’In Ukraine not one conflict is being fought, but five simultaneously’

Jolle Demmers speaks in Flemish Parliament at presentation of annual report of Flemish Peace Institute

Ukrainian artillery during the civil war in the Donbas (2015). Photo: Taras Gren
Ukrainian artillery during the civil war in the Donbas (2015). Photo: Taras Gren, via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0)

We realise that this article has raised a lot of controversy and, as Utrecht University, we take this very seriously. You can find a comment at the bottom of the article.

In consultation with Jolle Demmers, the content of the article has been adjusted on certain points. The content of this article is based on a lecture in which Jolle Demmers further explains her views, and you can watch it here (in Dutch).

Watch Jolle Demmers’ full lecture

In the West, the war in Ukraine is commonly portrayed as a duel, David versus Goliath. But this is incorrect, Professor of Conflict Studies Jolle Demmers argues at the Flemish Parliament. "Wars are rather clusters of conflicts," she says, "with their own causes and constellations that interact and reinforce each other." So too is the Ukraine war and these are the five conflicts Demmers distinguishes.

Tensions and civil war within Ukraine

First, Demmers identifies the local tensions and national discord as being the first conflict. These disputes have been dividing Ukraine since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Demmers says. "We witness the violence between pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian militias, driven by a mix of machismo, militarism, extreme nationalism, and with claims of self-government and concerns about preserving language and identity." She points out that differences within Ukraine are vast. "Three million Ukrainians also fled to Russia in the past year, for example."

"This first conflict quickly mutated into an intrastate conflict, when local militias were incorporated into Ukrainian state structures and the army." Demmers refers to this development as the second conflict, which culminated in the civil war over the Donbas region in the far east of the country in 2014.

The war in Ukraine

"Then there is a third conflict, and for many in Europe this is the most prominent," Demmers continues. With Russia’s invasion in February 2022, the Ukrainian civil war transformed into an interstate conflict. "The stakes of this war are about territory and governance, and touch on Ukraine’s sovereignty."

Even though Europe mainly focuses on this conflict, it does not stop here, Demmers stresses. "Parallel to these three conflicts are a fourth and a fifth, both geopolitical in nature." And, according to her, these should not be forgotten.

Vlaams Vredesinstituut

Professor of Conflict Studies Jolle Demmers delivered these words at the presentation of the annual report of the Flemish Institute for Peace and Prevention of Violence. As an advisory body to the Flemish Parliament, this Flemish Peace Institute conducts research into peace-related issues and, in doing so, supports the work of the parliament.

Geopolitical conflicts influencing Ukraine war

The fourth conflict Demmers mentions is the geopolitical struggle with the United States and NATO on one side and Russia on the other. "This is a conflict over military spheres of influence and security," she explains, "but also over economic outlets, energy, NATO’s position, and the arms industry."

"The fifth conflict is also geopolitical, but global. It is the battle between the United States and China over unipolarity and world power." The two countries are fighting to influence other countries as a superpower, or even the ability to be the only country to influence all others at will.

Thus, according to Demmers, the war in Ukraine is much larger than the territorial conflict currently taking place on Ukrainian soil. "Right now, all these five conflicts are being fought in Ukraine. We see how interests and alliances mix and reinforce each other in a very complex dynamic of interaction" - a realisation that definitely still needs to grow in Europe, Demmers states.

This article has been and will be further updated.

Comment 25 April 2023

When different scholars do research and have expertise on a given topic, they may draw different academic conclusions and choose different wording.

The university believes that different views, conclusions, wording, and nuances contribute to scientific and public debate. Indeed, that debate is now being conducted through different channels.