March 28, 2023:
The War in Ukraine means different things to different people around the world. To Western countries this is a big deal as it is the first war between major European military powers since 1945 and an end of three decades of Russian efforts to operate like a democratic industrialized country. This effort started going bad after a decade and by 2022 Russia had fully reverted to its ancient aggressive dictatorship role. The “West” currently includes industrialized democracies, including South Korea and Japan in East Asia, Australia and New Zealand adjacent to Southeast Asia, Israel in the Middle East but no others in the Middle East and no nations in Africa. Russia was brought low by its massive and endemic corruption. All nations are corrupt to some degree but in Russia the corruption breeds aggressive behavior towards neighbors. Ukraine is one of those neighbors, but one with many powerful friends in the West, especially in the NATO alliance.
Nations outside the Western network have a different perspective on the Ukraine War. The rest of the world views Europe as a wealthy region with self-destructive tendencies. Historically, Britain, the Netherlands and France were the aggressive face of Europe. For about a century (until the 1960s) European colonization efforts in Africa brought some economic development and Western higher education for a tiny, but influential, number of Africans. Similar colonial efforts took place in some parts of Asia, with similar effect. These foreign interlopers were remembered as heavily armed, short tempered and driven to achieve their goals (religious, economic or imperial). These European efforts did not last long. Even the Americans, who got involved after the colonization effort was already underway, lost their enthusiasm for it after a few decades. The rest of the w0rld wanted to be left alone and saw the West as a source of reliable customer for raw materials. The Europeans now exercise aggression against each other and the Ukraine War is seen as another episode of that. The rest of the world is concerned about the nuclear weapons European nations have and the global impact of their use in Europe.
Most of the non-Western nations don’t take sides about who is good or bad in the Ukraine War. It’s a distant event with a distant chance of impacting the lives of non-industrialized nations. Not just with possible nuclear fall-out but with global economic disruptions. The fighting disrupted the export of much of the food the non-Western nations depend on. Food prices have gone up sharply and people are going hungry. There is less foreign aid for poor countries because of the high costs of Western nations supplying Ukraine with weapons and much else.
The Ukraine War is having a worldwide impact that does not reflect favorably on either side in the conflict. You could see these attitudes in action as the UN debated on what they could do. Not much, it turned out, except to demand that both sides stop.
The Russian plan for a quick, cheap conquest turned out to be an expensive military and economic disaster that they can’t seem to extricate themselves from. For the rest of Europe, it was a wakeup call to do something about the sorry state of their own armed forces. NATO that are close to, or share borders with Russia, had already been rearming and trying to get more distant (from Russia) NATO members to take the threat seriously. One interesting side effect was Finland and Sweden abandoning long-held neutrality to join NATO.
On the plus side, Europeans were relieved that Russia’s high-tech weapons were largely overhyped failures. Russia is trying to fix that while the war continues but the “fix” requires some Western components which are no longer available due to economic sanctions. The war also halted shipments of Russian natural gas and oil to Europe. Russia hoped that fear of those energy supplies being halted would reduce NATO support for Ukraine. That was not the case. Europe coped and put a higher priority on arming the Ukrainians. Europeans were able to obtain natural gas and oil, at higher prices, from African, Middle Eastern and Asian producers.
From a distance, the Ukraine War seemed like an action drama with an unexpected hero in Ukrainian president Volodymyr (Vladimir) Zelensky and a relentless villain in Russian leader (as he prefers to be called), president Vladimir Putin. Russian troops have been ordered or encouraged to misbehave in Ukraine to the extent that Putin was recently accused of war crimes by the ICC (International Criminal Court). Putin dismissed the ICC as a purveyor of NATO propaganda.
The war grinds on, with the bad guys losing but not yet willing to give up. Russia is either determined or masochistic or a bit of both. Ukraine considers victory to be the expulsion of Russians from all Ukrainian territory. The Russians have been on the defensive for nearly a year and NATO is sending Ukraine tanks and other armored vehicles to finish the job before the second year of fighting is over.
The aftermath of this conflict will be another chapter in European history well worth remembering.