In mid-June 2023, a curious scene unfolded. The world watched as PMC Wagner leader Yevgeny Prigozhin seemingly took control of Rostov-on-Don, one of the Russian military’s primary garrisons and supply choke points en route to Ukraine, before marching on Moscow, only to call off his advance some kilometers outside the capital. The move had seemingly been planned for months and may have been in response to the Russian Ministry of Defense’s intention to bring private military companies such as Wagner into the formal military apparatus. Contemporaneous speculation suggested this was a coup attempt, but later reflection, based on the “agreement” supposedly brokered by Belarusian president Aleksandr Lukashenko as well as other evidence, more clearly identified the episode as a mutiny. It remains to be seen how this bizarre event will transform the relationship between Wagner, Russia’s most notorious PMC, and President Vladimir Putin.
The response to the incident captures, in microcosm, dynamics at play since the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022: verified intelligence, wildly-divergent expert opinions, wall-to-wall media coverage. In some respects, the war has been the first to be widely accessible (and livestreamed) on social media. Within days of the invasion, groups formed on social media to analyze footage from the front lines as well as to translate Russian and Ukrainian Telegram channels. Experts in once-obscure but now-relevant subfields launched long Twitter threads explaining battlefield dynamics, weapons procurement, or artillery provenance. OSINT (open-source intelligence) identified troop movements, airstrike locations, and materiel losses. One Journal editor remembers seeing a TikTok from January 2022, in which a young Russian soldier is filming his column’s advance down a snowy lane, in the late evening, somewhere in western Russia. The video had already received tens of millions of views—and millions of likes.
Such attention is largely well-deserved. A refugee crisis—both external into Europe and internal within Ukraine’s borders—has shifted millions across Europe. Movement has been facilitated by the Temporary Protection Directive across the continent, though most Ukrainians do want to return home, at least once hostilities have diminished. Awakening ideological sympathies and the forging of new alliances are reshaping international relations in real time. More broadly, the war may be viewed as just another accelerant, in the same way COVID-19 advanced the progress of certain trends: authoritarian consolidation, institutional reform, economic diversification.
An honest assessment of what has so far transpired, however, would be incomplete without acknowledging widespread ambivalence outside the West. Issue prioritization comes to the fore. Why has the Journal not dedicated an issue to the Tigrayan conflict in Ethiopia? Or the ongoing violence in the Sahel region of Africa? Why not any number of other pressing trends within international affairs? In the Ethiopia case, is the lack of information on the ground, both from journalists or expelled NGOs, justification, or merely excuse? Moreover, questions of relevancy arose during the visioning process for the Journal’s recently-celebrated diamond anniversary. After 75 years, what is the role this publication can play? What is its natural niche?
Yet precisely because the invasion has received significant and sustained international attention, Journal staff internally debated its potential contribution—not to the discourse, or even the historical record, but to the thoughtful and studied analysis of the war’s impact on the rest of the world. The Journal published no contemporaneous coverage of the Iraq war in the 2000s, the Balkans in the 1990s, Vietnam in the 1960s. Yet, the editorial board decided that this time was different, for a few reasons. Disrupted supply chains already pummeled by COVID-19 supply and demand shocks have shown obvious stress. Authoritarian alignment continues apace, as munitions and supplies of Iranian and Chinese provenance appear in Russian stockpiles. The regeneration of NATO through the accession of Finland, the candidacy of Sweden, and the ongoing debate around Ukrainian membership itself has reawakened the transatlantic alliance. Unprecedented motions within the UN General Assembly and a revivified European Union demonstrate the resilience of multilateralism.
At this critical moment for democracy and the international order, when institutions and relationships have been strained to the breaking point, when the ascendance of India, the involution of China, the reemergence of the United States after the Trump years—beyond Russian aggression both in Ukraine and on the African continent—are reshaping global dynamics in the 21st century, the Journal of International Affairs is dedicating its 151st issue to exploring how people, policy, and politics are responding.
