Feb 18, 2022 - News

What the Ukraine conflict looks like on the ground

Illustration of a hand holding a chess piece over a world-shaped chessboard
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

A telling view of what's happening on the ground in Ukraine, amid escalating tensions with Russia, sits in the pile of numbers on the Boulder desk of a University of Colorado professor.

What he found: An expert in territorial conflict, John O'Loughlin and his colleagues completed a survey of the region just two weeks ago and found that people are scared.

That's no surprise.

But the poll of the eastern Donbas region — both in the government-controlled areas and separatist regions near the Russian troop buildup — also revealed a new insight.

  • A majority of people are more concerned about their economic well-being and family's financial security than whether they live in Russia or Ukraine.
  • "There could be a major war over this place but the people who live there don't really care much," O'Loughlin told Axios Denver in an interview.

What's next: More poll results will be released next week, but O'Loughlin's informed outlook isn't positive. "I'm generally a very optimistic person about everything but not right now. I just don't see a way out," he said.

What to watch: O'Loughlin expects Russian President Vladimir Putin to make a move Sunday, after the Winter Olympics end.

  • And he expects it to happen in the Donbas region he's studied so closely, where Russia is claiming "genocide" of its citizens and may embark "on this rescue mission and that would be the pretense for a Russian invasion," he said.
  • He outlined four scenarios, but the worst-case options would affect the U.S. with higher gas prices, a plummeting stock market and the potential for an "absolutely disastrous" conflict with NATO and Russian forces.

The bottom line: "People think [Putin's] a mad man and a dictator and not capable of breaching any kind of agreement," O'Loughlin said, "but he's quite calculating and he thinks now is the moment to resolve the Ukrainian question."

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