With the Russian invasion of Ukraine now well into its second year, its far-reaching implications are becoming ever more evident.
Start with the obvious: by sharply aggravating tensions between US/Europe and Russia, the war has exacerbated the already turbulent, contested and unpredictable global security environment.
By bringing war to heart of Europe again, the Ukraine invasion has jolted Europe out of its complacency on defence, prompting in particular Germany’s Zeitenwende (turning point). It has rejuvenated NATO, giving the alliance a renewed sense of unity and purpose, while helping rebuild transatlantic security ties, badly frayed during the Trump era. Concern at Russian aggression has led both to NATO’s further expansion and expanded deployments eastward. Vladimir Putin wanted less NATO: he’s got more NATO.
The war has accelerated European efforts to break dependence on Russian gas, destroying in one fell swoop both Russia’s business model, and Moscow’s leverage over Europe.
More broadly, disruption caused by the fighting in Ukraine has set back the global economic recovery from the Covid pandemic.
It has fuelled global inflation, seriously affecting food, energy and commodity supplies and prices. This has hit developing countries, notably in Africa, particularly hard.
And rising interest rates have worsened the debt burden facing developing countries.
Russia’s aggression has posed a big challenge for the United Nations and the rules-based international system. Despite being a permanent member of the Security Council responsible for upholding international law and security, Russia has breached core principles of the UN Charter, especially respect for national sovereignty and territorial integrity. This has worrying implications – especially for smaller countries.
Meanwhile, the growing polarisation of great power relations jeopardises prospects for the cooperation sorely needed to deal effectively with global problems. Russia will have little incentive to be constructive in the multilateral arena, beyond what its own narrow interests demand. It might choose instead to play the disruptive spoiler. This could adversely affect chances of progress on key issues ranging from climate change to North Korea.
The invasion of Ukraine has also contributed to unease and turbulence around Russia’s periphery. Except for Belarus (now firmly under Moscow’s thumb), none of Russia’s former Soviet partners have supported its invasion of Ukraine, most instead seeking to distance themselves from Moscow on the issue. With Moscow distracted in Ukraine, festering local conflicts between Azerbaijan and Armenia, and between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have erupted anew, while Russia-backed elements are seemingly intent on undermine stability in Moldova. Beijing has not been slow to exploit the opportunity to expand its own economic and security ties with Central Asian states.
Significantly, the war against Ukraine has pushed Russia into greater dependence on China. Estranged from the United States and Europe, closer ties with Beijing have become a strategic imperative for Moscow. China provides Russia with essential political and economic cover, although Beijing is carefully retaining its strategic flexibility.
For Beijing, Russia is important, not only as a cheap source of energy and commodities but also as a like-minded partner bent on challenging US primacy and reshaping the existing international system to better reflect its interests and influence.
Indeed, perhaps the most important ramification of the invasion of Ukraine has been that it has accelerated, and underscored, the fragmentation of the US-led global order. Growing competition and intensifying tensions between a still-dominant US and resurgent China have produced a more fluid and transactional geopolitical environment.
Power has become more diffuse. This provides opportunity and space for states such as India, Turkey, Iran, Brazil, South Africa and Saudi Arabia to advance their interests and influence, reaching out to new partners and forging new coalitions. Moscow and Beijing are seeking pragmatically to take advantage of this. While short on practical achievements so far, the BRICS grouping is enjoying renewed prominence, with a queue of aspirant members.
Countries of the Global South also sense opportunities now to advance their interests and priorities in the more fluid and contested global environment. While unhappy about Russia’s aggression, violating Ukraine’s national sovereignty and territorial integrity, most developing countries aren’t prepared to go any further. They don’t see the war in Ukraine as their problem, but as part of a conflict between Russia and the West.
For the Global South, the Russian invasion of Ukraine is an expensive distraction, taking away attention and funding from the problems that matter to them. They’re unconvinced by arguments that Russia’s invasion undermines global norms, considering this to be hypocritical and selective, since conflicts elsewhere have not received the same attention. The existing rules-based order is viewed as one reflecting Western interests, not addressing adequately the Global South’s priorities of sustainable economic development, alleviating food insecurity, public health, debt relief, and climate change (last year’s fractious COP27 summit highlighted this).
Looking to the future, Western states will need to engage more meaningfully with developing states, taking their interests and concerns more seriously. Multilateral institutions and agendas need to adapt in ways that make them more inclusive and representative to reflect the 21st century world, not that of 1945.
The world is in transition away from the old US-led order to something new – but it’s still far from clear what form this will eventually take. Multipolarity will be a defining characteristic. This will likely involve multiple groupings, sometimes informal, overlapping and of shifting composition. Such plurilateral coalitions may be based as much on narrowly defined interests, as on geography or shared principles and values.
Such a congested and transactional global system will be challenged to achieve the functional coherence required to address effectively the huge challenges confronting the world.