Russia has invaded Ukraine and millions have acquainted themselves with Lenin’s observation that there are decades where nothing happens, and weeks where decades happen.
Already, it is no exaggeration to say that Putin’s war will rival America’s invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq in 2003 and the Global Financial Crisis for multi-decade significance. Once-basic geopolitical realities have been totally upended.
War has a way of creating micro-realities which, like fireflies, glow vividly until being abruptly extinguished. But its furious heat can also permanently reshape old orders.
Here then, are 24 predictions for how Russia’s invasion and the response it has brought about are likely to change the world. Most of these predictions are not contingent on the military outcome. Unfortunately, despite Ukraine’s stoic resistance and a collective revision of prior beliefs regarding Russia’s military capabilities, the reality is that Ukraine is still likely to be militarily overwhelmed, encircled and, as a consequence, territorially dismembered in some way. The ideal result would be a ceasefire and withdrawal of Russian forces and demands. But Russia’s military goals appear to be more expansive than many observers had hoped. So I think all observers should hope for the least-bad result, which may need to be reached at the negotiating table.
A short caveat: I toyed with including specific predictions about what Russia's invasion means for the legitimisation of crypto payments, and implications for UN-style multilateralism. But I eventually decided that they haven't yet crossed a threshold of significance.
A sanctions paradigm shift
The West has broken the glass in case of emergency. Dozens of nations have collaborated to impose truly ferocious sanctions on Russia. Even nations traditionally reluctant to participate, such as Japan, Switzerland and South Korea, are sufficiently outraged by Russia’s aggression that they have joined in. Here is a list that is only long enough to capture the very biggest:
- Sanctioning Russia’s Central Bank, effectively stranding large parts of Russia’s US$630 billion foreign exchange reserve stockpile not held internally or in China (although this excludes payments for energy exports)
- Excluding certain Russian banks from the SWIFT interbank messaging network, dramatically crippling Russia’s ability to participate in global financial markets
- The United States added major Russian banks (VTB, Otkritie, Novikombank and Sovcombank) to the Specially Designated Nationals list, effectively expelling them from the US financial system, banning trade with Americans and freezing their US assets
- EU measures which target the ability of the Russian state to access the EU's capital and financial markets and ban EU investors from trading in Russian state bonds
- The UK announced it would ban Russian sovereign debt sales in London
- Broad restrictions on semiconductors, telecommunication, encryption security, lasers, sensors, navigation, avionics and maritime technologies
- Closing EU airspace to Russian aircraft, including the private jets of Russian oligarchs
- Banning of Russian state-owned media networks Sputnik and Russia Today
- Sanctions targeting members of Putin’s inner circle and the oligarchs which have bought property and other assets in the UK.
It is difficult to list them all. Here are some more. The point is that they are broad and deep. Many large companies, including Apple, Visa and Mastercard have also frozen ties to Russia, making everyday life more difficult.
These sanctions are novel, in two ways. Firstly, sanctions are more typically imposed (or threatened to be imposed) as a deterrent. They are about stopping the bad thing from happening more often than they are about punishing the actor – a substitute for a shooting war more often than a complement.
Surely Vladimir Putin was aware that Russia would incur sanctions if it invaded Ukraine. But he could not have been aware of the full scale of the sanctions unleashed upon it – because neither were the nations that have imposed them. Until early this week, European leaders seemed somewhat divided about applying the harshest sanctions. But the dam wall has burst. Now, not advocating for the removal of Russian banks from the SWIFT interbank network looks like a contrarian position.
It is interesting to consider whether clearer communication – both among sanctioning nations to reach agreement on their scope and then from the coalition of sanctioning nations to Russia – could have delayed or prevented its invasion of Ukraine by making it fully aware of the costs it would incur. Unfortunately, we will never know. It is too late for Russia to turn back now.
The sanctions are also novel because of their severity. That severity, together with their technical feasibility, has surprised many people, myself included. They are likely to seriously damage Russia’s economy, with credible estimates forecasting a double-digit reduction in Russia’s GDP. The counter-position is that as long as the sanctions don’t touch payments for Russia’s fossil fuel exports (perhaps because of Western leaders’ reluctance to knowingly raise energy prices on voters), they do not go far enough. But they seem capable of causing huge damage regardless.
