Why has the United Kingdom – government and universities – been playing catch-up since Russian president Vladimir Putin ordered his troops to invade neighbouring Ukraine?

Until Putin began his blitzkrieg after months of posturing and training drills on the Ukrainian border, many in the West thought – or convinced themselves – that it was all a game of bluff to get NATO to back off from encouraging Ukrainian leaders to sever ties with Russia and stop NATO and the EU from building up Ukraine’s hopes of joining former Soviet satellite Baltic states in the western intergovernmental military alliance and the European Union.

But any idea that this was just a dangerous game of ‘Risk’ changed on 24 February when Russian tanks rolled in to Ukraine.


The human tragedy of Putin’s war has filled our nightly TV screens as millions of people seek refuge in Poland and other neighbouring countries and men, and many women, of fighting age put up the battle of their lives to defend their country.

The reaction from European universities to the invasion was swift – apart that is from higher education institutions in the United Kingdom!

Universities in my European network rushed out statement and support and many altered their websites to the colour of Ukraine’s national flag as a mark of solidarity.

But in the UK most higher education chiefs appeared reluctant at first to follow calls from Germany to halt scientific cooperation with Russia in response to Putin’s War.

It took several days and a bit of prodding from the likes of the LinkedIn global education commentator Alan Preece, who has become the social conscience of the higher education community over Ukraine, before Universities UK (UUK) issued a statement condemning the Russian government’s “appalling decision”.  But their original statement said little more apart from advising universities “to review current and planned activities involving Russian partners”.

Tougher response follows Russian rectors’ statement

That had to be toughened up and was on 8 March. But only after the Russian Union of Rectors (RUR) came out in support of Putin’s “special military operation” and claimed the action was required to “achieve the demilitarisation and denazification of Ukraine” and end the eight-year-old conflict between ethnic Russians and Ukrainians in the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine.

The RUR statement, reported by University World News on 6 March, talked about supporting President Putin’s “most difficult” but “necessary” decision and added for good measure: “Our main duty – to conduct a continuous educational process, to instil patriotism in young people” and “help the Motherland.”

This was immediately rebuffed by Jan Palmowski, secretary-general of the Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities, who tweeted that the Russian rectors were “deeply wrong”, adding: “The role of universities can never be to instil patriotism; in history such attempts have always led to disaster.”

UUK suspends Russia links 

Universities UK represents British university vice-chancellors and its international arm, UUKi wrote to the Russian rectors on 7 March suspending “a Memorandum of Understanding” between the respective organisations. It said following the RUR’s support for Putin’s action “we cannot maintain our links with the RUR at this time”.

But again this was days after the European Commission suspended cooperation with “Russian entities in research, science and innovation” on 4 March. The Commission also declared it will not conclude any new contracts nor any new agreements with Russian organisations under the Horizon Europe programme and said it is also “suspending payments to Russian entities under existing contracts”.

Why is UK slow off the mark?

So, why has UK higher education been slow off the mark in responding to the Russian invasion, which mirrors the British government’s sluggish and at times bureaucratic approach to the refugee crisis resulting from war in Ukraine?

UUK explains itself by pointing to its support for the Council for At-Risk Academics (CARA) and said while its primary focus is supporting Ukrainian staff and students, it is “also mindful of the position of Russian staff and students, many of whom oppose this conflict”. 

Many oppose the war

That many Russians oppose Putin’s war is in no doubt as the courageous Russian TV editor Marina Ovsyannikova demonstrated  when she interrupted a live news bulletin on Russian state TV Channel One holding a sign saying ‘No War. Stop the War’ and ‘Don’t believe the propaganda’ in English and Russian. 

Marina Ovsyannikova gets message across on live Russian TV news. Image: Channel One

Thousands of protestors have already been arrested in Moscow and other Russian cities and UUK’s statement highlights that many Russian students and academics have criticised the invasion – “at great personal peril”.

However, the rectors’ union and many of Russia’s top university leaders have declared their support Putin’s invasion, even if they call it something different, and Alan Preece is one of many calling for a tougher stance from Universities UK.

Blanket boycotts not supported

However, the UK university umbrella organisation does not support blanket academic boycotts “that prevent academics collaborating with other academics as a means of protest against the actions of their governments”.

Instead, UUK recommends universities make ‘case-by-case’ decisions on whether to continue collaborations.

Some UK universities like Warwick have been quick off the mark. Warwick came out with their support for Ukraine on 28 February, saying they planned to terminate contracts with Russian state institutions where possible.

Over in Ireland, Professor Ben Tonra of University College Dublin resigned from his vice principal for internationalisation and global engagement role in UCD’s College of Social Sciences and Law when his university failed to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

How to support Russians against the war?

And while many UK university bosses dithered, universities in Europe were putting out statements condemning Putin’s war and declaring their solidarity with Ukraine within days of the invasion.

Many European universities showed support for Ukraine on their websites

Universities like St. Gallen, Zurich and Bern in Switzerland and many others across Europe made clear they were not condemning all Russians, just the actions of the president and his closest advisers and supporters of the war, including Russian university leaders.

And that’s the rub! How do you support Russians against the war if you cut all ties with their country? 

Even at the height of the Cold War when I was just a 17-year-old school kid, I was able to go on an official school trip to Leningrad and Moscow as part of my A-level History course and that was a few years after the Soviet Union led Warsaw Pact troops in an invasion of Czechoslovakia.

The war in Ukraine is hopefully going to end soon. God only knows what kind of peace deal will emerge. Perhaps the country will have some kind of Balkan solution and be carved up between Ukrainian and Russian zones as already exists in all but name in parts of the Donbas and Crimea.

What then? Will the West help rebuild Ukraine and Russia repair the devastation it has caused in its ‘sphere of influence’? Will the country split as Yugoslavia did in the 1990s? 

Anything seems possible and when peace finally comes will universities have a role in rebuilding the shattered nation? 

  • I will look at this question and turn to history to try to work out Putin’s end game in a future blog.

See a useful timeline of events leading up from to the invasion on 24 February 2022 produced by  Reuters. 

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