What Happens in Ukraine Doesn’t Stay in Ukraine
10 global issues to watch as Russia’s war unfolds
The fog of war still lies thick in the early days of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, all the more so in an age of disinformation and troll power. But by now Vladimir Putin’s overall goal in Ukraine appears pretty clear: removal of the country’s elected government and the installation of a puppet regime loyal to Moscow.
It’s not necessarily all doom and gloom – there’s always a chance Putin might respond to the pain of economic sanctions that America and its European partners are putting together. Scores of brave Russians have risked jail and taken to the streets of major cities like St. Petersburg and Moscow to protest this war, indicating a depth of opposition to Putin and his actions. But it’s unlikely these moves will derail Putin’s determination to crush Ukrainian democracy, at least in the immediate future.
It's true that Russia lacks the economic power of either the United States or the European Union, and its excessive reliance on fossil fuel production doesn’t bode well for the country’s future prospects. Indeed, American states like Texas, New York, and California each have gross domestic products larger than Russia’s. But Putin’s willingness to run enormous risks in pursuit of his geopolitical and ideological goals gives Russia an ability to use its still considerable power to sow chaos around the world.
As the world watches and does very little to prevent the disaster unfolding in Ukraine, it’s important to monitor the spillover effects this conflict could have. Putin’s war in Ukraine will have a wide global impact – one that will persist as long as the crisis does.
Ten global issues to watch
Global Energy Security: Oil prices have already risen to more than $100 per barrel, their highest level since 2014. In 2020, Russia was the world’s third largest producer of oil and its second largest producer of natural gas. Russia throttled gas supplies to Europe last winter, manufacturing an energy crisis just as it began its military build-up on Ukraine’s borders. Indeed, many European nations rely on Russian gas to meet their energy needs – with the European Union as a whole depending on Russia to supply 38 percent of its natural gas. That’s partly why German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s decision to halt the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline was so significant, and why the Biden administration has attempted without much success to convince Gulf energy producers to raise their oil and gas output.
Global Food Supplies: Both Russia and Ukraine are major suppliers of basic foodstuffs to the world, and any disruption to either country’s agricultural exports could send food prices soaring in countries already facing severe political and economic problems – particularly in the Middle East. Russia, for instance, is the world’s largest wheat exporter, with Turkey and Egypt the two largest importers of its wheat. Ukrainian exports are equally important to global grain markets, with some fourteen countries – including Lebanon (55 percent), Libya (43 percent), Yemen (22 percent), and Egypt (14 percent) – relying on Ukraine for more than ten percent of their wheat consumption.
Cyberwarfare: This is the dog that has seemingly yet to bark: beyond some denial-of-service and data destruction attacks on Ukrainian government and financial sector websites this week – some of which spilled over into Latvian and Lithuanian computer networks – Russia does not yet appear to have launched cyberattacks on Ukraine that would cripple Ukraine’s government or armed forces. Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) has warned that American citizens and businesses could very well become targets of Russian cyberattacks, and that Russian cyberattacks on the United States and its allies could possibly trigger NATO’s collective defense mechanisms. The U.S. military and intelligence community have also given President Biden options for reportedly “massive” cyberattacks against Russian computer networks, most likely in retaliation for any Russian cyberattacks against the United States or its NATO allies.
Nuclear Weapons and Non-Proliferation: In his television speech announcing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Putin not-so-subtly hinted that he would use nuclear weapons against any country that attempted to interfere with his plans. France’s foreign minister reminded Putin in turn that he “must also understand that the Atlantic alliance [NATO] is a nuclear alliance.” Despite the war in Ukraine, however, American, European, and Russian diplomats appear close to reviving the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran that the Trump administration pulled out of four years ago. With an estimated 1,458 warheads deployed, Russia has more strategic nuclear weapons in service than any other country in the world; the United States comes in second with 1,389 deployed nuclear weapons while NATO members France and the UK field 290 and 225 bombs respectively.
Critical Minerals: Russia is a major supplier of critical minerals like aluminum, titanium, and nickel to global markets. Futures markets in Asia have already seen increases in prices of these commodities, even though the United States and its allies do not appear to be targeting these industries for sanctions. Russia does not dominate the global supply of most critical minerals, but it does play a significant role in global markets and a Russian company mines most of the world’s palladium. Reduced supplies of these minerals on global markets could lead to higher downstream prices on goods that require them, even if the minerals themselves originate elsewhere.
