BY DANIEL WOODBURN & EMILY SAMPLE
Photo by Alice Kotlyarenko on Unsplash
In the wake the Russian invasion in February 2022, Ukraine’s 2023 Fragile States Index (FSI) score has risen from 68.6 to 95.9, skyrocketing the country’s ranking from the 92nd most fragile to 18th, claiming the unenviable title of “Most Worsened” for the year. Furthermore, Ukraine’s increased fragility has affected not just countries in its vicinity, but states far further afield.
Aspects of this cascading fragility are clear-cut and have been researched and discussed at length, like the major impact on the global wheat, sunflower oil, and maize supply, and the subsequent effects on food security and aid in countries like Ethiopia. Similarly, the invasion has resulted in an energy crisis, not least because Ukraine’s allies have sought to divest from Russian energy as quickly as possible. Skyrocketing prices of natural gas and crude oil have increased pressure not only on poorer countries, but the poorest citizens of wealthy countries who cannot absorb rising costs. The most visual example is the massive flow of Ukrainian refugees fleeing to Poland, Hungary, Moldova, Romania, and Slovakia, and then spreading across the world; Poland’s Refugees and IDPs indicator score rose from 2.5 in 2022 to 5.9 in 2023.
In a world of modern, irregular, and hybrid warfare, there are comparatively few recent examples of outright, state-on-state invasions, with those of Iraq and Afghanistan serving as exceptions to prove the rule. Apart from the United States and NATO, other major powers, such as Russia and China, have until now prioritized less kinetic means, such as cyber-attacks, and economic measures like the Belt-and-Road initiative, while maintaining an official policy of supporting state sovereignty as an inviolable principle of international affairs. As for China’s more hawkish posture in and around the South China Sea – especially Taiwan – the unfolding of the Ukraine war carries considerable implications, with the potential risk of underestimating a small nation’s capabilities or the commitment of the West to support it. Under President Biden, the U.S.’s historical support of Taiwan has been further underscored. In August 2022, Nancy Pelosi, the then-speaker of the US House of Representatives, provoked Chinese outrage by visiting the island nation, representing the highest-level U.S. visit in 25 years, leading to a flurry of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) exercises in the Taiwanese strait in the weeks following Pelosi’s visit, and overt military threats.
The Ukrainian war occurred in a context of historical Russian expansionism. Russia previously invaded Georgia in 2008 (leading to an 8-point Georgian decline in the 2009 FSI) and Crimea in 2014 (leading to a 9.1 worsening in the 2015 FSI for Ukraine). Where the Georgia-Russian war was over in five days with a quick and successful intervention from Russia in favor of the separatist South Ossetian and Abkhazian self-proclaimed republics, Ukraine’s resistance in 2022 has led to a protracted conflict that has reshaped its society and led to a worsening in all but one of its 12 FSI indicators (the sole improvement being State Legitimacy). Ukraine’s scores are the highest possible (10) in External Intervention, Refugees and IDPs, and Security Apparatus, while several others are at 8 or above. In comparison, the 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia precipitated a series of mass protests against the government, as well as against Russian interference – which to this day continue to translate to high scores in Factionalized Elite, Group Grievance, and State Legitimacy. However, in the aggregate, Georgia returned to its pre-war baseline over the next five years, and is now almost 12 points better off than it was on the eve of the invasion, though protests remain commonplace.
Ukraine’s poor 2023 score on the Fragile States Index belies its remarkable resistance. In February 2022, as Russia advanced on Kyiv, Ukraine appeared to be on the verge of a swift military defeat. By April 2022, however, Ukraine’s forces had expelled the Russian military from the capital; 5 months later, Russia had no significant northern theater of operations, and fighting was concentrated in the south and east, along the Black Sea and Azov Sea coasts. As of early June 2023, the world watches as a second major Ukrainian counter-offensive unfolds. After the success of its autumn counter-offensive in 2022, a Ukrainian victory appeared less and less fanciful. History is rife with examples of underdogs prevailing against bigger, better-equipped, more organized opponents, and Ukraine has demonstrated the ability to absorb, adapt, and transform in numerous ways.  During the launch of the State Resilience Index, the Fund for Peace highlighted Ukraine’s decentralization as a key element in its successes to date. In early June 2023, Ukraine’s Minister for Economy hailed a smaller-than-expected GDP contraction in the first quarter of 2023. This resilience is mirrored by Ukrainian workers, who have to contend with frequent power cuts resulting from Russian targeting of critical infrastructure. Shops, cafés, and restaurants remain resolutely open even in cities pummeled by Russian rockets, keeping the lights on with generators. In Kyiv, the opera house has continued putting on shows, albeit for reduced crowds in order to fit patrons into its bomb shelters. Ukraine’s sizeable IT sector – one of its bigger export-earners prior to the war – continues to function thanks to co-working spaces touting back-up generators, wi-fi points, and bomb shelters equipped with furniture and internet access to ensure continuity. Air raid sirens have become commonplace in cities across Ukraine, yet civilian life goes on. On the battlefield, Ukraine is requisitioning junkyards and garages to repair damaged tanks.
In spite of this resilience, the fragility that has emanated from Ukraine and cascaded globally has come at significant cost, both direct and indirect. This includes the sudden reassignment of funding and programming to Ukraine and its refugees. Other countries that are also in crisis, including Yemen, Syria, Afghanistan, and Ethiopia, may face a humanitarian aid shortfall as critical funding and supplies are redirected toward Ukraine. For countries already experiencing fragility, or on the cusp, this rerouting of funding and global attention has left a gap through which people in these fragile contexts will slip. It also leaves a vacuum for others to fill, including violent extremist groups and paramilitary outfits like Russia’s Wagner Group. These populations face starvation, malnutrition, and health emergencies, as well as their subsequent impacts on conflict, migration, and political legitimacy. As the world continues to navigate Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the ways it affects the globe, fragility still matters in countries all over the world, now more than ever.
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