Experts give Ukrainian leaders key insights in military strategy

Friday 12 May 2023

A team of academics from the University of St Andrews School of International Relations paid a visit to Kyiv recently, meeting with key members of the Ukrainian government including a range of Government Ministers, senior military commanders, MPs and academics involved in developing strategy and policy in the defence of the country against Russia. They also met with local NGOs and the HALO Trust, as well as carrying out a press briefing for local and international media.

Led by Head of School and Chair of Strategic Studies, Professor Phillips O’Brien, the group – Professor Sir Hew Strachan, Senior Lecturers Dr Marc De Vore and Dr Kristen Harkness, and Professor Stephen Gethins – travelled overland from Poland to Kyiv, the epicentre of strategic operations directed by President Zelenskyy and his team.

The trip focused on meetings in Kyiv and the St Andrews team briefed Oleksiy Danilov and his team at the National Security and Defence Council. They also met with high-level groups from the Ukrainian government, including Deputy Defence Minister Andriy Shevchenko and Minister for Strategic Industries, Oleksandr Kamyshin, who previously ran the country’s railways, as well as military and economic and analytic communities. The team learned more about Ukrainian strategic thinking, what Ukraine feels it needs to win the war, and how Ukrainians see the future of their own country. 

Professor O’Brien, who is highly regarded across the world for his expert analysis of Russian strategy – and its failings – in Ukraine, said: “One of the most impressive things was the strategic clarity of Ukrainian decision-makers. They know what they need to win the war, how they can win the war once they get what they need, and what they want for Ukraine once they win the war. For Ukrainians, it’s about establishing a secure and prosperous future, and that can only come through the defeat of Putin’s Russia and Ukraine joining both NATO and the EU.”

Professor O’Brien said the expert insights of the group were welcomed by the Ukrainians. Dr De Vore is internationally recognised for his work on civil-military relations and international security, including the use of drones in warfare. Dr Harkness is an expert in democratisation and conflict resolution, and Professor Strachan is a military historian and counter-terrorism expert.

The St Andrews team also included foreign policy expert Professor Stephen Gethins, who has worked in Ukraine and on associated issues for almost 20 years and has broad experience in the country and the wider region. He was also a member of the Scottish Government’s All-Party Group on Ukraine and co-authored several parliamentary reports in the aftermath of the 2014 invasion.

Professor Gethins said: “This was an incredibly insightful and useful trip to Ukraine. The team from St Andrews had access, at the very highest levels, to Ukraine’s military and politics at what is an exceptionally challenging and busy time for them. Our colleagues in Kyiv were clearly eager to learn from my colleagues and get their strategic insights.

“The ability to discuss and debate topics leads to better decision-making. Ukraine is a democracy where open and wide-ranging discussions are encouraged which we know leads to better decision-making. Ukraine is a democracy and that appetite for learning was apparent from our visit, which was invaluable for our insights and I hope for those in Kyiv too. We are very much looking forward to building on that work.

“It was also something of a bitter-sweet visit. On the one hand, it was good to see old friends and colleagues but, on the other hand, devastating to see first-hand the devastating impact that Russia’s war of aggression is having on them every single day.”


Professor Gethins and Professor Sir Hew Strachan also took part in Ukrainska Pravda’s ‘(Un)safe Country’ podcast, which gives more insight into their trip.

Professor O’Brien’s commentary on Ukraine can be accessed online.

Issued by the University of St Andrews Communications Office.

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