The West’s newfound willingness to cause this kind of economic damage through sanctions represents an important paradigm shift. The true “nuclear option”, restricting Russia's ability to export its oil and gas, has yet to be deployed. Regardless, future malign global actors could well be deterred by the memory of these very harsh sanctions and the pain they are likely to cause Russia's economy and ruling class.
The world will become (slightly) more multi-polar
One of Russia’s main strategic objectives in the 21st century has been to bring about a multi-polar world where this no hegemon striding around, doing as they please. Beyond its investments in its military and securing its status as a fossil fuel powerhouse, it has sought to achieve these goals by strengthening its ties with both China and India.
But its invasion of Ukraine is highly unlikely to bring about that objective – at least not in the way it wants. As I said in the introduction to this piece, Russia is likely to eventually achieve some form of its military objectives in Ukraine. But Vladimir Putin has managed the strategy, tactics and optics of the invasion so poorly that it is likely to come at an unbearably high economic and prestige cost.
Even the “optimal” form of a Russian invasion would probably have drawn the same condemnation and sanctions. The sanctions are so severe that they could well cripple Russia’s economy for a generation, greatly undermining state capacity while immiserating millions. The diplomatic penalties are severe too, although Russia has made its peace with not having many allies. But, given how the invasion has gone to date, Russia also appears surprisingly weak. Vladimir Putin has made bad strategic and tactical decisions, not least the apparent absence of any disciplining figures within his government. Yes, he has shown he is willing to invade his closest neighbour. But he hasn’t demonstrated the strategic patience or, as of yet, the military might one would expect from a nation vying for near-equal consideration in the international system.
It’s likely that the war will ostracise Russia from the Western-led international order, pushing it more firmly into partnership with China and other nations which seek to challenge Western hegemony. The war has also emboldened the EU, which shares many but not all interests with the United States, to behave as a single geopolitical actor. A rising India, which has so far chosen to not criticise the actions of its Russian ally, will figure prominently as a hedge against China in the Indo-Pacific. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is likely to nudge us towards a marginally more multi-polar world where the two dominant blocs increasingly view each other as economic and geopolitical opponents.
The tide of globalisation will continue to recede
Much was written prior to Russia’s invasion about how its US$630 billion of foreign reserves, drawn largely from the rivers of gold created by high oil and gas prices, had effectively “sanction-proofed” its economy in anticipation of international censure. Certainly, I was of the belief that this massive stockpile helped answer the question of why now when it came to the invasion (it’s possible that Vladimir Putin shared this belief).
But the sanctions levied on Russia’s central bank are poised to effectively strand the bulk of these assets out of reach. In hindsight, it looks like Russia pursued the wrong model for economic self-sufficiency. Attaining independence from the global economy while also being hugely reliant on oil and gas export earnings, not to mention imported semi-conductors and consumer goods, appears to be mutually exclusive (especially when considering how fragile this model left the domestic economy).
Other nations will view this as a cautionary tale. The West will gain a newfound appreciation of the risks incurred by economic interdependence. Europe has seemingly resolved to end its reliance on Russian gas. Australians now understand all too well the risks of relying on a capricious, sensitive and increasingly bullish China. Expect Western nations to have conversations of a new and much more serious kind about reducing their economic exposure to China, and pursue multilateral and regional trade agreements with greater enthusiasm.
The lesson that China and other nations which seek to challenge Western hegemony will most likely draw is not that Russia erred in pursuing financial self-sufficiency – it will be that it did not pursue it with sufficient vigour. China is, of course, also highly integrated into the global economy and remains dependent on commodity imports to fuel its development. But it has also steadily embarked down the path of greater self-sufficiency – or at least decoupling from the West – in recent years. That trend will continue and probably accelerate.
The reign of the Dollar will persist
As Adam Tooze explains in his essential Chartbook newsletter, one of the downstream effects of the shock applied to the global financial system by the deep and severe sanctions imposed on Russia has been a surge in the demand for US dollars.
Many analysts believe that the ouster of many Russian banks from the SWIFT network will hasten a move to a multi-polar system of global payments (in effect, multiple overlapping and competing systems). Yes, Russia has been working on its own alternative System for Transfer of Financial Messages (SPFS) since 2014, but it is marginal and few banks will be eager to incur the risk of financial penalties if they join. China’s alternative (Cross-Border Interbank Payment System – CIPS) seems slightly more promising, but will face the significant headwind of the enduring dominance of the dollar. According to SWIFT, just 3% of global payments made in January were in yuan, versus 40% made in U.S. dollars.
