This was the week when the war in Ukraine truly transitioned from one nation’s bloody fight for liberation against Russia’s vicious onslaught to a potentially years-long great power struggle.
Every day brought a sense of grave, historic events and decisions that will not just decide who wins the biggest land war between two countries in Europe since World War II, but will shape the course of the rest of the 21st century.
President Joe Biden declared Thursday that two months of fighting in the war triggered by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked invasion had brought the world to a critical point. “Throughout our history, we’ve learned that when dictators do not pay the price for their aggression, they cause more chaos and engage in more aggression,” Biden said. “They keep moving. And the costs, the threats to America and the world, keep rising. We can’t let this happen.”
Hawkish British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss was more blunt: “Geopolitics is back.”
Over just a few days, a new realization dawned in Washington, Europe, Kyiv and Moscow. The war is now transitioning into a long, bitter struggle, which will likely cost thousands more lives and tens of billions of dollars. The US strategy is now unequivocal and public — to weaken Russia to diminish its global threat. There are fresh signs of the Kremlin’s desire to eradicate Ukrainian culture in its pulverizing of eastern and southern cities. And Putin unleashed a new front — energy warfare — as he cut off natural gas supplies to Bulgaria and Poland in what the EU quickly branded “blackmail.” As these conflicting aims came into focus, nuclear rhetoric heated up yet again, with Russia keen to warn of the implied power of its vast arsenal, and Washington trying to avoid an escalatory cycle that could lead to a direct superpower clash. The carnage in Ukraine, meanwhile, goes on. Vicious attacks and sieges of civilian areas prefaced Russia’s new assault on the south and east — battles that could decide whether Ukraine survives as a nation. Yet this week also brought the first signs that Russians accused of atrocities could face accountability.
But the alarming reality that no credible diplomatic track exists to end the war was laid bare when Russian missiles slammed into Kyiv on Thursday while UN Secretary-General António Guterres was still in town on an apparently futile mission, which had begun earlier in the week with tense talks with Putin.
A visit to Kyiv by Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Secretary of State Antony Blinken under a news blackout on Sunday set the stage for a week in which the West threw itself ever deeper into what looks like a proxy war with Russia.
“We want to see Russia weakened to the degree that it can’t do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine,” Austin said in Poland after returning from Ukraine.
Blinken conjured a long-term future that must have antagonized the strongman in the Kremlin, saying there would be an independent, sovereign Ukraine “a lot longer than there’s going to be a Vladimir Putin.”
The US backed up its new strategic clarity by gathering key global defense ministers in Germany and committing to monthly meetings to assess the needs of the government in Kyiv.
These moves fueled a growing sense that the war in Ukraine will not end any time soon. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said Thursday that the war could “drag on and last for months and years.”
Truss, meanwhile, urged for an expansion of US and Western military aid to guard against Russian expansionism — calling for the arming of nations in the Western Balkans and non-NATO states Georgia and Moldova.
Russia responded to the stiffened Western strategy by taking its own steps to widen the footprint of the conflict, cutting off natural gas exports to Poland and Bulgaria after they refused to join its sanctions-evading scheme to pay their bills in rubles. A further widening of energy warfare could pitch Europe into recession.
The cataclysmic global consequences of the war were meanwhile underscored when the World Bank warned of the worst commodities shock in 50 years. Russia and Ukraine are key producers of coal, oil, natural gas and cooking oils, and the budgets of millions of people around the world are going to take a hit. The likely failure of this summer’s harvest in Ukraine — a major source of wheat and corn for the world — could send food prices into a new inflationary spiral and fuel greater food insecurity. In the US, higher prices could have big impact on the midterm elections in November.
Biden ended a week that reshaped the world by unveiling an extraordinary $33 billion request to Congress for weapons, economic support and humanitarian aid to Ukraine, warning, “The cost of this fight is not cheap.”
The President’s request underscored how the war in Ukraine is not just a defining stand of his administration but that the events of recent days will cause political, economic and geopolitical chain reactions that will be impossible to predict and difficult to control.