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The stark moral dimensions of the war — the brazen, destructive Russian advance and the courageous Ukrainian response — led to the scales falling off the eyes of European elites who had sought peaceful accommodation with Russia. What was unleashed was on a scale not seen in the heart of Europe in decades. It definitively ended, as the New Statesman’s Jeremy Cliffe wrote, “the easy optimism of the immediate post-Cold War years.” But, he added, even as we drift “towards something new,” its contours are “still hazy.”
The fog of war is still thick over Ukraine. Beyond the country’s trench-strewn landscapes and blockaded, battered coastal cities, a clash of ideologies, even of visions of history, is still playing out. In their refusal to bow to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s neo-imperialistic ambitions, Ukrainians see themselves on the front line of a global war between democracy and autocracy. That’s a vision echoed by their backers in the West, including President Biden himself, who declared in March that Ukraine was waging a “great battle for freedom … between liberty and repression, between a rules-based order and one governed by brute force.”
Putin, of course, sees it all differently. Russia’s army poured across its neighbor’s borders on Feb. 24 after he delivered a now infamous speech. It was steeped in historical grievance and revisionism, and cast Ukraine as an artificial nation whose “Nazi” regime was a pawn of the West. Putin raged at NATO’s expansion into Eastern Europe and warned of an “anti-Russia” emerging in territories that were “our historical land.” This would not do; bringing Kyiv, Ukraine, to heel wasn’t just about checking Western influence, but redeeming the tragedy of the fall of the Soviet Union, which, Putin said, disrupted “the balance of forces in the world.”
UNHCR's @kellytclements visited Ukraine this past week, nearly six months into the war.— UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency (@Refugees) August 21, 2022
What she witnessed was dramatically escalating needs and ongoing recovery efforts as winter quickly approaches the region. pic.twitter.com/hPIuOG8nzo
Putin’s imagined rebalancing hasn’t gone as planners in the Kremlin thought it would. Ukraine bravely resisted the invasion and forced Russian troops into an ignominious retreat after a failed campaign to capture Kyiv. Rather than being chastened, NATO has expanded, bringing Sweden and Finland beneath the umbrella of the world’s preeminent military alliance. In the Baltic states, local authorities have begun dismantling 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 away the claims imposed on their countries by a legacy of subjugation to Moscow.
The toll of Western sanctions on Russia’s economy has been stiff: half of the country’s foreign reserves are frozen, hundreds of Western companies have pulled out of the Russian market, and key oil and gas exports are now being sold off to opportunistic buyers for discounted prices. U.S. intelligence estimates reckon as many as 80,000 Russian soldiers may have already died in the fighting. Western analysts also believe that the Russian war machine is severely depleted, with munition stocks running low.
But that’s cold comfort to Ukrainians, who have paid an almost unfathomable price to defend their nation’s very right to exist. Six months of war have seen thousands killed and millions exiled from their homes. Russian forces have carried out alleged atrocities and war crimes. They are now entrenched across a wide swathe of south and southeast Ukraine, with analysts foreseeing a long, bitter war of attrition ahead.
Six months into the war, the Ukrainian message to Western elites has barely changed. “Everything we need is weapons, and if you have the opportunity, force [Putin] to sit down at the negotiating table with me,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in a recent interview with my colleagues, reiterating his government’s frequent requests for more advanced arms and munitions. This equipment gives Ukraine more leverage on the battlefield, but also in future theoretical negotiations with a more chastened Russian regime.
This kid posing on a tank in downtown Kyiv — where families have flocked to see a ‘parade’ of destroyed Russian military equipment — somehow summed up for me both the hope and utter heartbreak of Ukraine’s battle for survival, nearly six months into the war pic.twitter.com/B1JiFs0HL2— Emma Graham-Harrison (@_EmmaGH) August 20, 2022
Despite delays and logistical hurdles, that aid — led by the United States — has come to Ukraine. The Biden administration has so far committed more than $10 billion worth of security assistance to Kyiv, while also coordinating and mobilizing broader support among NATO and European partners. From Washington to Warsaw, lawmakers believe Ukraine should be given the tools for a decisive military victory, even if such an outcome remains only a distant prospect.
But that bullishness may wane: In Europe, the approach of winter and the bleak certainty of skyrocketing energy costs have raised questions over whether the West can sustain the same resolve in supporting Ukraine’s war effort for the next six months as it has for the past half year.
The centrality of the United States in helping Ukraine hold the line is a reminder that, for all the rhetoric about Europe entering a brave new age, the old 20th century equations still apply: When it comes to the continent’s geopolitics, American superpower plays a paramount role.
Yet no single government can manage the wider shocks of the war, which included jolts to the global agricultural supply chain that have sent food prices soaring in parts of Africa and governments toppling in South Asia. As a result, officials from non-Western nations express frequent bemusement with the zeal on show in Western capitals, where talk of compromise with or concessions to Russia is anathema. “Most puzzling to us is the idea that a conflict like this is in essence being encouraged to continue indefinitely,” a senior African diplomat in New York told Reuters.
Frustratingly for Ukrainian diplomats, fewer African officials are making the obvious case that Russia could simply withdraw its troops from the sovereign territory of another nation. It’s unclear if Russia’s isolation will widen or narrow in the coming months. Both Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping, who is engaged in his own escalating confrontation with the United States over Taiwan, are planning on attending this year’s summit of the Group of 20 major economies in Indonesia.
Indonesian President Joko Widodo hoped that won’t deter leaders like Biden from attending. “The rivalry of the big countries 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 think not only Indonesia: Asian countries also want the same thing.”
Stability, though, could prove elusive. As the war in Ukraine drags on, experts fear a widening arc of risk and retaliation, from destructive attacks on civilian areas to assassination and sabotage plots across borders to the ever-present threat of nuclear miscalculation. “Six long months of war,” mused geopolitical commentator Bruno Maçães, and we are still left with “a sense it was only a prologue.”