Wednesday marks six months of war in Ukraine — six months since the Russians invaded for what Russian President Vladimir Putin said would be a “special military operation.” The aim, Putin said on that morning of Feb. 24, was to “denazify” Ukraine and to save Russians in eastern Ukraine from a “genocide” that was being carried out against them.
The day after the war began, as Russian forces made their initial assaults across the country, we wrote that “the result of Putin’s decision is a war that endangers the lives of millions of Ukrainians, will spark a colossal refugee crisis, threatens the global economy and even raises the specter of nuclear deployment. It will also test old alliances and emerging global rivalries.”
Six months later, some of that has happened. Some of it has not. And there certainly have been developments we did not foresee. On Tuesday, Global Editor Tom Nagorski led a “Global Grid” conversation about the war in Ukraine with Global Security reporter Joshua Keating and John McLaughlin, former leader at the Central Intelligence Agency, now a distinguished practitioner in residence at Johns Hopkins University and special contributor for Grid.
The focus of the conversation: How the war in Ukraine has changed the world — a look beyond the front lines and battlegrounds themselves at some of the most profound consequences and ripple effects of the war to date.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Tom Nagorski: I thought it best perhaps to start with a fundamental question. Of all the ripple effects and consequences of the war that we’ve seen thus far, which has surprised you the most?
John McLaughlin: Tom, I think there are at least two. The first is how divided the world is on what Russia has done. I think we began, after the invasion, with an assumption that what (Putin) had done was so dramatically a break in the global order that the condemnation of the world would be much more uniform than it has been. In fact, what we’ve seen is condemnation — strong and united — in the West. But if you look back at the U.N. vote in March on whether to condemn his invasion, 59 percent of the world’s population voted either against condemning or they abstained.
Now, if you look underneath that, it was more complicated. A lot of Russia’s close friends actually abstained — Cuba, for example and others. Those who opposed it were very few, and they were the obvious ones — North Korea, China, Russia itself, Iran and so forth. But the point is, the world is not totally united on this, even though to the West and to Europe, and in particular in the United States, it seems like an egregious violation of everything that we’ve come to believe as important and sacred to bond international relations.
Maybe the second thing I’m a little surprised by, though I understand why, is that there has not been more of an overt, clear, detectable protest in Russia. The explanations are, in some respects, obvious. [Putin’s] propaganda machine is thorough. Russians really don’t know how or what to do because Putin in their view, and I’m taking this from Russian commentary, always gets his way.
A fair number of Russians that I expected to leave Russia have indeed left Russia in protest. It’s a mixed picture, but the bottom line as we head into the second six months is that Putin’s control is not seriously threatened.
TN: Josh Keating — what has most surprised you since February?
Josh Keating: I’ve particularly noticed, from my perspective as a journalist writing about the war, just the sheer level of public interest in this as a topic. I’ve written about quite a few international stories, conflicts, humanitarian crises. Obviously, the stakes of this one are extremely high, if not higher, than most of the others I’ve covered.
But the level of media interest, the level of public interest has really lasted. It’s been surprising and significant. There are still Ukrainian flags up all over my neighborhood, at least. And I think that this isn’t just a media story. I think this is important for the course of the war itself. One thing that perhaps Russia didn’t count on, one of Putin’s many miscalculations in launching this war, was the sheer level of global public support Ukraine would receive, and the fact that it’s a relatively easy decision for the Biden administration. It’s a relatively uncontroversial move when it announces a new multi-billion dollar weapons package for Ukraine. Compare that to some of the other priorities that they’ve been trying to get funding for.
This has lasted longer than I expected — probably longer than the Russians expected. When you talk to Ukrainian policymakers, they’re very aware of this. They know they’ve benefited from the amount of public attention they’ve gotten, and they worry about becoming, so to speak, another Syria, another ongoing story in the background — something people find very upsetting and disturbing, but it’s not something at the front of their minds. It’s not something they really want their governments to take strong action on. It’s interesting to me as a reporter, and almost heartening in a way, to see the interest the world has taken in this, but I think it has strategic implications as well for this conflict.
TN: It’s a really good point. John — from almost the first days of the war, there was not only surprise about the extent to which NATO was unified in its response and how robust that response was, there were also predictions that it wasn’t going to last, that the fracture was coming. Can you see any suggestion or evidence that unity may be threatened?
JM: I don’t actually see a threat to the unity. Everyone is aware that as we get into winter, it can be stressful in Europe, but I think they’ll get through that. I think for Europeans, particularly those on the front lines, the shock of this is still fresh.
