A Role for Research: Identifying Insights into the War in Ukraine

A Role for Research: Identifying Insights into the War in Ukraine

In May 2022, PaCCS Communications Officer Kate McNeil sat down with PaCCS Research Champion Dr Tristram Riley-Smith to discuss the ongoing war in Ukraine. Dr Riley-Smith currently works as a bridge between academic researchers and the worlds of policymaking, public sector practitioners, industry, and non-governmental organizations, with the goal of delivering research impact. He previously worked at the heart of government in national security, where he contributed to thinking about major strategic security threats, including threats from hostile state actors.  

Kate McNeil: Thank you for taking the time to speak with me today in your capacity as a research champion! Would you mind getting started by sharing your insights on some of the current opportunities for UK academics to deepen our understanding of the ongoing war in Ukraine?  

Dr Tristram Riley-Smith: There is an extraordinary range of relevant research going on within the United Kingdom, with numerous opportunities for academics to enhance the understanding and competence of policymakers and practitioners responding to the Ukraine crisis.  You can get a flavour of this by exploring the Research Map on our website, focusing on “Conflict” and “Threats to Infrastructure” Conflict, Crime and Security Research Centres in the United Kingdom – PaCCS ( But this just scratches the surface: our map is focused on centres of research, but of course there are talented researchers to be found dotted through our universities.

The opportunities for academics to make a difference – by illuminating the judgments of those policymakers and practitioners developing the UK’s response to this conflict – are many and varied. There will be an appetite for insight into what makes the adversaries in this conflict tick; how to build and demonstrate resilience; into comprehending strategies of disinformation at a time of conflict. One group who I would like to hear more from are historians. They have analysed previous large-sale conflicts, including the 20th Century’s World Wars and the Cold War, and they will have insights into how conflicts end. I am biased here, because my brother, Jonathan Riley-Smith, was a leading expert on The Crusades – and I well-remember him visiting US Government Agencies after 9/11, to answer their 21st Century questions by reference to events of the 11th and 12th Centuries! 

Impact comes in different forms. In addition to the intellectual insights described above, there is the instrumental impact that delivers tools and techniques to be applied in the real world. Academics are well-placed to support the process of building and making peace. They can draw on a wealth of objective, dispassionate, evidence-based insight developed in places as diverse as Lebanon, Rwanda, Sri Lanka and Northern Ireland. There is also the contribution that legal and forensic experts can make to questions of justice and retribution, as we wrestle with prosecuting potential perpetrators of war crimes.

This conflict is going to throw a dark shadow into the future, with a traumatised Ukrainian population filled with hate towards their Russian neighbours. Could this engender a campaign of terrorist violence, and what can be done to counter an impulsion to embrace forms of radicalised extremism? There are hundreds of relevant projects into terrorism, ideologies and beliefs that have been funded by PaCCS (and its previous incarnation, the Global Uncertainties Programme) over the last 10-15 years, that could enrich our thinking here.

There are countless opportunities for STEM researchers to explore the use of new technologies to help Ukrainians defend themselves against Russia’s military behemoth. This can range from cyber-security solutions to protect critical national infrastructure from viruses and the use of machine learning and natural language processing to develop situational awareness from radio communications, through to cheap, simple and innovative techniques – in India’s jugaad tradition – to evade detection from surveillance drones.

But it would be a mistake to conclude that academic input must be focused on the battlefield. The British Government’s legislative agenda over the coming months (announced at the Queen’s Speech on 10 May) includes an Economic Crime Bill, an Energy Security Bill and a National Security Bill which have all taken on new significance in the light of Russian aggression. In all three cases, there is expertise within academia that can sharpen the cutting edge of this legislation. There are similar contributions to be made further afield: the European Union has recently passed the Digital Services Act, which includes a hurried addendum conferring special powers on regulators to address disinformation threats on large platforms during pandemics and wars.

Let’s revisit that idea of building and demonstrating resilience. What do we know about the theories and tools we have for building and maintain societal resilience in the context of conflict? How can resilience be fostered?  

Well, there’s systemic resilience, and there’s psychological (or cultural) resilience.  