“War in Ukraine” begins with two peer-reviewed essays. In the first, Tomasz Grosse assesses the state of European integration and how the security crisis of the current war has and has not contributed to increased capacity within the EU. For the second, Sebastian Glassner and Annalena Fuchshuber carefully construct the shift in elite, and later public, opinion on Finland’s pursuit of NATO membership through an analysis of various foreign policy discourses.
The Journal has also collected arguments—shorter, analytic pieces on specific dynamics of the war and various concomitant responses. For ease of access, these are organized thematically. The first is politics: Julia Ganter draws on public opinion and party politics to show how the German foreign policy of “Zeitenwende” quickly emerged following the invasion in February 2022. Danilo Marcondes and Antonio Ruy de Almeida Silva lay out the complex domestic and international politics that undergird the Brazilian response, including the current Lula presidency and the country’s presence on the UN Security Council in 2022-2023. For Kazakhstan, Pauline Jones argues that the short-term consequences of Russia’s war actually portend a far more significant transformation: the loss of its hegemony in Central Asia. Lastly, Shalini Singh reconsiders the non-aligned movement and depicts the various foreign policies of South Asian nations, especially India and Pakistan, in light of the region’s complex historical and contemporary relations with both Russia and the West.
In a war so reliant on supply chains and machinery, analysis of the technological dimensions is critical. Irina Patrahau demonstrates the centrality of dependence in Europe’s energy mix: first from Russian natural gas, and now from critical raw materials, as the continent seeks to decarbonize and secure a green energy future. Next, Edward Roche and Michael Blaine present the role of cyber operations since the 2014 Maidan revolution and argue that despite previous Russian success, the physical state of play will factor more than the virtual. The third is from Valentina Chabert, who assesses the state of play in the outer space dimension, including the likelihood of nuclear deployment, in light of historical norms around technology.
The impacts of the war have similarly not spared society and culture. Agata Włodkowska provides the gender lens for analyzing the war, both at the level of the state and the level of armed conflict. Dennis Soltys forcefully argues against business-as-usual in the academy and outlines the various ways previous scholarship on and faulty assumptions about Ukraine have misled Western politicians and policymakers. Oksana Koshulko assesses the performance of various governments and institutions supporting the Ukrainian people and bluntly identifies their shortcomings. Chelsea Joliet and Carmen Melillo, two mixed-martial arts athletes themselves, illustrate the fractured nature of combat sports’ response to Russian aggression and the limited recourse individual Russian athletes have outside of the ring.
Perhaps the most lasting changes will be felt at the level of institutions. Marco Mussa and Matvej Dubianskij present two case studies on the activities of PMC Wagner: Central African Republic and Mali, which reinforce our understanding of the group as both semi-autonomous but largely aligned with Russian foreign policy objectives on the African continent. Kataryna Wolczuk addresses the question of Ukraine’s accession to the EU and argues that despite disagreements over procedure and the dubious outcomes of previous enlargements, a goal-oriented process is in everyone’s best interest. Salma Shaheen analyzes the strategic cultures of Russia, Ukraine, and the West and details how learnings from the war will shape the strategic cultures of India and Pakistan—one of the most volatile relationships on earth—in the years to come. To conclude, Stuart Gottlieb, professor at Columbia SIPA and former advisor to U.S. senators, requests humility from Western leaders given the uneven success of the “New World Order” and proposes modest adjustments to safeguard liberal democracy against rising authoritarianism—exemplified both by China and Russia.
Features are interviews conducted with researchers in the academy and professionals in the field. To start, the Journal conducted three short, insightful conversations with scholars actively working on the conflict. Alexander Motyl of Rutgers considers the current state of the war and sources of resilience within Ukrainian soldiers and people. Applying a gender lens to the war, Cynthia Enloe contextualizes the current conflict and analyzes how various groups are affected by militarization and empire. Lastly, Pierre Vimont, a career diplomat and Columbia SIPA visiting professor, provides an overview of European Union foreign policy and how the European External Action Service is adapting to war on the continent.
