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The Ukraine war: A longer dystopian future looms large

Ministry of Defense of Ukraine, CC BY-SA 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

The world is in dire straits as it is not equipped to handle the mounting global challenges one after the other.

In March 2021, amid the COVID-19 crisis—well before the Ukrainian crisis—the United States (US) National Intelligence Council issued its decadal Global Trends report that looks at the world 20 years ahead. The Global Trends 2040 report represented a world already shaken in 2020 by the sudden onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and the peaking of the first phase of the strategic competition between China and the US. Given its style, the Global Trends report was balanced and thoughtful. Yet, it was difficult to read it without casting a sense of gloom, given the shocking impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Today, however, with the Ukraine war raging, that sense of gloom has deepened to alarm.

The report saw a world confronting more frequent and intense “global challenges” such as climate change, disease, financial crises, and tech disruptions. It noted the fragmentation of states and the international system and the mismatch between the challenges and the institutions and means of dealing with them. It saw a greater “contestation” and the obvious context was the Chinese challenge to the US playing out across domains—information, media, trade, and technology—and a growing chance of nuclear proliferation and possible nuclear use. Finally, it hoped that the global system would, when confronted by a climate catastrophe, adapt to deal with shared challenges.

 

"The Global Trends 2040 report represented a world already shaken in 2020 by the sudden onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and the peaking of the first phase of the strategic competition between China and the US. Given its style, the Global Trends report was balanced and thoughtful."

 

The report suggested four possible scenarios operating in 2040—a world adrift in a “directionless and chaotic” global system; the “competitive co-existence” of the US and China where both can manage their competition; a “fragmented” world of a range of big and middle powers living in different silos, each focusing on themselves, self-reliance (atmanirbharta), and security; and finally, a global collapse leading to a coalition led by the European Union (EU) and China working with NGOs and multilateral institutions to address the shared challenges outlined above.

Ukraine war and its fallout

A year later, we are confronted with a far more dystopian vision of the world than envisaged in even the more pessimistic portion of the report. Despite the holocaust that COVID-19 wrought, there seems to be little appetite for dealing with pandemic issues as a shared challenge whether related to public health or economic disruption.

As for climate change, across the world unseasonal and untimely floods, droughts, and heatwaves signal a new normal which, too, remains unaddressed by the global community. According to estimates, climate change could cost the US trillions of dollars. And to compound it, we have a war in the heart of Europe that the National Intelligence Council probably never anticipated and address its consequences that are still unfolding and appear far graver in the near term.

Indeed, as the Ukraine crisis unfolds, it is clear that many of its consequences have not been anticipated. Western sanctions and embargoes on Russia were expected to exert pressure on Moscow, what has happened instead is a global energy and commodity market crisis which threatens economies across the world. In early July, the Bank of England warned that the economic outlook for the country and the world had “darkened” and banks had to be ready to weather a storm.

Some estimates suggest that the US economy may have shrunk in the April–June period and added to the decline in the January–March period, this would be a contraction of two terms, suggesting that the economy is in recession, and The Economist is forecasting a possible recession of the US economy by 2024, given how surging food and petrol prices are affecting the people’s spending and how supply chain problems are arising from the war in Ukraine and the slowdown in China.

 

"Western sanctions and embargoes on Russia were expected to exert pressure on Moscow, what has happened instead is a global energy and commodity market crisis which threatens economies across the world."

 

China, which is confronting a slowdown is planning to pump more money into the economy, nearly US$ 74.7 billion to spur growth.

The plight of the Eurozone is worse. Confronting rising energy costs as a result of the war, the 19-country currency bloc also faces a recession. Germany, the group’s largest economy has instituted an emergency plan to deal with reduced gas deliveries by Russia through the Nordstream I pipeline. For Europe, the energy crisis is yet to peak.

