The war in Ukraine is in its fifth week, with casualties on both sides continuing to mount. Unexpectedly stiff resistance by the Ukrainians has so far prevented Russian forces from seizing Kyiv and other key cities. One danger of the current stalemate—that Russia’s frustration will lead to escalation—can be seen in the relentless bombardment of Mariupol. But Russia’s failures on the battlefield also create real opportunities for peace, possibly involving some form of regional autonomy for the Donbas along with neutrality for the whole of Ukraine.
That, ultimately, is a matter for the Ukrainian people to decide—which is what made President Biden’s ad-lib in Poland that Vladimir Putin “cannot remain in power” such an egregious misstep. Instead of posturing about regime change, the United States—and Europe—should be working to provide off-ramps for both sides. The risks of nuclear confrontation demand no less.
Whatever the outcome in Ukraine, the world we are entering because of the war will be very different from either the old Cold War balance of terror or the deceptive stability of recent decades. We can only begin to gauge the contours of this new world. The role of China, for example, remains far from clear. Yet some things appear reasonably certain: NATO will emerge more powerful and politically popular—at least in Europe—while Russia will become a pariah state, largely walled off from the continental economy. Europe itself will be divided along a new Iron Curtain, with the opposing forces prepared to engage at a moment’s notice, nuclear weapons at the ready.
But that is only the beginning. Military spending will rise while other priorities—education, health care, climate action—are accorded secondary status. The seismic impacts of the Ukraine war will reach deep into societies, altering political allegiances and popular attitudes. In Germany, a government led by Social Democrats and the Greens has just approved a dramatic increase in military spending, at the same time canceling the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline—a fundamental shift away from reliance on Russian energy. Similar moves are evident throughout Europe, where commercial ties with Russia are being severed and discredited politicians like Boris Johnson have exploited the crisis to burnish their credentials.
But the war’s long-term impacts won’t be restricted to Europe. The unabashed militarism on display during Biden’s trip to Poland is likely to reverberate not just on Capitol Hill—where Democrats and Republicans are competing to raise the Pentagon budget even higher and impose yet more extreme sanctions on Russia—but in Asia, Africa, and South America, where rearmament serves to further entrench privileged elites and the authoritarian rulers who serve their interests. Cessation of wheat deliveries from Russia and Ukraine, two of the world’s leading grain exporters, may well lead to a global food crisis.
All this is being accompanied by an ideological offensive the likes of which have not been seen since the onset of the Cold War. Biden’s conveniently polarizing narrative—posing the question as “Who is going to prevail? Are democracies going to prevail…? Or are autocracies going to prevail?”—is already saturating the media, think-tank discourse, and the political arena and, if history is any guide, may soon be accompanied by restrictions on dissent.
Under such conditions, progressive thinkers and activists would be wise to reconsider our strategies and adapt our messaging. At the very least, we need to find new means to resist the headwinds of militarism and contest the arguments for a permanent war economy. We cannot abandon our fundamental objectives, even in a time of heightened international tensions. Otherwise, the battle for other priorities, such as health and education and social and economic justice, will surely be lost.
This, too, poses both challenges and opportunities. The climate action movement, for example, might show how global militarism and fossil fuel addiction are two sides of the same coin—a case progressives have been arguing for a long time. With Putin threatening to use nuclear arms, peace activists have a fresh opportunity to highlight the danger posed by atomic weapons.
The global impact of the Ukraine war is still unfolding. It is essential that progressives analyze the situation carefully, mobilize deliberately—and, where possible, seize opportunities to advance our priorities in this new environment.