If you look at what NATO has done, it’s quite remarkable. They’ve increased their forward deployments where they had battalions to brigade level. They’ve increased their troops on emergency alert from, I think, 40,000 to something like 300,000. Bringing in Sweden and Finland is an epic change in NATO. It would have been almost unimaginable in any other circumstances, particularly Finland. And both of those countries are very well equipped. They’re small militaries, but they’re equipped with state-of-the-art equipment. Their coming in basically turns the Baltic into a NATO sea.
The one worry I would have in all of this is actually the United States, because if you look at the billions of dollars we’re pouring into this and the fact that our weapons factories must be going at full tilt, this is yet another significant drain on the U.S. economy. So far, support in the U.S. remains high for this across the board politically, and as best I know, in the public, based on surveys. Nonetheless, it is another very expensive war after a period of 20 years when the U.S. has poured a lot of its treasure into war. I worry.
Within the NATO construct, the largest burden by any stretch is being carried by the United States. A number of the front-line states are spending at a rate that we’ve always wished they would. Their spending and what they’re contributing to the fight are significant, but tiny compared to what the U.S. is doing.
JK: One development I saw recently that was interesting was what’s happening in Italian politics. (Prime Minister Mario) Draghi, somebody who really called for solidarity and sacrifice to push back the Russian invasion, was recently forced to resign. It’s not just because of Ukraine, but it’s not entirely not because of Ukraine, either. There was a lot of dissension in his coalition, and support for Russia is higher in Italy than in other European countries. I think both because of skepticism of the amount of military support Italy’s been giving and because of this economic disruption that all European countries, including Italy, are facing, it’s very much related to this war. You could argue this was the first government brought down partly because of this war and partly because of economic ripple effects related to this war.
I think we may see more of that. If you listen to NATO leaders, they think they’re preparing for a yearslong conflict here. We’re only just beginning to see the economic and political fallout.
TN: Before we leave Europe, I’ll just add that our colleague Nikhil Kumar has done a piece on Germany — the tensions and some nightmare scenarios due to their real dependence on Russia for energy supplies. They’re worried about what winter may bring and what another cutoff of natural gas from Russia may bring. But what’s interesting is that the polling has stayed firmly and robustly behind Ukraine. They’re already taking measures in terms of cutting their consumption and capping up gas storage facilities. It still may be a rough winter, but it’s not as nightmarish a scenario there as it looks.
Leaving Europe for a moment — John, if you would talk for a moment about China. I’ve been struck by not only the rhetoric, but the extent to which China seems to be carrying the Kremlin message.
JM: It’s really interesting. I’d put it in the category of a surprise for me. I thought the war would put China in more of a corner than it has. I don’t think the Chinese have anything to lose here. Unless they were to do something that brought about Western sanctions on China, which they have carefully avoided. They have carefully avoided doing anything that would provide an excuse for sanctioning them.
Their line has remained fairly consistent throughout the war. They say they want the war to end, and that the West is prolonging the war. Second, they oppose sanctions, and therefore, they don’t participate in them. And third, they say this has no relationship to Taiwan.
The Chinese have always thought of the Russians as their junior partner, and here I think the Russians have become the dependent partner. I know that they’re getting money from selling oil, but China doesn’t really cherish or aspire to have a deep economic relationship with Russia. It wants access to the kind of technical aid that is available through Europe and the United States. It’s walking this line where it tries to preserve that, while also not losing Russia’s allegiance.
TN: Josh, are there some governments where there’s a certain resentment of the West over the war? I think of some nations in Africa or other parts of the world that are maybe not defending Vladimir Putin, but certainly not rushing to walk the line of the West.
JK: I’d say that’s the case. I think that was the implicit message of Secretary (of State Antony) Blinken’s recent trip to Africa. There are a lot of countries that may not support the war, but they don’t see it as beyond the pale or that different from conflicts or atrocities perpetrated by governments that the U.S. either ignores or has supported in various cases.
Biden’s recent trip to Saudi Arabia probably didn’t help on the messaging that the animating principle of his foreign policy is supporting democracy or the global struggle against authoritarianism.
We also have to look at what this war is doing to global food prices and energy prices, and the disruptive effect that it’s having with some of the most vulnerable populations in the world. You can say that that’s Russia’s fault, that these countries’ quibbles should be with Moscow for blockading Ukraine’s ports, but Russia has been fairly effective at spreading the message that it’s Western sanctions on Russia and Western support for the Ukrainian military effort which are having these disruptive effects.
Some of that may be alleviated now that we’re seeing this U.N. deal to resume some shipments of grain through the Black Sea. But as promising a sign as those deliveries are, the global economic impact of this crisis on some of the most conflict-torn, vulnerable regions of the world is going to continue, and they may not apportion blame for that situation the same way that Washington would necessarily like them to.
