– om forskning och utbildning inom försvar, krishantering och säkerhet.
With a duty to learn from and support our colleagues in Ukraine
The Swedish Defence University, as a leading university in defence, security and crisis management, has the responsibility, duty even, to learn from and adapt not least our officer education to the lessons from Russia’s invasion and war in Ukraine. We also have a duty to support our Ukrainian friends. To find out how we can work closer together, I visited Ukraine beginning March. This is an attempt at some initial reflections.
Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, we have all been enormously impressed by the Ukrainian armed forces’ ability to fight back the Russian forces, as well as the general resilience of Ukrainian society and its people. We could witness for ourselves that they are at all levels completely determined not only fight and resist, but to win, and then to build a stronger, better Ukraine as a worthy member of the EU and Nato.
Needed to see for ourselves, on the ground
To get a better grasp of the driving forces behind the Ukraine people’s resilience and perseverance, we decided to visit Ukraine and engage our friends and colleagues on the ground. We wanted to understand where this general resilience comes from, but also get an insight into the tactical, operational and strategic lessons of both military operations and civil defence. The decision to make the trip was not taken lightly given the risks. Even more importantly, we did not want to cause extra work and stress for our partners in Ukraine. However, I felt that gaining the necessary understanding could only really be done on the ground by meeting with people, listening to their stories and perspectives and by witnessing the activities with my own eyes. I also felt that the best way to gain the trust to develop mutually beneficial partnerships with organizations and people in Ukraine, was to meet them, show an honest will to both listen and learn, as we well as support them, and to mutually find ways of working together towards common goals.
Together will a small delegation from SEDU I travelled to Ukraine and visited the National Defence University in Kiev, the Military Academy in Odessa, the Kiev Mohyla Business School, and also held meetings with the Ukrainian Ministry of Defence, the ICRS, the National Security Council, the Ukrainian and Swedish Red Cross, representatives from think tanks and different embassies in Kiev, the territorial defence forces and more.
Ukraine generously sharing their experience
What is very clear from our meetings is that as Sweden rebuilds its total defence – learning from the Ukrainian experience will be absolutely necessary and that partnering will not only send a strong signal of support to Ukraine, but also strengthen Sweden as well. There is a tremendous wealth of experience and lessons learned in Ukraine, and also a generosity and willingness to share them to strengthen our mutual efforts to increase security in Europe and the world. We hope to welcome a delegation in Stockholm quite soon for the sharing of this knowledge.
Long list of ideas for support och collaboration
The second reason why we travelled to Ukraine was indeed to identify all the ways in which the Swedish Defence University, and more broadly, the Swedish education sector and beyond, can support Ukraine in its effort to win the war and to rebuild and transition into the country they both want and deserve. The many meetings have not only produced a signed formal cooperation agreement with the National Defence University in Kiev, but also a long list of concrete ideas and possible initiatives in close cooperation with NDU and many other actors in the country. The Swedish Defence University will immediately start turning these ideas into action.
The visit has made quite the impression and we have a lot to digest. Beyond the many meetings and visits, it was also with rather mixed feelings that we experienced both the normality and abnormality of life in Ukraine. Despite very limited time, we paid tribute to Ukrainian history by visiting Maidan square and the Wall of the fallen. We also had the opportunity and honor of hosting a “Vice-chancellor’s reception” for all our hosts and potential partners, thereby providing the same sort of civil-military meeting place that we pride ourselves in being at home. The idea of the meeting place also turned out to be a great success with many important actors meeting for the first time.
A night in the shelters
When finally in bed after our longest and most intense day of the visit, the air alarms quickly brought us to the shelters under the hotel and a mostly sleepless night of Russian air raids and severe destruction across the entire country. The next morning, we visited the Myhola business school as life in Kiev continued more or less uninterrupted.
The many personal meetings and the many stories we have heard have provided us with information that will take a long time to digest, but let me quickly share a few brief stories from some of our new friends.
First, the commandant of the Military Academy in Odessa who as a matter of fact highlighted that both their students and teachers have performed heroic acts on the battlefield, but that many also have been killed in the war. He said that for every dead student they constantly asked themselves if they could have done something different, or prepared them better, to avoid the tragedy. The photos of their dead colleagues and students were on the wall as a constant reminder. This was certainly a sobering reminder of the importance of what we do – both at home, but also to support Ukraine.
Horrendous stories about Wagner group and drug-induced soldiers
Second, my colleague and new friend at the National Defence University in Kiev had more to share than I could possibly take in. The last three months he has been in charge of the Ukrainian defence of Bakhmut where the fighting has been incredibly intense for a long time. He shared horrendous stories about the Wagner group’s complete disregard for human life, and the difficulty of fighting what he felt was a strange combination of very experienced and competent officers alongside drug-induced criminals as soldiers with no normal human or soldierly behavior. Fighting these units meant that there were no standard operating procedures or modes of operandi, it was a completely different form of war, of fighting that requires very well-trained soldiers and officers with great mental flexibility and problem-solving capability.
Heroes decorated on site by president Zelenskyj
At the same time he also shared the very moving story of when president Zelensky showed up unannounced on the front lines of Bakhmut and what it meant to the soldiers, officers, and of course to him personally. You have probably seen the symbolic gesture of the president as he presented Ukrainian battle flag to the US congress signed by the troops in Bakhmut. This flag was handed over, after a few rather funny debacles, to the president by my colleague. Battle awards and decoration were also handed out to the most heroic soldiers and officers directly on site by the president.
As we know from history, war has the possibility to bring out both the best and the worst in us – and this requires careful thought and preparation to land on the right side. When the enemy disregards the laws of war, it is even more important to show restraint and to maintain the humanity, dignity and societal values that we fight to defend.
Education continues – at double speed
Third, the many stories of adaptation during the war highlighted the incredible resilience of Ukrainian society. At a societal level, the transformation processes needed for membership processes in the EU and NATO is taking place at great pace and determination. Officer education, and many university programs continues at double speed and with more cadets than ever. Teaching takes place in secret locations near the front or online to allow the cadets to study while conducting important other tasks. The civilian university we visited had built lecture and seminar rooms in the shelters powered by diesel generators to be able to continue teaching despite the disruption of air alarms or blackouts. The inspiration for us as a university is obvious, but also for our society in general.
Ukraine is fighting for all of us
Finally, the hospitality shown by our Ukrainian colleagues despite terrible circumstances, and the gratitude they showed for our visit and more importantly for the support provided by Sweden and the international community creates mixed emotions. One the one hand pride and joy in our accomplishments that are very real and appreciated and that will hopefully provide for both complete victory in the war, but also the full reconstruction and integration of Ukraine in the European family. On the other hand, a feeling that the gratitude should be ours, and that there is so much more that we can and should do. Ukraine is bravely fighting not only for their own survival, but for the rest of us – a secure and democratic Europe and a rules-based international order.
Thus, all I have left to say is “Slava Ukraini” – and may we never give up on their struggle!
Försvarshögskolans rektor Robert Egnell bloggar om forskning och utbildning inom försvar, krishantering och säkerhet.