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Carnegie Experts on the Ukraine War’s Long Shadow

How Russia’s invasion has upended politics and economies far away from the battlefields.

This piece is part of Carnegie’s series on the Ukraine war’s impact, one year in.


The war has permanently changed Europe’s relationship with Russia from one of interdependence to almost complete decoupling. The most radical change has been in Germany—the so-called zeitenwende. Former socialist-bloc countries—mainly the Baltic States and Poland—have been forcing the Ukraine agenda. Finland and Sweden almost overnight abandoned decades-old postures of neutrality and applied to join NATO.

The conflict has changed the European security order, forced the EU to take greater responsibility for its own defense, and broken taboos about investing in security. The centrality of the transatlantic relationship in responding to Russia’s war is also a painful reminder that the EU’s stated goal of “strategic autonomy” is more of a lofty ambition than a reality and that the United States is still democratic Europe’s main security patron.

The war in Ukraine has brutally revealed the costs of EU inaction toward its neighbors, forcing it to put enlargement back on the agenda after a decade of drift. The naming of Ukraine and Moldova as candidate countries, with a more conditional offer made to Georgia, means that the EU now has to come up with a real pathway for those three countries to join the union, as well as a proper accession plan for the countries of the Western Balkans, which have been stuck in the waiting room for years.

The scale and breadth of the European response to the war—from energy diversification to sanctions to migration management—have seriously put economic statecraft to the test. Its eventual success will depend on whether the EU can keep up the momentum while maintaining the overarching goals of pushing for a green and digital transition. But beneath the newly found unity, differing visions of war and peace in a context of shifting leadership in the EU could come to haunt the European integration project.

Rosa Balfour, director, and Thomas de Waal, senior fellow

Democracy, Conflict, and Governance

U.S. President Joe Biden arrived in office pledging to put democracy at the heart of U.S. foreign policy, framing the world as locked in a contest between democracies and authoritarian systems. Russia’s war on Ukraine has both underscored, and undermined, those propositions.

On one hand, the Biden administration has rallied remarkable support to democratic Ukraine. In the president’s words, “In the perennial struggle for democracy and freedom, Ukraine and its people are on the frontlines.” U.S. leadership to galvanize effective NATO pushback to Russian aggression has become a major achievement of the Biden presidency. The administration often notes the power of democracies working in concert, and support to Ukraine has provided an inspiring case in point.

Yet simultaneously, the war prompted realpolitik. As a candidate, Biden pledged to make Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman a “pariah.” After the war began, the president sought his help on oil production, famously fist-bumping him in the process. The administration has looked to Turkey, a gravely backsliding democracy within the NATO alliance, to play a key role in negotiating Ukrainian grain exports to address food security issues.

Meanwhile, the administration’s framing of the Ukraine struggle in a democracies-versus-autocracies lens has gained limited purchase beyond developed economies. Several votes at the UN demonstrated that for many countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, the Ukraine war did not provoke a straightforward anti-Russia response. Global South democracies such as Bolivia, India, Madagascar, Mongolia, Namibia, and South Africa abstained from UN resolutions in March and October condemning the invasion.

One year into the war, the Biden administration’s democracy-related framing has evolved. No longer is the world divided starkly between democracies and authoritarianism; instead, the National Security Strategy identifies that the “most pressing strategic challenge facing our vision” comes from “powers that layer authoritarian governance with a revisionist foreign policy”—and, specifically, powers that wage wars of aggression. It further acknowledges that the administration “will work with any country . . . willing to constructively address shared challenges within the rules-based order.” For the democracy portfolio, the Biden team has squarely transitioned from campaigning in poetry to governing in prose. But if the administration continues to harness democracies’ aid to Ukraine’s resistance—while also catalyzing support to democratic openings elsewhere—it may still make good on its aim of renewing democracy globally.

Frances Z. Brown, vice president for studies and co-director

American Statecraft

The war in Ukraine has revived an American exceptionalism that animated U.S. foreign policy in the decades after the end of the Cold War—an exceptionalism characterized by an abiding belief that the United States had a special role to play in defending global justice and the U.S.-led world order. After the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan, many feared America was turning inward. But the outpouring of sympathy, support, and weapons for Ukraine has proven how deep the roots of this view of America’s special role in the world run.

There is much to be applauded in America’s sympathy and willingness to sacrifice for Ukraine, but there is also much risk in a world that is increasingly multipolar and in which many challenges to Americans’ lives and livelihoods lie far beyond the battlefields of the Donbas.