Especially if they draw closer together, Russia and China may well try to contest the dollar’s dominance on global markets. But even this is far more complex than it sounds. They currently operate two separate SWIFT competitors denominated in separate currencies. Which one would emerge as the clear alternative? And, in a world where minute fractions of seconds and dollars matter, how will they overcome the structural inefficiencies (beyond denomination in a currency that isn’t the global reserve) that make transacting via SWIFT faster and cheaper?
A multi-polar global payments architecture is a necessary condition of a multi-polar world, but I wouldn’t consider a world system composed of one dominant network and then two marginal alternatives enough to satisfy the definition of true multi-polarity. The dollar will remain on top for the foreseeable future.
Germany will rearm
On Sunday, one of the realities of German political life was upended. In a speech lasting fewer than 15 minutes, Chancellor Olaf Scholz responded to the “new reality” created by Russia’s invasion by pledging to create a “powerful, cutting-edge, progressive Bundeswehr [German army] that can be relied upon to protect us.” The price of this pledge? A one-off sum of 100 billion euros and an indefinite commitment to lift German defence spending above 2% of GDP. In a snap poll, 78% of Germans said they agreed with Scholz's decision. Scholz also committed to sending 1,000 anti-tank weapons and 500 Stinger anti-aircraft defence systems to Ukraine in another reversal of longstanding policy.
Germany’s defence spending has been kept low for decades because of historical reasons, self-imposed fiscal limits (more on this later) and also because it has sought what security it needed from NATO. Its military capacity may have degraded but it wasn't required in the post-Cold War unipolar era. That has changed in the last week. On the morning of Russia's invasion, Bundeswehr chief Alfons Mais wrote – on LinkedIn, of all places – that, following years of budget cuts, the Bundeswehr “stands naked."
That will soon change. Germany's army will become bigger and better-equipped. All the better to confront the challenges of a newly insecure continent.
(Tangentially, events of the past months do not cast Angela Merkel’s chancellorship in a positive light. Barely five months after an election where the candidates for her replacement were falling over themselves to demonstrate how they would represent a continuation of her reign, it is remarkable how many of the policies which anchored Merkel’s conduct of European affairs have already been refuted.)
The EU will learn how to lead
Just as Germany has committed to taking up arms, so has the European Union – and not only because its individual members are adopting more hawkish postures. On Sunday February 27th, the EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said the bloc will access the European Peace Facility to finance the purchase and delivery of US$500 million worth of lethal military aid to Ukraine.
Although it has since been confirmed that an initial plan to also supply the Ukrainian air force with fighter jets will not eventuate, this event still marks a historic crossing of the Rubicon for the European Union.
Never before has it, as a unitary political actor, sent arms to a country under attack – much less a non-member. Who knows if this signifies the beginning of a new policy of arming member states and allies, or an exception enforced by crisis. But, when considered alongside the announcement of the Global Gateway initiative in late 2021 (among other actions), it is clear that the EU is waking up to the realities of today’s world and, finally, learning how to lead.
NATO will be reborn
There were few higher-profile casualties of “the end of history” than NATO. Originally created as a defensive bulwark against the Soviet Union, NATO had floundered since the USSR's dissolution. With the exception of its interventions in the Balkans, it is not wholly unfair to say that, despite the steady addition of members in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the end of the Cold War had deprived NATO of its essential purpose.
Well, worry no more. If Vladimir Putin did make a strategic calculation that attacking Ukraine would deter other states in Russia’s “near abroad” from seeking NATO membership, he could not have been more mistaken. From being one issue among many in non-member states which share a border with Russia, such as Finland and Sweden, NATO membership has become the hottest of hot-button subjects. Indeed, a poll taken the day before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine showed that, for the first time, an absolute majority of Finns favoured joining NATO.
I expect this newfound commitment to NATO to offset even the danger of another four years of Donald Trump’s indifference to the transatlantic alliance. Indeed, if there is to be no second Trump Administration, it is likely that his most lasting legacy in Europe will be his jolting of NATO from its collective stupor. We will all be hearing more about NATO in the years to come.
