The G-7 Agrees: Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine Is a ‘Zeitenwende’

New survey data shows majorities across the group of major industrial countries see Putin’s aggression as a fundamental turning point for the world.

By , director of research and policy at the Munich Security Conference, and , head of research and publications at the Munich Security Conference.
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, U.S. President Joe Biden, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, French President Emmanuel Macron, and Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi pose for a G-7 leaders’ photo in Brussels on March 24.
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, U.S. President Joe Biden, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, French President Emmanuel Macron, and Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi pose for a G-7 leaders’ photo in Brussels on March 24.
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, U.S. President Joe Biden, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, French President Emmanuel Macron, and Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi pose for a G-7 leaders’ photo in Brussels on March 24. Henry Nicholls - Pool/Getty Images

On Feb. 27, three days after the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz addressed the members of the Bundestag, who had come together for a special session on a Sunday morning in Berlin. The members of parliament—and the thousands of people outside the Bundestag who had taken to the streets to protest Russia’s war of aggression—felt that this was the end of a post-Cold War moment shaped by the hope that security in Europe could be built in partnership with Russia. “We are living through a watershed era,” Scholz said, summarizing this widespread sentiment. “And that means that the world afterward will no longer be the same as the world before.”

Scholz and many of his German compatriots may have felt this rupture more intensely than others. But new representative survey data from all G-7 countries collected in May for a special edition of the Munich Security Index shows it is not just the Germans who perceive the Russian invasion as a Zeitenwende—the term Scholz used to describe the fundamental nature of the rupture. Between 60 and 70 percent of the respondents in Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States believe that the invasion represents a turning point in world politics.

But what will the new era look like? Judging from people’s risk perceptions as reflected in the Munich Security Index, the new era will be shaped by the return of traditional threats that complement rather than supplant the myriad nontraditional security risks, mostly centered on climate change. The latter were top concerns for respondents in previous editions of the index, which provides an overview of how citizens in the G-7 (and the BRICS) countries view 31 major global and domestic risks.

On Feb. 27, three days after the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz addressed the members of the Bundestag, who had come together for a special session on a Sunday morning in Berlin. The members of parliament—and the thousands of people outside the Bundestag who had taken to the streets to protest Russia’s war of aggression—felt that this was the end of a post-Cold War moment shaped by the hope that security in Europe could be built in partnership with Russia. “We are living through a watershed era,” Scholz said, summarizing this widespread sentiment. “And that means that the world afterward will no longer be the same as the world before.”

Scholz and many of his German compatriots may have felt this rupture more intensely than others. But new representative survey data from all G-7 countries collected in May for a special edition of the Munich Security Index shows it is not just the Germans who perceive the Russian invasion as a Zeitenwende—the term Scholz used to describe the fundamental nature of the rupture. Between 60 and 70 percent of the respondents in Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States believe that the invasion represents a turning point in world politics.

But what will the new era look like? Judging from people’s risk perceptions as reflected in the Munich Security Index, the new era will be shaped by the return of traditional threats that complement rather than supplant the myriad nontraditional security risks, mostly centered on climate change. The latter were top concerns for respondents in previous editions of the index, which provides an overview of how citizens in the G-7 (and the BRICS) countries view 31 major global and domestic risks.

Societies continue to worry about environmental risks, but the threats posed by Russia or weapons of mass destruction—whether nuclear, chemical, or biological—are now among the top risks identified by respondents. People in the G-7 clearly believe that there will not be a return to the status quo ante. In fact, majorities in all countries surveyed believe that “we are entering a new Cold War with Russia.” There is no country in which more than one-tenth of the population disagrees with this statement.

If there is a positive byproduct of the Zeitenwende, it is the way in which it has reinvigorated close cooperation among the world’s liberal democracies, boosting their willingness to push back against revisionist actors that are attacking the core norms of the post-1945 international order. The Russian invasion has driven home the message that those who share liberal values need to stand together. Absolute majorities in all countries surveyed now agree that “democracies should build a global alliance of democracies to protect themselves against autocratic challengers.”

Against this backdrop, the G-7 as an institution bringing together the seven economically most powerful liberal democracies has found a new sense of purpose—no small feat given that critics had already described the G-7 as an institution that is out of sync with the times, reflecting the world of yesteryear. While the G-20 grouping is paralyzed in the face of Russia’s war, the G-7 has played an indispensable role as the world’s democracies’ steering committee, coordinating a multilateral response to the Russian aggression.

Together with NATO and the European Union, two other formats made up of (mostly) democratic countries, the G-7 closely coordinated the military, economic, and humanitarian response to the war in Eastern Europe. In general, survey data shows, these decisions receive broad public support—and underline a newly felt unity among the world’s democracies. Disagreements about specific policies, such as the delivery of heavy weapons to Ukraine, notwithstanding, the publics in the G-7 countries generally give very positive assessments of their own governments’ and their allies’ responses to the Russian invasion—individually and as part of the EU, NATO, and the G-7.

But the invasion has not only strengthened a sense of unity among democracies; it has also put a spotlight on the differences with autocratic countries. With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, abstract concerns about autocratic revisionism have become palpable. Unsurprisingly, Russia is now seen as the top risk in all G-7 countries, except for in Italy. (Extreme weather and forest fires topped the list there.) But the respondents have also developed more critical views of China. Absolute majorities in all G-7 countries, except for Italy, agree that “if we do not stand up to Russia, this increases the risk that China will invade other countries some day.” The Chinese government, rhetorically a champion of sovereignty and territorial integrity, has failed to condemn the blunt Russian assault on core international norms, leading majorities in the G-7 to state that China’s response to the war has made them more wary of China’s own ambitions.

However, if the world’s democracies want to prevail in a new era of systemic competition, it will not be enough for the G-7 and its like-minded partners to agree. They need to build and sustain a broader coalition of countries, including those who do not primarily see the world as shaped by a dichotomy between democracies on the one side and autocracies on the other. The debates in the aftermath of the Russian invasion have already shown that this will not be easy. While 141 countries in the United Nations General Assembly supported a resolution condemning Russia’s aggression, few countries beyond key democracies from North America, Europe, and Asia have aided Ukraine or embraced sanctions against Russia. In the global south, some countries even see themselves as casualties of the ripple effects of Western sanctions—a sentiment that both Russia and China actively try to nurture. Most strikingly, the Russian government does not shy away from using hunger as a weapon, trying to turn the fate of millions of people into a geopolitical advantage by blaming the ensuing food crisis on Western sanctions.

Liberal democracies need to actively counter the impression that their agenda is selfish and myopic. Instead, they need to reach out to third countries, willing to listen and to respond to their concerns. By doing so, the G-7 and its partners can prove that their solidarity is not limited to the victims of military aggression on the European continent but that they are willing to muster the same amount of solidarity when it comes to other urgent global threats—threats like climate change or global inequality that hit developing states particularly hard. Only if they reconcile their response to the war in Ukraine with the fight against persistent nontraditional threats can democracies demonstrate that they have better answers to the pressing challenges of our time than their autocratic competitors.

This article is based on data collected for a special edition of the Munich Security Index. It is published by the Munich Security Conference as part of a new Munich Security Brief.

Tobias Bunde is director of research and policy at the Munich Security Conference and a researcher at the Hertie School’s Centre for International Security.

Sophie Eisentraut is head of research and publications at the Munich Security Conference.

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