Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, one year ago, shocked the world. The brazen attack was the beginning of the largest land war in Europe since World War II and has led to massive loss of life, enormous displacement of the Ukrainian population, and the decimation of Ukrainian cities and infrastructure. Beyond the terrible human cost, the war’s effects have reached countless aspects of life and of global politics. It has redrawn geopolitical energy supply lines; strengthened alliances among Western countries and deepened divides with China; put the use of nuclear weapons on the table for the first time in decades; and taught us the importance of leadership in moments of crisis. Experts at Harvard Kennedy School use this moment to explain what we have learned and how this terrible war has changed us.

Accelerating China’s policies 

Anthony Saich.One year on from Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine, China’s position has remained steadfast. Beijing continues to provide Moscow rhetorical support and has reaffirmed that its actions in Ukraine are just, all the while trying to retain a precarious balance that does not alienate western countries and thus render it liable to direct or indirect sanctions. Beijing maintains the narrative that the root cause of the conflict stems from NATO’s expansion, with the West, and in particular the United States, seeking to preserve the post-Cold War order. And the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) continues to depict this as resistance to recognizing that a new global order is emerging, within which China and other nations will play an important role. At the same time, Beijing has been careful to avoid the export of weapons and other vital materials to Russia that might invoke a Western response and has warned Russia against the use of nuclear weapons. 

Indeed, there is little reason for China’s support to waver, not only because the relationship with Russia is so closely associated with General Secretary Xi Jinping, but also because there are no rewards for abandoning Russia as it would do nothing to relieve what China sees as its main security threat: containment by the United States. Beijing views the situation positively as it creates a dilemma for Western nations between their Russia and China policies. A Russia weakened by war and Western sanctions is beneficial to China, as long as it does not create instability along the border. Russia is now clearly the junior partner with an increasing dependence on China. Russia’s natural resources provide an expansive strategic backyard that can support China during what is viewed as the long-term competition with the United States. Of particular value is the importation of discounted oil. 

The war has also impacted on China’s thinking about reunification with Taiwan. While the CCP retains reunification as the ultimate objective, to be achieved by 2049 at the latest, the actions of the West have created food for thought in Beijing. First, China’s policymakers liken the expansion of NATO in Europe to what they view as the “NATO-ization” of the East, as the United States strengthens alliances. Second, Beijing has been taken aback by the strength and resolve of Western nations to impose sanctions and suffer hardships with their actions against Russia. The CCP presumed that actions would resemble those of 2014, following the annexation of the Crimea, where the West was cautious about harming its own interests with any sanctions imposed. With the strengthening of alliances throughout Asia, Beijing is now aware that any invasion of Taiwan will come at considerable economic cost, in addition to the diplomatic and political fall-out. Third, the difficulty that Russia has faced in a land invasion across a shared border reinforces the difficulty that the Chinese armed forces would face in a seaborne invasion of Taiwan. The forces will need to perfect joint operations, something that will be facilitated by the Chinese reaction to a future potential visit by Speaker McCarthy to Taiwan. Fourth, with the current balance of power in East Asia, any forced reunification with Taiwan is not possible in the near future. The priority for Xi Jinping is to prevent a declaration of independence by Taiwan (not very likely), which would be crippling to his legitimacy. The CCP will take its time to increase economic and diplomatic pressure on Taiwan, while building up its own military capabilities. 

Finally, the war in Ukraine will accelerate Beijing’s policies designed to reduce dependency of the West’s financial systems, technology, and resources. This is witnessed by the large-scale investments in indigenous technology development and attempts to accelerate the internationalization of the Chinese currency and build a yuan-based global commodities trading system—both of which will be difficult to achieve. 

Anthony Saich, the Daewoo Professor of International Affairs and director of the Rajawali Foundation Institute for Asia

Challenging the nuclear order

Matt Bunn.Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine—a war of aggression launched by a veto-wielding member of the UN Security Council charged with protecting international peace and security—is challenging much of the existing international order, including the nuclear order. There is a real chance that President Putin's nuclear saber-rattling might turn to actual use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine, breaking the 77-year tradition of nuclear non-use, as he cannot afford to lose this war, has few options to win, and has shown no compunctions about slaughtering the innocent. Putin knows the costs of using nuclear weapons would be high, but he might well choose that course if he thinks the only alternative is a defeat that could lead him to fall from power. The Biden administration has appropriately sought to deter such a strike by threatening a response that would be “catastrophic” for Russia, but that carries its own risks of escalation. As President Biden has said, the danger of nuclear “Armageddon” is as high as it has been since the Cuban Missile Crisis. Now, President Putin has suspended Russian participation in the New START treaty—though Russia says it will stay within the treaty's numerical limits—further imperiling efforts to reduce nuclear dangers. Almost all U.S.-Russian communication is now cut off, further heightening the risk. 