Germany will seek greater fiscal space
One immense source of frustration for German Keynesians (and Greeks, presumably) is the country’s debt brake, a constitutional amendment that enforces the virtual balancing of the federal budget. Beyond being enshrined in the Basic Law, similar debt brakes are also enshrined in several state constitutions.
All of this is why it was such a shock to see the German Finance Minister, Christian Lindner, publicly disparage Opposition Leader Friedrich Merz for warning that higher defence spending could expand public debt. It is more shocking still when considering just who Lindner is. He is the leader of the Free Democrats, one of the three parties that make up the coalition government led by Chancellor Olaf Scholz (the others are the Social Democratic Party and the Greens). The Free Democrats are not known for their profligacy – quite the opposite. In fact, Lindner’s appointment as Finance Minister was regarded as a blow for those who were hoping that the post-Merkel era would herald greater investment.
The merits and flaws of Germany’s debt brake have been vigorously debated elsewhere. And criticising a political opponent, especially in the midst of a continental security crisis, is not exactly an unprecedented thing to do. Nor does it signal a permanent shift in German fiscal policy. Nevertheless, even a mild relaxation of Germany’s restrictive debt brake, used mostly to fund big commitments to increase military spending, would represent one of the most surprising outcomes anywhere on this list – and a reversal of its post-war governance model.
Russia will become weaker
While it is true that sanctions can be better targeted today than previously, the scope and ferocity of the sanctions levied on Russia are still highly likely to produce a widespread economic depression with uncountable human cost.
144 million people live in Russia. Some of them belong to an irredeemable political class or a venal oligarchic class. Certainly, they are the faces we see most often on TV. But most Russians are not unlike you and me: professionals, labourers, students, retirees – people just trying to get along.
They are not guilty of anything except for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Yet they will suffer, greatly, because of these sanctions. Many will default on mortgages or other debts. Many will be unable to pay their bills. Some will starve. Others will freeze. Almost all will suffer from a diminished quality of life.
It is unclear what level of public support there is within Russia for Putin’s invasion. This is at least partly because the population has been deprived of almost every source of independent news, forced instead to subsist on a toxic diet of Kremlin propaganda. Surely the greater point is that Putin himself appears largely indifferent to public opinion. But what is certain is that thousands of Russians in dozens of cities have bravely taken to the streets to protest the invasion, despite the high likelihood of being arrested or beaten (or both).
Russian economic immiseration will have a high variance of political and social outcomes. You can probably classify the two tail-ends of the distribution as something like “Vladimir Putin launches a nuclear attack” and “regime change”. But there is a wide range of horrible and eminently plausible outcomes between these two poles. Expect Russia to become weaker, more turbulent, and a worse place to live for ordinary citizens.
Russia will become increasingly supplicant to China
Economic self-sufficiency does not necessarily mean closing oneself off from international trade completely. Much has been made of Vladimir Putin’s visit to China in early February. The summit between Putin and Xi signalled a strengthening of ties between the two nations, underpinned by shared positions on global and regional issues, including the desire for a multipolar world order that constrains Western hegemony. Indeed, it was widely speculated that Xi personally lobbied Putin to hold off on his invasion of Ukraine until after the end of the Winter Olympics.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has already led to its de facto expulsion from multilateral fora. Trade and diplomatic engagement with Russia are likely to be politically off-limits for most nations, while the sanctions (including its ouster from the SWIFT network) will cripple its economy and ability to participate in financial markets. The result will be a Russia that draws closer to China. Expect them to deepen trade ties, stage joint military exercises, and form a political bulwark against the United States and European Union. But it should be clear: this will not be an equal relationship. Historically great nations, especially those which are deluded about their actual level of influence, do not typically respond well to being subordinate. Russia’s status as a junior partner to China may well create resentment among Russians, ordinary and elite alike.
The balance of power in Central Asia will shift towards China
As the scales tilt definitively to China’s side in its relationship with Russia, it will be able to wield greater influence upon the Central Asia region. Early signs are already visible: far from expressing unequivocal support for Russia’s invasion, most Central Asian leaders are instead hedging their bets.
