Russia’s War on Ukraine: What can we learn from Europe’s other conflicts?

Published: Posted on
A mural depicting a young woman with blue , yellow, red and white flowers in her hair. A young boy is sat on her open right hand, whilst the other holds a collection of houses.
A mural in Kyiv titled ‘revival of Ukraine’, by Alexei Kislov and Julien Mallan. Photo taken by Dr George Kyris.

By Dr Nicholas Barker and Dr George Kyris, Department of Political Science and International Studies

It’s a year since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine and almost nine years since the illegal annexation of Crimea and the start of the war in the Donbas. As analysts and policy-makers try to understand and respond to the war, what lessons may be learned from Europe’s other conflicts over territory and statehood?

Territorial and Demographic Control

Wars are competitions for control of populated territory, and the strategies used to secure control of territory and people – both military and non-military – are key to understanding a conflict’s dynamics. Many of the strategies being used in Ukraine have precedents in other conflicts. For example, separatists backed by Russia in Abkhazia and South Ossetia have sought to demarcate and defend their territorial control through physical ‘borderisation’ to regulate movement across their de facto ‘borders’ and build this key symbol of statehood.

Other conflicts have seen states and secessionists use demographic engineering to establish ‘demographic facts’ about who lives where – sometimes by blocking or hindering the return of those displaced by war in order to retain a post-war majority status, in other cases by encouraging coethnics, including from diasporas, to settle in strategic areas so as to reinforce their claim over them, such as in Nagorno Karabakh in the 1990s and 2000s when ethnic Armenians settled in areas where the separatists were consolidating their control.

To ensure the loyalty of populations in contested territories, Russia has used passportisation in Abkhazia and South Ossetia since the 2000s, and Serbia established parallel institutions in ethnic Serb majority areas of Kosovo as an alternative provider of security, employment, and healthcare to sustain the loyalty of the population to Belgrade over Pristina.

For Ukraine and its international supporters, a key lesson from these conflicts is that entrenched control of populated territory is very hard to change – at least, not without violence – and so the consolidation of Russian control over occupied territory in Ukraine poses a severe risk to Kyiv. Borderisation in eastern Ukraine will entrench territorial control and cut off occupied territory in a way that will be hard to reverse, as will passportisation and systematic and extensive demographic engineering and acts of deportation deemed to constitute genocide. Addressing all these factors are crucial for restoring Ukraine’s survival and territorial integrity and for the prospects of a just peace settlement.

The International Dimensions

One of the most important questions the world will be facing in the next few years is if and how Ukraine can come closer to Europe. Full membership is an unlikely scenario any time soon, given the EU is not keen to welcome new members who are part to conflicts. This is why Kosovo and Serbia have been asked to resolve their differences before they join the EU. 

Beyond Europe, does the international community need to isolate Russia more, for example by removing it from the UN Security Council? Practically, this seems difficult. Other sanctions might be important for adding pressure to Putin’s regime, without stigmatising Russian people as whole.

Looking at other conflicts, another challenge that international policy makers face is how to engage with authorities in control of Ukrainian territory that are not the recognised government of Kyiv. This includes Russian authorities and their local proxies. In similar situations, engagement is often required so these areas do not become lawless black holes and for the support of local populations, but it is difficult because working with authorities might be seen as recognition of their claims over that territory. In similar situations, such as in northern Cyprus, internationals have sometimes worked with non-state actors, like civil society, because engaging with them does not mean recognising the separatist or occupation authorities.

And, finally, there is the question of opening Pandora’s box. The past few years, and even more so the past 12 months, have seen Russia twisting established norms of international relations to pursue an aggressive and catastrophic agenda. Could that offer a window of opportunity for others to do the same? For example, there has been a lot of concern about the possibility of China using Ukraine’s invasion to be more assertive or even aggressive towards Taiwan on the basis it is their sovereign territory.  

The lessons we can learn from prior conflicts are bleak, with few success stories of conflict resolution. If Russia and its proxies in Ukraine consolidate their control and the international community tolerates or accepts the facts on the ground in the – probably misguided – hope that this will contain the conflict and allow a return to the pre-2022 status quo, the world will be left with yet another damaging protracted conflict with the potential to reignite and cause further bloodshed.

*This piece draws on a research project supported by the University of Birmingham ESRC IAA.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *