Most people over 35 years old remember where they were when they first saw the images of the Twin Towers collapsing on 9/11. Two decades on, we are still living through the effects of the attack and America’s response. Few of us will have a similar visceral memory of the first day of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but the effects are likely to reverberate around the world for as long.
We know some of them. The Russian war machine has shown itself to be largely inept, leaving the Kremlin reeling as Ukraine failed to collapse in short order as expected.
Russian President Vladimir Putin was then stunned by the response of other countries. He is on record as believing the western nations are weak and effete and lack willingness to take tough action. However, three years after French President Emmanuel Macron said Nato was “brain dead”, it has rediscovered its purpose. Germany, embarrassed at its relationship with Russia, and the state of its armed forces, has condemned Moscow and pledged $100 billion to modernise its military. The Baltic States are being re-enforced while Finland and Sweden have applied for Nato membership. The EU is more united on a single issue than it has been for several years although this resolve will be tested as we move into a second year of war. Relations between Russia and the West looked broken for a generation.
We have seen the first “Broadband War” – a reminder of how semi-conductor chips and space are an integral part of warfare. Russia’s missiles took out parts of Ukraine’s internet in the first few days of conflict. Two thousand of Elon Musk’s Starlink terminals were flown in to get it back online. They were then used (in part) to locate and fire on Russian positions which poses the question – are civilian satellites a legitimate target when used in warfare? The missiles and drones used in the fighting rely on computer chips to work, a Javelin missile for example requires 225. And yet we still saw “old-fashioned” trench warfare.
The human cost of the war has been huge. Tens of thousands of soldiers on both sides have been killed, thousands of Ukrainian civilians murdered, and 14 million driven from their homes. Hundreds of thousands of young Russian men have fled Mr Putin’s conscription, causing a brain drain in an economy from which large parts of the world are decoupling. Russia can survive European countries gradually weaning themselves off its energy supplies but that will require huge investment in orienting pipelines elsewhere and western technical and financial help will be hard to find.
The conflict has pushed inflation in many countries to the highest levels this century. For five months Ukraine, the breadbasket of Europe, was unable to move grain through its ports. This exacerbated food shortages in Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia, and raised bread prices in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia. The latter normally receives 80 per cent of its wheat from Ukraine. Costs are now at their highest in 14 years adding to the tremendous strain the Tunisian economy is under.
Those are some of the already “known knowns” of the conflict. We can also see several issues coming down the line.
With Russia turning to Iran and North Korea for military assistance, the Americans and Europeans cannot count on Moscow helping them pressure Tehran into returning to the JCPOA nuclear deal, or Pyongyang to curtail its missile launches. Where that leads is impossible to tell.
The Central Asian republics have made their feelings clear about what they see as colonialism by Moscow. None of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation members recognised Russia’s annexations of parts of Ukraine and at a recent summit, Mr Putin was challenged about his lack of respect for the region. Depending on the war’s outcome, Russia will seek to regain as much influence as possible in Central Asia. Mr Putin wants people to know that attempting to leave Moscow’s control has terrible consequences, and that includes the regions inside the Russian Federation such as Dagestan or even, whisper it, Siberia.
His “World Order” is similar to that of Chinese President Xi Jinping. The West perceives them as wanting a world where authoritarian states can hold sway in spheres of influence. That way the Americans can be pushed out of Europe and the Western Pacific. Both view the post-Second World War order as biased against them and that it left the US too powerful. They rail against what they see as western “universal values”.
Mr Xi appears angry at Russian aggression. The Sino-Russian “friendship without limits” was going to weaken Nato, split the EU, and cow the Americans but Mr Putin’s rash gamble had the opposite effect. At a meeting in Samarkand in October, Mr Xi pointedly supported “maintaining national independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity”. China invests heavily in Central Asia and does not want Moscow questioning Uzbekistan’s, Kazakhstan’s or indeed any other nation state’s “territorial integrity”.
However, it does not follow that Mr Xi wants Russia to lose. That would leave Russia a less useful ally and leave the US focusing more on China. Ukrainian resistance has probably given the Chinese leadership pause for thought about invading Taiwan. Beijing has noted how effective US weapons have been, and how ineffectively a corrupt military has performed.
Further out are what former US secretary of defence Donald Rumsfeld referred to as “known unknowns”. Sanctions on Russia will undoubtedly affect its politics and economy, but to what end is not yet apparent. The economy has already contracted by about 4 per cent and will probably diminish further. Russian arms sales are down by 25 per cent, car manufacturing fell 90 per cent between March and October. With microelectronics parts and microchips on the list of sanctioned goods, it will be hard to build weapons, cars, or aeroplanes that anyone wants.
And finally, there are the “unknown unknowns”. All we do know is that they happen. War always brings unintended consequences.
Tim Marshall is a journalist, author and broadcaster, specialising in foreign affairs and international diplomacy. He can be found on twitter at @Itwitius
This article was originally published by The National