Christopher S. Chivvis, director

Sustainability, Climate, and Geopolitics

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has reminded policymakers that emergency action in the energy sector is sometimes necessary. Not since the energy shocks of the 1970s have so many policymakers taken such forceful measures to ensure adequate supplies of fuel and electricity. The most drastic action was taken in Europe: the EU has adapted to a huge reduction in gas supplies from Russia faster than most thought possible, and countries like Germany and the UK have spent several percentage points of GDP to protect households from rising prices. The loss of Russian imports has also increased awareness of the dangers of relying on geopolitical adversaries for critical raw materials, whether hydrocarbons or the minerals needed for wind turbines or batteries. 

For scholars of sustainability and climate politics, the question now is whether policymakers will keep this same urgency as they undertake another energy transition forced by an unplanned and unwanted development—the increasing severity of floods, fires, and droughts in a world battered by climate change.

Noah Gordon, acting co-director

Middle East

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has brought to the fore the many vulnerabilities of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Growing food insecurity, economic and fiscal hardship, and rising inflation have pushed several MENA countries to the brink of collapse and challenged governments to reexamine their policies. This has resulted in a stream of new studies tackling the root causes of systemic vulnerabilities such as poverty and marginalization and the ways they correlate with the impacts of the war, as well as the policy changes needed to restore a just and developmental path in countries that have been troubled with injustices and inequalities. After a decade-long focus on questions of democratization and human rights following the popular uprisings of the Arab Spring, the region’s attention has returned to political economy.

The war has also exposed the huge wealth disparities in the MENA region between the countries that export energy and those that do not. The countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council—most notably Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar—have seen their revenues from oil and natural gas increase enormously throughout the first year of the war. Previously accumulated budget deficits have almost vanished, and funds for massive public investments—such as Saudi mega economic and environmental projects—have been secured. Energy non-exporting countries, in contrast, have suffered from increased budget deficits and higher foreign debt volumes due to spikes in food—primarily wheat—and energy prices.

Finally, the war in Ukraine has revived policy discussions about the place of the MENA region in international politics—including great power competition and its impacts on regional security, energy supplies, and trade. The regional mood, both among governments and civil societies, is sympathetic to Russia and cynical about U.S. and European claims to freedom and justice in explaining their support of Ukraine. MENA countries are no longer willing to accept the unilateral hegemony of the West and are ready to exploit world powers’ scrambles to secure spheres of influence in the energy-rich and strategically significant region.

Amr Hamzawy, senior fellow and director


East Asia remains at peace a year after Russia launched its brutal war in Ukraine. The immediate fears of contagion from the Donbas to the Taiwan Strait proved overwrought, but a grave question remains: can China be deterred?

If Russia can first annex and then invade a sovereign nation’s territory without direct American and allied intervention, China might expect a similarly permissive international response to an attack on Taiwan. Comparatively, the situation in the Pacific looks still more troubling given Taiwan’s lack of recognized sovereign status, the far-superior capabilities of the Chinese economy and armed forces, and the varied non-invasion options Beijing may elect in a campaign against the island. 

Yet from Beijing’s standpoint, the tragedy playing out in Europe today is more cautionary than catalytic. For one, it remains too soon to tell what territorial or political stakes Russia will gain and lose from its bloody adventure. The conditions under which the war is terminated hold significant implications for China’s assessment of whether territorial conquest pays or not.

The People’s Liberation Army may promise decisive, fait accompli operations and none of the Russian imprecision about military objectives. Yet any sober survey of great power warfare over the past century must induce further caution among military planners who might otherwise hope for a lightning hearts-and-minds triumph.

Another uncertainty is how much pain Russia will ultimately suffer from severe sanctions that may cripple its national competitiveness for generations. Chinese President Xi Jinping may reasonably expect that Beijing is more robust to the challenge of a concerted, multilateral sanctions regime than is Russian President Vladmir Putin’s fragile petrostate, but he cannot welcome the inescapable reality that Russia is isolated and growing weaker. The strategic choice to stand back-to-back with Russia means that China cannot count on a strong, stable backstop in Europe.

Isaac Kardon, senior fellow

Global Order and Institutions

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has intensified debates over the nature of the current world order and the possibilities (if any) of multilateral cooperation on shared global challenges in an age of resurgent geopolitical competition. Many Western analysts and policymakers describe February 24, 2022, as an epochal date that finally brought the so-called post–Cold War era to a close, and they consider the ensuing war an existential test for the fraying rules-based international system. There is less agreement on what sort of order can be salvaged in its aftermath, with analysts debating the merits of alternative approaches to multilateralism.

