Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

The Fight for Ukraine Is Forging a New World

If Ukraine prevails against Russia, the global movement toward a more empowered and freer digital world will accelerate.

By , Ukraine’s minister of foreign affairs.
Demonstrators wave the Ukrainian flag at night in front of he Georgian Parliament building.
Demonstrators wave the Ukrainian flag at night in front of he Georgian Parliament building.
Demonstrators wave the Ukrainian flag during a rally in support of Ukraine in Tbilisi, Georgia, on March 1.  VANO SHLAMOV/AFP via Getty Images

Ukraine’s fight for its right to have a future has accelerated a great shift in the global order of the 21st century. One can already see elements of the new world emerging from the fires of war in Ukraine. The unity between North America and the European Union has been restored and cemented, and the notion of the West has regained its original meaning, while Russia’s strategic decline weakens China’s system of alliances.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has set Europe in motion again. To the discomfort of some European states, Ukraine became central to the rise of the new Europe. For Europe to succeed in restoring peace and solidifying prosperity and security in the region, Ukraine must be part of the European Union and, broadly speaking, of the West, led by the United States. And it will.

The world of tomorrow will be tripolar. Two obvious poles will be the United States and China. India will be gaining force as a strong democratic power. But the third, less obvious pole will be the newly emerging, decentralized community of global internet users, and it will be defined by rapid technological development and disruptive innovation. This community will be largely centered on what some already call the “metaverse.”

Ukraine’s fight for its right to have a future has accelerated a great shift in the global order of the 21st century. One can already see elements of the new world emerging from the fires of war in Ukraine. The unity between North America and the European Union has been restored and cemented, and the notion of the West has regained its original meaning, while Russia’s strategic decline weakens China’s system of alliances.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has set Europe in motion again. To the discomfort of some European states, Ukraine became central to the rise of the new Europe. For Europe to succeed in restoring peace and solidifying prosperity and security in the region, Ukraine must be part of the European Union and, broadly speaking, of the West, led by the United States. And it will.

The world of tomorrow will be tripolar. Two obvious poles will be the United States and China. India will be gaining force as a strong democratic power. But the third, less obvious pole will be the newly emerging, decentralized community of global internet users, and it will be defined by rapid technological development and disruptive innovation. This community will be largely centered on what some already call the “metaverse.”

“Netizen” may sound like a fancy word combining the words “citizen” and “net,” but it describes a historic shift and the emergence of a new global power. Many people around the globe are becoming deeply invested in their online lives and forming their identities as “citizens of the net.” They already trust their online communities more than their nation-states. They will gain more and more force, transcending borders and transforming the world. They are already here, decentralized, self-sufficient, and effective. They have big ideas and the will to advance them; loyal and trusting followers; their own space of existence; and instruments such as computer code and blockchain technology that enable them to scale up their ideas quickly.

Yet this brave new world will only come about if the environment is conducive. That’s why the stakes of the Russia-Ukraine war are so high. They go beyond just a physical war; if Ukraine is victorious, and it and other like-minded countries remain free to pursue their democratic ideals, the global movement toward a more empowered and freer world, free of borders, will accelerate. But if it goes the other way—if Russia succeeds in stamping out freedom and democracy in Ukraine and beyond—we will enter a bleak world of no rules and no freedom, where might makes right and all else is erased.

The war in Ukraine is already demonstrating to the world how the people of the third pillar are making a difference, in three major ways.

First, netizens are playing an active part in Ukraine’s defense against Russian invasion. For instance, members of the global online hacker collective known as Anonymous have chosen to devote their skills to cutting through the firewalls of Russian government propaganda and delivering the truth about the war to the Russian people. Anonymous’s decision to declare “cyber war” against Russia was their own choice, not an order from some government or military higher command.

Second, netizens are grasping every opportunity to provide alternatives to what is usually offered by governments. Take, for example, the tech billionaire Elon Musk’s public announcement that he would provide Ukraine with Starlink satellite internet service. In the early days of the invasion, Starlink terminals were swiftly deployed to Ukraine, enabling an alternative system of uninterrupted communication and hindering Russia’s ability to knock down communications across the entire country.

Third, the use of cryptocurrency has allowed the Ukrainian government to raise money worldwide to fund our defense effort and has helped restrict ways to circumvent financial sanctions. Ukraine’s government as well as a number of big governmental Twitter accounts called for cryptocurrency donations in the early days of the invasion and have been able to mobilize large sums later added to the national accounts funding the armed forces. On the other hand, we have successfully focused part of our diplomatic efforts on closing cryptocurrency loopholes for sanctioned Russians to prevent them from cheating around restrictions.

