Experts at war: Ukraine’s wartime think tank diplomacy

Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine met fierce resistance from Ukrainian political leadership, military and society. The war is being waged physically, but also in the information space, with Ukraine striving to win hearts and minds in the international community. Katsiaryna Lozka and Vera Axyonova argue that Ukrainian think tanks are important contributors to the country’s public diplomacy efforts

Knowledge, information, and war

The outbreak of Russia’s full-out war on Ukraine triggered a proliferation of knowledge in and about the country. Facing an existential threat, the Ukrainian military mobilised in the face of aggression. However, a less visible army – of knowledge actors – also rose up against the invaders. Ukrainian scholars and policy experts had to transition into emergency mode by relocating, reorienting their activities, and even joining the battlefield. Away from the frontlines, many channelled their efforts into explaining the war to the rest of the world, boosting support for Ukraine in foreign capitals. These experts' proactive dissemination of information about the invasion helped shape initial international responses to it.

As knowledge actors, Ukrainian think tanks and affiliated experts actively contribute to these joint efforts. But how do their activities and priorities change in times of war?

Ukrainian think tanks and the human dimension of war

By 2022, Ukraine was home to around 90 think tanks, with diverse spheres of expertise. Their visible growth was catalysed by the 2013 Revolution of Dignity and Ukraine’s further approximation with the EU. The escalation of Russia’s war in February 2022 had a dramatic effect on these organisations, and on individual think tank members. Like all Ukrainians, the country's experts faced first-hand physical insecurity. Ukraine has experienced continuous missile attacks and the destruction of basic infrastructure. A number of think-tankers were forced to relocate, at least temporarily, which led to the disruption of their activities. Simultaneously, martial law introduced restrictions on leaving the country for men of mobilisation age. This rendered the face of Ukraine’s expert community abroad increasingly female.

After Ukraine was granted EU candidate status, think-tankers strengthened their efforts as proponents of stronger EU-Ukraine links

At the start of the invasion, humanitarian work and volunteering were Ukrainians' priority. Certain projects came to a standstill or were deemed less urgent. Unsure about the war's outcome, donors then reevaluated their funding priorities. As a result, some think tanks ceased to exist, while others had to adjust or reorient their activities. The granting of EU candidate status to Ukraine in June 2022 ushered a new dynamic into these developments. Facing war at home, think-tankers positioned themselves as proponents of domestic reforms and of the further strengthening of EU-Ukraine links.

Ukrainian think tanks' post-2022 diplomatic activities

Think tanks can engage in diplomatic activities and influence foreign policy, strengthening international collaborations and partnerships. Their activities can range from direct contributions to diplomatic negotiations and providing advice to the relevant actors, to organising events for international exchanges and reaching out to foreign publics.

But Russian attacks make it difficult to plan events in Ukraine and to ensure participants' physical safety. Following Russia's full-scale invasion, Ukrainian think-tankers therefore adapted their diplomacy engagements in several ways.

First, Ukrainian experts started (co-)organising events in cooperation with EU-based think tanks in European capitals. Such collaborations allowed them to convene discussions outside Ukraine and address the relevant international stakeholders.

Forging close contacts with European policymakers has offered Ukrainian knowledge actors a means to amplify their voices abroad

Second, the imposition of martial law has damaged public transparency in Ukraine. Conditions have hampered Ukrainian civil society's ability to offer effective public oversight of domestic reforms related to EU accession. Think-tankers reacted by developing closer contacts with European policymakers. This offered them a back door through which to voice concerns about deficiencies in reform processes.

Third, understanding the importance of collective public diplomacy in times of war, Ukrainian experts have used different platforms to amplify their voices abroad. Since the start of the full-scale invasion, they have broadened their outreach on social media, given regular interviews to foreign media agencies, and published commentaries in major newspapers.

The changing profile of Ukrainian think tanks

Perhaps the most notable change in the profile of think tanks as wartime knowledge actors is their proactive agenda setting. International donors often support top-down approaches, rather than bottom-up initiatives. Such international engagement interferes with the direction of local organisations’ work.

In the context of Russia’s full-scale war, Ukrainian experts took stock of their priorities and goals. Driven by the urgent mission to help their country, they seized the initiative to engage with issues of national security and domestic developments on a number of platforms. Active international collaborations have allowed them to voice their position in international fora and in behind-closed-doors meetings.

In a time of war, Ukrainian experts have seized the initiative to engage with urgent issues of national security

Consequently, some key priorities further developed from the bottom up. These include debunking Russian disinformation, lobbying for assistance to Ukraine, and proactively engaging with international stakeholders and audiences. Importantly, Ukrainian think tanks began to speak with one voice on the necessity of supporting Ukraine militarily, and integrating it further into the EU. Such synchronisation of messaging came about at grassroots level, rather than at the behest of the state or international donors. Escalation of the war has thus exerted a unifying effect on the international engagement of Ukrainian think tanks.

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.

Contributing Authors

photograph of Katsiaryna Lozka Katsiaryna Lozka PhD Fellow, Ghent Institute for International and European Studies (GIES) More by this author
photograph of Vera Axyonova Vera Axyonova Marie Skłodowska-Curie REWIRE Fellow, University of Vienna More by this author

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