For liberal internationalists—including Biden himself—the war is part of a larger, normative contest pitting democracies against authoritarian states (led by Russia and China) to determine whether the world will be open or closed. The natural response is to rally the free world. For self-described realists, such Wilsonian idealism only distracts the West from more achievable goals: balancing the power (rather than defeating the ideas) of its adversaries, while fostering the gradual emergence of a concert of great powers that accepts minimal rules of coexistence and conduct.

Both perspectives have crippling blind spots. Few developing nations perceive Ukraine through the democracy-versus-autocracy lens. They will not rally to a crusade pitting West and East, particularly when the wealthy world ignores their economic priorities and fails to redress imbalances in global governance. If some developing countries oppose Russian imperialism, it is the defense of sovereignty, not democracy, that motivates them. Hard-boiled realism, meanwhile, would prematurely surrender and abandon the advantages of an open, rules-bound world order, when it might yet be salvaged. While some eventual, baseline agreement among great powers is essential, it must be the floor, rather than the ceiling, for broader multilateral cooperation.

Both a tight-knit democratic club and a great power concert could contribute to the world order after the Ukraine war. They are no substitute, however, for the United Nations. Despite its obvious shortcomings, it retains unrivaled global legitimacy, thanks to its universal membership, binding charter, and authority over international peace and security. The UN is in dire need of reform, but it is an illusion to imagine that a democratic club, a great power concert, or flexible coalitions could replace its legitimacy and capacities in addressing the myriad transnational challenges, from climate change to pandemics, that afflict the world today.

Stewart Patrick, senior fellow and director

Nuclear Policy

The war in Ukraine raises a major paradox and a profound dilemma centered around nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, much of the Western debate about military support to Ukraine avoids addressing them.

The paradox is that nuclear weapons can embolden their possessors to enter armed conflicts they would otherwise probably avoid, but they also deter escalation of conventional conflicts once underway. Russia probably would not have invaded Ukraine if Moscow did not have nuclear weapons to deter NATO states from joining the fight. But NATO’s possession of nuclear weapons probably deters Russia from attacking NATO states to interdict Western assistance to Ukraine. (The popular assertion that Russia would not have invaded if Ukraine possessed nuclear weapons elides the fact that, in the early 1990s, Russia would have physically prevented Kyiv from taking control of former Soviet nuclear weapons left on Ukrainian territory, and the West would not have intervened to stop it.)     

The dilemma is that morality and deterring future Russian aggression would be best served by arming Ukraine to the hilt so it could drive Russia out of the whole of Ukraine, including Crimea, which it seized in 2014. Many people, especially Westerners on social media, fervently desire this outcome. Yet millions of lives depend on avoiding nuclear war, and there are good reasons for judging that Putin might authorize nuclear use to stop Ukraine from taking Crimea.

The most likely way to avoid nuclear use would be for the United States and European powers to pressure Ukraine and Russia to negotiate a ceasefire. This would leave Russia holding Crimea (and possibly other Ukrainian territory). Yet, if Russia used nuclear weapons because Crimea were threatened, it would likely be able to force the same outcome. That precedent—rewarding the use of nuclear weapons—would be far worse than tolerating Russian control over Crimea in a negotiated end to the war before nuclear use.

Champions of Ukrainian efforts to reclaim Crimea generally do not address how to avoid or respond to potential Russian use of nuclear weapons. Unlike advocates of nuclear-induced prudence, they speak and urge policymakers to act as if there is no real dilemma. Fortunately, Biden and other international leaders understand the burden of responsibility they bear to avoid nuclear war.

George Perkovich, vice president for studies

South Asia

That the brazen Russian aggression in Ukraine must be defeated in order to protect Ukrainian territory and sovereignty as well as a well-ordered international system can hardly be controverted—even though it sometimes is. Washington has made the right choice in supporting Kyiv’s defense against Moscow’s belligerence, but the reasons for doing so are not limited merely to protecting European security. Rather, they extend—or, at least, should—to the Indo-Pacific region, which now represents a critical center of gravity in global geopolitics.

Ensuring the defeat of Russia’s onslaught in Ukraine through, among other things, mobilizing an effective European coalition—something Putin never expected prior to his war—provides in the first instance a powerful demonstration effect for China. At a time when Beijing is building military capabilities for the possible conquest of Taiwan, the success of U.S. policy in Europe serves as a potent reminder that any future Chinese aggression in Asia could provoke the same kind of response that punishes Beijing. This includes not only arming Taiwan with far more sophisticated weapons than have been transferred thus far but also mobilizing the full panoply of coercive power to include catalyzing regional alliance formation and cutting off China’s access to external resources and international markets.

