War in Ukraine

How the war has changed the world

Russia's invasion of Ukraine last week is recasting geopolitics and the impact has spilled into aviation, oil prices, sports and other spheres. Here is a look at how the world has changed and how the crisis might play out. Assistant Foreign Editor Magdalene Fung reports.

Ukraine shows its fighting spirit 

Observers have portrayed the situation in Ukraine as a "David versus Goliath" battle, pessimistic about its chances of standing up to its giant adversary.

The country's own commander of military intelligence service, General Kyrylo O. Budanov, was cited before the war as expecting the Ukrainian forces to "very quickly… be incapacitated" in the event of a Russian invasion.

But the strength and resolve of the Ukrainian people to defend their homeland now appear to have been underestimated, just as the biblical David was.

The Ukrainian forces have put up such a spirited fight that the Russians are said to be days behind their initial plan of sweeping through the country quickly, capturing the capital Kyiv and overthrowing its government.

On the ninth day of the invasion, yesterday, Russia could claim to have captured only one major city, the southern port of Kherson.

This is despite the Ukrainian armed forces being severely outnumbered. Russia's total armed forces of 900,000 are over four times that of Ukraine's.

Of course, Russia has not committed its total military might to the fight, and Ukraine's losses have not been light. Kyiv, Chernihiv in the north, Kharkiv in the east, and the southern port of Mariupol are among cities facing heavy bombardment.

Still, years of training following the 2014 Crimean crisis have shaped the Ukrainian army into a stronger, more lethal force. Billions worth of incoming military aid have boosted morale. And media reports of large numbers of Ukrainian conscripts signing up for battle, as well as viral videos showing defiant civilians pushing back against advancing Russian military convoys, have strengthened a sense of solidarity on the ground.

Europe drawn together by conflict

Prior to launching his invasion, Russian President Vladimir Putin had demanded a rewriting of Europe's security arrangements. Now, he may just have achieved what he asked for - but not in the way he intended.

Germany, appalled by Russia's assault on Ukraine, has abandoned its historically military-averse foreign policy: It has lifted restrictions that had for decades held it back from supplying weapons to war zones, and boosted defence spending.

Berlin will now send weapons to Ukraine, allow German-made arms stockpiled by other countries to be given to Ukraine, and spend more than 2 per cent of its economic output on beefing up its military. German defence spending in recent years has hovered around 1.5 per cent of its gross domestic product.

Scandinavian countries' long-held policy of neutrality is also shifting, with Finland and Sweden deciding to supply arms to Ukraine as well. Public opinion in both Sweden and Finland appears to have tilted towards Nato membership in recent days, as a consequence of Russian aggression.

Switzerland, practically a synonym for neutrality for long years, is also sending weapons to Ukraine.

Nato - for the first time - deployed its combat-ready response force last week in allied territory to protect member countries if fighting spills beyond Ukraine's borders. And while Ukraine is not a Nato member, the military alliance is also sending ammunition and equipment to the beleaguered state.

All these moves taken together indicate the beginning of a fundamental shift in Europe's security arrangements: Nato's relevance is reasserted and the region regains a common perspective, strengthening its collective security against Russia. That is the opposite of what Mr Putin had hoped for.

History is not over, war is not obsolete

In the nearly 80 years since World War II ended, much of the world has lived in relative peace. This has prompted some scholars to argue that the notion of war - in particular, large interstate conflict between great powers - was obsolete.

Among the most widely known of these scholars is US political scientist Francis Fukuyama, who in his 1992 book The End Of History And The Last Man argued that the combination of liberal democratic and capitalist ideals alongside greater global economic interdependence had significantly lowered the likelihood of open warfare, as everyone now had more to lose in the event of armed conflict.

But as news broke progressively over the past week - first of the Russian invasion, and then of various nations' decisions to beef up defences and impose wide-ranging hard-hitting sanctions on Russia that hit both ways - the premise of "the end of history" was shattered.

The prospect of a large, lengthy war now looms over Europe, threatening the rest of the world.

With some Western sanctions also targeting countries that have sided with Russia, and Moscow retaliating with measures of its own, the risks of a new Iron Curtain being erected have risen.