Beyond ambivalence about Russia’s invasion, Central Asian states will be greatly impacted by the sharp decline in value of the ruble. As this excellent piece from VOA News highlights, more than three million Uzbeks, 1.6 million Tajiks and 620,000 Kyrgyzs work in Russia. Remittances from Russia constitute large chunks of these countries’ GDPs.
The rapid devaluation of the ruble means that remittance flows from Russia will be worth far less at home than previously, reducing domestic spending and government revenues. Although most Central Asians working in Russia – many of whom are in the energy sector – will remain because their jobs are still better than anything on offer at home, many will see their real incomes decline. Some will decide that the income difference is now small enough to warrant coming home.
Being dependent on a pariah state with a depressed economy will not be feasible in the long term for many Central Asian states. This is not to suggest that the regional balance of power will swing China’s way overnight. Central Asian states still reside primarily in Russia’s orbit. But the early signs are there if you look. Don’t be surprised if, increasingly, Central Asian states seek security and stability in Beijing, not Moscow.
Russia’s invasion will influence China’s Taiwan calculations
Many comparisons have been made between Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and a hypothetical Chinese invasion of Taiwan. I tend to view these situations as more different than alike. Ukraine has almost twice Taiwan’s population. Taiwan is a fortified, rich island democracy. Russian chauvinists consider Kyiv to be the cradle of their culture. The CCP views Taiwan as the place the Kuomintang fled following their defeat in the Civil War. And – most importantly – where the United States have said time and time again they will not intervene on Ukraine’s side in a war, its strategic ambiguity has been the core of its Taiwan policy for decades.
But it doesn’t matter what I think. It only really matters what one man thinks.
Whether XI Jinping chooses to invade Taiwan will not be determined by the success or failure of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But we can be confident that CCP elites and senior members of the PLA will be closely watching events unfold while reflecting upon all of the following:
- The failures of Russia’s invasion strategy
- The costs Western nations are willing to incur to sanction Russia
- The damage that Russia’s regime and people will sustain as a result of sanctions
- How Western nations will respond to Russia’s nuclear provocation
- The increased willingness of the EU and its member states to provide lethal military aid to an ally
- The stoic resistance of Ukraine’s army and citizens
- Ukraine’s effective mobilisation of international support for its cause.
I don’t know how these factors will shift Xi’s calculations and I would be sceptical of anyone who claims that they do. But they will contribute to those calculations.
More nations will seek alternative sources of fossil fuel supply
A fascinating sub-text of Russia’s invasion has been the speed with which the US fossil fuel lobby has used it to lobby for expanded exploration and extraction. In a series of tweets, the American Petroleum Institute called for a four-pronged strategy to “ensure energy security at home and abroad.” This is a clever obfuscation given that, as of two weeks ago, domestic energy production in the United States matched domestic consumption. But don’t be surprised if they find a receptive audience in Joe Biden.
In a way, you can’t really blame the fossil fuel lobby. Dog will bite man. Russia’s invasion has caused an immediate and large surge in oil prices as investors and policy-makers fret about continuity of supply. Higher oil and gas prices make drilling and fracking more lucrative.
The other relevant factor here is Germany’s cancellation of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline. Despite being fully built, the project now appears totally dead. In the past days, the company in charge of its administration terminated all its employee contracts. It is reportedly considering insolvency. Europe depends on Russia for more than 40% of its gas imports. Gulf states will also be watching the world’s outrage toward Russia very closely and positioning themselves as preferable suppliers. You can be sure that fossil fuel producing states – and their armies of well-paid lobbyists – will be licking their lips at the prospect of supplying Europe and the rest of the world with unsanctioned oil and gas.
Green energy will be securitised
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine strengthens the case to rapidly accelerate the world’s transition to low-carbon energy generation. So say climate activists and renewable investors.
It’s a reasonable claim. Dependence on Russian oil and gas has fattened Russia’s foreign reserves to the point where Vladimir Putin, clearly believing his nation’s economy could tolerate sanctions, felt emboldened to attack Ukraine.
This claim might appear incompatible with the previous one. But it isn’t. There’s nothing to say we won’t live in a world where a greater share of the world’s fossil fuels are contributed by the United States of America and Gulf states, and where investment in renewable energy accelerates because of security concerns. After all, global energy demand is increasing more quickly than energy generation from renewables.
