This brief is a part of The Ukraine Crisis: Cause and Course of the Conflict
Although only two months have passed since the Russian invasion of Ukraine commenced, the impact has, indeed, been global on several levels. The world has been reminded of the horrors of war, of the heart-wrenching civilian plights and that some states must fight for their sovereignty, freedom, and right to exist.
This war has mobilised the world and digitised it: Right versus wrong, democracy versus authoritarianism, globalisation versus protectionism, and victory versus defeat. The world has become even more polarised. This may be a necessity in war, but it will tie the knots of international cooperation even harder. Sooner or later, when the war ends, those knots must be undone, and we must get back to fixing global problems, equalising imbalances, and undoing injustices. And yes, we will all need to compromise for the greater good. In democracies, it is the interest of the common voter, and a stable strategic context in which she/he can prosper, that counts. Untying knots and getting all, including the public, to accept compromise for long benefits, will not be easy.
Russian global standing
It is rare for major global players to make such big mistakes that challenge their very global standing and even their future prospects. The Suez Crisis in 1956 was a bridge too far for France and the United Kingdom; the French, and the American military engagement in Vietnam did nothing for their status as noble or major powers; nor was the 2003 Iraq invasion a boost for the US legitimacy or supremacy. It took the erstwhile Soviet Union 10 years to concede that Afghanistan was a failed mission.
For Russia, a UN P5 member with the world’s largest nuclear arsenal, the fourth largest defence budget (although 20 percent smaller than India’s) and being last year the sixth biggest economy (in PPP; less than half of India’s or a sixth of China’s, and even less in nominal terms), its miscalculation will have geostrategic consequences.
Russia did not even secure air supremacy or adequate intelligence of the Ukrainian forces and obviously misjudged their willingness to fight, the people’s power, and the amount of support and sympathy Ukraine would get from most countries in the world.
In the eyes of the West, Russia has lost the moral authority, soft power, and international credibility it once had. The excessive use of force and the sheer brutality seen in Ukraine have shocked almost all observers. Economic sanctions have deprived Russia of both trade, income, and growth. Who will want to be associated with or invest in Russia after this? Who will want to trust or be dependent on Russia?
Surprisingly the Russian military has so far underperformed by almost every parameter. Historians will debate whether it was due to failed political calculations, corruption, poor planning, and morale or just bad tactics that explained the severe losses and crude destructive tactics—at least in the initial phases. Russia did not even secure air supremacy or adequate intelligence of the Ukrainian forces and obviously misjudged their willingness to fight, the people’s power, and the amount of support and sympathy Ukraine would get from most countries in the world.
The result is not just that Russia will have depleted a significant portion of its military equipment, exposed flaws in its operational concepts, and lost credibility. The main impact is that for the foreseeable future, Russia will be seen as an aggressor and a brute. Should Russia use weapons of mass destruction, the stain will be even worse.
This war will leave Russia poorer, more alienated, and probably more dangerous.
US capacity to mobilise
The US has so far played the strategic chessboard with impressive efficacy. For all the internal challenges facing the US and the Biden administration, its global posture has been boosted thanks to its active role in Ukraine.
Although unwilling to go to war with Russia and risk nuclear escalation, the US has done most things right and deployed an array of hybrid warfare tools. It trained the Ukrainian military and developed its cyber capacity long before the invasion, and whole sanctions packages were prepared and pre-cooked with the Allies. The level of intelligence sharing and exposing Russian intentions/options was skilfully managed. Since the start of the war, the level and quality of donated military hardware, intelligence coordination, secure command and control, and cyber operations have made a huge difference.
It is obvious that President Zelenskyy is receiving well-balanced and excellent advice from his staff in everything from speech writing and diplomacy to media management.
The US has also dominated the media and information war. By barring Russian media (and with help from US Big Tech and social media platforms) the US/western narrative has dominated the airwaves in most countries. Russian flaws, mistakes, and tragedies have been amplified, as have the Ukrainian leadership, heroics, sacrifices, and losses.
A democratic transition in Russia may be a pipe dream, but most would welcome a peaceful, harmonious, prosperous, and thriving Russia.
It is also a fact that the US, being the world’s largest oil and gas producer, is benefiting from high energy prices (although unpopular amongst voters) and increased European dependency on US LNG.
The US is again seen as the natural leader in the West and the signals to China could not be clearer.
However, one wonders what it will take to lift the economic sanctions. Will the West be able to live with future compromises between Ukraine and Russia? Russian capitulation seems unthinkable and even defeat will be a matter of interpretation. Would it theoretically be enough for President Putin to step down or must the inner circle also be replaced? There is a risk we are underestimating the power and influence of the Russian military, intelligence, and force structure elites, just as we underestimate the Russian national myths and narratives. A democratic transition in Russia may be a pipe dream, but most would welcome a peaceful, harmonious, prosperous, and thriving Russia.
We must also remind ourselves that the US administration can change. The impact of President Trump on global and European security cooperation was momentous.
European security shock
In the words of the UN Secretary-General, the Russian invasion of the sovereign territory of Ukraine is a violation of the UN Charter. In European eyes, this unprovoked aggression has fundamentally changed the European security situation and challenged the existing order.
The war has united the EU and NATO in a way no other crisis has. Although internal European challenges remain, they have been put in perspective now that European countries face an existential threat. EU cohesion and new momentum should not be underestimated.
Just the fact that there is a debate in Sweden and Finland about NATO membership, several of the Baltic and Eastern European states are calling for more permanent US basing, and the outpour of support for Ukraine is surely not what President Putin had hoped for.