These developments have made it urgent for countries around the world - regardless of their stance on the Russia-Ukraine war - to rethink their foreign and domestic policies in order to ensure national security, food and energy supplies, as well as safeguard financial markets, among others.

The events may also spur traditional fence-sitters towards tighter alignments with major powers, and nudge smaller nations towards more intensive diplomatic efforts to keep their adversaries at bay.

China's 'no limits' support questioned

For a big power that has long trumpeted its view on the importance of sovereign rights and a policy of non-interference, China's responses to the Russia-Ukraine conflict have angered many observers in the Western-centric sphere of influence.

It has refused to call Russia's incursion into Ukraine an "invasion", blamed the West for inflaming tensions in Europe, and has said it will not join Western sanctions against Russia because it does not believe that such punitive tools can help resolve the issues.

In a vote this week on the United Nations General Assembly resolution to demand Russia's immediate military withdrawal from Ukraine, China was one of 35 countries to abstain, while 141 countries voted for the resolution and five voted against it.

While Beijing insists that it is holding firm to its approach of neutrality, its actions in recent days seem at odds with that assertion.

Only last month, Beijing and Moscow released a ground-breaking statement declaring that their partnership had "no limits", denouncing Nato enlargement, and asserting that they would set up a new world order.

It was the first time that China had explicitly sided with Russia on issues concerning European security.

In balancing its competing foreign policy objectives, China appears to have prioritised power politics - its longer-term strategic goal of instituting a new world order with Russia that is more aligned with its interests - over its long-held stance on territorial integrity.

Still, Beijing's claimed neutrality and its close ties with Moscow could ultimately come in useful if it decides to help negotiate a ceasefire in Ukraine.

Russia's Putin: Cold, battle-minded warrior

Russia's President Vladimir Putin has often been regarded by political analysts as a calculating strategist - and with a measure of grudging admiration.

But these perceptions are changing.

Many commentators struggling to see the logic behind the Russian leader's high-stakes assault on Ukraine - essentially challenging the contemporary European world order and bringing the disaster of severe sanctions down on his own people - have put it down to Mr Putin having lost his reason.

There may be a method to his "madness", however. Mr Putin's actions reflect the thinking of a battle-minded warrior "ready for any outcome", as he declared at the start of the invasion.

Early last month, he forged new economic deals with Beijing, including a 30-year pact to supply Russian gas to China. Russia has also amassed US$630 billion (S$856 billion) in foreign exchange reserves - its greatest accumulation ever - though sanctions may now have put that money out of reach.

In pursuing the assault on Ukraine - a sovereign state - Mr Putin exhibited blatant disregard for international law. As Russian forces faced tough resistance, he brandished the nuclear option, ordering his country's nuclear arms on high alert.

As Spanish economist Xavier Vives put it in his commentary for international media outlet Project Syndicate: "It is to Putin's advantage if the West believes that Russia is so committed to its mission that it will risk incurring massive damage and that he might be capable of anything."

Perhaps Mr Putin's moves in recent days have all been carefully orchestrated as part of his grand quest to return Russia to its former glory.

But whether he may have miscalculated the costs of this war is another question.

Ukraine's Zelensky: An unlikely hero

Until a bit over a week ago, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was considered to be a fairly weak leader by the diplomatic community.

This perception started shifting when Russian troops entered Ukraine on Feb 24.

Overnight, the former television comedian became the heroic face of Ukraine's fight against its powerful nuclear-armed neighbour, a galvanising force for his people, and a legitimate commander-in-chief of a country at war.

Where once he used his talent and charm to entertain on the big screen, he now channels all his broadcasting expertise into daily videos across his social media platforms, informing the world of the realities of war in Ukraine; assuring his people that he is staying on, fighting on; and pleading with world leaders to help.

"Every invader should know: they will face a fierce rebuff of Ukrainians and forever remember that we will not give up what's ours!" Mr Zelensky said forcefully in one such video on Facebook.

The President's present image is far from that of the clueless leader that Western media initially painted him to be, when he was pleading with the West to stop creating panic with their predictions of an imminent Russian attack.

For Moscow to meet its goal of overthrowing his government, Mr Zelensky must first be ousted. With his life in potential danger, Western leaders have urged him to flee the country. But he has insisted that he and his family will stay put.

