UC San Diego expert shares insights on war in Ukraine
Jesse Driscoll of UC San Diego's School and Global Policy and Strategy discusses the war in Ukraine, what to expect in the years to come and what’s a stake for the world
University of California - San Diego
Jesse Driscoll, associate professor of political science at the UC San Diego School of Global Policy and Strategy, has authored a new book, “Ukraine's Unnamed War.” Driscoll traveled to Ukraine to begin researching the book in 2014. In this Q&A and video, Driscoll discusses how the current conflict emerged from the ragged settlement of 2014-2016 and shares insights on what to expect as the largest war in recent European history grinds forward.
What new insights does your book share on the current conflict in Ukraine?
The current conflict in Ukraine is a full-scale invasion. If you want to understand why Russia invaded you have to wind the clock back to 2013. The Russian narrative of what took place in 2013-2015 contains flagrant misinformation and disinformation. Our book is a filter, that removes the lies (as best we could) and tries to explain – concisely and factually – what actually took place.
Drawing on Ukrainian documentary sources, we shed light on domestic Ukrainian political dynamics during the chaotic months of 2014 when Ukraine’s de facto interstate borders were in flux. Our book is a resource for policymakers who need to educate themselves about what Ukrainian domestic political constraints are foreseeable for a possible settlement.
What’s one of the biggest takeaway you’d like for your readers to have after finishing your book?
Eastern Ukraine is not a monolith. There were big differences between what happened in Crimea, in the Eastern Donbas, in Odesa, in Kherson and in Kharkiv.
Can you give more details to explain how the research in this book relates to the current conflict?
There’s a persistent belief in Russia that if you speak the Russian language at home, regardless of what other behaviors you engage in, you are somehow “really” Russian. The events we describe involve brave choices by millions of people, mostly multilingual and a lot of whom prefer to speak Russian. Given the choice, however – which they were given in 2014 – they have no desire whatsoever to be part of Putin’s project.
Russia’s military planning suggests to me that they didn’t understand that, or didn’t believe it, or didn’t want to believe it. It is hard to exaggerate the magnitude of the Russian intelligence failure in 2022. This is not like the U.S. getting Iraq wrong. A better analogy would be the U.S. getting Canada wrong. The more we learn about the Battle of Kyiv, the clearer it is that the Russians really were drinking their own cool-aid. They must have thought there were millions, maybe tens of millions, of pro-Putin Russian-speakers living in Ukraine. They must have thought that millions voted for Zelensky as a second-best choice but – if they had their first best choice – they’d really like to “opt out” of the Ukrainian state and join Russia.
How do we explain the intelligence failure? Part of this is the dictator’s dilemma, people lying to the boss all the way up and down the chain, because of agency problems are hard to solve in centralized autocracies. Putin has staked his legacy on this war and on the Ukraine issue. His subordinates knew what the boss wanted to hear and feared telling him anything else.
Part of this is a wider cultural matter, which you can call racism or a colonial mindset. Some Russian leaders and intellectuals have a hard time believing that a Ukrainian state really exists.
I suspect some of it is also Russian internal military politics. Some planners were over-confident in their ability to pull off a “hybrid warfare” coup de main because they knew it would be good for their careers if they could. In political science we call that “motivated misperception.”
How did the idea for this book come about and how long have you been working on it?
In 2014, after Crimea was annexed and war was heating up, I went to Kyiv as soon as I was done teaching spring classes. I’d never been before. While there, I saw a young man praying over a machine gun in front of the Holodomyr memorial. This made me realize I needed to work with someone who knew a lot more about deep memory politics of the region. I had ideas about narratives and bargaining that were beginning to form, but I had to respect my own ignorance as an interloper and solicit advice from someone who understood Ukrainian domestic politics, what the relevant coalitions were and what was at stake in the local imaginary. So, I paired up with Dominique Arel, the Chair of Ukrainian studies at the University of Ottawa.
We decided to write a book that did not re-hash the somewhat tired “Ukraine’s East is different from Ukraine’s West” conversation – though you can’t leave that out of the story completely – but a book that focused on variation within Ukraine’s East and within the population who Vladamir Putin believed wanted join his “Russkii Mir” project. Those were the hearts and minds being fought over, often violently. And they still are, frankly.
