ALEKSANTERI INSIGHT 1/2023. The recent Aleksanteri Conference ‘The New Era of Insecurity: How Russia’s War in Ukraine Changes the World’, which was organised on-site for the first time in three years, offered scholars the opportunity to meet in person and collectively assess the academic future of the field.
Witnessing the Russian warfare is a duty and burden for scholars studying the region, which can at times feel excruciating even when observing the war as an outsider. Conference participants nevertheless engaged in important and high-quality discussions on, for example, how to conceptualise the changing character of war or the new security challenges of the 2020s. Such theoretical musings can sometimes appear hollow in contrast to Russia’s brutal war in Ukraine. However, it is important that scholars carry on with their work and analyse the events. The research community can contribute, for example, by seeking to trace connections between systematic nature of destruction and the underlying political vision. Secondly, we must critically examine the factors that directly or indirectly led to Russia’s decision to escalate the lower-level conflict of several years into an invasion of Ukraine. Furthermore, we must initiate a debate about the structural basis of knowledge pertaining to the region, unaddressed silences and blind spots, in particular. For example, in one of the panels, Kristi Raik, the director of the Estonian Foreign Policy Institute, urged Western researchers and policymakers to drop their wishful thinking regarding Russia’s future and to stop projecting Western worldviews on Russia. According to Raik, a “sober analysis of Russia’s actions, values and worldview” is necessary. A further challenge that the academic community must address is how to communicate research results and findings to the wider audience more effectively.
One of the goals for the conference was to deliberate on the relationship between scientific research and policy-making. In the debates, Russocentrism was brought forth as a pertinent issue. In regional studies, Ukraine and other Eastern European and Eurasian countries have often been studied through Russia, which prompted a wish for the discipline to adopt new perceptions of these countries as independent entities. The historical impact of Russia cannot be ignored, but these countries also have agency in their own right, which occasionally seems to be forgotten.
Ukrainian studies and the field’s development and challenges was one of the hottest topics of the conference, perhaps unsurprisingly. Support for Ukrainian researchers in Ukraine and elsewhere was deemed particularly important. Ukraine needs long-term support in various areas of society, and its Western supporters must not tire. Universities carry the task of maintaining public interest in Ukraine, in terms of non-war-related issues as well. Researchers can increase the public’s knowledge of Ukrainian history and contemporary society. However, Ukrainian studies will need more funding in the future.
Assistant Professor Katri Pynnöniemi holds the Mannerheim Chair of Russian Security Studies, a joint professorship between the University of Helsinki and the National Defence University. As chair of the last fall's Aleksanteri Conference’s organising committee, Pynnöniemi describes the themes that arose in the event's debates.