Latest national polls conducted immediately after the Russian invasion showed that more than 90 per cent of Ukrainians have now thrown their support behind Mr Zelensky. His approval ratings have almost tripled since December.

Japan breaks up with Russia

Japan has emerged as the leading Asian voice against Russia's aggression in Ukraine.

Appalled by Russia's blatant disregard for international order, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida proclaimed that Tokyo's ties with Moscow will never be the same again as he imposed sanctions targeting Russia and Belarus early this week.

The sanctions - which include asset freezes and visa bans on officials, financial sanctions against banks and export restrictions of technology - have laid to waste years of Japanese efforts to foster better relations with Moscow.

The decisiveness of Japan's response this time contrasts with its hesitance in 2014 to sanction Russia following its annexation of Crimea: Tokyo was then engaged in talks with Moscow over the future of a disputed chain of islands off northern Japan.

Analysts say Tokyo's latest moves have written off any remote possibility of Japan ever regaining control of those islands, but Japan has done its sums. Forgoing any settlement over the islets has now freed the government to join its Western partners in firmly opposing Russia's aggression.

"The islands are not... critical to the nation's security. But what is happening in Ukraine is clearly very, very serious," Dr Hiromi Murakami, a professor of political science at the Tokyo campus of Temple University, told Deutsche Welle.

Japan's determination to act this time may also have been borne out of its concern over what failing to stand up to Moscow in Europe could mean for East Asia: namely, that Beijing could be emboldened in its efforts to reunify Taiwan with the Chinese mainland or seize a cluster of Japanese-administered islands also claimed by China and Taiwan.

Bye, bye cheap oil and gas

The invasion of Ukraine has triggered a surge in the prices of oil and gas, two of Russia's biggest exports, as sanctions against Moscow begin to bite.

Brent crude oil prices climbed close to US$120 a barrel on Thursday, while European gas prices soared by as much as 60 per cent, with a benchmark Dutch gas price hitting a record high on Wednesday.

The volatility comes after Britain blocked Russian-associated vessels from its ports, while the European Parliament called for the European Union to close its ports to Russian ships or ships going to or from Russia, which supplies around 40 per cent of the bloc's natural gas.

With some of the EU's largest nations - such as Germany, the biggest consumer of Russian gas in the bloc - receiving less gas from Russia, replacements must be sourced from elsewhere.

This means that competition can be expected to intensify for a smaller pool of global gas resources, making it likely for gas prices to rise.

Meanwhile, major oil and gas producers and traders are abandoning billions worth of investments in Russian gas reserves.

Singapore-headquartered global commodities trader Trafigura announced late on Wednesday that it had frozen its investments in Russia and would be reviewing its minority stake in a multibillion-dollar Russian arctic oil project.

This came shortly after Exxon Mobil said it would exit Russian investments valued at more than US$4 billion.

BP and Shell have also exited their investments in Russia.

Reporting by Kang Wan Chern

Swift changes to global banking

The European Union said on Wednesday it was excluding seven Russian banks from the Society of Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (Swift) payment messaging system, as part of the latest sanctions imposed on Russia.

Russia's second-largest bank VTB, Bank Otrkitie, Novikombank, Promsvyazbank, Bank Rossiya, Sovcombank and VEB will each be given 10 days to wind down their Swift operations.

Swift is the dominant messaging system underpinning global financial transactions, and is used by banks in some 200 countries to communicate rapidly and securely about such transactions.

About 300 Russian financial institutions, including many that have been sanctioned, use Swift, according to the Russian National Swift Association. They handle more than 80 per cent of the country's international settlements.

Therefore, cutting the seven Russian banks off Swift would cripple Russian trade and Russian firms' ability to operate worldwide, as they will no longer be able to use it to make or receive payments through foreign financial institutions.

Expelling Russia from Swift, which has been described as a nuclear option, will inflict great economic pain on its economy. When the West considered excluding Russia from Swift following the annexation of Crimea in 2014, it was estimated that the move could trim Russia's gross domestic product by 5 per cent in a year.

Only one other country has been excluded from Swift. BBC reported that when Iran was cut off from Swift in 2012, it lost 30 per cent of its foreign trade.