A key component of our understanding of war comes from journalists, who contribute to the “first draft of history.” For this issue, the Journal spoke with a number of publications covering the invasion and its aftereffects. The Kyiv Independent is spoken for by Lili Bivings, a recent Columbia GSAS graduate and founding staff member, who describes reporting on the war in the early days and how coverage has shifted as the outlet has expanded. Next, the Journal spoke with incoming editor-in-chief Lydia Namubiru of The Continent, a digital newspaper, about reporting on the war from the African continent and the challenges of conveying its effects to an ambivalent public. Sean Ingle, a journalist with The Guardian, explains the sporting world’s reaction to Russia’s invasion and the complicated political—and interpersonal—dynamics underpinning league and federation responses. To conclude, the Journal discussed the plight of African students caught in war with Khanyi Mlaba, Africa editor at Global Citizen.
Downstream of policymaking are the people and organizations on the ground making change within that policy environment. The Journal first spoke with Dr. Jarno Habicht, WHO representative in Ukraine and head of the country office, on systems strengthening and leading the health cluster—the multilateral organizational structure coordinating the clinical and public health response. Next, a conversation with Ariane Bauer, the regional director for Europe and Central Asia at ICRC, on responding to health needs through Red Cross/Red Crescent country teams and managing government relations at the state level. A brief dialogue with Dora Chomiak, CEO of Razom for Ukraine, presents a case study on how small organizations can rapidly scale while simultaneously maintaining institutional culture and adapting to the demands of today. The Journal also spoke with Macire Aribot, co-founder of NoirUnited International, on addressing the needs of students of color studying in Ukraine and sustaining an organization through protest, pandemic, and war. Lastly, Mikaela Gavas, of the London office of the Center for Global Development, contextualizes the drastically altered development landscape of 2023 and the prospects for raising lifestyles and eliminating poverty while buffeted by continual crises.
Uzochukwu Uchechukwu Alutu, the issue’s Andrew Wellington Cordier Fellow and 2023 Columbia SIPA graduate, presents an African perspective and puts forward guidelines governments and regional organizations should deploy to maximize this strategic moment on the continent.
Of special note for this issue are the pieces that will not be published: a feature interview with UNHCR, over political sensitivities and the inability to arrive at a mutually-suitable transcript; and one with the Danish Refugee Council, over personnel responding to the destruction of Kakhovka dam, Kherson oblast, in June 2023. There were also pieces pulled or left incomplete, and outreach unanswered, for various reasons—typically other commitments, reflecting acute demand for analysis on the war’s every facet.
One difficulty of selecting, editing, and producing these pieces has been the state of evidence. If COVID-19 around the world (and notably Trumpism within the U.S.) catalyzed an era of “alternative facts,” the fog of war and plentiful propaganda have made our jobs even more difficult. In the process of publishing this issue, the editorial staff, more than with previous editions, demanded sources: without which, pieces were altered. Assertions were axed; arguments were attenuated. When ideology and positioning— when politics—have driven so much of the coverage of this war, the Journal has instead endeavored to present pieces that are rigorously evidenced and convincingly argued—leaving the “takes” for other outlets.
This issue is by no means comprehensive, nor is it authoritative. For example, as it was sent to the publisher, Russia is reportedly pulling out of the Black Sea Grain Initiative that sent Ukrainian cereals to the rest of the world; the resulting volatility to global food prices remains to be seen. Rather, the Journal has collected knowledgeable voices from around the world to analyze this fluid moment in history. No doubt, future events and additional evidence will challenge, if not disprove, some of the views presented here. But this is only the start: an earnest attempt to assess where we are. Columbia SIPA houses a unique blend of scholars, researchers, and practitioners, and this issue does the same—bridging policy and politics with human experience on the ground, wherever the impact may be.