The world on a razor’s edge, six months after the start of the war in Ukraine

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This week marks six months since the start of Russia’s last invasion of Ukraine. The resulting war dominated international headlines, disrupted global supply chains and galvanized a new spirit of solidarity in the West. For many Europeans, this moment marked a “turning point in history” – as German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said in the first weeks of the conflict.

The austere moral dimensions of the war – Russia’s brazen and destructive advance and Ukraine’s courageous response – knocked the balance off the eyes of European elites who had sought a peaceful settlement with Russia. What unleashed was on a scale not seen in the heart of Europe for decades. This put an end, as Jeremy Cliffe of the New Statesman wrote, “to the easy optimism of the immediate post-Cold War years”. But, he added, even as we drift “towards something new”, its outlines are “still hazy”.

The fog of war is still thick over Ukraine. Beyond the country’s trench-strewn landscapes and blockaded and bruised coastal towns, a clash of ideologies, even visions of history, is still playing out. In their refusal to bow to the neo-imperialist ambitions of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Ukrainians see themselves on the front line of a global war between democracy and autocracy. It’s a view echoed by their supporters in the West, including President Biden himself, who said in March that Ukraine was waging a “great battle for freedom…between freedom and repression, between an order based on rules and an order governed by brute force”.

Putin, of course, sees this all differently. The Russian army crossed its neighbor’s borders on February 24 after he gave a now infamous speech. It was steeped in historical grievances and revisionism, and made Ukraine an artificial nation whose “Nazi” regime was a pawn of the West. Putin raged over NATO’s expansion into Eastern Europe and warned of the emergence of an “anti-Russia” in territories that were “our historic land”. That wouldn’t be enough; Bringing Kyiv, Ukraine to heel was not just about curbing Western influence, but about redeeming the tragedy of the fall of the Soviet Union, which Putin said disrupted “the balance of power in the world” .

The war in Ukraine and a “turning point in history”

The rebalancing imagined by Putin did not go as Kremlin planners thought it would be. Ukraine bravely resisted the invasion and forced Russian troops into an ignominious retreat after a failed campaign to capture Kyiv. Rather than being reprimanded, NATO expanded, bringing Sweden and Finland under the umbrella of the world’s preeminent military alliance. In the Baltic states, local authorities have begun to dismantle Soviet-era monuments. The war has catalyzed a long-delayed process of “decolonization” for Ukraine and some of its neighbors, who now seem eager to cut the claims imposed on their countries by a legacy of subjugation to Moscow.

The toll of Western sanctions on the Russian economy is heavy: half of the country’s foreign exchange reserves are frozen, hundreds of Western companies have withdrawn from the Russian market and the main oil and gas exports are now sold to opportunistic buyers at discounted prices. . According to US intelligence estimates, up to 80,000 Russian soldiers may already have died in the fighting. Western analysts also believe that Russia’s war machine is seriously depleted, with ammunition stocks running out.

But that is cold comfort for Ukrainians, who have paid an almost unfathomable price to defend their nation’s right to exist. Six months of war have seen thousands killed and millions exiled from their homes. Russian forces have committed atrocities and alleged war crimes. They are now entrenched in a wide swath of southern and southeastern Ukraine, with analysts predicting a long and bitter war of attrition ahead.

Six months into the war, the Ukrainian message to Western elites has barely changed. “All we need are weapons, and if you get the chance, force [Putin] to sit at the negotiating table with me,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in a recent interview with my colleagues, reiterating his government’s frequent demands for more advanced weapons and ammunition. This equipment gives Ukraine more leverage on the battlefield, but also in future theoretical negotiations with a more appeased Russian regime.

On the road to war: the United States struggled to convince its allies and Zelensky of the risk of invasion

Despite delays and logistical obstacles, this aid – led by the United States – has arrived in Ukraine. The Biden administration has so far committed more than $10 billion in security assistance to Kyiv, while coordinating and mobilizing broader support between NATO and European partners. From Washington to Warsaw, lawmakers say Ukraine should be given the tools for a decisive military victory, even if such an outcome remains only a distant prospect.

But that optimism may be fading: In Europe, the approach of winter and the grim certainty of soaring energy costs have raised questions about whether the West can maintain the same resolve to support the Ukraine’s war effort over the next six months than over the last half. year.

The pivotal role played by the United States in helping Ukraine hold its ground is a reminder that, for all the rhetoric about Europe entering a brave new era, the old equations of the 20th century still apply. : when it comes to the geopolitics of the continent, the American superpower plays a primary role.

Yet no government alone can manage the wider shocks of the war, which included jolts in the global agricultural supply chain that sent food prices skyrocketing in parts of Africa and knocking governments in South Asia. As a result, officials from non-Western countries frequently express bewilderment at the zeal displayed in Western capitals, where talk of compromise or concessions with Russia is anathema. “The most confusing thing for us is the idea that a conflict like this is basically encouraged to continue indefinitely,” a senior African diplomat in New York told Reuters.

Frustratingly for Ukrainian diplomats, fewer African officials are arguing that Russia could simply withdraw its troops from another nation’s sovereign territory. Whether Russia’s isolation will widen or narrow in the coming months is unclear. Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping, who is engaged in his own growing confrontation with the United States over Taiwan, plan to attend this year’s summit of the Group of 20 major economies in Indonesia.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo hoped that wouldn’t deter leaders like Biden from attending. “The big country rivalry is indeed worrying,” Widodo told Bloomberg News last week. “What we want is for this region to be stable, peaceful, so that we can build economic growth. And I’m not just thinking of Indonesia: Asian countries also want the same thing.

Stability, however, might prove elusive. As the war in Ukraine drags on, experts fear a widening arc of risk and retaliation, ranging from destructive attacks on civilian areas to cross-border assassination and sabotage plots to the ever-present threat of nuclear miscalculation. “Six long months of war” pensive geopolitical commentator Bruno Maçãesand we are still left with “the impression that it was only a prologue”.

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