Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine has been catastrophic. It has led to the loss of tens of thousands of precious lives, the displacement of millions of people, and the destruction of countless homes, civilian buildings and infrastructure. It has also unravelled Russia’s moral and strategic standing in the world, as it has become clear just how badly prepared the Russian army really is and how exaggerated Russian economic might has been.
The war has also been disastrous for the rest of the world. Not only has it destabilised energy markets, fuelled inflation and disrupted the supply of foods and commodities, but it has also exposed and aggravated the poor state of world affairs, accelerating nuclear proliferation, fuelling an arms race, crippling the United Nations, and undermining international law, multilateral cooperation, and humanitarian assistance. It has been a truly stupid war. Russian interference in Ukrainian affairs escalated in 2014 with Moscow’s forced annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and its instigation of a conflict in the Donbas region. The failure of European powers to reach a diplomatic solution in the following years, combined with the United States push to expand NATO eastwards, led to the worst, most primitive attempt at resolving a conflict: a war of choice.
Russia’s decision to invade and bomb its beloved, Ukraine, after long boasting of their shared attachment, history and culture, is not romantic; it is necrophilic. It has also made the whole world feel that much more unsafe. And like other wars of choice before it, it has exposed the limits and outright failure of the international system.
The bipolar, the unipolar and now the multipolar world orders have demonstrated that when it comes to the world powers, there is no hope to be had from international law or international agreements during geopolitical conflicts. These are for the weak to honour at gunpoint and for the strong to violate at will. It is a rigged global system that favours the powerful against the powerless – one that will, in all likelihood, lead to more countries pursuing a nuclear deterrent to fend for themselves. It is no wonder, many reckon Ukraine was naïve to give up its Soviet-era nukes in 1994, in return for international assurances, including Russian and American security assurances, under the Budapest Memorandum.
More countries like Iran, Japan, and South Korea may follow in the footsteps of Pakistan, India, North Korea, and Israel, by going nuclear, trampling over non-proliferation efforts. International security has been further strained by Russian invocation of nuclear war, lapsed nuclear treaties, and the US secretly modernising nuclear weapons deployed to five NATO countries. The West is also jumping into an arms race. In January, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg made a rather Orwellian declaration, saying that “weapons are – in fact – the way to peace”.
European nations, large and small, are hiking their military expenditures, including the once great power Germany, which had stayed out of the arms race since its defeat in World War II. Last year, Berlin announced it was setting up a $113bn military fund. Russia has also planned a 2023 defence budget of approximately $84bn, 40 percent higher than the forecast budget put forward in 2021. To be sure, that is only 10 percent of what the US will spend on its military in 2023.
Alarmed at the events in Europe and the hostile rhetoric from the West, China has also joined the arms race with an increase in military spending – its largest ever in absolute terms, prompting greater military spending by its neighbours. The new arms race is great news for the war industry which is flourishing like never before. Since 2014, world military spending has increased each and every year, reaching an all-time high of $2.1 trillion in 2021. Unsurprisingly, the five largest spenders are the US, China, India, the United Kingdom and Russia, accounting for 62 percent of global defence expenditures.
Needless to say, such increases in military spending necessitate cutting other public spending – mostly on social security, education and healthcare – which does not bode well for the common good. The extent of global warmongering was apparent at this year’s Munich Security Conference which just concluded. While Stoltenberg warned the West against making the same mistake with China as it did with Russia, Western leaders underlined their commitment to war, turning the conference hall into a war room – diplomacy be damned.
This is bad news for an already chaotic and unstable international system and for the fragile continental security in Europe and Asia. War feeds into more war and in the process corrupts language, culture and international relations by reinforcing the cycle of madness. “We will fight till the end”, “as long as it takes”, and “all options are on the table” have become the mantras of the Western security establishment which seems to disregard their consequences. All this madness demonstrates just how disastrous America’s leadership by example – the example of its power – has been for the world. Its insistence since 2008 on expanding the NATO alliance to Russia’s borders and its “democracy promotion” in the region were the foremost pretexts for the Russian invasion.
Likewise, its military overreach, especially its invasion of Iraq on a false pretence, has been a destabilising factor the world over. The US, along with Russia, has been a leading arms exporter, including to some of the world’s poorest nations and worst regimes, reaching Faustian security deals with the Middle East’s greatest violators of human rights, while hypocritically championing the global fight for democracy and human rights. It should come as no surprise that following its own invasion of Iraq, the US condemnation of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine rings hollow for much of the world. Similarly, its recognition of Israel’s illegal annexation of the occupied Palestinian and Syrian territories has undermined its condemnation of the Russian annexation of Ukrainian land.
Cynicism is contagious in the international arena, and superpower cynicism has spread like the plague, reaching all corners of the world. The hypocrisy of world powers has undermined multilateralism and cooperation during global health and humanitarian emergencies and alienated much of the world in the process. No wonder, countries in the Global South are looking out for their own interests, come what may, and have remained largely neutral on the Russian war in Ukraine, despite US pressure to engage. While some have joined Western nations in condemning the Russian invasion at the UN, most have not lent a hand in support of Kyiv and have maintained or even strengthened their relations with Moscow.
Leaders outside the Western orbit have generally gone hybrid, refusing to stick to one camp and rather seeking to preserve their interests, leveraging relations with Washington, Moscow and Beijing. Authoritarian regimes – inspired and emboldened by the misbehaviour of world powers – are also acting to preserve their very own narrow interests, regardless of the common good, or any moral, public or global consideration. Although we have made major strides forward as a human civilisation, culminating in healthier, richer, better-educated generations, we seem attracted, if not addicted, to destructive conflicts that could set us back generations.
History teaches us that great powers decline or perish because of reckless wars, but to no avail. For decades, Russia and America have followed in each other’s footsteps, fighting wars they could not finish except in humiliation and massive destruction. And then came Ukraine, alas. Stupid, indeed.