Global connectivity means regional instability portends global instability

“This year can be called a year of losses for Ukraine, for the whole of Europe, and the whole world. But it’s wrong. We shouldn’t say that. We haven’t lost anything. It was taken from us.” — Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky

By Peter Schlosser

Last February, as war broke out across Ukraine, the tech-connected world sat transfixed by the sheer destruction carried out by the Russian military. We watched a great power push its size and might on a smaller sovereign nation. We witnessed attacks on civilians that harkened back to World War II tactics. Throughout the past year, we have witnessed the guiding principles of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s military strategy: destruction of vital infrastructure leading to human suffering–all intended to break the will of the Ukrainian people.

This war has captured the world’s attention. The reasons are manifold. An important element of the Ukraine War is that it is not a civil war. Rather, it is a contest between two sovereign countries. The war is remarkable because one of those countries is a military superpower and because there is historical context, both with the nation it is attacking and in the larger global context. Ukraine is the overachieving underdog, a narrative it has shared successfully through social media platforms. It is also a battle between autocracy and democracy. And there is an element of racism, most prominently witnessed in the acceptance of refugees.

Yet, I would argue the reason the Ukraine War remains in the headlines, more prominent than, for example, the Syrian or Ethiopian civil wars, relates to the conquest’s global impact. The Ukraine War has severely affected global food and energy markets, leading to increased food insecurity and concerns over energy availability. It has deepened inflation. Europe is fortunate to have had a mild winter, although given the increased frequency of extreme weather events, there is no guarantee that this situation will continue. Additionally, fears that European nations would backslide toward fossil fuels did not come to fruition. Last year saw greater investment in new renewables projects than in new oil and gas undertakings.

Whether Ukraine’s underdog story will remain in the headlines is uncertain. Attention spans are short, and as political leadership changes, so do policies. Additionally, countries that have demonstrated a willingness to help are evaluating their decisions, looking at the possible tradeoffs and employing an us-before-them mindset. For example, members of the U.S. House of Representatives’ “Freedom” Caucus are arguing to scale back or suspend aid to Ukraine, suggesting the U.S. government needs to focus on crises within our borders. This “America First” policy ignores the domino effects of the war. Germany’s imperial ambitions did not end with Poland. Putin’s strategy remains baffling — he is destroying the land he is attempting to acquire and ruining his global reputation as he employs the brutal strategy of targeting civilians. If Russia occupies Ukraine, what’s next? How high of a price are we willing to pay to prevent the expansion of authoritarian regimes?

Ukraine clearly demonstrates that regional instability is a threat to global stability because of the interconnected, complex interaction between humans and our planet. Seeking global stability does not mean protecting the status quo. If societal structures safeguard–or worse, strengthen–the corrosive values of influence, power and wealth, they will precondition transitions to instability. We must anticipate and avoid such structures and change them where they already exist. We must also interrogate why the Ukraine War has had a greater systemic impact than other conflicts and open our eyes to the effects of colonialism, racism and land grabs on commerce, finance and aid. Equity and justice are fundamental components of thriving global futures for all.

We must also interrogate why the Ukraine War has had a greater systemic impact than other conflicts and open our eyes to the effects of colonialism, racism and land grabs on commerce, finance and aid. Equity and justice are fundamental components of thriving global futures for all.

A common refrain in academia is that more research is needed. It is simultaneously repetitive and true. Academia needs to inform decisions that have to be made on many fronts with extreme urgency: How is military conflict changing in light of the Ukraine War? How can the world design resilient global systems that can withstand regional and planet-wide shocks? What tools can be used to promote ethical knowledge and value systems? What policies can lift up equity to enhance stability? These are questions that need answers now, and the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory is designed to find ways to contribute to these complex issues in a timely fashion. This requires not only prioritizing new topics in our studies but also changing the way we engage with those who have to make the hard decisions that will determine the stability of the future we will live in.

Peter Schlosser is the vice president and vice provost of Global Futures and director of the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory at Arizona State University. This article first appeared in the Global Futures: Now newsletter in February 2023. Sign up for the newsletter at globalfutures.asu.edu/gfl-newsletters.

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