The World Remains on a Knife Edge Six Months After Russia Invaded Ukraine

The newest invasion of Ukraine by Russia began exactly six months ago this week. The ensuing war has dominated worldwide news coverage, hampered international trade, and inspired a new wave of solidarity across the West. As German Chancellor Olaf Scholz put it in the early weeks of the conflict, the event marked a “turning point in history” for many Europeans.

European elites who had sought peaceful coexistence with Russia had the scales fall from their eyes as they witnessed the war’s stark moral dimensions, including the blatant, destructive Russian advance and the valiant Ukrainian reaction. What had been released was of a magnitude not witnessed in the very center of Europe for decades. As Jeremy Cliffe of the New Statesman put it, “the comfortable optimism of the immediate post-Cold War years” had come to an end. But, he continued, the outlines of this “something new” is “still fuzzy,” even as we move “towards” it.

Ukraine is still shrouded in a heavy cloud of war smoke. A war of ideologies and even views of history is still being fought out beyond the country’s trench-strewn landscapes and blockaded damaged coastal cities. By standing firm against Vladimir Putin’s neo-imperial aims, the Ukrainian people believe they are at the forefront of a worldwide struggle between democracy and authoritarianism. That’s the view shared by its Western backers, including President Biden, who said in March that Ukraine was engaged in a “grand war for freedom… between liberty and repression, between a rules-based government and one dominated by sheer force.”

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Of course, Putin has a different perspective. On February 24, after he made a notorious speech, Russian troops invaded the country across the border. Grounded in resentment and revisionism, it portrayed Ukraine as a fictitious nation whose “Nazi” government was a puppet of the West. The expansion of NATO into Eastern Europe has infuriated Putin, who has warned of the rise of a “anti-Russia” movement on what he calls “our ancient country.” This would not do, as Putin has stated that restoring “the balance of power in the world” by bringing Kyiv, Ukraine, under control is about more than just limiting Western influence.

The Ukrainian civil war as a “defining moment”

The Kremlin’s plans for Putin’s projected rebalancing haven’t worked out. Russia’s campaign to seize Kyiv was unsuccessful because of the Ukrainian people’s heroic resistance. Instead of being reined in, NATO has grown, putting Sweden and Finland under its protection as the world’s leading military alliance. The governments of the Baltic states have started tearing down Soviet-era monuments. Ukraine and some of its neighbors are keen to peel away the claims imposed on their country by a legacy of subjection to Moscow, a process that has been long delayed but has been accelerated by the war.

That help, led by the United States, has now arrived in Ukraine, albeit with some hiccups along the way. More than $10 billion in security aid has been promised to Kyiv by the Biden administration, and the United States is working with NATO and European allies to coordinate and mobilize even more support. Legislators in capitals ranging from Washington to Warsaw agree that Ukraine should be provided with the means for a decisive military triumph, even if this outcome is still very much in the future.

But that optimism could fade: With winter fast approaching and the certainty of soaring energy prices, Europeans are beginning to wonder if the West will be able to maintain the same level of commitment to backing Ukraine’s war effort over the next six months as it has over the past half year.

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For all the talk of Europe entering a new era, the old 20th century equations still apply, and American superpower plays a preeminent role in the geopolitics of the continent, as evidenced by the United States’ pivotal involvement in helping Ukraine hold the line.

However, no single country is equipped to handle the broader shocks of the war, which have caused food prices to skyrocket in some areas of Africa and have toppled regimes in South Asia. Since compromise with or concessions to Russia are verboten in Western capitals, officials from non-Western governments frequently express bemusement with the zeal on display. ‘Most baffling to us is the idea that a situation like this is in essence being pushed to continue indefinitely,’ a senior African diplomat in New York told Reuters.

It’s frustrating for Ukrainian diplomats that fewer African officials are pointing out the apparent solution: Russia should get its troops out of Ukraine. It’s hard to say whether Russia’s isolation will grow or shrink in the coming weeks and months. At this year’s Group of 20 major economies summit in Indonesia, both Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping, who is in his own intensifying dispute with the United States over Taiwan, are expected to show there.

Vice President Joe Biden was invited, but Indonesia’s president hoped that he wouldn’t be able to attend because of that. Widodo told Bloomberg News last week, “The rivalry of the great countries is absolutely disturbing.” We want this area to be quiet and secure so that we may invest in its future and spur economic development. And I believe it’s not just Indonesia that wants this; many other Asian nations desire as well.

But stability may be difficult to achieve. Experts are concerned about a broadening range of risks and repercussions as the conflict in Ukraine grinds on, from damaging strikes on populated areas to murder and sabotage schemes across borders to the always-present potential of nuclear mistake. As geopolitical analyst Bruno Maçes pondered, “six long months of war,” yet we’re still left with “a sensation it was merely a prologue.”