For months, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that he had no intention of invading Ukraine, but on February 24 he did just that. Since then, surprises have been the norm. Putin himself was surprised, since it is now obvious that things have not turned out as he had planned. The dictator overestimated the effectiveness of his armed forces and underestimated those of Ukraine. A devastating cyberattack by the Russians, for example, has yet to take place and Putin’s army shows unexpected signs of disorder and has been forced to improvise.
We have also been surprised by President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who has become an international symbol of courage, patriotism and leadership. In turn, the Ukrainian people have demonstrated exactly what it means to defend their homeland from the clutches of a bloodthirsty dictator.
Unfortunately, all this does not mean the Ukrainians will be able to repel the Russian attack. Russia’s armed forces greatly outpower those of Ukraine. It is to be expected, however, that Ukraine will be able to prolong its insurrection against its invaders, an effort that will surely garner the sympathy of the world and the military and financial support of many countries.
Putin not only got the Ukrainians wrong, but he also underestimated the world’s democracies. This is without a doubt the biggest surprise so far. The European Union responded in a united and effective way, which is certainly not the norm. We saw European leaders, politicians and bureaucrats reacting quickly and making decisions that, until recently, were unimaginable. The United States has allied with Europe, Japan and other countries to inflict economic pain on Russia for Putin’s aggression. The world’s democracies reacted with unusual speed and some discarded principles that for decades had been fundamental pillars of their foreign policy. Germany, for example, decided to increase its military spending and send war materiel to the Ukrainian armed forces. Switzerland abandoned what had been a defining factor of its foreign policy and even of its national identity: neutrality in the face of international conflicts.
The invasion of this tyrant is an unacceptable crime, but the world urgently needs to develop the capacity to respond to more than one crisis at a time
The severe sanctions adopted by this international alliance have disconnected Russia from the world economy. As a result, Putin has condemned his population to poverty and isolation. Sadly, we will also see more terror and repression directed at Russians who dare to confront the government and demand a better future. As the economic situation worsens, the Kremlin will likely feel more threatened by its own citizens protesting in the streets and public squares than they will by democrats abroad.
As Russia’s isolation deepens, many of the world’s democracies have shown an unprecedented capacity to cooperate and defend the values they share. Swiftly designing and imposing the most severe sanctions in history and coordinating their adoption among many countries was not easy, but it got done. This is one of the most welcome side effects of the invasion: discovering that democracies can successfully tackle big problems. This experience can serve as a guide when facing the other global threats that lie ahead for us.
Coincidentally, four days after the invasion of Ukraine, a panel made up of the world’s most prominent scientists published a report warning about the unprecedented human and material damage that we can expect from climate change, as well as the alarming rate at which these catastrophes are increasing. The report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is based on the research of thousands of scientists from around the world. According to the report, we are at risk of adverse conditions becoming so extreme that vast areas of the planet will be uninhabitable, as will some of the most populous urban areas.
The climate crisis is at least as threatening as Vladimir Putin. The invasion of this tyrant is an unacceptable crime that cannot be tolerated and we must support those who oppose it. But the world urgently needs to develop the capacity to respond to more than one crisis at a time. Ukraine should not be abandoned, but neither should the fight against global warming. The latter is very difficult, but now we know that – acting together – the world is capable of achieving difficult things.
The leaders of the world’s democracies have shown that, in the face of an existential threat, policies can change decisively and quickly. It is time for them to boldly use this newly discovered superpower to attack the other great crisis facing humanity.