The Invasion That Changed Everything

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24 stunned the world and upended global politics.

By , a deputy editor at Foreign Policy.
A Ukrainian national flag waves while smoke rises after Russian attacks hit a fuel storage facility in the city of Kalynivka, Ukraine, on March 25.
A Ukrainian national flag waves while smoke rises after Russian attacks hit a fuel storage facility in the city of Kalynivka, Ukraine, on March 25.
A Ukrainian national flag waves while smoke rises after Russian attacks hit a fuel storage facility in the city of Kalynivka, Ukraine, on March 25. FADEL SENNA/AFP via Getty Images

2022

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24 stunned the world and upended global politics. In Europe, old alliances—and old schisms—were reinvigorated, and assumptions about neutrality, self-defense, and military spending were reexamined as the United States worked to unite the continent in defense of Ukraine. 

Russia looked to ideological fellow traveler China to shore up its economy as Western sanctions started to bite. And much of the rest of the world, from Latin America to Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia, tried to walk a fine line in what at times felt like a Cold War redux; many chose to return to a version of the nonalignment strategy they’d relied on during the first Cold War.

In the early days of the war, few thought Ukraine stood much of a chance against what was believed to be a mighty Russian military juggernaut. The world watched in horror as tanks rolled ominously toward major Ukrainian cities and began encircling the capital, Kyiv. Russian bombs rained down on civilian targets, wreaking a level of destruction unseen in Europe since the wars that ravaged the Balkans in the 1990s. 

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24 stunned the world and upended global politics. In Europe, old alliances—and old schisms—were reinvigorated, and assumptions about neutrality, self-defense, and military spending were reexamined as the United States worked to unite the continent in defense of Ukraine. 

Russia looked to ideological fellow traveler China to shore up its economy as Western sanctions started to bite. And much of the rest of the world, from Latin America to Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia, tried to walk a fine line in what at times felt like a Cold War redux; many chose to return to a version of the nonalignment strategy they’d relied on during the first Cold War.

In the early days of the war, few thought Ukraine stood much of a chance against what was believed to be a mighty Russian military juggernaut. The world watched in horror as tanks rolled ominously toward major Ukrainian cities and began encircling the capital, Kyiv. Russian bombs rained down on civilian targets, wreaking a level of destruction unseen in Europe since the wars that ravaged the Balkans in the 1990s. 

Ukraine’s leaders—most notably President Volodymyr Zelensky, a former comedian turned politician who suddenly found himself in the unenviable position of wartime leader—scrambled to defend their country, asking anyone and everyone they could think of for military aid and humanitarian assistance.        

But as the war ground on, and days turned into weeks and then months, Russia’s military began to flounder amid miscalculations and battlefield setbacks, gradually revealing a poorly organized, ill-equipped fighting force led by seemingly incompetent commanders. 

Ukraine, meanwhile, proved itself to be far more resilient—and defiant—than most had anticipated. Equipped with new inflows of U.S. and European military hardware, Ukrainian soldiers and citizen volunteers rallied to the cause, managing not only to hold their own against Russian forces but to actually beat back the Russian advance, inch by bloody inch. 

As the Russians withdrew from town after town, the atrocities they’d committed against civilians living under their occupation were revealed in stark and gruesome clarity for the world to see. The names of towns such as Bucha and Izyum became bywords for human depravity, in the same grim ranks as Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Sarajevo and Vietnam’s My Lai. These horrific revelations further galvanized international opposition to Russia and its leader, Vladimir Putin, though not enough for some countries to abandon ties with Moscow.  

 Here are five of the best Foreign Policy stories we published this year that help explain the dynamics driving the conflict, the world’s responses, and how the war has changed just about everything.


1. Putin’s War Is Europe’s 9/11

by Caroline de Gruyter, Feb. 28

For decades following the nightmares of World War II, Western Europe enjoyed a level of peace and security that enabled its leaders to focus on matters other than war and military defense, such as economic and political integration. 

Defense budgets shrank and military capacity atrophied as countries in the region relied on the United States’ security umbrella to ward off possible threats from Russia, however distant. Meanwhile, these same European countries developed increasingly close economic ties with Moscow, particularly in the energy sector. 

When Russia invaded Ukraine in February, that assumption of peace and security came to a screeching halt. FP columnist Caroline de Gruyter writes that, for many in Europe, Putin’s invasion was “a watershed moment—a kind of European 9/11.”

“Suddenly, Europeans are starting to understand why their more than two decades of talking to Putin has come to nothing: because their diplomacy, however well-intentioned, lacked the foundation of hard power,” de Gruyter writes. “If Europe wants to continue to live in peace,” she adds, “it must finally build a strong foreign policy and common defense.”


2. The West vs. the Rest

by Angela Stent, May 2

After Putin invaded, the United States marshaled an impressive coalition of Western countries to come to Ukraine’s aid against Russian aggression. 

However, as Angela Stent, a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the author of Putin’s World: Russia Against the West and With the Rest, writes, much of the rest of the world was less keen to treat Russia as an outright enemy. 

