I have never tried to write anything about war before, and all words seem inadequate; but it feels wrong not to acknowledge somewhere on the CDS website what is currently unfolding in Ukraine. But why just Ukraine? Why not also Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, Burma, Ethiopia? Does even the hint that the war in Ukraine is qualitatively different from those elsewhere reveal a parochial Euro-centrism? Perhaps it does. But here are five tentative suggestions why Russia’s invasion of Ukraine may have significance for development studies beyond being one more of many tragedies.
First, it is a sharp reminder that we still live under the threat of nuclear weapons. This may be an underwhelming revelation to inhabitants of Seoul. But for many of us, it has perhaps been too easy to focus on poverty, climate change, pandemics and other issues, trusting that the threat of MAD (mutual assured destruction) reinforced by increased economic interdependence, would guarantee us against nuclear disaster. We hope it will. But Vladimir Putin has explained very clearly that he regards the war in Ukraine as part of a wider struggle to reassert Russia’s superpower status in the face of NATO expansion, and that he will use whatever is necessary to achieve those goals. Even without nuclear weapons, the war will weaken attempts to control military spending and limit the global arms trade.
Second, far from celebrating the post-Cold War ‘end of history’ development studies has long debated with the ghost of Karl Polanyi what ‘second movement’ societal reactions would result from the excesses of global commodification under post 1947 Pax Americana. Inequality, periodic economic crises and environmental destruction have been integral to this model of economic growth, just as they were during the first great wave of economic globalisation under Pax Britannica that ended with the first World War in 1914. Putin’s justification for the invasion of Ukraine adds to the evidence that the dominant reaction is a nasty strain of nationalist and sectarian populism. While he may have taken this to new levels, his rhetoric resonates with ideas also promoted by Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey, Boris Johnson in the UK, Narendra Modi in India, Viktor Orbán in Hungary, Donald Trump in the USA (all men) and many others. This reaction has too often eclipsed more benign forms of ‘decommodification’ through social policies inspired by social movements.
Third, Russia’s blatant disregard for Ukraine’s territorial integrity is a further blow to multilateralism and international law. There are other precedents for illegal annexation of others’ land, particularly Israel’s seizure of Palestinian Territory. And Israel has enjoyed immense financial, military and diplomatic support over 55 years from many of the same governments that now (rightly) condemn Russia’s action in Ukraine. Nevertheless, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine adds to the risk of further aggression elsewhere, and not just in former Soviet states. In a speech to the Security Council on February 22 Martin Kimani (Kenya’s representative to the UN) contrasts Putin’s denial of Ukraine’s nationhood and unilateral redrawing of frontiers with the restraint shown by African states in challenging each other’s sovereignty, despite the arbitrariness of the borders they inherited through colonial conquest and decline.
Fourth, the war in Ukraine, and its likely effects on Russia itself, have potentially huge global economic consequences. Rising prices of oil, gas, fertilizer, grain and other commodities will bring a windfall to other exporters of these products but is already pushing millions into poverty. Western sanctions may also have important adverse side-effects on the so-called ‘rules based’ economic order that seeks to govern investment, trade, travel and digital communication as public goods. Reversion to more activist and autarkical economic strategies, including reshoring and the erection of state-controlled stacks of digital infrastructure, predated the invasion of Ukraine. But to the extent that new economic weapons work then fear of their use will accelerate global economic and financial fragmentation as Russia, China and other countries seek to reduce their dependence on international trade, financial markets, payment infrastructure and Western dominated regulatory clubs. Some may welcome this as an antidote to the excesses of economic globalization, that also adds impetus to the shift in economic and political power from West to East. Reluctance to comply with US led sanctions may also reinforce non-aligned solidarity across the ‘global south’. But the costs of all this disruption on incomes, connectivity and personal freedoms will fall indirectly and to some extent arbitrarily on many countries and people with no direct interest in Ukraine.
Fifth, Putin’s military aggression throws the focus back on state capability. James Scott identified four key drivers of state failure in the last century. Authoritarianism, often rooted in monopolistic control of commodity rents, was only one of them. The others were an overly simplistic state-led ordering of society and nature, cultivation of a muscular techno-scientific ideology of “high-modernism” and weakened space for dissent. Arguments for strengthening state capability developed with reference to Covid-19 will now also need to factor in Putin’s abuse of power alongside those of Hugo Chavez and Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela, Robert Mugabe and Emmerson Mnangagwa in Zimbabwe, Jacob Zuma in South Africa and many more. A key point here is the failure to articulate alternatives to authoritarian populism, and to organise politically behind a shared interest in building and protecting consensual collective capability for public action at local, national and supra-national levels. This alternative necessarily accommodates dissent, debate and political deliberation based on diverse social identities, geographies, economic interests and world views. But the challenge is to avoid such debate becoming so heated and polarized that it distracts from the underlying shared interest in building and protecting institutions that confer collective capability to address global problems. That capability has become weaker at the global level, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will make additional demands on what remains of it.
This is a depressing list of potential global impacts, and not just for Europeans. A sixth point is that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine prolongs an era of uncertainty. But was there ever any other? And perhaps the magnitude of these threats can also galvanize previously unimagined responses.