Russia's invasion of Ukraine was a 'geopolitical earthquake' that defined 2022 and has transformed the world for years to come
- The war in Ukraine was the story that defined 2022. It will continue to shape the world in 2023.
- Russia's invasion "represented a geopolitical earthquake," a former US ambassador to NATO said.
When Russian President Vladimir Putin launched an unprovoked invasion of Ukraine in late February, it sent shockwaves across the world. The White House in early 2022 warned that an invasion could be imminent, but there was still an overwhelming sense of disbelief when the Russian attack started. A nuclear power was vying to conquer its next-door neighbor. An unthinkable, nightmare scenario was now a reality — the largest military conflict in Europe since World War II had begun.
Russia's invasion of Ukraine was the story that defined 2022, with cataclysmic consequences that have seeped into the daily lives of people across the globe — but none more so than the Ukrainian people.
The war, which is still raging on, will continue to shape the world in the year to come and likely long after.
"Russia's invasion of Ukraine represented a geopolitical earthquake, scrambling the entire chessboard of global politics," Ivo Daalder, a former US ambassador to NATO, told Insider.
In the months leading up to Russia's invasion, as it gathered a massive force on Ukraine's borders, there were serious doubts about the ability of the US to continue to shape global events and bring allies together. The US was left humiliated on the global stage in 2021 amid its chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, which saw thousands of Afghan allies left behind as the Taliban regained control after twenty years of war.
The disastrous pullout came less than a year after supporters of President Donald Trump stormed the US Capitol in a fatal insurrection, undermining faith in the strength and health of America's democracy. Trump's tenure was typified by a seemingly never-ending cycle of self-induced crises. Meanwhile, far-right, hyper-nationalistic leaders with worldviews similar to Putin's were gaining a foothold in countries across the West. Throughout it all, Trump routinely attacked NATO while praising authoritarians like the Russian leader. By the end of 2021, the US looked like an unreliable partner and the transatlantic alliance seemed fractured.
For Putin, who has been obsessed with Ukraine for years, early 2022 probably seemed like an ideal moment to strike. Russia's military was considered to be among the most powerful in the world, surpassed only by the US. Kyiv was expected to fall within days if Russia invaded. And the West appeared too mired in its own problems to do anything about it. Not to mention, much of Europe was heavily reliant on Russia for energy — Moscow had leverage.
But Putin miscalculated. Ukraine put up a far stiffer resistance than anyone expected, ensuring that Russia failed in its early objectives — including preventing Russian forces from seizing Kyiv. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, a former comedian and political neophyte, rallied the country and emerged as a wartime leader who's been applauded across the globe. Zelenskyy's refusal to flee Kyiv, despite the immense dangers, fueled Ukraine's resolve.
The war in Ukraine rapidly drove the West together, with leaders like President Joe Biden portraying it as a fight between democracy and autocracy. Through careful diplomacy and coordination, the Biden administration helped build a coalition to provide Kyiv with vital support and isolate Russia both economically and politically. NATO banded together. Countries with longstanding policies of neutrality sent weapons to Ukraine. Finland and Sweden, which have historically been military non-aligned, moved to join NATO. The EU took steps toward ending its reliance on Russian energy.
Putin launched the invasion with the intention of weakening NATO, an alliance that Ukraine has long sought to join. Though Ukraine is not a member and appears unlikely to be admitted at any point in the near future, particularly as the war continues, Putin's goal of eroding NATO unity backfired. Instead of debilitating the alliance, NATO is now on the verge of expanding — including by adding a country (Finland) that shares an 810-mile border with Russia.
Meanwhile, the war left Russia with few friends on the global stage and catalyzed an awkward dynamic with Beijing, which has often sided with Moscow on geopolitical issues. The UN voted to condemn the invasion, and Russia was booted from the UN Human Rights Council. Putin skipped the G20 in Bali last month, and has madefew international trips since the war began — only visiting the short list of countries still friendly to Russia such as Belarus and Iran.
"Until February 24, Russia and China declared a partnership 'without limits' based on the idea that the West was divided, decadent, and in decline and that the East was rising in power and stature," Daalder said, adding, "The invasion changed all that. Far from seizing control of Ukraine in a matter of weeks, Russia's ambitions were thwarted by the combination of Ukrainian determination and Western support. Its military was exposed as weak and failing; its economy is gradually being cut off from the global system."
Putin in recent days offered a rare admission that the war in Ukraine is not going well, pointing to an "extremely difficult" situation in the occupied Ukrainian territories. In September, the Russian leader illegally annexed four Ukrainian territories despite the fact Russian forces did not fully control these regions. The Russian military has lost ground in these territories ever since, and retreated from Kherson — the first major city Russia captured after invading — last month. Russia's economy also fell into a recession in November.
Admiral Sir Tony Radakin, the head of the UK's armed forces, in mid-December said that Russia is "losing in Ukraine" and "will continue to fail." Russia is estimated to have suffered roughly 100,000 casualties in the war so far, a staggering figure in less than a year of fighting. Meanwhile, Western officials say the Russian military is rapidly running out of munitions, which will severely hinder its ability to continue offensive ground operations.
Between the grim situation on the ground in the war for Russian forces and Moscow's economic woes, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg recently said that 2022 has been a "dismal year of failure" for Putin — leaving Russia the poorest and most isolated it's been in decades.
"In contrast, America is truly back. The Biden administration proved adroit and highly effective in leading a Western coalition to oppose Russia and stand by Ukraine," Daalder said. "The West itself has been transformed, now having realized that the world is far from a peaceful place and hard, military and economic power, is as important as soft, civil power."
The war in Ukraine is far from over. And talks to end the fighting appear to be virtually impossible as things stand. As the conflict continues in 2023, its rippling effects — high energy prices and inflation — are poised to fester.
"The Kremlin, which launched the unprovoked assault on Ukraine in February, shows no sign of being prepared to negotiate seriously, even though however the war turns out, Russia will emerge diminished in military, economic, and geopolitical terms," Steven Pifer, a former US ambassador to Ukraine, told Insider.
"Ukraine is the victim, and, if anything, its resolve to resist has hardened since February. Moreover, the Ukrainian military has had the momentum on the battlefield the past three months. So, it appears that the war will continue for some time, well into 2023 and perhaps longer."
Though the war has not gone well for Russia, the ongoing invasion of Ukraine will continue to pose numerous, difficult questions for the West and beyond in 2023.
There is increasing opposition among Republicans to the levels of aid provided to Ukraine by the US, which could prove to be a headache for the White House after the GOP takes control of the House in January. As the war drags on and the global economic fallout becomes more pronounced, there could be also be rising calls in Congress for talks to end the fighting — even if it involves Kyiv making concessions. Debates over these issues could add to an already historically divisive atmosphere in Washington.
On top of this, Putin's repeated nuclear threats have raised serious alarm. Some experts have warned that the nuclear dangers posed by the Ukraine war after are "far worse" than the Cuban missile crisis, which occurred 60 years ago this past October.
"The kinds of consequences that the war has generated for the broader global community are likely to continue to be felt in 2023," Pifer said.
Indeed, the global dimensions of the Ukraine war could make it an era-defining fight. "No other story so encapsulates the lasting transformation of the world than this one. It's effect will be with us for many years," Daalder said.
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