Karina Shyrokykh is a Ukrainian-born researcher and Senior Lecturer in International Relations at Stockholm University. Photo: Gabriel Holmbom

How does the situation in your home city look like?

–The situation in the city is horrible. Russian forces took 400 hostages in the largest hospital of the city - they prevent doctors and patients from leaving the building [editor's note: link to source]. Local authorities say that at least 2,500 civilians were killed in the city, but the real numbers might be much higher as many bodies cannot be counted due to shelling [editor's note: link to source]. There is no electricity, no running water, and a dwindling food and medicine supply since the city is cut off from the rest of the country. People melt ice and snow to have water to drinking. The dead are being buried in mass graves in trenches dug into the frozen earth of Mariupol because the cemeteries are located in the outskirts of the city and are heavily shelled by Russian forces [editor's note: link to source]. The city has become a symbol of Russian obsessive drive to destroy the Ukrainian state. 

She continues: For some time, I have been financially helping a couple of animal shelters and volunteers in Mariupol. One of the volunteers that I kept a regular contact with in her latest message to me wrote that she heard shooting and explosions near her house, so she took all the animals inside. She wrote: “Now we have 27 animals in our house. Cats and dogs learned to get along, something that humans don’t seem to have learned. It is terrible.”

This is happening in the city where I grew up. It is unthinkable. Most of my childhood memories are from the seashore and sunny beaches where I used to spend a lot of time. The suffering that inhabitants of my home city are going through is unspeakable, it feels surreal.

How does the war affect you as a researcher?

–It is really hard to stay focused and deliver as usual because my thoughts are always wandering away from any topic that is not focused on the war in Ukraine. But it is also difficult to do research on topics in which you are emotionally heavily invested in. For example, currently, I avoid academic panel discussion which are attended by researchers with “skewed” views of the situation in and around Ukraine so not to say something that can be interpreted as unprofessional. Critical thinking is, without any doubt, welcome and needed in academia, but sometimes “critical” remarks on the war are simply based on conspiracy theories and do not share the hallmarks of an academic discussion. Whatever differences there might be among academics we must share a common understanding that human life is precious, human rights are fundamental, and the talk about “legitimate spheres of influence” is immoral. It is impossible for me to have a fruitful discussion with people who do not share these views and who ridicule the core democratic values. “Whataboutism” is unfortunately rather spread currently, which I find very upsetting. I find it impossible to participate in any discussions that involve such people. 

What are the biggest misconceptions about the war that you meet?

–One of the biggest misconceptions that I frequently meet is attributing the blame for the war to NATO instead of Russia, or attributing equal blame to NATO and Russia. Both are misconceptions. The responsibility is solely on Russia and NATO has nothing to do with it. The Russian war in Ukraine didn’t start in February 2022 - it started in 2014 when Russia invaded and annexed Crimea. Back then Ukraine was non-aligned and its neutral status was enshrined in its constitution [editor's note: link to source]. A Ukraine NATO membership wasn’t even on the table - it didn’t have neither political, nor popular support.

–In 2014 Russia invaded Ukraine after the Euromaidan protests, which were sparked by former President Yanukovych’s refusal to sign the Association Agreement with the EU. As a result of the invasion, NATO membership became the major foreign policy priority of Ukraine and is largely supported by citizens. For comparison, in the late 2013 the support for NATO membership was around 15% and 60% against, meanwhile in the late January 2022, the support for NATO membership was 64% and 17% oppose [editor's note: link to source]. It is obvious to me that if Russia wants its neighbors to have a neutral status, it simply needs to stop threatening them with wars.

–I have myself researched Ukraine’s foreign policy evolution and published an article on this topic in 2018: The Evolution of the Foreign Policy of Ukraine: External Actors and Domestic Factors 

–There is a good illustration of the point that NATO has nothing to do with the Russian drivers to start the war against Ukraine – which is the accidentally published RIA Novosti article, which was to be published after the occupation of Ukraine [editor's note: link to source]. RIA Novosti is a Russian state-owned news agency, known for its work according to the so-called “temniky”, which are instructions about how key events have to be discussed, received from the government. This accidentally published article offers a sobering account of the war’s purpose as seen by the Russian leadership. It describes the imperial plan of russification of Belarus and Ukraine depriving them of statehood, as well as the change of the world order. When trying to justify the war, there was not a single mentioning of NATO. Instead, the article portrays Putin as a great leader that solved “the Ukrainian question” - the exact words used in the article.

–So, clearly, the opinion that potential NATO membership of Ukraine was the driver of the war is a misconception. The true reason, as it seems to me, is Russian imperial ambition to re-unite the territories of the old empire. The second part of the story is to establish a new world order where Russia would be recognized as a superpower alongside the US. This imperial ambition poses an immediate threat to Eastern European states including the Baltic states and even to Finland and Sweden.

Karina then goes on to talk about how the invasion seems to be a major misjudgment of the Kremlin and what the implications of that might be. 

–They expected a short war, they called it “a blitzkrieg” that would last a couple of days only. It looks like the Kremlin believed that the Ukrainian army was unprepared and that it would surrender, that regular citizens would be warmly welcoming Russian soldiers. Instead, they were met with fierce resistance from the Ukrainian army and civilians.  

–The fact that the Russian leadership could not foresee the popular resistance is indeed shocking to me as numerous sociological survey results showing that civilians are prepared to defend Ukraine have been available for months. I guess that this fact demonstrates that the Kremlin is out of touch with reality and did not even try to understand social opinion in Ukraine. I just hope that the current Russian leadership will be removed soon, before it could do any more harm to Ukraine or other European countries. 

–Another hope of mine is that the collective West will find the courage to close the sky over Ukraine before more cities will have to go through the suffering that my home city Mariupol is currently going through.



Further reading: Collected publications and statements made from researchers connected to the Department of Economic History and International Relations