“The world is not united in the view that Russia’s aggression is unjustified, nor is a significant part of the world willing to punish Russia for its actions,” Stent notes. “Indeed, some countries are seeking to profit from Russia’s current situation.” 

This reality has posed a significant challenge to U.S. President Joe Biden’s attempts to isolate Moscow and turn Putin into a “pariah on the international stage,” as Biden promised on the day the war began.

“The reluctance of the Rest to jeopardize relations with Putin’s Russia will complicate the West’s ability to manage ties with allies and others not only now but also when the war is over,” Stent writes.


3. How Putin Learned to Hold Deadly Grudges

by William Taubman, July 17

A black-and-white photo shows a young Putin sitting on a bench next to his mother and father.
A black-and-white photo shows a young Putin sitting on a bench next to his mother and father.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) with his parents in 1985 just before his departure to East Germany as a KGB officer.Laski Diffusion/Newsmakers via Getty Images

Putin is not a new figure on the international stage—far from it. 

Yet for all of his years in power and all of the effort expended in Western capitals trying to understand how he thinks and what makes him tick, few analysts expected him to actually invade Ukraine on Feb. 24. 

When he did, to most everyone’s utter shock, it prompted a scramble to understand why a man most believed to be a coldly calculating strategic mastermind would make such a seemingly reckless and ill-advised move. 

But William Taubman, the author of Khrushchev: The Man and His Era, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography in 2004, and of Gorbachev: His Life and Times, writes that “Putin’s personal history reveals that his decision to go to war is entirely in character—and that he is very likely to continue it indefinitely.”

By tracing Putin’s history and examining important formative periods in Putin’s life, Taubman shows that the roots of Putin’s recklessness go back to a tendency he has shown since childhood to lash out when he has felt wronged or betrayed.” 


4. How U.S. Grand Strategy Is Changed by Ukraine

by Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Angela Stent, Stephen M. Walt, C. Raja Mohan, Robin Niblett, Liana Fix, Edward Alden, and Stefan Theil, Sept. 2

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine didn’t just change thinking in European capitals. It also impacted how the United States thinks about its own position in the international order and its relationships with both allies and adversaries. 

Six months into the war, FP asked seven prominent foreign-policy thinkers to weigh in on how the war had changed U.S. grand strategy. Their answers reflected some of the themes already discussed here—a Western European reckoning with their own military deficiencies and overreliance on U.S. security guarantees, for instance, and the reemergence of a nonaligned bloc of countries unwilling to pick sides in the new Cold War—but they also revealed some surprising new insights. 

Liana Fix, the director of the international affairs program at the Körber Foundation, argues that the war has introduced Europe to the perilous domain of economic warfare and created the conditions for a possible “grand strategic bargain that joins the EU’s economic power with the United States’ military might.”  

However, FP columnist Edward Alden cautions that “there is one problem with this strategy: The rest of the world wants no part of economic warfare. Already, most countries outside the Western bloc have refused to choose sides over Ukraine or join the sanctions regime.” Thus, he argues, for U.S. strategy to succeed, “Washington will have to temper its economic actions against great-power rivals in order to curry favor among the less committed.”

Robin Niblett, a distinguished fellow at Chatham House, writes that “Washington has stitched together a new Atlantic-Pacific partnership” that “links the United States’ commitments to European security against persistent Russian aggression with its commitments to its Asian allies against China’s growing military assertiveness.” 

But FP columnist C. Raja Mohan argues that “long-term stability in Europe and Asia will depend on Washington’s ability to build local balances of power and promote regional orders.”


5. Ukraine Is the World’s Foreign-Policy Rorschach Test

by Stephen M. Walt, Oct. 18

FP columnist Stephen M. Walt takes a close look at the contours of the at times heated U.S. debate over how—and how much—the United States and its allies should help Ukraine fend off or even outright defeat Russia. He asserts that “the debate on Ukraine can be seen as an illustration of a long-standing divide in foreign-policy circles” between “advocates of energetic U.S. interventionism and those who favor greater foreign-policy restraint.”

“Those who favor open-ended support for Ukraine see the world as highly interconnected and sensitive to small changes. In this view, international order is a fragile thing—like a financial market where a bit of bad news can spark panic and trigger a total market meltdown,” Walt writes. “For those who think this way, even minor setbacks can destroy a great power’s reputation, lead its allies to switch sides and bandwagon with an opponent, embolden revisionist powers, and produce rapid and far-reaching changes in the international order.”

On the other side, writes Walt, are those who believe “victory in Ukraine, while desirable, is not going to solve all the world’s problems.” These people “believe world events are only imperfectly interconnected” and that “dramatic shifts of the sort described above happen rarely—and typically only when a great power collapses entirely and the entire structure of world politics is transformed.” 

As for his own view, Walt writes that he is inclined to the second interpretation, but acknowledges that “I can’t prove that the hard-liners are wrong either about Putin’s willingness to escalate or the broader consequences of what happens in Ukraine.” But, he adds, “Nor can they prove that the less alarmist view I’ve sketched is wrong.”

Jennifer Williams is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @jenn_ruth

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