But the benefits of a favorable outcome in Europe go beyond shaping China’s calculations in regard to Taiwan. They directly impact the U.S. ability to prioritize the Indo-Pacific theater in its larger strategy. It is widely recognized that managing the threat posed by China to the United States and its Asian allies will remain the biggest challenge facing Washington in the years to come. Satisfactorily confronting this problem requires minimizing the dangers posed to European partners so that Washington’s evolving strategy of encouraging these allies to take the lead in ensuring their own defense—while the United States concentrates on Asia—can be brought to fruition. Defeating Moscow militarily in Ukraine, while persisting with the policies aimed at preventing the regeneration of Russian military power, remains a substantive contribution to the success of the larger U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy.

Realizing this ambition, however, requires the United States to accelerate its efforts at defeating the Russian invasion. A protracted war—or, worse still, an unfavorable battlefield stalemate—will only make the challenge of prioritizing the Indo-Pacific more difficult at a time when the United States as a global power does not have the luxury of relegating Europe because it happens to be one of three critical geographies in the international system. Consequently, the administration and its allies must do what they have hesitated to do thus far: Set aside their overwrought fears of escalation and give the Ukrainians the necessary tools to finish the job—fast.

Ashley J. Tellis, senior fellow


Russia’s war in Ukraine has added a new dimension to an already complex security and political crisis in West Africa, particularly in the countries of the Sahel. Over the past decade, the existing crises has spilled over from Mali into neighboring countries, particularly Niger and Burkina Faso. External partners have played an important role in efforts to respond to the crisis, including through military intervention on the ground—the most influential actor being France, the former colonial power of Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, and others.

A few years before its Ukraine invasion, Russia replaced France as the main external player in Central African Republic. Combatants of the infamous Wagner Group arrived to fight rebel groups, train the national army, and protect the government. After a military coup in 2021, Mali also changed its choice of strategic partners and strengthened its military cooperation with Russia (but never acknowledged the presence of the Wagner paramilitary force on its soil).

Diplomatic tensions between the Malian authorities and Western partners had already risen to a level not seen for several decades due to Bamako’s rapprochement with Russia. The war in Ukraine only aggravated those tensions and jeopardized regional cooperation. Mali’s strategic choice to rely on Russia as a privileged security partner contrasted with others in the region—such as Niger and Côte d'Ivoire, which host European and U.S. soldiers and strategic military assets.

The invasion of Ukraine by Russia has also had severe economic consequences in West Africa, on top of those caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Inflation has increased in the region, and rising prices caused a painful blow to people’s pocketbooks—possibly pushing millions into extreme poverty in a short time. The war has been an unnecessary and unwelcome external shock for a region that has already been struggling with major security, political, and economic challenges.

Gilles Yabi, nonresident scholar


The Russian invasion has significantly heightened mutual perceptions of threat between the U.S.-led West and China. Beijing believes that Washington and its allies are using this war to weaken Russia and fears that it could become the next target of a similar Western pressure campaign to disrupt China’s rise. Beijing’s sympathetic attitude toward Moscow has also made it Moscow’s accomplice in the eyes of Western countries, dashing hopes of avoiding a new Cold War between the world’s two largest economies.

The West’s successful demonstration of unity and collective power dealt a blow to China’s previous optimism that “the East is rising, the West is declining” and helped bring home to the Chinese leadership the reality that it must prepare for a longer-term and more unpredictable systemic competition with the United States than it once expected. The war likely contributed to Chinese leaders’ gradual, if reluctant, acceptance of the framework from the Biden administration for “managing” competition by building guardrails around the bilateral relationship. As a result, a hot conflict, including over the Taiwan Strait, is less likely in the near term. The good news is that this means more time to kick the can down the road and for the relevant parties to work out their differences.

The Russian invasion provides an opportunity to observe how an external crisis, albeit self-inflicted, can further reverse domestic liberalization and increase the authoritarianism of an autocratic state, making it an even greater threat to international peace. This should serve as a reminder of the importance of prudent strategic planning to minimize the risk of unnecessary or premature military conflict with China. More research is needed to understand what long-term measures might be useful to mitigate the dangerous information and perception gap at the societal level between China and more liberal states. Peace cannot be maintained without addressing the underlying political problems that are as serious, if not more so, among the major powers in the Asia-Pacific region today as they are in Eastern Europe.

Tong Zhao, senior fellow

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