Wars teach about geography. In mid-February, the autocorrect on my phone did not recognize, and few people in Western Europe or America could have located on a map Mariupol, Charkiv, Bucha, Kherson, Chernihiv or Irpin. Now we know, tutored by the shocking images of Putin’s 'spetz operatsiya’.
Wars also teach about countries’ strength and resilience; and they reveal weaknesses. Were it not for nuclear weapons – Helmut Schmidt called Russia “a gas station with rockets” – the country’s main importance for the world would be its obstructing the mitigation of global heating through sales and politics. Its exports are primarily raw materials, with Russia’s oil, gas and coal accounting for about 20 percent of the world’s supplies and one half of its federal budget. The dependence of some EU countries is particularly high.
In the two decades of Putin’s rule, several trillion dollars earned from fossil fuel exports have paid for military hardware and created a class of rent-seeking oligarchs. Their phenomenal riches are invested in luxurious real estate in the West where, until March 2022, their kids studied, their jets were based and their yachts anchored. The symbiotic, if corrupt, business model that evolved over the past two decades now lies in ruins: Europe bought Russian fossil fuels and recycled – or rather, laundered – a sizeable portion of the sales revenues stolen by oligarchs with the Kremlin’s connivance. Thirty years ago, Russia’s GDP was similar to that of China; today it is barely a tenth – about half that of France, a country with no natural resources and a population of only 67 million, far less than half of Russia’s 144 million.
The ramshackle nature of the vaunted Russian military was an unexpected revelation, and the hollowness of Putin’s bragging a delicious one: taking Kyiv in two weeks would have required a better army and a worse enemy. A lesson, once again painfully learned, is that appeasing a dictator does not avoid conflict. It makes it more likely and more ferocious.
Russia’s war against Ukraine is horrifying in its wanton devastation and utter cruelty. Hospitals, theatres, apartment buildings, shopping centres, schools, churches, museums, post offices, sports facilities, retirement homes, bridges – even nuclear power stations and holocaust memorials – are being bombed, ostensibly to denazify the country, prevent genocide in Donbas and advance Russia’s security interests that are jeopardized by the degenerate West.
The International Court of Justice, accepting Ukraine’s arguments, ordered Russia to halt its invasion, noting that there was no evidence in support of Russia’s justification for the aggression. Salving the wounded ego of a former KGB Lieutenant Colonel, who took offense to having his country called a regional power, is not a casus belli.
It is unfathomable that a permanent member of the Security Council, charged with upholding peace, would so flagrantly trespass the principles of the United Nations Charter, i.e. to launch a war of aggression, violate international borders, systematically target civilians (a war crime under international humanitarian law), and threaten the use of nuclear weapons.
Putin’s casual disregard for human life is not confined to Ukrainians. In one month of his scorched-earth operation, well over 10,000 Russian soldiers have been killed compared with, in twenty years of war in Afghanistan, 2,218 U.S. soldiers. Some Russian invaders carried rations that had expired in 2002, others radioed for food, water and fuel. Putin’s sheer criminality takes Russia hostage and turns the country and its people into international pariahs, which will take generations to undo.
Disruption can be positive or negative. On the plus side, Putin has united Ukraine, NATO as well as the European Union and achieved what the corona virus did not, namely to accelerate the decarbonization of the world economy and thus put the targets of the Paris Agreement back in play. Not a moment too soon, since the opportunity of a green recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic was wasted. In 2020 and 2021, the G20 – the world’s largest economies – spent some $14 trillion dollars in stimulus payments, of which only 6 percent were allocated to areas that cut the emissions of greenhouse gases, while 3 percent went to activities that increase emissions.
But this was before Putin got involved. Now there is an all-out effort globally, firstly to move away from fossil fuels and, secondly, to get serious about efficiency. This means reducing fossil fuel subsidies and investing in green energy as well as in energy saving technologies. Electric vehicles and public transport must be incentivized and buildings retrofitted with insulation and heat pumps.
Moving towards a climate neutral world economy is, importantly, a matter of public policy. However, it also requires the availability of so called energy transition metals, such as copper, nickel, platinum, palladium, aluminium and lithium that are used in the manufacture of green technologies – solar panels, wind turbines and electric vehicles – many of which are held by Russia and Ukraine. Obtaining inputs for renewable energy systems is a matter of research, public policy incentives and cost.
However, another disruptor of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine is food insecurity, particularly in the Global South. Higher prices for food and energy are heavy additional burdens, since they exacerbate poverty and food insecurity in many developing countries that are still struggling to contain the covid-19 pandemic. Just as with energy transition metals, Ukraine and Russia, as major global wheat and sunflower producers, heavily influence much downstream production. Since Ukrainian farmers are being prevented from harvesting this year’s spring crop, the price of wheat futures has risen sharply and reached unprecedented levels. Inflationary pressures threaten political stability in many countries.
Over six million people have been displaced within Ukraine; nearly five million have sought refuge abroad. Although the vertiginous numbers are straining the capacities of receiving countries in Western Europe, so far they have led to a massive outpouring of goodwill. Happily, too, public systems are much better calibrated to the challenge than they were in 2015, when the influx of Syrian, Iraqi and Afghan refugees overwhelmed them.
The international system is coping less well. One would have thought that Putin’s brazen lying, appalling brutality and flagrant violation of international covenants – aimed at reinstating the law of the jungle and denying a sovereign country the right to determine its own future – would have resulted in a worldwide outcry. Yet it is not seen this way everywhere. Instead of rebuking Russia, many countries – Brazil, China, India, Israel, Pakistan, South Africa, Turkey, UAE and others — are sitting on the fence. This strikes at the core principles of the United Nations, namely the peaceful settlement of disputes, rule-bound behaviour and cooperation.
Global problems, particularly the climate emergency and the loss of biodiversity, can only be solved multilaterally, which means within a framework of self-imposed limitations that applies most particularly to powerful states. This sentiment was foundational for the United Nations after two catastrophic wars within a generation. It was expressed forcefully by U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who asserted that the creation of the United Nations “ought to spell the end of the system of unilateral action, the exclusive alliances, the spheres of influence, the balances of power, and all the other expedients that have been tried for centuries – and have always failed.” Likewise his successor, Harry S. Truman, stated “the responsibility of the great states is to serve, and not dominate the peoples of the world." But dominate they do: a small minority of the world’s population – the rich everywhere and developed countries as a group – consumes a vast majority of the planet’s resources. If this consumption were universalized, several planets would be needed.
Putin’s unprovoked attack on Ukraine has changed the world. It shamefully distracts from the urgent project to save human civilization – or perhaps it catalyses a synergistic response to several acute crises: reducing dependence on fossil fuels will save the climate, improve public health, deprive petro-states of their income and create well-paying jobs in scaled-up renewables industries. Conceivably and with a neat twist of dialectics, Putin’s destructiveness might just energize humanity to save itself.