Social media and new experts show shift in war studies

As Russian troops advanced on Kyiv in late February, Kateryna Zarembo finally made the decision to leave her home and her four children.

“I wanted, until the very last minute, to believe that the war would not take place,” recalls Zarembo, a lecturer at the Kyiv National University-Mohyla Academy, now based at the Technical University of Darmstadt. , in southwestern Germany. “We were asked to pack emergency supplies – dried fruit, matches and sleeping bags – in a suitcase ready to go, but we weren’t completely ready,” she continued, adding: “I understand now why we needed these things.”

These stories of separated families (Zarembo’s husband remains in Ukraine) and children driven from their homes are reminiscent of those who have emerged from other war zones in recent years, but there is arguably a crucial difference: although scattered across the world, Ukrainians – including many academics – still speak directly to the world about their plight, offering instant analysis and insight on social media, often before foreign correspondents and newsrooms have had the chance to decipher the events.

A recent example is the heartbreaking pop video, shot in the ruins of Bucha and Irpin, released by Ukraine’s Kalush Orchestra shortly after its song “Stefania” triumphed at the Eurovision Song Contest in Turin, Italy . As the video, featuring female soldiers rescuing children, became a viral sensation, racking up more than 17 million views on YouTube alone, Zarembo tweeted about how the pop group deftly negotiated Eurovision’s strict ‘no politics’ rules to bring the atrocities of war to a new global audience.

“Smart timing, courageous stance and professionalism are the recipe for success,” she referred to the “asymmetric strategies” that offered hope to Ukraine in other areas of conflict.

“As a political analyst, I’m used to reacting quickly to events and giving advice, but now we’re bringing this information to the general public,” she said. Times Higher Education.

These immediate musings on the war via Twitter feeds or longer posts aren’t just about gaining retweets or likes, Zarembo insisted. “Academics can provide strategic insights that really make a difference to what’s happening,” she said, saying recent papers by Yale University researcher Timothy Snyder and analyst of the University of Copenhagen Maria Mälksoo framing the war in terms of Russia’s colonial ambitions helped change political perceptions of the conflict. “These things are helping to change mentalities in Brussels and Berlin,” insisted Zarembo.

The insight of Ukrainians is just one way the field of war studies has changed since the start of the year. The discipline has become much more collaborative, with Twitter users jumping to expert threads to add their own analysis, said Russian scholar Jenny Mathers, senior lecturer in international politics at Aberystwyth University. “There was a whole thread about Russian truck tires after someone noticed their discoloration and what that bad condition might mean later, said Mathers, who said this contribution from non-war specialists created an unprecedented engagement with the discipline.

“People also directly follow Ukrainians – a resident of Kyiv, known as ‘strategist‘, has over 100,000 Twitter followers, because people want to see everyday life in Ukraine,” she added.

It helped bust a few myths that war studies were slightly out of the way of current affairs, Mathers said. “People might imagine that War Studies is the departmental version of the History Channel, people just discussing WWII. This is always important research, but war studies is about so much more, from the economics of war or how war interacts with culture, arts, theater or music,” he said. -she adds.

While war studies experts can have nearly unlimited broadcast on TV or radio if they choose, Mathers said, there has also been new demand for even more immediate commentary, with some academics winning. hundreds of thousands of social media followers since February.

One of them is Phillips O’Brien, a professor of strategic studies at the University of St Andrews, whose 2,000 Twitter followers before the conflict have now exceeded the 100,000 brands. “In this way, war brought a completely unexpected importance to a large group of war and strategic studies scholars,” he said. Times Higher Education.

Moreover, the Russian invasion of Ukraine exposed “significant gaps” in public understanding of military conflict, with war studies experts helping to provide answers, O’Brien said.

“Going into the war…the overwhelming consensus that Russia would crush Ukraine soon enough was based on no evidence other than an admiration for Russian weapons and a strange disregard, almost a disinterest, for the possibilities of resistance Ukrainian,” he said, adding that he came up with the ideas in January, a month before the invasion, after being “really disturbed by the certainty that people had Russian success.”

While predicting Vladimir Putin’s next move is always a risk – O’Brien admitted he was wrong about invading Russia – he nevertheless felt it was “useful to try to provide possible answers if you think you have evidence to support your point of view. ”

“I felt I had a pretty good handle on the importance of air power and logistics in warfare, so I imposed these tests on myself at the start of the war. Did I consider Russia capable of controlling the field? of battle with air power and did Russia have a well-built, functioning logistics system The answers seemed pretty clear in the early days – no And from there I felt like I had an idea what we were seeing,” he said.

Traditionalists may disagree about the usefulness of this daily pontificate, but “fall back to ‘who knows?’ response” adds nothing to the political and military issues at stake, O’Brien insisted. “I said what I saw when the evidence seemed to lend some support to that view. I drop the chips where they can,” he said.

Rising star analysts

Laurent Freeman
The official historian of the Falklands War and Emeritus Professor of War Studies at King’s College London, has reached a new audience through Twitter, where he has 95,500 subscribersand a popular Substack newsletter, run with his son, Sam, a former UK government education adviser.

Michael Kofmann
Advised senior military and government officials at the United States National Defense University and now Director of the Russia Studies Program at the Virginia-based Center for Naval Analyses, and Senior Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington . He is one of the most read experts on the war via his blog on the Russian army and his 395,700 Twitter followers.

Rob Lee
Former US Marine, now with a Ph.D. student in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London and Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. Sharing videos of artillery and bombings by Ukrainian and Russian forces with its 563,400 Twitter followers.

Maria Malksoo
The Estonian-born senior researcher at the University of Copenhagen’s Center for Military Studies is the author of The Politics of European Future: A Study of Post-Cold War Polish and Baltic Security Imaginaries and has won acclaim for her recent study, published in the Journal of Genocide Researchwhich explores Russia’s postcolonial mentality.

Timothy Snyder
Yale University history professor Richard C. Levin is one of the world’s foremost experts on Central Europe and a prolific scholar. The author of Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin and On tyranny: twenty lessons from the 20th century has 328,100 Twitter followers and a Substack newsletter. He accused Vladimir Putin of “genocidal intent”.

Not everyone is so comfortable with certain experts being invited into TV studios to talk about Ukraine. “There are now too many armchair generals who are willing to say virtually anything for a fee and the plethora of new outlets who are willing to pay,” said Hamish of Bretton-Gordon, former chief of the British Army chemical weapons division that served in Iraq and Afghanistan before helping uncover the atrocities in Syria. “I’m one myself, but I only comment on things I really understand, like [chemical weapons] and Syria,” said the visiting scholar at Cambridge University’s Magdalene College.

Still, keeping Ukraine in the spotlight will be important in ensuring the country owns the war narrative, rather than Russia, de Bretton-Gordon said. “Strategic communications have matured in Ukraine and are much more focused than [in any other conflict] on shaping the story. If Ukraine and NATO can get the right message across to the Russian people, Ukraine will win. Although Putin doesn’t seem to mind collateral damage, civilian casualties and war crimes, they will eventually bring him down. »

And war studies experts can certainly help combat forces adapt quickly to meet the changing threat posed by the Russian military, de Bretton-Gordon argued.

“In the UK we are particularly appalling at not learning lessons, forgetting lessons and fighting the last war. Perhaps there is an arrogance on the part of some commanders in not studying the art war and believe they are right simply because of the position they hold,” he said.

“So the study of war couldn’t be more important than it is now.”

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