Nuclear dangers are among many reasons to work with Ukraine on finding paths to a negotiated settlement sooner rather than later. If Ukraine, with steadfast Western support, manages to emerge as a thriving society, it will show that nuclear weapons are not the only path to security. But if Ukraine is dismembered after having given up the nuclear weapons on its soil after the breakup of the Soviet Union in return for promises that its sovereignty would be respected, other countries may reconsider their nuclear options. Meanwhile, Russia’s seizure of a nuclear power plant—with the terrible stresses on the plant’s staff, interruptions of its electricity supply, and ongoing shelling in the vicinity—is raising dangers of a nuclear accident. In short, the war in Ukraine forces us to rethink almost every aspect of nuclear policy, including approaches to nuclear deterrence, arms control, nonproliferation, nuclear energy, nuclear safety, and nuclear security. 

Matthew Bunn, the James R. Schlesinger Professor of the Practice of Energy, National Security, and Foreign Policy

Time is a crucial element of strategy 

Eric Rosenbach.Over the past year, the Biden administration has successfully assembled many pieces of a complex strategic puzzle in Ukraine. The president’s recent trip to Kyiv underscored his commitment to the war. But the passage of time matters when it comes to war. The coming year will look much different without a significant change in strategy that increases the military pressure on Russia and forces President Putin to the negotiating table. The administration has supplied the Ukrainian military with important capabilities that have put the Russian military on its heels, including HIMARS, Patriot missile systems, Bradley fighting vehicles, and, recently, Abrams tanks. And, crucially, the United States has done this while preventing an escalation that could lead Putin to deploy nuclear weapons. With the pending accession of Sweden and Finland, NATO is stronger than at any point in several decades and will continue to unify.   

But the first anniversary of the Russian invasion also marks an important decision point for American strategy in Ukraine. Ukraine’s eastern front has become a World War I-like meatgrinder where thousands of soldiers and civilians die daily. Costs for the war are mounting quickly: the United States spent $50B on Ukraine in 2022; in 2023, the war is expected to cost the German economy an estimated $170B, which is 4% of Germany’s GDP. The stalemate in the east, the direct and indirect costs of the war, and the legacy of “forever wars” have significantly eroded European and American public support for Ukraine. In the United States, support for the war over the last year has dropped with both Republicans and Democrats. 

The best summation of current U.S. strategy is captured by President Biden’s recent promise to President Zelenskyy that the United States “is going to continue to do all we can to support Ukraine” and that “we’re with you for as long as it takes.” But Ukraine, NATO, and the United States do not have the luxury of a years-long war. Time is a crucial element of strategy in Ukraine. Putin knows that a long, drawn-out war will seriously undermine public support for the war and drain the re-supply of several already-low weapons stockpiles. In short, the Biden administration needs a clear and consistent strategy that immediately amps up military support. An indefinite, incremental approach to providing military capabilities will never generate the decisive power that Ukraine needs to force Russia to the negotiating table, much less win the war.  Within the next month, the White House should approve the transfer and training package of additional long-range missile capabilities, such as the ATACMS system, and of Polish Mig-29s—or an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV)  firepower equivalent—to Ukraine. This additional assistance should be conditioned on an agreement that Ukraine will be willing to start negotiations by September. 

Any eventual agreement with Russia must be just and durable. It must include provisions for addressing war crimes, the future security status of Ukraine, and provisions for reconstruction. But Ukraine must also realize that—absent a major collapse of the Russian military—hopes of recapturing all of its original territories are unrealistic. 

Eric Rosenbach, Lecturer in Public Policy and co-director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs

Setting new standards of leadership 

Dana Born.“I need ammunition, not a ride.” With those six words one year ago, President Zelenskyy galvanized his country and riveted the world’s attention on the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Since then, the one-time comedian has become an international hero and provided lessons in crises leadership that even the most seasoned military officers, political leaders, and business CEOs can learn from. Citizens of Ukraine (and the world) have been singularly inspired by his simple, hands-on style of leadership—a refreshing change from the “norm” in redefining the qualities/traits normally associated with other “leaders.” 

