The Ukraine War Matters To Everyone, Here’s Why

James Van Zorge
James Van Zorge, is a Business consultant in Indonesia that has worked for the Harvard Institute for International Development, Food and Agriculture Organization, McKinsey & Co., and A.T.Kearney’s Global Business Policy Institute. He completed his BA in International Relations, summacum laude, at the State University of New York at Albany, and he holds a Masters of Public Policy, International Economics, from the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University

Jakarta, IO – Last month, when Vladimir Putin sat in the Kremlin and was thinking about the possible consequences of his ordering the invasion of Ukraine, invariably his past military adventures and the West’s reactions to them weighed heavily in his final calculus on whether or not Russian forces should be given the green light. 

Commentators on the RussoUkraine War believe Putin underestimated the potential costs of waging war and overestimated the ease of obtaining military control over Ukrainian territory and critical infrastructure. 

In retrospect, there is no doubt Putin miscalculated. But at the moment he made his final decision, one could argue Putin was acting rationally if we factor in the history of the international community’s extraordinarily weak responses to Russia›s unprovoked past wars of aggression. 

In the short-lived 2008 RussoGeorgian War that was undertaken by Russia and its proxies in South Ossetia, for example, the ceasefire terms brokered by French President Nicolas Sarkozy was completely one-sided in favor of Moscow. A few days after the ceasefire, Tbilisi requested Washington to provide its military with anti-tank and air defence systems, a request the Bush administration turned down. Then, a few months later when Barack Obama entered the White House, the new administration talked a tough game but in reality its “”Russia Reset” policy was more accommodating than not. 

Six years later, the Kremlin could only have concluded that its plans to invade Ukraine and occupy Crimea along with a large part of eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region would not be met with a harsh response from the West. 

Putin and his inner circle of friends were partly correct. Although the ensuing sanctions on the Russian oil and gas sector and banks did have a negative impact on the Russian economy, they were not severe enough to convince Putin that he needed to modify his behavior in the future.

 Putin must have also taken note that members of the EU were not so keen to punish Russia for its Crimean adventures. EU-Russia trade volumes and it-he EU’s vast gas imports, which were 15 times the level of U.S.-Russia trade,.meant the Europeans had much more to lose than the Americans in the context of economic warfare. 

Hence one could not blame Putin today if he were led to believe that success on the battlefield would be easily within reach or the West would be divided and weak once the invasion began in earnest. 

Yet Putin must have been shocked to see that once the war started that instead of showering tanks with roses, Ukrainians have been throwing molotov cocktails at them. 

Equally surprising would be for Putin to discover that rather than the West disagreeing over how to respond to the invasion, America and its European allies closed ranks and not only sent large amounts of military aid to the Ukrainian army but also put in place some of the harshest economic sanctions ever seen in recent history. 

Perhaps most surprising–not only for Putin but for America and its allies–was instead of winning the war in a matter of days or a few weeks, the Ukrainian army and civilian resistance forces have managed to hold back Russian troops. Incredibly, in spite of the superiority of its military in terms of troop levels and fire power, Russian forces have yet to control Kyiv and other major Ukrainian cities, prompting military analysts to conclude that Russia’s command-and-control systems including communications and logistics are at fault. 

Because of these failures.there is a growing fear that the war is about to enter a new, deadlier stage as Putin orders more brutal attacks on civilian targets in an attempt to batter Ukrainians into submission and gain an upper hand in any future negotiations over a ceasefire and withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukrainian soil. 

Besides the prospect of a prolonged and deadly war, other risks loom over the horizon. 

One immediate risk is global food shortages. Russia and Ukraine are important suppliers of barley, wheat and corn on world markets, and as a consequence of the war those supplies have been constrained, sending prices of these key food commodities to rise by as much as 30 percent. Prices for fertilizer, a critical part of food production and for which Russia and Belarus are critical suppliers, have risen by 40 percent since the war began Factoring in other ongoing problems such as droughts, fires, floods, high energy costs and shipping constraints which have sent the cost of transporting food soaring, 

The impact–as long as the war persists–will be a large increase in hunger and malnutrition. 

Based on estimates from the United Nations, the war alone could cause more than 10 million people to go hungry. Such estimates are on the low side of how many people will suffer from the indirect and deadly consequences of the war. 

But it is not only the looming humanitarian crisis that raises concerns. Wide-spread food shortages and the hunger it entails have often set the stage for civil discontent and political instability. Many people familiar with the Middle East and North Africa believe that high food inflation was a major cause of the Arab Spring that started in 2010 in Tunisia and only ended two years later after widespread protests, violence and regime changes. 

The most worrisome possible scenario of the war in Ukraine is Putin ordering his military to launch tactical nuclear weapons on the battlefield. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has already several times told the foreign press that his country’s use of tactical nuclear weapons is not beyond the realm of possibility. 

This is not the first time that Putin›s Russia has taken such an outrageous and irresponsible stance. Putin has already several times rattled his nuclear saber as a reminder to the West that Russia is still a great power to be reckoned with, first in 2014 during the invasion of Ukraine and again in 2015 when he threatened Danish warships with a nuclear attack if Denmark joined NATO›s missile defence system. 

It is not possible to know this time around whether or not Putin is bluffing to stop the West from intervening in Ukraine, but if he is not and for some reason he were to use tactical nuclear weapons out of an act desperation, the consequences are harrowing. While it is true these weapons have a fraction of the explosive power of the nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945, that does not mean the damage would not have serious far-reaching effects. In a recent article written in Scientific American, a highly respected monthly popular science magazine, “a tactical nuclear weapon would produce a fireball, shock waves and deadly radiation that would cause long-term health damage in survivors. Radioactive fallout would contaminate air, soil, water and the food supply”. In other words, it would be devastating. 

Although the risk of Putin resorting to tactical nuclear weapons is probably low, one should not forget that Russian military doctrine allows for usage of these weapons in what is known as ‹escalate to de-escalate›, which essentially means that limited nuclear warfare with tactical weapons, which is an escalation, would lead to a de-escalation as the victims would desperately sue for the peace. 

Using tactical nuclear weapons could, however, have the opposite effect. It would increase the possibility of a wider war. The West could also easily conclude that Putin had gone completely mad and might order more strikes, even including the use of more powerful nuclear weapons such as intercontinental ballistic missiles. Just the use of one small tactical nuclear weapon would more than certainly prompt Western nuclear powers to go on high alert, hence raising the risk of miscalculations and dangerous missteps in the fog of war. 

Given all these risks–a protracted bloody war, the prospect of a, worsened global food shortage and albeit a small risk of nuclear weapons being used with potentially devastating outcomes–it is incumbent upon all nations to work together to find a path to peace. The Ukraine conflict and its outcomes matter for everyone, even people living in countries afar.