Russia has attacked Ukraine with a brutal military force aiming to destroy us as a nation and as a state. Russia’s war against Ukraine is the struggle of the old against the new. With the bulk of the Russian army pouring over our borders in the early hours of Feb. 24, our chances seemed slim. Yet, against all odds, Ukraine has held its ground and proved experts and decision-makers wrong.

As we prove day by day, political leadership in this age is less about hierarchical state power and more about leading by example and galvanizing the energy of communities.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky leads by his example and his sincerity, not just statements and orders. He is one of the people, not a distant figure somewhere at the top. He is close to Ukrainians, posting his sloppy selfie videos and sharing his daily presidential routine with the people of Ukraine on his social media late at night. His leadership and public image are in stark contrast with that of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is shown on television spewing angry orders at his generals, who sit silently and obediently on the far side of an endless table.

This striking difference is just a glimpse of the abyss between two political models: the communal future and the hierarchical past; the existing political order and the emerging one. Surprisingly, it appears that to lead the world and gain popularity at home and abroad one needs courage, a selfie camera, and sincerity, not nuclear weapons, oil revenues, and a heavy-handed state propaganda machine. This is a model of the future and the reason why Ukraine will prevail and Russia will lose.

We are entering new, uncharted territory—an outcome no one could have predicted. Those who believe this war has an impact only on the future of Ukraine and Russia are wrong. Its repercussions are being and will continue to be felt around the globe—and not just in the physical world, but in the online world as well.

What unites the people of the third pillar is that they took Ukraine’s side in the war not because the government of Ukraine or any other country forced them to, but because they made their own choice to employ their powers to help defend Ukraine and its people from Russia’s naked aggression.

Ironically, these netizens are the ones who believe that the idea of a nation-state is outdated and that this new, decentralized online world is the future. They reject vertical hierarchies and physical borders. They rely on blockchain and cryptocurrency instead of banks and governments. Netizens can be Ukrainian, but also American or Chinese. They can remain true patriots of their countries. They can belong to the global digital community and be proud of their identities at the same time.

Netizens believe their new world will outlive the bipolar world order. It may. But first, all three poles have to learn how to coexist and engage with each other.

We should not be afraid of this new “liquid modernity,” as the Polish sociologist and philosopher Zygmunt Bauman defined it, but rather should open ourselves up to the enormous opportunities it brings. With its highly developed digitalization and strong horizontal social cohesion, modern Ukraine is a perfect driver of and a global lab for this tide of change.

The traditional notion of a geopolitical pole requires a mobilizing utopia, a comprehensive social order, and a competitive economic model. The digital world has all three. It already mobilizes enormous investment and resources, which are bound neither to the liberal-democratic United States nor to the state-controlled and traditionalist China. In the classical unipolar and bipolar worlds, multinational corporations have always depended on the dollar. The new economy will increasingly rely on its own new currency. Ukraine is part of it, too. As I already mentioned, our army right now is partially funded by cryptocurrency donations from all over the world, raised in social media campaigns. It feels natural that the victory bonds of the 21st-century are cryptocurrency-based.

The two traditional poles, the United States and China, will try to regulate and control the disruption caused by this new online world, but they are unlikely to succeed strategically.

Surely, the new tripolar world will need some time to find its own unique balance that will shape the 21st century. This balance will be defined by decades of competition and tension as well as cooperation and alignment. The digital world will inevitably push back against both the United States and China on many fronts.

Yet this competition will not resemble the Cold War—it will be something new. Whether the culture of cooperation and seeking win-win solutions will prevail over animosity in this triangle will define our common future. To this end, we need a consensus early on: Whatever the rivalry between the great powers in the physical world, the digital world should remain a space of cooperation, while inevitable tensions should not exceed a critically minimal level.

As the great disruptor of the 21st century, the digital universe must strike a balance between the common good and narrow interests. It must remain decentralized and controlled by communities, not governments. At the same time, it must be governed. The question of whether the metaverse, Web3, the Internet of Things, and cryptocurrency will remain decentralized and community-driven is the defining question of this century. I believe it is in the best interests of all big players to strike a balance early on.

It may not seem obvious now, but Ukraine’s victory in the war against Russia would further catalyze this digital transformation and speed up the establishment of the tripolar world. On the other hand, the defeat of a vibrant, democratic Ukraine by the frozen authoritarian Russia would reverse world history.

We will prevail, together with those who root themselves in the moral choice of good over evil, freedom over fear, and light over darkness.

Dmytro Kuleba is Ukraine’s minister of foreign affairs.

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