Systemic resilience is reflected in the ways that a nation’s critical infrastructure – transport, water, electricity, cyber, telecommunications, power, and energy – can withstand ballistic and cyber-attack. Our understanding needs to go beyond the resilience of one specific service (such as telecommunications), to divine knock-on effects and the risks of systemic failure. One of the extraordinary outcomes of the Ukrainian conflict – which surely deserves serious study – has been the way in which the critical national infrastructure has contributed to the resistance efforts and somehow managed to evade evisceration. The contribution of Ukraine’s railway system has been fascinating – it has not only delivered supplies to the front line, but also supported the mass movement of displaced citizens.  

Then, there’s psychological or cultural resilience. There are interesting questions to be asked about ways in which resilience can wilt and weaken in the absence of threat, only to strengthen in the face of robust attack. Some say that Putin’s belief – going into this conflict – was that Ukrainian society would split or fold within days; that some Ukrainians, particularly those who are Russian-speaking, would feel an affiliation with the invading troops and immediately capitulate. This could have resulted in nation-wide civil war, or the overthrow of the current government, or a profound collapse of Ukrainian social and national identity. Thus far however, the opposite has happened. It has also been mooted that the Russian President hoped to drive Western nations apart and undermine the coherence of NATO through disinformation campaigns, while exploiting the reliance of some countries such as Germany on Russian energy. Again, that hypothesis has thus far failed. What can we learn from this, and what does it teach us about our own capacity for resilience and recovery? 

What about other countries which are feeling more threatened by Russia right now, or those that may come to feel threatened if the conflict in Ukraine becomes entrenched? Are there things that neighbouring states and those in the region should be doing to improve their own resilience now?  

Europe is filled with potential opportunities for a hostile actor to wedge-drive. In Moldova for example, there is the Transnistrian breakaway region, which is Russian speaking; and there are other countries which also have a significant Russian speaking population whose presence could be exploited in an aggressive campaign to rebuild a Greater Russia. There are echoes here of Hitler’s campaigns of aggression in the 1930s. The Baltic states, at least, have joined the European Union and NATO, which gives them a cloak of protection. Others in the region, such as Moldova, don’t have that comfort.  

What else do we know about peacemaking that might be relevant to this conflict, and where does that knowledge come from?  

There has been a lot of applied research into dispute resolution, particularly in Southeast Asia, Africa, and South America. There is a large corpus of practical knowledge based on engagement with warring factions to deliver peace. We must hope that preliminary work has already started in Ukraine to identify how the seeds of a peace process. Academics have something to contribute here: I have been impressed, for example, by the work of Durham University’s Global Security Institute, combining innovative research into the tools and techniques of peacebuilding with practical experience of applying these techniques in conflict zones. Academics have developed, for instance, the ‘one-text’ approach to peacebuilding, where adversaries are encouraged to develop a single text narrative that both sides can agree on. Reaching agreement is a slow and painful process, but we have seen that happen in Northern Ireland. There’s a rich seam of knowledge that can make a contribution here, deriving from political and behavioural scientists, anthropologists, peace and conflict scholars, and lawyers (to name but a few).  

How can academics help right now? What channels should those with relevant academic expertise be using to contribute to their insights and generate impact?  

Well, what civil servants don’t want is input from a professor who is going to talk too much, especially if that is peppered with jargon! There are practical and cultural reasons why knowledge exchange doesn’t happen very easily. There are prejudices and stereotypes poisoning the borderlands where productive trade between academics and policy-makers should be flourishing.

The best advice I can give is to encourage researchers is to identify and reach out to the relevant Chief Scientific Advisor – maybe in the Home Office, Ministry of Defense, National Security, or the Foreign Office. Each CSA has been appointed to help bridge the gap and support knowledge exchange. The contact information for CSAs are publicly available, and these are people who have one foot in academia and one foot in government.

Wearing my PaCCS Research Champions hat, I am also more than happy to help academics identify the right point of contact and to support them in framing their message in a way that will hit the bullseye. The research councils can help with this as well, as can organizations like Cambridge’s Centre for Science and Policy and university knowledge exchange networks.  

There are also other ways of sharing your knowledge – with NGOs for example. Places like Oxfam and BBC Media Action often have earmarked heads of academic engagement or directors of research. But before you contact them, think long and hard about how to best articulate what you have to offer. Then keep your messaging simple, short, and clear.