17 March 2022

The Ukraine War: Experts give their views

Since its start in February 2022, the war in Ukraine has been headline news around the world. Academics from across the University of Sheffield give their views.

An exterior photo of the Diamond with Jessop building behind

Since its start in February 2022, the war in Ukraine has been headline news around the world. Academics from across the University of Sheffield with expertise on armed conflict, conflict resolution, the history of conflict, Russian and international politics, nuclear energy, and human rights give their views.

There is extensive evidence of Russian violations of international humanitarian law, including crimes of aggression and crimes against humanity, through the use of banned munitions, targeting of civilians, and targeting of civilian infrastructure including hospitals. These acts are deliberately intended to terrorise the population.

Referrals have been made to the International Court of Justice, with Ukraine requesting that the Court establish that Russia has no justification for accusing Ukraine of genocide and therefore has no legal basis to take action in and against Ukraine for the purpose of preventing and punishing any purported genocide. Referrals have also been made by dozens of countries to the International Criminal Court, requesting that the Court collect evidence of war crimes for the purposes of prosecuting the individuals responsible.

These are important moves and signal the will of the international community to hold Russia to account.

Professor Ruth Blakeley

Head of the University of Sheffield’s Department of Politics and International Relations

The ongoing attack on Ukraine’s nuclear infrastructure by Russian forces is alarming, especially in light of recent reports of power cuts to the Chernobyl site. To ensure the safe and effective decommissioning of Chernobyl, and the continued operation of power plants such as Zaporizhzhia, it is imperative that communications and electricity supply are not compromised. 

Both sites house large inventories of spent nuclear fuel, which remains radioactive for long periods of time and thus requires constant cooling and shielding from the local environment. An event such as an extended power cut, which would disrupt the ability to continuously circulate the coolant water in the spent fuel ponds could potentially, in the worst instance, cause the coolant water to evaporate. This would cause the spent fuel material to become exposed, which would increase the risk of radiation release to the immediate surroundings.

Dr Lewis Blackburn

EPSRC Fellow from the University of Sheffield’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering

The onset of war is characterised by intense uncertainty for ordinary people whose everyday lives are ruptured by war. While some prepare for war, most do not expect violence, even in the context of ongoing conflict. 

When war breaks out, people face dilemmas about whom to protect and how, and make difficult decisions with trusted relatives and friends in the midst of the events. Some flee or hide to protect their own and their close ones’ safety. Others join the fighting to protect their families, localities, and broader group.

Before the attack, many Ukrainians prepared by locating bomb shelters, packing emergency evacuation bags, conducting drill evacuations at schools, and undertaking combat training. On 24 February 2022, however, people watched the news of Russian troops crossing Ukraine’s borders in disbelief.

Ordinary people do not simply either flee or pick up arms - instead, they make a broad range of decisions. These decisions are not straightforward and for most come with dilemmas about whom to protect and how. We must recognise the crucial role that uncertainty plays in making these decisions extremely difficult during the first days of war. Those who survive live with the memory of these days for the rest of their lives.

Dr Anastasia Shesterinina

Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Studies from the University of Sheffield’s Department of Politics and International Relations

War affects people’s health beyond bullets and bombs. Some deaths are not combat-related but the result of the wider effects of conflict on public health – effects that linger long after the war has ended. 

"Wars are complex health emergencies. They lead to the breakdown of society, cause considerable damage and destruction to infrastructure, create insecurity and have a significant economic impact. They also exacerbate pre-war issues. The health system in Ukraine has taken a hammering due to the damage to health infrastructure such as hospitals and clinics. Some health staff have fled, leaving understaffed health systems to cope with growing patient loads caused by the conflict. This is on top of the interruptions to supply chains.

"Most hospitals rarely have stocks of drugs and consumables beyond a few days due to storage-space constraints and the cost of keeping large inventories. These stocks are rapidly consumed, particularly items needed for treating war injuries, such as antibiotics, blood products and dressings. The World Health Organisation has also warned that medical oxygen supplies in Ukraine are dangerously low.

"Additionally, wars do not just cause physical harm, they can also have considerable mental health consequences, ranging from depression and anxiety disorders to post-traumatic stress disorder. They can affect both combatants and non-combatants, children and adults, on those left behind, as well as on internally displaced people and refugees. Wars can lead to significant psychological trauma, especially in children."

Dr Andrew Lee

Professor of Public Health at the University of Sheffield's School of Health and Related Research (ScHARR)

Vladimir Putin has used the similarity between the Russian and Ukrainian languages as one of the key justifications for his invasion, citing the "unity" of the Ukrainian and Russian peoples and dismissing the differences between their languages as a matter of "regional language peculiarities". This asserted similarity doesn't stand up to scrutiny; Ukraine's history has shaped a linguistic heritage that's distinct from that of Russian.

"The two languages have many things in common, but there are many differences - one frequently cited figure is that Ukrainian and Russian share about 62 per cent of their vocabulary. This is about the same amount of vocabulary that, by the same measure, English shares with Dutch.

"Using that figure of 62 per cent, a Russian with no knowledge of Ukrainian would easily understand roughly five in eight words of a Ukrainian text. To get a handle on this, have a friend cross out three out of every eight words in a newspaper article, and see how much of the text you can follow....

"The linguistic difference attracting the most comment is the name of Ukraine's capital city: is it Kyiv, or Kiev? Kiev is the Russian version: our tendency to prefer it in English is a legacy of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union, when Russian was the dominant standard language across the entire country. Kyiv is the Ukrainian version, and in the aftermath of the invasion, the media have tended to shift to the Ukrainian term as an expression of solidarity. This change is even coming to a supermarket near you – goodbye, chicken kiev – hello, chicken kyiv."

Professor Neil Bermel

Professor of Russian and Slavonic Studies at the University of Sheffield's School of Languages and Cultures

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