Reporting by Kang Wan Chern

Travellers may see longer, costlier flights

Air travel will likely become more complicated and expensive after a number of airlines stopped flights to and from Russia this week.

In his first State of the Union address on Tuesday, US President Joe Biden said that the United States will close its airspace to all Russian flights, joining other nations including Britain and the European Union in doing so.

Russia has closed its airspace to airlines from 36 countries, including all 27 EU member states. This is likely to cause a logistical nightmare for most airlines, as Russian airspace is often used to connect Europe with Asia. Without access to Russian airspace, many carriers will have to divert flights farther south over the Middle East. Travellers can expect cancellations of existing flight bookings or costly detours. Mr Albert Tjoeng, head of corporate communications at aviation trade body IATA, said the closure of Russian airspace to flights from certain countries will increase travel times on some routes, particularly from Europe to Asia.

Singapore Airlines on Monday said it was suspending all services between Singapore and Moscow, while Germany's Lufthansa said 30 flights to Russia would be cancelled this week. Korean Air, Japan Airlines and Japan's ANA Holdings said on Monday they were continuing to use Russian airspace but had no plans to add flights to Russia or Europe.

While these disruptions threaten to derail a nascent recovery in aviation as economies open up borders, Mr Tjoeng said that outside of routes linked to Russia and Ukraine, the scale of disruption to aviation is still contained for now, and traffic to and from many Asian destinations is still "very low".

Reporting by Kang Wan Chern

Supply chain crunch to worsen

A supply chain snarl that has delayed deliveries of goods and fuelled higher levels of inflation now looks set to continue, if not worsen, as the crisis in Ukraine unfolds and Russia finds itself increasingly isolated from the international community.

The invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent sanctions heaped on Russia have led to hundreds of flights being cancelled or rerouted. Meanwhile, almost all of the world's shipping lines have stopped sailing to and from Russia.

This has put pressure on cargo capacity and raised concerns about trade disruptions.

In several memos to its customers this week, shipping line A.P. Moller - Maersk said that it is "starting to see the effect on global supply chain flows, such as delays and detention of cargo by Customs authorities across various transshipment hubs, overall resulting in unpredictable operational impacts".

Noting that the "stability and safety" of its operations are impacted by sanctions, Maersk said that new bookings within ocean, air and intercontinental rail to and from Russia will be temporarily suspended, with the exception of foodstuff and medical and humanitarian supplies. The shipping line also warned clients to "expect significant delays" at ports in the European Union, where carmakers Porsche and BMW on Wednesday shut their plants due to a lack of parts coming from Ukraine.

As prices of corn and wheat - Russia and Ukraine are major exporters - rose to record highs, Minister for Trade and Industry Gan Kim Yong said in Parliament yesterday that shortages and disruptions to the global supply chain "will lead to higher costs. And higher costs will eventually impact everyone".

Reporting by Kang Wan Chern

Sports and politics converge

The faint lines between sports and politics have vanished, and Russia has now become a pariah in global athletic competition.

On Thursday, its Paralympians were banned by the International Paralympic Committee from competing at the Beijing Winter Paralympics, which run from yesterday to March 13. Other federations have adopted a similarly tough position: Fifa banned 2018 World Cup host Russia and its clubs from football competitions, including the qualifiers for Qatar 2022.

Following the International Olympic Committee's recommendation, athletics, badminton, canoeing, rowing, shooting, skiing, triathlon and volleyball international federations have suspended athletes from Russia and Belarus.

Elsewhere, a softer stance has been taken, allowing tennis' Russian world No. 1 Daniil Medvedev and Belarus' world No. 3 Aryna Sabalenka, Formula One driver Nikita Mazepin, as well as Russian and Belarusian swimmers, to remain active, though they cannot turn out under their national flags.

Russia has also been stripped of the hosting rights for key events such as May's Champions League final. The Formula One Russian Grand Prix, set for Sept 25, has also been axed. Uefa is ending its lucrative deal with Russian energy giant Gazprom, while Adidas has suspended its partnership with the Russian Football Union. Manchester United has pulled back from a deal with Russian airline Aeroflot.

Reporting by David Lee

  • Additional reporting from Kang Wan Chern, David Lee

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 05, 2022, with the headline How the war has changed the world . Subscribe