Jolle Demmers vilified for her Ukraine-Russia war analyses

'I think it's my responsibility to come up with solutions'

Jolle Demmers, foto: Ed van Rijswijk
Jolle Demmers. Photo: Ed van Rijswijk

Jolle Demmers, Professor of Conflict Studies at Utrecht University, looks relaxed as she walks into the room. She’s used to this. After all,  she’s often asked to elaborate on her analysis of the war in Ukraine in the media. But that doesn't mean that things always go smoothly.

Last week, the university found itself in the middle of a Twitter storm after publishing a fragment of one of her lectures. After consulting with Demmers, the communications department decided to delete the article because it didn’t do justice to the professor's argument.

Demmers’ analysis of the conflict is unusual and gets a lot of criticism (article in Dutch only, Ed.). People call her naïve, a conspiracy theorist, dangerous even. But she has supporters as well as opponents: former military personnel, former diplomats and clergy praise her for her perseverance in telling the other side of the story. A side that is concerned about how the current military approach, without diplomatic efforts, only bringing more suffering. A side that highlights how the West also bears responsibility in this war (video in Dutch only, Ed.).

Why do you think your analysis of the war gets so much condemnation?
“My story is hard to sell. I want to tell a story that in no way incites sympathy for the Putin regime but that also shows that the escalation we’ve ended up in is a consequence of our own actions. But a nuanced story isn’t a good story. Thinking about our own guilt, our own part in this, our own responsibility, is something we’d rather not do. Especially when it’s regarding someone we think is evil, like Putin. You’re either for him or against him. Hesitation and doubt aren’t allowed. It’s a trope that pops up in every war.”

Like a Marvel film?
“Yes, exactly. Not to downplay the enormous suffering that’s being caused but this is a good versus evil narrative. Zelenskyy as an iron man, who plays the role with passion. Putin as the devil in the Kremlin, who won’t listen to reason and only wants more, more, more. That story is easy to tell and it resonates in our culture. We, in the West, like to be on the ‘good side’, and we like to sympathise with the underdog: we’re also at war, we are suffering too. But we no longer know what war is. We’re not on the battlefield. We’re not losing sons and daughters. War is a social phenomenon and we’re all contributing to it. As a society, we have a responsibility here so let’s take it.”

And what responsibility is that?
“Realising that we may have made a mistake. The West, NATO, especially the United States, have suggested until the last possible moment that Ukraine could become a NATO member, even though behind the scenes they knew damn well that such a thing wasn’t an option. Even so, in front of the audience, they opened that door. Not just in words, but in actions too. You can predict that if you intentionally cross a line, something is going to happen. There was enough evidence to support it as well. That doesn’t make you responsible for the unexpected explosion of violence that followed from Russia, but it was clear that they were playing with fire. Look at it this way: what if Mexico decided to form a military alliance with China? We’d all laugh at that idea as we understand that there’s no way that would ever be accepted. It is a fact that Europe, the NATO, and the US have to deal with power blocks. And it's nonsense to think we’re living in a fairy tale world in which international law always wins and the West always respects that law.”

What is the role of science in this story?
“As a scientist, I feel compelled to speak out because I think the Western role in this war is so big. I consider it our responsibility to think about this and come up with solutions. I’m a conflict analyst, war is my discipline. Besides, there is a lot of confusion in conversations about this war. In the media, at talk show tables, but also in the European organisations. This is a complicated war but people are telling an incredibly simplistic story about it. That genuinely worries me. In my opinion, such a simplistic story leads to a destructive escalation. I often think that this could have been prevented.”

Why do you think others don’t agree with your point of view?
“That’s a good question, one that fascinates me to no end. How is it possible that we, especially in Europe, are so stuck in this big us-versus-the-enemy way of thinking? Everything I’m telling you has been well documented, scientists agree about the facts. There is diversity in the public debate in the US but much less so in Europe, which is stuck in an emotional identification with the victim. Maybe that’s a result of how the European Union works. There’s this kind of group dynamic there: which government leader is the most heroic, who has the most influence? Who has the most beautiful rhetoric, who shows the best statesmanship? As though everyone had to prove that they were on the right side of history. That way, you get stuck in a story you can’t get out of.”

So, what should the story be?
“It’s important to think about what motivates Russia to do all this. It’s being suggested that the invasion in Ukraine was driven by Putin’s tsarist and imperialistic delusions of grandeur. Mythologies like that aren’t unimportant but they rarely explain the real steps towards war. If you look at what the Putin regime has actually done so far, you can see it’s actually acting quite predictably. Russia sees the expansion of NATO towards Ukraine and Georgia as a threat to its national security. As long as it’s at war with potential NATO countries, chances are slim that these countries will actually join NATO. That’s a very rational thought, if you think about it. Don’t forget that, in past past decades, a whole host of regime changes has taken place, led by the US. All these regimes should not have happened according to international law. It’s not surprising for Putin to assume he is next. It is odd that we, here in the West, can’t imagine that."

How does all the criticism affect you?
“In a cartoon published by the Dutch newspaper Trouw, I was pictured in a red dress, shouting ‘negotiate, negotiate’ as Russia shoots at us. On Twitter, people often say that I’m not worth listening to, they disqualify me as a professor. So, people say I’m naïve and don’t understand things but at the same time they say I’m dangerous, with blood in my hands. That people like the Dutch far-right politician Thierry Baudet react to my work by saying ‘wise remarks’ doesn’t help either, of course. But the historian Rutger Bregman also said ‘we should listen to this’. So, I’m getting various responses. None of them makes me lose any sleep, thankfully.”

Do you feel like you're all alone?
“I’m proud to see UU colleagues sharing their expertise as well. But yes, I do think it’s rather quiet. There are more specialists who I think should be a little more vocal but I understand why they are not, especially if they are young scientists. For them, this may not be the time to be critical. As a senior, I have the freedom to be critical. I’ve realised that those who dare to be critical are the ones who don’t have a lot to lose as they are higher up in the hierarchy and they're a little bit older. I understand how that works.”

There is no turning back now. Why do you want to keep telling this story?
“As soon as violence is used as ruthlessly and at such a large scale as it is now, I understand that negotiating becomes more and more pointless every day, with every casualty. But I’m still going to advocate for it. After all, the alternative is more violence. I’ve given up hope that the West can make that change but perhaps the Brics countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South-Africa) can play a role. As for me, I recently attended a PhD ceremony in which the candidate vowed in their oath to act honestly, precisely, transparently, independently, and responsibly. Such a promise of scientific integrity motivates me as well.”