China and Asia: After attempting to straddle the fence between solicitation for a fellow dictatorship, a desire not to further damage relations with the United States, and an oft-stated absolutist commitment to national sovereignty, China came out in support of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and blamed the United States for the war. American allies in Asia have also watched the invasion closely, with Japan, South Korea, and Australia moving quickly to impose sanctions on Moscow following its aggression against Ukraine. In cooperation with the United States, moreover, Singapore, Taiwan, and Japan appear set to cut off Russia’s supply of semiconductors.
Global Migration and Potential Refugee Flows: Ukrainian refugees have already started crossing the country’s western borders with NATO members Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, and Romania, and governments and aid groups estimate that Russia’s invasion could lead millions to flee Ukraine. U.S. troops deployed to Poland expect help with these potential refugees, while German officials have pledged to help as well. These Ukrainians will join some 26.6 million refugees worldwide who have already fled their homes.
Defense Spending Increases: The United States and its NATO allies may increase their defense spending in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Congress has already authorized some $25 billion more in defense spending than the Biden administration requested for this year, and the head of the German army took to social media to protest vehemently against low German defense spending that, in his view, left Germany unable to provide adequate military support to NATO. It’s not a sure thing, but the need to defend NATO’s eastern flank against Russia could very well cause the alliance’s European members to ramp up their military spending.
Global Finance: President Biden levied sanctions against what the Treasury Department calls “all of Russia’s largest financial institutions,” including the country’s two largest banks and “nearly 80 percent of all banking assets in Russia.” It also sanctioned a number of financial sector elites along with the adult children of senior Putin “associates.” The UK also imposed sanctions on Russian banks, while the EU froze Russian assets and blocked Moscow’s access to European financial markets. What’s more, the EU now appears set to freeze the personal assets of Putin and his foreign minister Sergei Lavrov.
Space: Last November, Russia’s military shot down one of its own satellites in orbit and created a debris filed that threatened the lives of astronauts aboard the International Space Station. Moscow has not attempted to disable or destroy American or other allied satellites in orbit so far, but it has demonstrated the capability to do so. President Biden also announced that one purpose of U.S. and allied sanctions on Russia in response to its invasion of Ukraine would be to “degrade their aerospace industry, including their space program.” It’s still unclear what this means exactly or in practice, but NASA and its Russian counterpart depend on one another to keep the International Space Station up and running.
It’s still too early to tell what effects Putin’s war in Ukraine will have on the ten critical issues identified here. U.S. and European markets, for instance, appear to have weathered the initial shock of the invasion. But as the conflict drags on, the larger the dangers to the global economy and basic human security needs like food and energy will grow. Already, a cargo ship chartered by a major American agricultural firm has been hit by a missile as it left a Ukrainian port on the Black Sea.
These issues can be managed in the medium-to-long run. In the bigger picture, the United States and its allies will likely drift further and faster away from their current economic entanglements with the likes of China and Russia.
The biggest damage will be done to the Ukrainian people themselves, forced to bear the brunt of an aging dictator’s wounded megalomania and insecurities. What’s more, the cause of freedom in the world will take a debilitating blow as a corrupt autocracy brutally snuffs out an aspiring democracy for no other reason than that it wanted to choose its own fate on the world stage.
In the United States, what’s already happened in Ukraine and what’s likely to unfold over the next few weeks has dealt severe blows to many of the slogans and ideas put forward by the Biden administration and its allies in Congress. Vows to put “diplomacy first,” for instance, sound both principled and impotent in the wake of the failure of weeks of frenetic diplomatic effort intended to stop Putin’s war on Ukraine.
There still remains no clear North Star for U.S. foreign policy that most Americans find compelling. Biden’s foreign policy wasn’t winning over most Americans before the Ukraine war – and it’s hard to see this turning around anytime soon. No one should envy the speechwriters for President Biden’s State of the Union address next week as they face a tough task matching the administration’s foreign policy rhetoric to the grim realities unfolding in Ukraine.
This month’s events are a sobering wake-up call to take the contest between democracies and autocracies more seriously than we have so far. Summits for democracy like the one Biden organized a few months ago are well and good, but all of the talk didn’t do much good when it came to defending an imperfect democracy like Ukraine against an invasion by a neighboring dictatorship.
America needs more robust and vigorous responses when a fellow democracy is forced to fight for its life against the depredations of an autocratic neighbor.