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Ukraine and the Kurdish Question: A Dissertation Reflection

20 February 2024

8 mins

In 2024 Will Marshall was one of two winners of IDIG’s prize for best dissertation. In this blog post, he reflects on both his dissertation and the lessons he would pass on from writing an award-winning dissertation.

Choosing My Topic

As a student on the MSc Security, Peace-building and Diplomacy course, I decided to write a dissertation that compared the conflicts and political situations in Ukraine and Kurdistan. The start of my research corresponded with the one-year anniversary of the Ukraine conflict, the consequences of which reverberated across the world and the study of international relations.

However, the majority of coverage seemed fixated with macro-analytical perspectives on the war’s global repercussions: the impact on Europe, East vs West tensions, energy markets, responses by the superpowers, realignments of global alliances. Absent from this coverage was consideration of how the conflict was changing smaller, more specific conflicts and political situations. 

At this time, I was also studying debates about state secessionism and the global barriers to the independent recognition of aspiring regions. In this area of study, the case of Iraqi-Kurdistan, with its significant historical injustice, alongside the exceptional resilience and fortitude displayed against adversarial forces simply through the autonomous region’s existence, drew my attention.

Based on these elements, I decided to research how the Ukraine conflict was impacting the independence prospects of Iraqi-Kurdistan. The motivation of this decision was two-fold, firstly; explore in more detail one of the wider global consequences of the Ukraine conflict. Secondly; add to the existing analysis of the contemporary status of Iraqi-Kurdistan’s independence struggle, and the prospects of alleviation for the stateless denigration of the Kurdish people.

Researching my Topic

I began by developing a framework centred upon a key concept within state recognition discipline: remedial secession, specifically in reference to its legal precedence that developed following the anomalous case of Kosovo in July 2010. The Kosovan case is unique in the field of international law, as the International Court of Justice legally advised the permission of Kosovo’s secession from Serbia, without the normatively implemented conditional presence of de-colonisation or foreign invasion within the case, contradicting previous convention.

Instead, it was argued that Kosovo’s secession was legitimate due to the systematic addressment, or ‘remedy’, it represented against the oppressive subjugation ethnic Kosovans faced through retained existence within the state entity of Serbia. Central to this ruling, however, was the advocation of the US and Western powers in favour of Kosovo. This adds a dimension, and perhaps condition, to remedial secession of ‘the politics of recognition.’ It suggests the notion that legal deployment requires significant support from existing international powers.

Designing a framework around remedial secession and the Kosovan case meant firstly identifying the impacts the Ukraine conflict had on Iraqi-Kurdistan to assess whether these impacts made the prospect of the region’s independence through the vehicle of remedial secession, and indeed political advocation of such action by international powers, more or less likely.

To be able to argue the conflict had increased the prospects of independence would therefore require evidence showing the conflict had instigated a great risk of persecution for the Kurdish populace within the wider state entity of Iraq, alongside evidence of international actors showing greater political motivation to advocate for the secession. The intention of this process was to add a degree of validity to the research’s findings, as its argumentation would subsequently be predicated on an existing legal precedence and real-world contextual background.

However, the unexplored nature of the dissertation question meant secondary sources were going to be an inadequate source of evidence. I decided the best way forward would be to conduct interviews. Securing interviews with individuals with the relevant credentials and authority to speak on the matter was a difficult process. However, through careful research and perseverance, I was able to secure several interviews. The information they supplied was indispensable to my overall analysis and research findings.

Summary of My Findings

My hypothesis was that the Ukrainian conflict had enhanced Iraqi-Kurdistan’s independence recognition prospects. This view was based on the work of Mikulas Fabry, who developed the idea within the state recognition discipline that great-power conflict, such as was the case in Ukraine, served to create ‘cracks to the barriers of recognition’. This notion was coupled with personal observations of political opportunities associated with Iraqi-Kurdistan’s possession of oil, alongside a global polarisation that allowed for geo-political manoeuvring by the Iraqi-Kurdistan region.

However, research findings soon displayed the inverse to be true. For example, the Iraqi-Kurdistan region’s possession of oil did not deliver international leverage. This was caused by a significant lack of internal political cohesion by the region’s main political parties (the Kurdish Democratic Party and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan), which was the result of disputes over the oil sector. Iraqi-Kurdistan’s segregated governmental structure between the KDP and PUK meant it lacked the institutional integrity and political capability to effectively capitalise on the global economic opportunity presented by the energy market politics of the Ukraine conflict.

I soon found other empirical examples. Each pointed to the damage to independence aspirations caused by political factionalism within Iraqi-Kurdistan itself. This also led to a loss of investment and engagement in the region as international powers diverted attention elsewhere during the Ukraine conflict. In this sense, the conflict was drawing away the material capacities of international actors, which was having a detrimental impact on the region’s independence prospects.

This notion was most strikingly displayed in my own conversation with one interviewee who had previously worked for the UK Diplomatic Service in Ebril, in Iraqi-Kurdistan. They recalled an instance, shortly after the Russian invasion, wherein a US diplomat had bluntly informed Kurdish officials “look what’s going on, we do not have the bandwidth for this, there’s a war in Europe”. For several years the US had attempted to mediate and find reconciliation between the KDP and PUK, with limited progress made. The Ukraine war meant leaving the historically antagonistic Kurdish parties to their own devices. Without a stable political settlement, the notion of the region being granted remedial secession was subsequently implausible.

It was therefore evident the Ukraine conflict had not boosted but instead infringed the prospects for an independent state recognition of the Iraqi-Kurdistan region. The chance of remedial secession was fleeting, through a combination of the Iraqi-Kurdistan’s troubled political dynamics and the Ukraine conflict relegating the region’s importance to international actors. This does not mean the Kurdish fight for independence will stall. As remarked by one of my interviewees; ‘it will always be the fire in the hearts of the Kurds to be free’, their cause has lasted over a century, and will no doubt continue to persist until that ultimate ambition is reached.

Lessons for Others

The process of researching my dissertation was challenging, at times stressful and demoralising, but ultimately very rewarding. I would offer the following points of advice:

Decide on a topic early

  • This is one of the hardest steps. Once you have decided on a topic you can begin work on moulding the question and building your research incrementally, it allows the other steps to fall into place more naturally. Quickly deciding on a topic will allow you the freedom to explore it, which will lead to you adapting your initial ideas. The alternative is jumping between topics, which delays you exploring a topic in-depth.

Ask a Question to Which You Want to Know the Answer

  • A personal curiosity for what you are researching is a great motivational element that will help push you through the inevitably extensive research process, which otherwise may become arduous and disengaging. If you are interested in finding the answer, it will likely mean the topic is relevant, original and dynamic in its content.

Accept the Limitations of Your Research – and Address Them

  • One of the mistakes I made in my undergraduate dissertation was neglecting the gaps in my research when forming conclusions. You have a limited word-count and timeframe, so cannot address every element your question raises. This is okay, just ensure you acknowledge the gaps, and even mistakes you made, somewhere in your dissertation.

Expand Your Research Beyond Desk-Based Approaches

  • If applicable, broaden your research beyond the existing literature base. It may seem like creating more work for yourself, but it will introduce new dimensions to your dissertation. If your question is unique and original, chances are you will not necessarily find literature that directly addresses it. Alternative research methods, such as interviews and surveys, will allow you to gather referenceable sources and data that will directly support your arguments. You may also discover information that makes you rethink your question or where you want your research to go.

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