Why the Ukraine War Is Even More Dire Than Predicted
Faculty experts weigh in on the economic, political, and humanitarian consequences of the year-old conflict.
With the approaching one-year anniversary of the Ukraine war, we invited Graduate Center faculty experts to weigh in on how the conflict has impacted areas such as economics, international relations, European politics and culture, and mass migration. They also shared what they’ll be watching for in the year ahead.
The economic impact of the war has been disastrous. Ukraine’s economy is estimated to have shrunk by one-third. About 10 percent of its overall infrastructure (housing, roads, schools, theaters etc.), has been either destroyed or seriously damaged. Thus even if the war were to stop today, just going back to the pre-war economic situation would take years.
Russia’s economy has decreased by 2%. But the effect of sanctions that will probably last for several decades is yet to come. They will paralyze Russian economic development over a very long term.
Both Russia and Ukraine have lost enormous human capital: thousands of lives and millions of migrants, many of whom will never return to their countries.
The world is affected by higher prices of food and energy. This hits the poorer segment of population everywhere particularly hard, because they spend high proportion of their income on food and energy. Food riots may follow.
A new arms race has been launched. It will reorient resources from being used for the production of useful things that help people’s lives to the production of things that are supposed to destroy people and make their lives miserable.
I study the Caucasus, and the war’s effect has been profound. Massive migrations of Ukrainian and Russian populations fleeing war and mobilization, respectively, have upended the economy of Georgia. Russia’s preoccupation with Ukraine has jeopardized its role as security guarantor for Amenia and Azerbaijan in the wake of the 2020 resurgence of the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh.
In terms of the year ahead, among many things, I will be paying attention to the variability in support for Putin both domestically and globally, especially in places that view the United States’ global role as harmful. The appeal of Putin in those places helps maintain narratives that imagine the war as one between a Russian upstart and American aggressor. I’ll be watching to see if these narratives become empowered or delegitimized as the war continues.
Thomas G. Weiss, presidential professor of Political Science at the Graduate Center and director emeritus of the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies, and author, most recently, of Humanitarianism Contested: Where Angels Fear to Tread:
In many ways, my views expressed in these pages a year ago were horrific but inadequate to capture the reality of Russian recolonization efforts in the Ukraine. The deaths of tens of thousands of soldiers and civilians and the most severe humanitarian and refugee crisis in Europe since World War II has also viewed the willful and systematic destruction of Ukrainian cultural heritage as well as what many experts say is the largest collective theft of artifacts since the Nazi plunder in World War II. Ironically, the “special military operation” to de-Nazify the Ukraine rivals the Third Reich’s efforts to murder humans and heritage. Vladimir Putin’s docket in The Hague is already lengthy, but the war crimes of consciously destroying and stealing cultural heritage must be added. Ironically, I was finalizing the page proofs for Cultural Heritage and Mass Atrocities (co-edited with James Cuno and available through open access by Getty Publications) literally a few days after Russia invaded Ukraine. There is no case study in our book, but Ukraine’s ongoing tragedy is the most recent example that illustrates the underlying narrative in that book: murdering humans and history are invariably linked.
I am basically a historian of Germany, so one interesting effect of the past year has been to observe the process by which Germans have digested this new and massive war rather close to them, and thought about what relationship it bears to their own past. Much of this story will be familiar to many people. What is most interesting, though sometimes depressing, to me, is the way in which the war has made people show their colors. I have been surprised in a number of different directions: People who I thought I would agree with, who have shown a remarkable capacity to swallow Putin’s propaganda, and on the other hand, some I might have thought I disagreed with, who have shown fierce moral clarity about the war. Among scholars I know, this process seems to be largely independent of pre-existing political stance. I hold out some hope that a legacy of this war might be a reshaped democratic alliance across much of the world. But fundamentally, we must all acknowledge with humility the scale of courage and sacrifice that the people of Ukraine have demonstrated.
Michael Orlando Sharpe, professor of Political Science at the Graduate Center and York College; author of Postcolonial Citizens and Ethnic Migration: The Netherlands and Japan in the Age of Globalization:
The war is revealing the ways in which international migration is politicized as well as some of the strains and contractions in the international refugee and asylum regime, designed to protect all vulnerable human beings who cross national borders to flee persecution and serious human rights violations. The boldly disparate treatment in the warm welcome of mostly white Orthodox Christian Ukrainians as opposed to the hostile reaction to Black and brown Muslim, Christian, and multifaith African, Middle Eastern, and Asian refugees and asylum seekers in Europe and elsewhere is quite striking. Although there have always been political motivations, preferences, and biases, the racial, ethnic, religious, and class dimensions of these crises are disturbing if not alarming as they belie and threaten to undermine the well-intended postwar international system of humanitarian protections.
In terms of year ahead, I will continue to monitor the geopolitical and humanitarian realities and implications of the war but particularly whether the system persists in its protection of Ukrainians as well as opens more broadly once again to others as this poses another critical litmus test of our liberal democratic order.
Elissa Bemporad, Jerry and William Ungar Chair in East European Jewish History and the Holocaust and professor of History at Queens College and professor of History at the Graduate Center; author, most recently, of Legacy of Blood: Jews, Pogroms, and Ritual Murder in the Lands of the Soviets:
The war has touched me personally. I have travelled numerous times to Ukraine, a country that is being constantly ravished, and I empathize with the many friends who struggle daily with the violence and trauma of war and genocide. The war has touched me also in so far as it has forced me to rethink my work as a historian. As a scholar of Jewish life and culture in 19th- and 20th-century Eastern Europe, like so many of my colleagues in the field, I am reexamining the history of the region and of its minorities in light of this war. Over the course of the 20th and 21st centuries, most scholars have studied the history and culture of the Jewish minority of Ukraine as part of Imperial Russian and Soviet history, thus disregarding the specificities and uniqueness of Ukrainian-Jewish history and culture, as well as that of Ukrainian-Jewish relations. Many historians like me are now contending with ways to decolonize Russian and Soviet studies and reconsider the histories and cultures of the national minorities of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union. One of the first steps to decolonize the field is to learn Ukrainian and refocus our attention away from the center, searching for new voices and sources that we have often dismissed in our work. It is my hope that the archives in Ukraine will not fall victim to the devastation and the plunder carried out by the Russian army.
Because of the time and the place in which it is unfolding, this war is probably one of the most well-documented ones in human history. For this reason too, many teachers and scholars will refer to different aspects of this war, analyzing them in their research and in their teaching, whether they teach a survey course on modern Europe or a seminar on crimes against humanity.
As a scholar of genocide and mass violence, I am playing close attention to the ways in which the Russian Federation is targeting civilians through systematic violence, including sexual violence against women and girls and the abduction and forced adoption of Ukrainian children, as well as to the different ways in which Ukrainians are resisting the onslaught. As historian Marc Bloch reminds us “history is neither watchmaking nor cabinet construction. It is an endeavor toward better understanding.” I think that it is our responsibility as scholars who work on Eastern Europe to help both students and the general public better understand the past and the present in Ukraine in the year ahead, countering Russia’s attempt to manipulate history to justify a war of aggression.
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