Needless to say, actually doing what is needed to limit the rise in global average temperatures to less than 2 degrees Celsius (in line with the Paris Agreement) will require this point to be substantially more true than the previous one. Expect much more security talk from both renewable energy advocates and fossil fuel providers.
Ukraine will be changed forever
Although partly contingent on the ultimate military outcome, it is clear that every conceivable outcome from here will profoundly destabilise Ukraine. Consider what is probably the best-case plausible outcome: that Russia and Ukraine negotiate a peace, perhaps at the cost of formally handing over Luhansk and Donetsk. This will shift Ukraine’s borders hundreds of kilometres to the west and reduce its population by more than 6 million. It will intensify its claims for membership of the EU and, perhaps, NATO. What happens when those claims are stymied because Ukraine cannot demonstrate that it meets the criteria for entry?
Even this is optimistic. What if Russia forces Ukraine to adopt neutrality and give up its claims for EU membership? That might spark a civil war. What if Volodymyr Zelenskyy is assassinated and Russia succeeds in installing a puppet regime? Or, indeed, what if Ukraine is wholly absorbed into a Greater Russia? All of these outcomes would fatally undermine Ukraine’s sovereignty and probably destroy its economy and civil society. Whatever meagre progress that has been made to reform the country will be lost. None of these outcomes are beyond the realms of possibility.
Beyond all this lurks another discomforting realisation. If Russia achieves its military objectives at a cost that Putin ultimately deems acceptable, what is to stop it going back for more of Ukraine (or other non-NATO states in the region) further down the track?
Wheat-importing countries will be destabilised
Between them, Russia and Ukraine account for approximately one-quarter of the world’s wheat exports. Although Russian agriculture exports have been exempted from the latest round of sanctions, it is hard to imagine that its capacity to produce and export wheat will not be impacted by its impending financial and economic depression.
As for Ukraine, it provides Lebanon with 50% of its wheat, Libya with 43%, Yemen with 22% and Bangladesh with 21% to name just a few. Egypt sourced 86% of its wheat from Russia and Ukraine in 2020. None of these countries are politically or socially stable at present. As Russia’s invasion will cripple Ukraine’s ability to export wheat, expect global wheat prices to continue their surge. Already, the average price of imported wheat in Egypt has risen to about US$350 per ton compared with $250 last year. This is likely to blow out budgets and, if governments cut food subsidies in response, foment social unrest in countries that depend on Russian and Ukrainian wheat imports. Given enough time, these countries could source wheat from elsewhere or seek substitute commodities. But before that can happen, expect hunger, discontent and unrest.
Western foreign policies will continue to converge
In the last five years, there have been only four political actors of any proximity to power which have had what might be called a positive outlook toward Russia: the Merkel coalition in Germany, Donald Trump’s Republican Party, Jeremy Corbyn and the UK Labour Party, and the National Front in France (now renamed the National Rally). Of these, Corbyn’s Labour was annihilated in the 2019 General Election, Marine le Pen appears to have been outflanked from her right by Éric Zemmour, Trump was defeated in 2020 (although seems likely to run again in 2024) and Germany’s policy of cajoling Russia into responsible behaviour through deeper economic ties has been reversed almost overnight.
As Putin and Xi’s belligerence make neutrality or support for Russia and China politically untenable in Western democracies, it will become harder to separate the foreign policies of centre-right and centre-left political parties. From Australia to the United States, UK and now the European Union, political parties in major Western nations have overwhelmingly shifted the axis upon which they interpret the world. The dichotomy of left and right, while still the dominant frame in the domestic sphere, has given way to prosecuting international affairs through the lens of “democratic” and “authoritarian”. Viewing the world this way leaves little room for differentiation.
The Western left will need to rebuild its foreign policy
Along with many other people with an affiliation to Central and Eastern Europe, I have been dismayed to read many of the reactions to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine from notional leftists. From overblown claims of neo-Nazi infiltration of the Ukrainian state to hand-wringing about NATO expansion, there has seemingly been a concerted effort to excuse Russia’s deliberate choice to invade a sovereign neighbour.
The twin poles of leftist foreign policy are anti-imperialism and support for claims to self-determination. Russia, a revanchist state which seeks to reconstitute imperial territory partly by undermining the legitimacy of its neighbours’ claims to statehood, reveals how vulnerable those laudable desires are to being weaponised. The left has contributed little of value to this current crisis so far. Let us hope they reflect on their errors and rebuild a constructive and positive model of the international system.
