<meta name="google-site-verification" content="A0Hkdwjhm5g-iCzoctZ4mYl3nGpRp1x56PWznB-hC3U" />

Maastricht University

Ukraine – two years on

Ferenc Laczó, Maastricht University and Tarik Cyril Amar, Koç University, Istanbul


Two years ago, on 24 March 2022, exactly one month after the start of the Russian invasion, 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.

One year ago, the Network convenors invited the speakers to provide a brief update, asking for their views on what had changed, what had stayed the same, and what were their own views on the situation in Ukraine: one year on.

Following the second anniversary of the Russian invasion, two of the scholars, Ferenc Laczó and Tarik Cyril Amar, have contributed a further update, responding to the same questions we asked a year ago:

a) what has changed over the past year
b) what has stayed the same, and
c) have their own views on the situation changed?

In some ways it may appear that not much has changed since March 2023: large parts of the country remain occupied, and the war continues, together with shockingly high levels of casualties and destruction in both occupied and unoccupied areas.

Can our knowledge of the history of the area and of previous cases of occupation help us understand better what is happening now, and possible future outcomes?


The Mounting Cost of Justice, or Is the Investment Disproportionate to the Sacrifice?

by Ferenc Laczó

When it comes to new territorial conquests and military positions, surprisingly little has changed in year two of the Russo–Ukrainian war. Russia’s much-escalated war of aggression, which was started back in February 2022, has remained a large-scale, criminal and brutal, highly costly, and deeply tragic undertaking. It has greatly increased international tensions and global instability, though at least without yielding significant benefits for the aggressor.

However, it is precisely its high costliness, combined with the limited nature of recent transformations of what is now typically understood as a war that may last a very long time – and could thus become an epoch-defining war on Europe’s Eastern periphery – which has done much to change expectations in recent months. That combination, often referred to as a ‘war of attrition’ by experts, has raised the kind of dilemmas again that were first formulated during the early stages of Russia’s escalation. Since it is currently difficult to imagine a scenario under which Ukraine would not only survive valiantly but emerge as the uncontested victor of its war of national independence without at the same time incurring overwhelming human and material losses, we have been forced to return to the political and moral dilemma Jürgen Habermas, among others, did much to address in those early phases some two years ago. In simplified terms: which investments are unavoidable and necessary, and where is the upper limit of what is justifiable in terms of sacrifices when it comes to Ukraine’s legitimate war of self-defence against a criminal aggressor?

If that shows a remarkable circularity in how public debate has evolved, the accumulation of experience has crucially reshaped our perspectives too. Whereas during the first year of this major violent confrontation it proved relatively easy to push aside the ‘Habermasian dilemma’ through moral and political arguments (or sheer boastfulness), as positive transformations remain limited and Ukrainian sacrifices mount ever further, the question of what constitute justifiable investments is likely to be raised ever more vocally.

Returning to the Habermasian dilemma after two devastating years of war may help us grasp that what Ukrainians urgently need now is peace combined with an effective system of deterrence: they desperately need a drastic reduction in their current level of sacrifices as well as major investments in their country’s future capabilities so they will be able to prevent any and all Russian attempts to launch another war of aggression.


Tarik Cyril Amar

What has changed over the past year?

The most important change over the last year is the predictable and very costly failure of Ukraine’s summer 2023 counter-offensive. The second most important change is twofold: the beginning of fresh and substantial Russian advances and the open decline in Western, in particular American support for Kyiv. The limits of this support are now no longer a matter of plausible (I would have argued, compelling) conjecture by historical analogy but an established fact.

The picture of the future remains unclear, however: Russia has proven resilient and is not under pressure to stop fighting on any conditions but those it chooses to make its own. In the West, meanwhile, it is now EU/NATO-Europe that is attempting to signal its willingness not to give up by seeking a compromise with Russia but instead ‘stay the course’ in ‘whatever it takes’ mode (put differently, for now the USA is successfully ‘Europeanizing’ this war).

Such signals include recent French threats to introduce NATO-country ground troops openly into the conflict. (Covert involvement is, of course, a fact already.) German generals have discussed how exactly German cruise missiles could be added to the combustible mix. Last but not least, the EU is including Ukraine’s arms industry into its new European Defense Industry Programme. (The programme’s financing may look underwhelming at this point, but ambitions are high, and the political message is clear.)

On the other hand, even threats to escalate the war by marching EU/NATO troops openly into Ukraine may, in reality, serve as a bluff to prevent Russia from pushing its advantage on the battlefield as far as it could in purely military terms. Read in this way, recent EU/NATO-European moves could be meant to prepare an exit strategy.

Personally, I am pessimistic and fear that further escalation is more likely, especially as it does not only depend on actors’ intentions. In the worst but by no means impossible case, not merely the war but the actual battlefield will spread beyond Ukraine.

What has stayed the same?

The main implication of the above for the question of Russian occupation is twofold: it won’t end by Ukrainian reconquest (which means that it will not end, since Russia is unlikely to give up territory already taken); secondly, if the war does not come to an end, then the nature of that occupation will be affected as well, as it will continue against the background of ongoing hostilities (which include Ukrainian and de facto Western special operations and guerrilla tactics). In short, occupation will not, for want of better terms, relax.

Russian occupation is also likely to expand geographically. It is even likely to soon include additional large population centers, perhaps even as big as Kharkiv, for instance. Clearly, in such a scenario, new questions will arise. In particular, the issues of adaptation, cooperation, and (open) resistance will acquire special virulence and political significance (radiating, as it were, far beyond the locality in question, as example and precedent-setting effects will be of a new order of magnitude).

Has your own view of the situation changed?

No, not fundamentally. I still consider this war an avoidable catastrophe for Ukraine most of all, co-produced by all participants. If anything, my sense of Western responsibility in provoking it and then not allowing it to end has become clearer.


Picture credits:

Cover picture: President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy visiting surgeons at a military hospital in Donetsk region, 29 December 2023
Source: Wikimedia Commons
Tarik Cyril Amar is Assistant Professor, Koç University, Istanbul, Turkey


Ferenc Laczó is Assistant Professor in History at Maastricht University, Netherlands