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Russia’s War in Ukraine: It is Hard to be a Ukrainian when Everyone Around is an Expert

As I work on my master’s degree in International Security Policy at Columbia University, I am forced to live through my studies while witnessing the Russian invasion of Ukraine. I chose this field understanding the toll of war on regular people and the importance of human agency in conflict, yet it seems that analysts in this field forget that humans are the focal point.

Cover Image for Russia’s War in Ukraine: It is Hard to be a Ukrainian when Everyone Around is an Expert
The building is a historical monument and a home of the author’s friend in the center of Kharkiv.
Article byMariya Katsman
September 10, 2022

Every Ukrainian knows the song, “on June 22 (1941), exactly at 4:00 am, Kyiv was bombed, and it was announced that the war has started.” My grandmother was 13 when World War II began in Ukraine. I grew up with her stories about her evacuation and work at a hospital, where she would hold the hands of dying soldiers during their final moments. My grandmother always reminded me that war has a human face. Growing up in Kharkiv, Ukraine, and visiting Drobytsky Yar, where 15,000 Jews remained forever just a name on a memorial monument, I knew that every girl killed in WWII could be me and my home could be destroyed.

On Feb. 24, exactly at 5:00 am, Kyiv, Kharkiv, and other Ukrainian cities were bombed as Russian forces invaded Ukraine. It felt surreal as I watched it unfold over Twitter. My entire country was living through history repeating itself. Every girl killed in Ukraine in 2022 could be me and it could be my home that is destroyed from the constant shelling.

As I work on my master’s degree in International Security Policy at Columbia University, I am forced to live through my studies while witnessing the Russian invasion of Ukraine. I chose this field understanding the toll of war on regular people and the importance of human agency in conflict, yet it seems that analysts in this field forget that humans are the focal point. It is humans who pull triggers, drop bombs, and get attacked. Future and current analysts often have little desire to learn the historical and cultural factors that govern people in conflict. Instead, they prefer to analyze it through an “impartial” lens, neglecting local perspectives.

In September 2021, during one of my classes, I expressed concern over “West-2021,” the Russia-Belarus large-scale military training and a clear sign of escalation against Ukraine and the West; yet, nobody paid attention. Russia’s encroachment was rarely a topic of discussion, as conversations about Russia’s “sphere of influence” had been avoided in the West unless the threat could destabilize the global power balance. Prominent analysts, like John J. Mearsheimer, are obsessed with global power competition, but they deny the agency of the Ukrainian people. For instance, despite Mearsheimer’s argument for the U.S. involvement in the 2014 Revolution of Dignity, the national unrest began in response to then President Yanukovych’s orders to violently disperse young pro-European protesters. The corrupt pro-Russian president was ousted after over 100 peaceful protesters were killed under his orders. Current historical and political analyses in English are often informed by colonizing powers, like Russia and the Soviet Union, normalizing Ukraine as Russia’s “sphere of influence” in a great-powers game rather than an independent state with its own culture and its own political will.

By November 2021, my classmates suddenly became experts on the “trendy” security situation, as publications reported Russian troops were amassing on Ukrainian borders. These newfound experts referred to Ukrainian cities as if they were discussing strategies for the board game “Risk.” My classmates would alarmingly explain to me how Russia would conduct its assault on Kharkiv which is strategically important for Russia, as a Russian-speaking and Russian-leaning city, completely disregarding locals’ lives and views. In fact, in Ukraine, “Russian-speaking” status rarely reflects a “Russian-leaning” position but rather years of Russian and Soviet policies aimed at destroying Ukrainian culture and language. Urban Ukrainians were forced to speak Russian to integrate into Russian aristocracy and later industrial spheres. The policies implemented by the imperial regimes prohibited Ukrainian publications and teaching while Ukrainian activists were persecuted.

Notably, as the full-scale war was looming, it was rarely mentioned in media, literature, or class that Russia already invaded Ukraine in 2014, which led to 8 years of war in Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Outsiders spent little time discussing the expertise and morale of the Ukrainian army, trained by years of combat with Russia, and instead obsessed over Russia’s imminent military assault. While this could be due to the relative scarcity of open-source information, it often seemed that many analysts did not try to learn about Ukraine itself, much less take into account its physical size when forecasting Russia’s “Blitzkrieg.” Any Ukrainian citizen could have informed them that it took Hitler three months to take Kyiv alone, and over a year to occupy the entire territory. The surprise with which the West has reacted to the Ukrainian military strength and the duration of the war without a Ukrainian defeat only demonstrates a fundamental lack of insight. Without being informed by local sources, analysts are often discussing a war that they do not understand.

Ironically, as the primary actor in the conflict, Ukraine was not even invited to most diplomatic talks between NATO and Russia regarding the escalation on the Ukrainian border. The international community was comfortable with conducting diplomacy on established global power-sharing terms where Ukraine is an object of other countries’ politics. Unfortunately, peace cannot be achieved without engaging people of the country in question. Ukrainians would never meekly accept Russian occupation without putting up a fight to protect the independence attained in 1991, with over 90% support including in Russian-speaking regions. After six months of Ukrainian resistance, it seems bizarre to say that Ukraine should not participate in the discussions of its own fate although the negotiations did reach a stalemate.

In my major, we are taught that war is an extension of politics, with little acknowledgment of human agency. We learn that conflicts end through peace agreements and concessions. Territories are easy to divide on a map; in reality, every surrendered piece of land is a betrayal to its population, and even more crucially, does not guarantee the aggressor’s “satiety.” The world saw what a Russian occupation meant to the Kyiv suburbs of Bucha and Irpin. Would these atrocities be worth concessions? Without a direct experience of war, my colleagues and big publications, like The Economist, tend to be desensitized from human suffering. They disregard local context and history, and continue discussing their “Risk” strategies that are strangely removed from the humans who must survive them.

Nevertheless, even The Economist publishes more realistic analyses when they invite local experts and those who focus on the Ukrainian people at the center of the security situation. It is important to recognize that conflict is a multi-dimensional and multi-causal phenomenon. The conflict in Ukraine has specific personal, structural, historic, and cultural dimensions that both explain the imminence of Russia’s full-scale war against Ukraine as well as provide clues to its long-term scope and peacemaking potential. Only by recognizing Ukraine-specific socio-cultural dynamics of the war, one can effectively analyze it and project future scenarios. This is why, by knowing the local context, American historian Timothy Snyder, Bulgarian journalist Christo Grozev, and Russian cultural critic Mark Lipovetsky are able to do more accurate security analysis than many foreign affairs specialists.

The security policy community needs to move towards more conflict-sensitive analysis and listen to the people on the ground. They must try to understand local narratives before imposing their own. Expertise in the field is good but useless if it exists in a vacuum and lacks local perspective. “Impartial” analyses then do not contribute to peace, but only crowd the information space.

As I live through this war “online,” I have learned a lot: from my mother’s broken voice when she was hiding in her corridor during our fifth call that day, as another Russian plane hovered over her roof; from apathy that I “hear” ringing in my ears when watching another bombing and meticulously investigating where it fell; from conversations with now evacuated friends and family who have stories different to my grandma’s. Now safely evacuated, my mother tells me about the pride she takes in being Ukrainian and how much she wants home, still standing under constant shelling. No one needs to live through war to keep the human face of war as the focal point of their security analysis. One does not need to be Ukrainian to try to see the invasion from the Ukrainian side. I hope that, in my career, I see the security policy field’s transformation.

DISCLAIMER: All views expressed are those of the writers and do not necessarily represent that of the IWAB platform.