Intelligence will increasingly be used to deter
The two weeks leading up to the Russian invasion saw a steady drip of news reporting based on US intelligence analysis. On February 20th, CBS News reported that the Kremlin had ordered Russian commanders. Four days later, they did just that.
This was more than just a lucky guess. It was the culmination of weeks of reporting, seemingly all based on direct US intelligence, concerning Russia’s invasion plans. In late January, reporting based on US intelligence detailed the movement of Russian special forces near Ukraine’s borders. On February 3rd, outlets including the New York Times reported that Russia was planning a false flag attack on Russian territory or in the disputed southeastern Ukrainian territories. Later reports outlined Moscow’s war plans and even hinted that Russian officers had doubts about Vladimir Putin’s strategy.
Usually kept under the tightest of wraps, this was something quite different: intelligence publicly disclosed in order to deter the adversary. By publicly broadcasting its knowledge of Russia’s intentions, the Biden Administration hoped to delay or perhaps even stop Putin from invading Ukraine by giving him much more to think about, despite not being willing to commit their own forces.
Did it work? Not this time. Examination of relevant metadata by Bellingcat and other open-source intelligence organisations shows that Putin had probably already made up his mind to invade days earlier. But it was an unorthodox strategy which we are likely to see more often in the future, especially while the United States is reluctant to commit its own forces to distant theatres.
US intelligence committed major blunders, to the point of complicity, in the lead-up to the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. But it got it right in 2022.
The world will learn how to conduct propaganda more effectively
To people watching the war unfold through social media, perhaps Russia’s most glaring error so far has been how badly it has misjudged both the vehemence of the condemnation its actions would generate and the sympathy that Ukraine’s brave resistance would engender.
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, in particular, has emerged as a slightly unlikely yet utterly convincing exemplar of modern leadership. In stark contrast to the increasingly isolated and paranoid Putin, Zelenskyy (together with his colleagues) has appeared brave, defiant and humane. Asked if he wanted evacuation from Kyiv (to Lviv), his response – I don’t need a ride, I need more ammunition – has already become the stuff of legend. His speech to Russians urging them to understand his nation’s search for independence was incredibly moving, while his declaration that “I’m here”, delivered while walking around central Kyiv on a crisp morning, was similarly inspiring.
There’s no doubt that Zelenskyy’s past as an entertainer has left him with a flair for the dramatic. But the ability to galvanise his people while also winning the admiration of the world (and persuading them to part with aid and weaponry) is a vitally important skill in such a time. Recent reports suggest that a direct appeal from Zelenskyy was instrumental in persuading EU heads of state to step up support for Ukraine and sanctions against Russia.
In the broader theatre of war, too, Ukraine is running up the score in the battle for hearts and minds. It is not afraid of shaping narratives through selective misinformation – the story of the soldiers trapped on Zmiinyi (Snake) Island who cursed defiantly at their Russian attackers before being killed was probably false – but it understands that although propaganda may not be a weapon of war, it is an important tool.
Other nations will do well to look in Ukraine’s direction for lessons in how to generate universal sympathy for their struggle against a threatening neighbour as well as how to shape and influence public perceptions.
A nervous Iran may seek the bomb
As of mid-February, US-Iran negotiations to revive the previously moribund Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action were making slow but steady progress. How will the unprecedented sanctions regime levied against Russia change Iran’s strategic calculations?
There is a key difference: Western sanctions were applied to deter Iran from ever producing a nuclear weapon, whereas Russia already has one of the world’s largest nuclear arsenals. Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi came to the negotiating table because of the damage that sanctions have done to his country’s economy.
The other wildcard here is that Iran may believe that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will destabilise the Middle East so much that acquiring a nuclear weapon becomes even more urgent. Russia’s invasion is likely to have two near-term regional impacts: the further destabilisation of countries dependent on Russian and Ukrainian wheat, and an expansion of Gulf oil and gas exports as the West seeks alternative sources of supply. Both of these movements, together with seeing that integration into the global financial system creates significant interdependence risks, may convince the Iranian ruling elite that they would prefer the leverage and deterrence that the bomb brings, regardless of what it costs.