We also wanted to document changes taking place inside Ukraine as the polity adapted to the so-called “frozen conflict” in the east in 2015-2022. Those changes were quite substantial.
How long do you think this war will continue?
Putin has staked his regime's legacy on this war. He is all in. He has to keep claiming the war was necessary, that Russia is fighting on the defensive, that the Russian military is acting heroically to defend “its” people, that any reports of Russian military atrocities against Russian-speakers are Western propaganda and fake news. They have annexed more Ukrainian territory and are printing new maps of Russia. They are not backing down. Neither are Ukrainians.
I fear both sides can keep this up for years. At some point, I imagine a ceasefire that neither is satisfied with, then they both re-arm and then it will start again. I wish I were more optimistic about an alternative vision, but I am not. The underlying problems here are too intense and the narratives of how the two sides got to this point are so distant from one another… it’s hard to see what leaders can even talk about. Both sides hope negotiation conditions will change.
How can allied nations best support Ukraine?
Military support is critical to keep them in the fight. It is a Western priority to limit escalation, of course, but so long as Putin continues engaging in regular nuclear saber-rattling, from my point of view, this is a fight worth being in exactly the way we are. Anything else sends the wrong signal to other nuclear-armed adversaries that might try to do the same thing.
The U.S. and Western allies will need to prime the pump on parts of the defense industrial base that have been allowed to atrophy. You burn through a lot of artillery when you fight a land war in Asia, turns out. Lesson learned.
Sustaining economic support for Ukraine and isolation of Russia is going to require sustained political will. It’s important, but we’re already seeing that it won’t be easy. There’s a collective action problem over who foots what bills. There’s a fear that the economic support to Ukraine is inevitably going to “leak out” of Ukraine – not just to oligarchs’ bank accounts, or to Russia, but to the families of Ukrainians now living outside of Ukraine. Continued sustained social support for families of Ukrainians all over Europe is itself expensive. This is a demographic change that we are just beginning to process and it will change Europe.
And while everyone acknowledges Ukraine needs billions in charity, Russian missiles just keep falling. Russia may be able to tear down Ukraine faster than the West can invest to build it.
Sanctions are part of an answer. Isolation of Russia will mean higher gas prices. We got through this last winter easier than I feared we would. Europeans are muddling through. And I’m encouraged that resolve in the NATO coalition today seems stronger than ever. This war is accelerating the transformation of Russia into an economic vassal of China. Putin does not yet really realize what he has lost in this war.
I hope the war ends with EU membership (regardless of borders in Ukraine’s east) for Ukraine. That’s a way off, of course, but that’s what I’m hopeful for.
If you want a good charity to give to and you’re a donor, contact me through UC San Diego.
What has surprised you most about the current conflict and what didn’t surprise you?
It didn't surprise me that Zelensky was unwilling to budge at the last minute, even when the Germans and others were pushing very hard for Ukraine to just implement Minsk in order to try to make the problem go away and let the world move on. Because by that point he understood that Minsk was not going to really provide security guarantees for his country.
It has also not surprised me one little bit how hard the Ukrainians fought, or, given all the assistance that they have gotten, how capable they have been in broad brushstrokes. They do know what to do with the assistance they have gotten. They are capable, as a society, of making huge sacrifices to protect their sovereignty. And frankly I’d be lying if I said any of that surprised me.
What surprised me? Like many other experts, I was caught completely flatfooted by the lack of Russian capability and the extent of Russian military ineptitude. I have been very surprised and pleasantly surprised by the U.S. response which in turn galvanized the European response and the NATO Alliance. The U.S. really does seem to be in this for the long game. The Ukraine war has stayed in the public eye much longer than I expected it to. I get my news from the New York Times online and there has not been a single day that it has not been on the front page. That’s extraordinary. Deeply unexpected. I'm used to thinking of the U.S. as a very distractible empire.
This war has been horrible in some ways, but it has shown the world Ukrainian heroism and it has personally inspired me. It has given me a sense that I am part of a country that sometimes can, basically, come together and get it right.
Disclaimer: AAAS and EurekAlert! are not responsible for the accuracy of news releases posted to EurekAlert! by contributing institutions or for the use of any information through the EurekAlert system.