The Ukraine war has altered the global landscape in a manner that was not anticipated. Now the global division of power is sharper with Russia and China on one side, and the US with a revitalised alliance system on the other. The Ukraine war has helped reduce Russia’s hard power. The decision of Japan and Germany to enhance their defence spending substantially cannot but have geopolitical consequences. The accession of Finland and Sweden to NATO is itself a major development, regardless of the outcome in Ukraine, which is not on the lines that Russia anticipated. Whatever may have been the circumstances that led to the establishment of “no limits ties” between Russia and China in early February, there is little doubt that it has hurt Beijing and reduced its diplomatic manoeuvrability and its soft power as such. It is forgotten sometimes that Ukraine had very close ties with China and played a significant role in boosting its defence technology.

The Ukraine war also held up a mirror to the liberal international order. After all, Ukraine was not the first country in recent decades to be attacked by members of the UN Security Council. Attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq by the US preceded it. Presumably, the denouement in Ukraine will persuade the advocates of the liberal international order to be more sensitive to the issue of armed intervention abroad.

Nuclear threat

Perhaps the most serious development arising from the Ukraine crisis has been the enhanced risk of nuclear war. At the onset of the war, Putin himself warned that should third parties get involved, there could be “unprecedented consequences”. Three days later he announced that Russia’s deterrent forces which included nuclear weapons would be on a special alert. Russian nuclear sabre-rattling has included a test of its Sarmat ICBM in April and a May 2022 TV segment aired in Russia showing the impact of a simulated nuclear strike that could wipe out the United Kingdom (UK) and Ireland.

At the end of April, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned the West not to underestimate the high risk of nuclear conflict over Ukraine. An interview on Russian state TV stated that the conflict in Ukraine could escalate into World War III because of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation’s (NATO) proxy involvement. Earlier this month, former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev warned the US that any attempt by the West to punish a nuclear power like Russia “poses a threat to the existence of humanity.” This is a barely veiled threat of the possible use of nuclear weapons. All this is in line with Russia’s military doctrine which permits the use of nuclear weapons in the face of an “existential threat” which need not necessarily be nuclear. Even a conventional military situation that the Russians felt was a threat to their existence could bring on a nuclear response. However, their official spokesman Dmitry Peskov has clarified that the operations in Ukraine in themselves would not be the cause for the use of nuclear weapons.

 

"The early capture of Chernobyl by Russia was accompanied by charges that its computers and equipment were looted after the Russians were forced to withdraw."

 

There is another twist in the tale here. In 1994, Ukraine became one of three former Soviet republics (with Kazakhstan and Belarus) that gave up nuclear weapons in exchange for a commitment under the Budapest Memorandum which said that “if Ukraine should become victim to an act of aggression or object of a threat of aggression in which nuclear weapons are used,” it would get immediate United Nations Security Council (UNSC) assistance. The problem is that one of the signatories of the memorandum was Russia, which is also a permanent member of the UNSC.

An associated challenge has been the conflict and the four nuclear power plants in Ukraine. The early capture of Chernobyl by Russia was accompanied by charges that its computers and equipment were looted after the Russians were forced to withdraw. A more recent charge related to Ukraine’s biggest nuclear power plant at Zaporizhzhia which is occupied by the Russians. The Ukrainians have alleged that the Russians have transformed it into a military base. Given safety issues, Ukraine is hesitant to launch a counterattack.

Conclusion

The Ukraine conflict has added another more dangerous  level of risk associated with nuclear war and proliferation to an already fraught situation that the gloomier portions of the Global Trends 2040 report revealed. The Russians may have made advances in the east, but the war is not over and along with it, the possibility of unexpected developments such as the use of tactical nuclear weapons, and their global consequences cannot be ruled out.

Equally, the failure of the western countries to use sanctions to curb Russian behaviour could well be setting the stage for Beijing to launch a Taiwan invasion which would lead to a complete dismantling of the world order. As it is, smaller non-nuclear countries, worried about their security, are likely to be seriously considering the option of acquiring nuclear weapons. The two countries that come to mind are Japan and South Korea which have the wherewithal to cross the threshold. The current global scenario with the ongoing US–Russia tensions has reduced the possibilities of pursuing arms control and non-proliferation measures. This is aside from the fact that issues relating to Iran and North Korea remain to be resolved.

Manoj Joshi (ORF)
22 July 2022

 

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