Russia will become a cultural pariah
Since Russia’s invasion, there has been a frenzy of calls for prominent individuals or organisations to denounce Russia’s actions or boycott Russian events or products. FIFA, after initially resisting calls to disquality Russian teams from competition, have ejected Russia from the 2022 World Cup qualifying process while UEFA have moved this season’s Champions League final from St. Petersburg to Moscow and dumped Gazprom as a major sponsor. In tennis, the ATP and WTA have not yet decided if they will follow the lead of other sporting leagues (such as ice skating) and ban individual Russian athletes from competition. Russia was unceremoniously booted from the Eurovision Song Contest. Western supermarkets have removed Russian products from their shelves and promised to replace them with Ukrainian substitutes.
The trend is clear: international sporting and cultural events are choosing to exclude Russia, especially where Russians perform under the national flag or receive support from the state. They are doing so because of investor demands but also because they are feeling the pressure from fans. Silence is increasingly not an option. Many prominent people and organisations connected to Russia by heritage or commerce are being challenged to speak out.
Who knows how long Russia’s exile from the world's stages and sporting arenas will last.
Poland will become more important
Poland has opened its borders to Ukrainians displaced by the war, providing them with food, shelter and freedom of movement within the country. This is a genuinely laudable act. But it must also be compared to Poland’s shameful reception of many non-white migrants, and also recognised as a major public relations victory for the country’s ruling Law and Justice party (I prefer its Polish acronym, PiS). PiS understands very well that eagerness to help their Ukrainian cousins (and pride in showing a compassionate Poland) will offset any political costs from the influx of refugees.
It is on the European stage where the effects will be more complicated. Poland has been a noisy tenant of the European Union ever since PiS came to power in 2015. Recently, it has been fined and had EU Covid-19 stimulus funds withheld because of the government’s undermining of the independence of the country’s judiciary. However, the government’s steadfast support of Ukraine (which also extends to willingness to supply weaponry) along with its vigilant (occasionally brutal) policing of its border with Belarus during the migrant crisis of 2021 may well provide it with greater leverage in its ongoing spat with Brussels. This will give Ursula von der Leyen and co. a headache they could do without, and could encourage other unruly EU members such as Hungary to act similarly.
But it is in the context of NATO that Poland will emerge as a more central actor in European affairs. If Russia succeeds in annexing all of Ukraine, then Russia will border a NATO member state in the heart of the continent. Even if it only succeeds in breaking off Luhansk and Donetsk, Ukraine will be less capable of defending itself against future attacks and will probably have to agree to adopt neutrality, which would involve withdrawing claims to NATO or EU membership. Either way, Poland – already the eastern border of NATO and the EU – will come to play a more prominent role in Europe’s search for security. Ditto for the Baltic states (Latvia, Lithuania, and an increasingly NATO-curious Finland).
The vassalisation of Belarus will accelerate
Somewhat lost in the Sturm und Drang of Russia’s military build-up along Ukraine’s borders and subsequent invasion is that it has been eagerly followed into war by Belarus.
Alexander Lukashenko is the only man to have ever been President of Belarus. He is often referred to in Western media as “Europe’s last dictator”. What is beyond doubt is the strength of his alliance with Vladimir Putin. It is by no means an equal partnership. Russia stationed its troops on Belarusian soil so as to invade Ukraine from the north (there is barely 500 kilometres separating Minsk and Kyiv). It has also admitted to allowing Russian missile launchers stationed on its territory to shoot at Ukrainian targets.
Although it is unclear if Belarusian armed forces have also joined the fight in Ukraine (US intelligence “sees no indication” to support Ukraine’s claims they have), it is clear that Lukashenko is supporting and enabling Putin’s invasion. As I write this, the UK has announced sanctions against Belarus for its involvement in the Russian invasion, with the EU seemingly set to follow (the EU also applied sanctions in late 2021 for its recent rigging of elections).
These sanctions are likely to drive Belarus further into Russia’s embrace. Although Lukashenko has dismissed the possibility of future absorption of Belarus into Russia, it is not difficult to imagine a situation where the two are linked so closely as to be de facto one political entity. This would augment Russian military strength and, unfortunately, send the nine million inhabitants of Belarus hurtling further away from the rest of the international community and down the dark path of despotism.