What Russia’s invasion of Ukraine means for the world

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has global implications. A panel of MIT foreign policy experts convened on Monday to examine those reverberations — on European domestic politics, the refugee crisis, great-power relations, and nuclear security.

Currently Ukraine has experienced widespread devastation, and millions of Ukrainians have fled their homes as refugees. Many countries have allied to enact stiff sanctions on Russia, and global sentiment has been with Ukraine. But as Monday’s discussion made clear, the global effects of the war may depend on how it evolves. If Russia ends up waging a “frozen conflict,” occupying some areas of the country indefinitely, with less visible devastation, it could produce a different long-term response.

Even in the current climate, Hungarian President Viktor Orban claimed an electoral victory this week, perhaps showing some limits to the European backlash against leaders with connections to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“One idea was that this war was going to end illiberalism in European states,” observed Roger Peterson, Arthur and Ruth Sloan Professor of Political Science at MIT, during Monday’s event. “I think that’s probably overblown.”

Indeed, Petersen added, even though Ukrainians have “won the information war” over the invasion, generating massive international sympathy, their struggle could soon become “routinized,” generating a less energized response in other countries.

“If it [turns] into some frozen conflict, this could be years and years of war,” Petersen said.

The event, “The Wider Implications of the War in Ukraine,” took place online as the latest installment of MIT’s Starr Forum, an ongoing series of public discussions on pressing foreign policy issues, held by the Center for International Studies (CIS).

Besides Petersen, the participants on the panel were Jacqueline Bhabha, a professor of the practice of health and human rights at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health; Joel Brenner, a senior research fellow at CIS and former head of U.S. counterintelligence under the Director of National Intelligence; Taylor Fravel, Arthur and Ruth Sloan Professor of Political Science at MIT and director of the MIT Security Studies Program (SSP); and Jim Walsh, a research associate in SSP.

The panel’s co-chairs and moderators were Carol Saivetz, senior advisor in SSP; and Elizabeth Wood, professor of history at MIT and co-director of the MISTI MIT-Russia Program.

Refugees and cyber issues

An estimated 4.5 million Ukrainians have been displaced since the war started in late February, with many becoming refugees in other European countries. But the European Union is allowing many Ukrainians to stay in other countries for a year or longer, a policy Bhabha endorsed.

“The EU’s response is something which sets a wonderful precent for refugee flows and will at least in part mitigate the tragedy,” Bhabha said. At the same time, she noted, “The challenge is immense, because of the scale of arrival [of refugees], and the scale of harm and devastation are huge.”

Moreover, whether the war in Ukraine sets a precedent for openness toward refugees is still quite uncertain. Bhabha noted that Venezuelans, Syrians, and Afghans, among others, have not received the same welcome in Europe as refugees of European origin. In any case, she added, national leaders should be prepared for further refugee crises.

“States should anticipate unpredictable needs [regarding refugees] rather than always being behind the curve,” Bhabha said.

Brenner, focusing his remarks on cyber warfare, noted that Russia has not really deployed the kind of disruptive technology attacks many expected.

“This looks like a puzzle at first, but it’s really not,” Brenner said. “If you’re blowing up the hospital, and if you’re blowing up the power plant, taking out its cyber network really is sort of beside the point.” He added: “We’re in a war that has cyber aspects to it, and it’s anything but a standalone cyber event.”

At the same time, Brenner noted, Russia is not having unqualified success in the cyber arena at the moment. Ukraine has obtained data about Russian military operations, and the U.S. Congress passed new measures recently that may “make resilience greater” against Russian operations.

Aligned with China

One of the most pressing issues in global geopolitics is how the relationship between Russia and China will be affected by the war in Ukraine. China has not joined the economic sanctions against Russia, but it has not undercut them, either.

“Even though China opposes the sanctions, China so far does not appear to be helping Russia to circumvent or overcome them,” Fravel said. “And, in fact, [China] has been quite cautious, seeking to understand the limits of these sanctions, so that its companies and firms do not get entangled in them, because that ultimately would be bad for Chinese business, and [that’s] something that China wants to avoid.”

Diplomatically, Fravel added, China has hurt its stature among many countries in Europe due to its relationship with Russia. “China has managed very successfully to annoy the one group of countries it was seeking to cultivate as part of its broader response to the United States,” he said.

Finally, there has been rampant speculation that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine might embolden China to initiate military action against Taiwan. But the problems Russia has encountered in Ukraine might equally well quell China’s likelihood of taking action, Fravel noted.

“Though of course China is not going to abandon any of its ambitions with respect to Taiwan, it may be more cautious, perhaps, in thinking about using the military,” Fravel said.

Rebuilding the relationship, versus the alternative

Walsh noted that Russia’s invasion, and Putin’s comments emphasizing Russia’s ability to use its nuclear arsenal, have heightened nuclear fears among more the public more than anything else in the last couple of decades — something that can be quantified through Google search patterns, for instance.

Moreover, Walsh added, “I think the odds of us removing tactical nuclear weapons from Europe have diminished significantly for a period of time.”

Still, Walsh said, he would not rule out the U.S. and Russia restarting a diplomatic dialogue over nuclear issues eventually.

“I think this [the war] is going to go on for a while, and I think that will continue to impede those conversations, but eventually — quietly perhaps at first, but eventually — the two countries will be pressed to talk again to reduce mutual dangers,” Walsh said.

Brenner also presented a similar conclusion. At the moment, it is hard to see common ground between Russia, on the one hand, and the U.S. and Europe, on the other. But in the future, at some point, with shifts in the situation in Ukraine, the U.S. and Europe might try to reestablish a semblance of normalcy with Russia, if only to prevent an even more troublesome sense of division.

“This [war] is going to be long, it’s going to be nasty, and could involve a lot of human suffering,” Brenner said. “Remember, it’s hard to think about this, given what the Russians are doing now. But in the long run, we’re not interested in isolating Russia. The question is, can Russia be incorporated into what we in the West think of as a civilized international order? Because, if not, we’re either driving them permanently … into the arms of the Chinese, which is not in our interest, or [Russia may remain] a volatile unsatisfied revanchist state which will continue to cause trouble. We don’t want that.”