the remaining parts of Ukraine. And he is widely seen as being overly generous to the Russian regime today.
Tarik Cyril Amar (Koç University, Istanbul, Turkey)
Roughly one year after the start of Russia’s open large-scale war of aggression against Ukraine, I would like to single out three points regarding the issue of occupation (here specifically referring to territories occupied after 24 February 2022).
First, like fighting, bombing, and displacement, occupation has become a mass trauma. While Russia’s likely initial plans were frustrated and Ukraine, with Western support, has retaken some occupied territories (such as in the Kyiv and Kharkiv regions), the share of Ukrainian territory under occupation has varied between over a quarter and almost a fifth; thus, substantial numbers of Ukrainian citizens have undergone Russian occupation. Regarding the extent of this trauma, we also know that Russian occupation, like fighting, has come with significant war crimes as well as crimes against humanity. (Another illegal act committed in the context of occupation has been annexation, accompanied by sham referendums. Though important, it will not be discussed here.)
Thus, it is already virtually certain that the experience of suffering occupation will leave not just a very painful, but also a wide imprint on Ukrainian memory, becoming one of the many ways in which Putin’s reckless and needless decision of February 2022 will be a heavy burden on any future relationship between Ukraine and Russia.
Second, generally the experiences of occupation have contributed to Ukrainian perseverance against Russia. At the same time, precisely because Russian occupation has been so oppressive, we cannot rashly inscribe this observation into a monocausal narrative of national mobilization. The latter has certainly played an important role. Yet it will take much future research to produce a duly differentiated picture of Ukrainian reactions and their motivations. They will inevitably include the whole spectrum of behaviour under such circumstances: from open resistance via various degrees and combinations of non-compliance and adaptation to active and deliberate cooperation with the occupiers and the authorities installed by them, that is collaboration. Making these distinctions in practice will be a key political and ethical challenge.
Third, concerning this challenge, we can begin to observe the aftermath of Russian occupation in territories retaken by Ukraine. In terms of state policy, Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelenskiy has set a largely unforgiving tone, warning, for instance, that those ‘tempted by the occupiers’ offers’ were ‘signing their own sentence’. (The Hunt for Russian Collaborators in Ukraine | The New Yorker) This approach has not remained mere rhetoric but is applied on the ground. Thus, one local administrator in the retaken eastern Ukrainian town of Sviatohirsk stated that ‘establishing incidents of collaboration’ has been understood as an integral part of post-occupation ‘stabilization’. (Ukraine authorities track down Russian collaborators in liberated land – CSMonitor.com). While this may seem self-evident at first sight, it is, in reality, anything but. Rather it is a reflection of a deliberate policy choice, since an alternative strategy of at least temporarily according low priority to the search for collaborators on precisely the same grounds of initial stability is clearly conceivable. The implementation of the current pro-active policy is already leading to, as a minimum, recrimination and, with virtual certainty, cases of score-settling and injustice. In the long run, not only the issue of collaboration, but also the question of how the returning Ukrainian state chooses to address it will probably be problematic. Those in the West, incidentally, who pride themselves on their publicly displayed support for Zelenskiy’s government, would do well, as a minimum, to call for caution, fairness and patience.
Cover picture: Kupiansk after the Russian occupation and battle in September 2022.
Source: Wikimedia Commons.