  • Courage: Where others operate from the confines of a secure office, he places himself in harm’s way operating from the front lines. 
  • Caring: Where others spend time haggling over the nuances of HR policies, he demonstrates acts of compassion by spending time at hospitals, on battlefields, and in bombed out cities comforting those in need. 
  • Competence: Where others struggle to appease constituents on mundane local matters, he excels in coalescing NATO and other nations on matters of global importance. 
  • Communication:  Where others speak in long, wearisome speeches on esoteric topics (oftentimes with a PR twist), he demonstrates a remarkable ability to connect by speaking in short, coherent statements that his fellow nationals (and others) easily relate to—focused on simple messages that mean something (freedom, land, democracy, people, etc.). 

Zelenskyy’s response to a crucible moment in his nation’s history has set the gold standard for crises leadership. As a political novice, he has prevailed against a formidable enemy, on the international stage, and in the hearts and minds of his compatriots. His virtue-based leadership (courage, humanity, humility, etc.) and authenticity resonate deeply, the antithesis to the leadership style of his more seasoned adversary enabling him to prevail after having been summarily dismissed by President Putin (and much of the West) at the outset of the conflict. Zelenskyy has proven to be the right leader, at the right time, at the right place, and even prescient in his inaugural address three years earlier when he closed by saying: “All my life I tried to do all I could so that Ukrainians laughed. That was my mission. Now I will do all I can so that Ukrainians at least do not cry anymore.”  

Dana Born, Lecturer in Public Policy

Some hope amid the brutality of war

Graham Allison.At 60,000 feet: Ukraine’s response to Putin’s brutal aggression has been off the charts. This truly is a David vs. Goliath story—and David is defying Goliath’s attempt to erase his country from the map. Nonetheless, on the bloody battlefield of Ukraine, the brute facts are hard to ignore. As the Belfer Russia-Ukraine War Report Card documents: in the first year of war, Russia has taken control of an additional 11% of Ukraine; 31% of Ukrainians have been forced to leave their homes; Ukrainian GDP has fallen by more than a third to the point that Ukraine is dependent on subsidies from foreign governments to pay its soldiers, government officials, and pensioners. More than 130,000 brave Ukrainian warriors have been killed or seriously wounded. More than 7,000 civilians have been killed and almost half of the country’s energy infrastructure destroyed or severely damaged. 

This war has also imposed huge costs on Russia—long-term costs like the loss of European markets for its oil and gas and the leverage this dependence had given Russia. But in the short run, Putin has shown no hesitation or limits in paying for the costs of war. Contrary to forecasts of most of the Western commentariat, Russia’s economy has not imploded. Again, as the report card documents, the most recent IMF assessment reports that Russia’s economy fell less in 2022 than had been anticipated, minus 2.3%, and that in 2023, rather than fall, it is expected to record positive growth. In addition, Putin still commands a nuclear arsenal of more than 6,000 weapons capable of destroying the United States as a functioning society. President Biden and other serious students of national security know that in this MAD (mutual assured destruction) world, Ronald Reagan’s incandescent insight remains foundational: “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” Thus, as it did during four decades of Cold War, the United States must defend and advance its interests without engaging in hot war with Russia.

Ukraine’s place on the map of Europe in 2030 will be shaped by a score of factors more important than where the fighting stopped. No one can doubt that on the larger strategic chessboard, the costs of Putin’s misguided venture greatly exceed any benefits that he may have achieved in extending Russian controlled territory. I remain realistically hopeful that at the end of the war, Ukraine will emerge as a free, independent, vibrant nation; NATO will be stronger than it has been in many decades and better armed to deter future Russian aggression; and most importantly, there will have been no nuclear war.

Graham Allison, the Douglas Dillon Professor of Government


Image credits:

Ukrainian flags placed on Ukrainian soldiers' graves at a cemetery as people visit the graves of their relatives in Kharkiv, Ukraine. (Photo by Mustafa Ciftci/Getty Images)

Chinese President Xi Jinping, right, and Russian President Vladimir Putin pose for a photo prior to their talks in Beijing, China, in February 2022. (Alexei Druzhinin/AP Photo)

Police officers look at collected fragments of the Russian rockets that hit Kharkiv, Ukraine. (AP Photo/Libkos)

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy takes part in a national flag-raising ceremony in Izium, Ukraine. (AP Photo/Leo Correa)

Portraits by Martha Stewart

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