US military engagement has been all the more welcome, and we shall have to see how NATO’s new strategic concept (presumed to be launched in June 2022) is shaped by the new European security situation. Just the fact that there is a debate in Sweden and Finland about NATO membership, several of the Baltic and Eastern European states are calling for more permanent US basing, and the outpour of support for Ukraine is surely not what President Putin had hoped for.
European dependency on Russian energy and European dependency on the US is surely painful for some to acknowledge. We shall have to see if European investments in their own security will make them more or less dependent on US security and equipment. We shall also have to see if Europe is prepared to support the US, for example in Asia, in the same way the US has shored up Europe in 2022. After all, there is no such thing as a free lunch.
Trade and prices
The world is already facing increased protectionism on multiple fronts, plus US–Chinese trade wars and the aftermath of COVID’s abnormal ramifications on supply, value chains, and demand. The Russian invasion has had a significant negative effect on commodity prices, especially in the food, energy, and mineral sectors. Again, there are relative winners and losers. US farmers are having a good year, and Australia, Norway, and the Gulf States are prospering with high prices. Countries heavily dependent on Russian/Ukrainian grain, fertiliser, wood, or who have cut their energy ties, have paid a heavy price.
The war over Ukraine is a major headache for China. Surely Beijing must be drawing substantial lessons from this crisis. The power of the dollar, if the US, Europe, and Japan unite, has been formidable. The Renminbi only represents 2.5 percent of the global currency reserves and has considerable assets in western currencies and the US debt. Ukrainian public support, resilience, and the ability to fight a superior enemy will be noted.
China is stuck with a partnership with “no limits”, a Russian war of aggression, interference in the internal affairs of a neighbour and a rival country, the US, that does its best in linking China with Russia.
On the military front, one must draw the lesson that if a defender is supported by high moral, superior intelligence, sound political advice, and advanced defensive weapons, resistance can be forceful and successful. And besides, unlike Ukraine, it is relatively easy to disrupt supplies and air/sea control in the Western Pacific. However, China is the world’s biggest economy, the biggest investor in green tech and AI and has the second-largest defence budget. Any US–Chinese conflict would be more globally disruptive and dangerous than the war for Ukraine.
Even if Russia still has some advanced technology and spectacular unconventional assets, Russian strategy, logistics, and political control, not to mention some poorly performing weapon systems, must lead to some soul searching by its SCO partner.
Only time will tell if authoritarian control of the media, propaganda, isolation, and patriotism can deliver more stability, prosperity, and happiness for a country such as Russia. From an outside perspective, it seems rather implausible.
China is grappling with the pandemic, slowing growth, demographic pressure, increased isolation, and the lead up to the 20th National Congress. China is stuck with a partnership with “no limits”, a Russian war of aggression, interference in the internal affairs of a neighbour and a rival country, the US, that does its best in linking China with Russia. It is far from the desired state of stability and predictability. Although this situation is highly problematic for Beijing, China, and indeed India, have influence in Moscow. We may hope that China and India can use their weight to mediate and temper Russia.
The war gives further impetus to convert to sustainable alternatives. Many countries that have imported oil/gas/coal from Russia are trying to diversify. But that comes at a price and few alternatives are in the short term carbon-free.
The war has not had an influence on the greater technology trends. Quantum computing, synthetic biology, and Artificial Intelligence (AI) are still potentially revolutionary technologies.
Perhaps the biggest loss incurred, apart from the tragic civilian losses in Ukraine, are the global cooperation patterns and the willingness and ability to tackle global challenges. Already we are having awkward debates on who will attend what G20 meeting or regional constellations, and the UN Security Council is hardly “fit for purpose” these days. The fact of the matter is that China and the US, and often India, EU, Japan, and Russia, are needed in almost every strategic discussion from climate management, renewables, anti-microbial resistance, rare earths, ocean management and space coordination. A toxic environment, already poisoned by protectionism and zealous patriotism in the US–Chinese relations, will make it difficult, if not impossible to find compromise and long-term solutions amongst the major players. The risk is that large parts of South Asia and Africa will pay the highest price for many of these global challenges.
Technology—to a degree
On one hand, the war has not had an influence on the greater technology trends. Quantum computing, synthetic biology, and Artificial Intelligence (AI) are still potentially revolutionary technologies. Silicon Valley is still awash with capital and innovative power, Shenzhen is buzzing, and there is no proof of China slowing down its ambitions to compete. If anything, one can observe a degree of de-globalisation and more focus on self-reliance. In many ways that means lower degrees of efficiency, higher prices, and probably lower growth.
A toxic environment, already poisoned by protectionism and zealous patriotism in the US–Chinese relations, will make it difficult, if not impossible to find compromise and long-term solutions amongst the major players.
On the operational side, the Russian offensive has been surprisingly low-tech and more akin to the experiences of the Chechen wars. On the contrary, the combination of US/European hybrid warfare with a determined and western-equipped Ukrainian force has delivered some impressive results.
Perhaps, with mass sensors, smartphones, digital exposure, and both military and civilian high-resolution satellite and drone imaging, and massive coordination, the new surprise is that everything is open and observable. The ability to hide a mobilisation or an atrocity is no longer possible. With the combination of high-quality intelligence and the efficiency of man-portable and autonomous weapon systems, mobile precision surface-to-surface missiles and “the small, smart and many”, the main battle tank, stationary artillery and large naval surface combatants are becoming obsolete.
On a final note
The war over Ukraine has no real winner. It exposes the best and the worst of human nature but ultimately, it dismantles trust, cooperation, and the ability to solve global challenges. Global norms and international rules are thwarted by one of the guarantors. Disruption, shortages, and destruction will come at a significant global cost. And Russia will not go away, whatever the outcome. The challenge today is to minimise the damage, accept compromises without selling our souls, and undo the knots of conflict for the greater good.
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