JM: This goes back to the first point I was making about how the world has reacted. Within the West, and particularly in NATO, there was full consultation on this from Day One but in the rest of the world, there wasn’t a lot of consultation. And that’s another complaint you hear, particularly from the Gulf countries, that this is an important event, but no one was consulting us about it.
There are countries in the world that have experienced a lot of war — Iraq, for example, doesn’t want anything to do with this. Other countries think that weighing in would only fuel the crisis. The Africans, for their part, have rather strong complaints that the Ukrainians discriminated against (their citizens) as they were trying to leave Ukraine at one point, making it hard for them to do so.
And to Josh’s point, if you look at what’s happening in some of these drought-stricken parts of the Sahel or other parts of the world, geopolitics just doesn’t have any relevance when you’re starving. It does, but it’s not what you’re thinking about. You’re thinking about where’s that next bowl of rice coming from. Where do I get water for my kids?
The war has really shown us what an incredibly varied world we live in in terms of what people are experiencing and how they think about events. We judge through the lens of traditional foreign policy thinkers, but if you’re a U.S. policymaker, you want to reflect on this and say, “What does this mean for the future when we’re no longer fighting a Ukraine war?” Because this is the world we’re looking at. We’re not looking at a world that responds instantly to American leadership.
If you’re making calculations in some other country about where you stand on events, you don’t have the same kind of metronomic certainty that you always had from the U.S. in international affairs. Josh referred to Italy earlier. I used to do some writing on Italy years ago, and I recall a quote from an Italian philosopher on the left, Antonio Gramsci, who said once in very different circumstances, after World War I, “The old is dead, but the new cannot yet be born.” Which seems appropriate when you talk about how you would characterize global order at this moment.
TN: A question from the audience: “Do you think the Chinese are getting the message as to what awaits them if they invade Taiwan?” Meaning, a message from this war about potential conflict there?
JK: I wouldn’t draw that out too far. The parallels are obvious between the two conflicts, and it’s obvious why people are making these comparisons. But they’re very different circumstances. In terms of the type of conflict that would be, Taiwan would be an amphibious invasion, which makes it more logistically difficult, but also a lot more difficult to supply Taiwan in the case of an invasion. There’s not a Poland next door through which to stream weapons into Taiwan, and China wouldn’t have to tolerate that the way that Russia has.
If you look at the messaging coming out of Beijing, they seem to endorse the Russian premise about NATO expansion — how it was Western military aggression and moving the Western military closer and closer to Russian frontiers that made this war inevitable. They’ve drawn comparisons to U.S. military activities in the Pacific. They see it as the U.S. chipping away at the one-China policy. Most recently with Nancy Pelosi’s visit, they mentioned more and more U.S. military hardware getting into Taiwan.
It’s important to look at these comparisons and understand that these countries aren’t necessarily viewing the consequences of these events the same way we are. The message they are getting might be a little surprising.
TN: John, another question from our audience: “Does Vladimir Putin have a ‘last straw,’ something that would make him declare open war on NATO?” That was something some people feared at the outset — some NATO-Russia conflagration.
JM: Well, I don’t think anyone can really read (Putin’s) mind. But I don’t know that I would say there is a “last straw.” What I would say is that he is going to become increasingly desperate as the war continues.
I think it’s fair to say that the momentum is currently with the Ukrainians. The latest Pentagon figures say that there have been 80,000 Russian casualties, which includes killed as well as wounded. When you consider his initial force going in was only 190,000, that’s significant.
The Ukrainians are now doing the most harmful thing they can do to the Russians, which is reaching deep into their command and control, and destroying ammunition dumps and portions of their logistics branches and so forth. I don’t know whether this heralds a new approach or counteroffensive, but the Russians are approaching a point where this is going to become harder and harder for them. I don’t know whether that’s the last straw, but when Putin realizes that he’s just not going to win this in any way that is easy to sell with Russia, he becomes less predictable, and the idea of lashing out at NATO becomes more possible.
The final thing that would really be a last straw for him would be something that indicated his power at home was seriously jeopardized. So far, as best we can tell, it has not been. If Putin’s hold on power was beginning to unravel, that’s what would trigger him to do something. I don’t know whether we’d call it an all-out attack on NATO, but to do something that would escalate the war to a level that would challenge NATO in a way it has not been challenged yet. It could come through an attack on NATO supply lines coming into Ukraine. That would be probably the most obvious thing that he could do that would escalate in what people would call a horizontal way. Horizontal escalation. That is a big tough question. But that’s my thinking about it.
Thanks to Alicia Benjamin for copy editing this article.