Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has taken hundreds of lives on the battlefield and in the Ukrainian cities under bombardment. But internationally, it’s also affecting everything from food security in Cairo to gas prices in California. It’s pushed to the fore major geopolitical shifts and changed the way some of the globe’s most prominent institutions work.
Here are four ways the world has changed in the 10 days since war returned to Europe.
A shifting world order
The invasion of Ukraine didn’t usher in a new era of big power politics. It was the violent exclamation point confirming one of the most significant changes in the geopolitical world order since 9/11.
In the ensuing years, global terrorism consumed much of Western leaders’ attention. Al Qaeda and ISIS were the enemies that needed countering. The Kremlin was no longer viewed as the same threat it once was – so much so that, in 2012, President Barack Obama mocked then-presidential candidate Mitt Romney as out of touch for calling Russia the number-one geopolitical foe of the United States.
By that time, Putin had already shown he was keen to upend the post-Cold War order.
The former KGB intelligence officer took office in 2000 vowing to restore Russia’s former glory, sometimes through military force. As prime minister in 1999, he launched an offensive in the Russian republic of Chechnya against separatist guerrillas. In 2008, the Kremlin invaded Georgia and recognized two breakaway republics in the country, which at the time was growing closer to Europe.
Later, Putin’s support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad – ostensibly as an ally in the war on terror – earned him no favors with Western democracies, not least because of the credible reports of the Syrian dictator’s decision to attack his own people with chemical weapons. Putin’s decision to annex Crimea in 2014 and back separatists in eastern Ukraine led to sanctions and were roundly condemned. So too were Russia’s alleged attempts to assassinate its enemies on foreign soil.
But Putin remained an important player and partner, albeit an unsavory one, for leaders from Washington to Warsaw during the 2010s. Russia was important factor in the fight against ISIS; Europe’s main energy supplier; and helped negotiate major diplomatic pacts like the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.
Last week’s invasion may have ended that. After a quarter century of the Western world dealing with Putin, he may have finally pushed the envelope and become a pariah.
In response, the Western world has hit Russia with unprecedented sanctions that have crippled its financial institutions, sending its economy and the ruble into a tailspin, and even targeted Putin and some of his inner circle personally.
“Putin is now isolated from the world more than he has ever been,” the US President Joe Biden said on Tuesday in his State of the Union address.
A more unified Europe
Russia’s invasion has also prompted the European Union to make security decisions that would have been unthinkable a few weeks ago.
Though the bloc has for years been one of the world’s most powerful economic players, it had failed to turn that strength into equivalent geopolitical might. The EU has, historically, been divided over exactly how much central control Brussels should have over foreign policy. This has stood in the way of the EU’s lofty global ambitions, as policy proposals were watered down in negotiations or simply vetoed.
Europe’s thinking on defense, security and foreign affairs has evolved light years in the matter of a few days. It is now waking up from a decades-long dream that the stability provided by an interconnected world would prevent war breaking out and that, should the worst happen, America would sort it out.
The shock of war returning to Europe has unified the EU’s 27 member states. The bloc is now wielding its economic might for geopolitical purposes, targeting Russia with the strongest package of sanctions it has ever imposed.
The bloc has, for the first time ever, provided finance to purchase weapons for Ukraine. Germany, which has for decades been averse to a militarized approach to foreign policy, is now taking part in arming Ukraine and boosting its own military spending in response to the invasion.
“The crisis in Ukraine has shattered the illusion that security and stability in Europe comes for free,” one senior European diplomat told CNN this week. “When there was no real threat, geopolitics seemed remote. Now there is a war on our border. Now we know we have to pay up and act together.”
A million people on the move
One million people fled their homes in the first seven days since Russia invaded Ukraine – one of the fastest and largest migrations of humanity in recent memory. To put that in context, it took three months for one million refugees to leave Syria in 2013 when departures were at their highest.
If fighting continues and, as one French source close to President Emmanuel Macron said, the worst is yet to come, Europe could face an unprecedented refugee crisis.
“I have worked in refugee emergencies for almost 40 years, and rarely have I seen an exodus as rapid as this one,” said Filippo Grandi, the UN high commissioner for refugees.
There have also been multiple reports of racism against people of color and non-Ukrainians at the border.
The future of the refugees remains unclear. If Russia topples the democratically elected Ukrainian government, will these people want to return home? And what if, after the fighting, they no longer have homes to return to?
Food and fuel
Gas prices in the United States have made their biggest hikes since after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Experts are worried that food prices could spike after already “sharply” rising last year. And Moody’s is warning that global supply chains, already hammered by the Covid-19 pandemic, could be further thrown into chaos. Stocks around the world fell on Friday, with Europe taking a particularly rough beating.
The fighting in Ukraine has had economic and human costs across the globe, especially when it comes to energy.
Though Europe has said for years it needs to wean itself off Russian energy, Moscow is the EU’s biggest supplier of oil and natural gas. Europe could survive if Russia shut off the supply, but it wouldn’t be cheap or easy.
The conflict is also a pocketbook issue that could determine whether families can put food on the table. In Ukraine alone, three to five million people are going to need food support immediately, World Food Programme (WFP) Executive Director David Beasley said.
But Russia and Ukraine are also some of the world’s leading producers of wheat. Together, they account for 23% of all global exports, according to S&P Global.
“Fears of conflict hanging over two of the world’s major suppliers are clearly going to have some impact on prices, when there is already a sense of shortage,” said Julien Barnes-Dacey, director of the Middle East and North Africa program at the European Council of Foreign Affairs.
Though Ukraine is dubbed the breadbasket of Europe, concerns are particularly acute in the Middle East – Kyiv’s third-largest wheat buyer in the 2020/2021 market year, according to the US Department of Agriculture. More than 40% of the country’s recent wheat exports went to the Middle East or Africa alone.
CNN’s Luke McGee, Matt Egan, Chris Isidore, Nadeen Ebrahim and Eoin McSweeney contributed to this report