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Divided

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Political scientist examines longstanding conflict between Russia and Ukraine

By Christine Clark | UC San Diego Magazine

This story was published in the Fall 2023 issue of UC San Diego Magazine.

In 2014, Jesse Driscoll, professor of political science at UC San Diego’s School of Global Policy and Strategy, was studying urban militia consolidation in the East African city of Mogadishu. But the Russian invasion of Crimea changed his research agenda. Driscoll, who is fluent in Russian among other languages, traveled to Ukraine to begin interviews and surveys of combatants. Over the next two years, he watched as Russia sent more troops, eventually seizing and annexing the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine. In his latest book, Ukraine’s Unnamed War, Driscoll and co-author Dominique Arel, chair of Ukrainian studies at the University of Ottawa, use history as a guide to provide insight into the current conflict.

Why do you call it an unnamed war? 

The book describes a period of recent history (2014-2022) when the Russian and Ukrainian governments were in a de facto state of war with each other but, for geopolitical reasons, wanted badly to pretend that they were not. Neither the Russian nor Ukrainian governments have wanted it called a war, but for different reasons: Russian diplomats prefer phrasing such as “civil war” or “special military operation” to troll Ukrainians, to deny its involvement and to slight Ukrainian sovereignty. In 2014, Ukraine called its response to Russian aggression an “anti-terrorist operation.”  

What was Putin’s biggest misunderstanding about invading Ukraine in February 2022?

Jesse Driscoll stylized portrait with a yellow background
Jesse Driscoll, author of Ukraine’s Unnamed War

It is hard to exaggerate the magnitude of this intelligence failure in 2022. 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. That most Ukrainians are really Russians and that, if given the chance, they would want to rejoin Russia. This is just wrong. 

But how do we understand such a colossal intelligence failure? Part of the story has to be people reporting what they think the boss wants to hear all the way up and down the chain. Putin clearly wanted to hear that Ukraine would fold. It’s also a wider cultural matter — call it racism or a colonial mindset — that many Russian intellectuals have a hard time believing that a Ukrainian nation-state exists. 

How long do you think this war will continue?

As popular leaders, Putin and Zelensky are both “all in.” Putin’s regime will — has to — keep claiming the war is necessary. That Russia is fighting on the defensive. That the Russian military is acting heroically to defend its people and all the rest. Alternatively, the adoration of Zelensky is unquestionable; he is like Churchill crossed with Che Guevara but with Instagram.

I fear both sides can keep this up for years. At some point, I imagine a cease-fire that neither is satisfied with, then they both rearm and then it starts up again. I wish I were more optimistic.

With reports of low morale among Russian soldiers, how do you think Putin will continue to fare fighting a war that is unpopular in his country?

War is never popular, especially if it’s being mismanaged. That said, a lot of Russians agree with the premises of Putin’s story of this war — the West is the true enemy and Ukraine is a fake state.  

How can allied nations best support Ukraine?

The Russian challenge has galvanized Europe, but this sort of challenge is the reason NATO exists. And with Russian missiles falling hundreds of kilometers from the front lines, often striking non-military targets (civic centers, parks, apartment buildings, malls and schools), the U.S. and its allies must continue to send air defense systems. 

“This war has been horrible in so many ways, but it has shown the world Ukrainian heroism, and it has personally inspired me. The Ukraine war has stayed in the public eye and remained popular in a way I didn’t expect.”

Jesse Driscoll, professor of political science at UC San Diego’s School of Global Policy and Strategy

There is also a non-military dimension that Americans may forget about: Sustaining social support for millions of Ukrainian civilians now living all over Europe. This is expensive. It will disrupt labor markets, alter demographics and stress-test diverse societies.  

Unnamed War book cover

What has surprised you most about the current conflict and what didn’t surprise you?

The extent of Russian military ineptitude shocked me. Like other experts, I was caught utterly flat-footed by the lack of Russian capability and absence of preparedness. 

And yet, I have been very surprised — not shocked, but quite pleasantly surprised — by the U.S. response, which galvanized a wider European response and an energized NATO alliance. This war has been horrible in so many ways, but it has shown the world Ukrainian heroism, and it has personally inspired me. The Ukraine war has stayed in the public eye and remained popular in a way I didn’t expect. The war has given me a sense that as an American, I am part of a country that can sometimes come together and get it right.

Christine Clark
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About author
Christine Clark is director of communications for the School of Global and Strategy as well as the Rady School of Management. Christine has been with the campus’ central University Communications office since 2007 and is a UC San Diego alumna. In her role, she shares the depth and breadth of GPS activities and impacts with broad audiences around the globe. Follow her on Twitter @christineeclark.
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