By Thomas L. Friedman
Almost six weeks into the war between Russia and Ukraine, I’m beginning to wonder if this conflict isn’t our first true world war — much more than World War I or World War II ever were. In this war, which I think of as “World War Wired,” virtually everyone on the planet can either observe the fighting at a granular level, participate in some way or be affected economically — no matter where they live.
While the battle on the ground that triggered World War Wired is ostensibly over who should control Ukraine, do not be fooled. This has quickly turned into “the big battle” between the two most dominant political systems in the world today: free-market, “rule-of-law democracy versus authoritarian kleptocracy,” the Swedish expert on the Russian economy, Anders Aslund, remarked to me.
Though this war is far from over, and Vladimir Putin may still find a way to prevail and come out stronger, if he doesn’t, it could be a watershed in the conflict between democratic and undemocratic systems. It is worth recalling that World War II put an end to fascism, and the Cold War put an end to orthodox communism, eventually even in China. So, what happens on the streets of Kyiv, Mariupol and the Donbas region could influence political systems far beyond Ukraine and far into the future.
Indeed, other autocratic leaders, like China’s, are watching Russia carefully. They see its economy being weakened by Western sanctions; thousands of its young technologists fleeing to escape a government denying them access to the internet and credible news; and its inept army seemingly unable to gather, share and funnel accurate information to the top. Those leaders have to be asking themselves: “Holy cow — am I that vulnerable? Am I presiding over a similar house of cards?”
Everyone is watching.
In World War I and World War II, no one had a smartphone or access to social networks through which to observe and participate in the war in nonkinetic ways. Indeed, a large chunk of the world’s population was still colonized and did not have the full freedom to express independent views, even if they had the technology. Many of those residing outside the war zones were also extremely poor subsistence farmers who were not so heavily affected by those first two world wars. There weren’t the giant connected globalized and urbanized lower and middle classes of today’s wired world.
Now, anyone with a smartphone can view what is happening in Ukraine — live and in color — and express opinions globally through social media. In our post-colonial world, governments from virtually every country around the globe can vote to condemn or excuse one side or another in Ukraine through the United Nations General Assembly.
While estimates vary, it appears that between 3 billion and 4 billion people on the planet — almost half — have a smartphone today, and although internet censorship remains a real problem, particularly in China, there are just so many more people able to peer deeply into so many more places. And that’s not all.
Anyone with a smartphone and a credit card can aid strangers in Ukraine, through Airbnb, by just reserving a night at their home and not using it. Teenagers anywhere can create apps on Twitter to track Russian oligarchs and their yachts. And encrypted instant messaging app Telegram — which was invented by two Russian-born techie brothers as a tool to communicate outside the Kremlin’s earshot — “has emerged as the go-to place for unfiltered live war updates for both Ukrainian refugees and increasingly isolated Russians alike,” NPR reported. And it’s run out of Dubai, United Arab Emirates!
Meanwhile, Ukraine’s government has been able to tap a whole new source of funding — raising more than $70 million worth of cryptocurrency from individuals around the world after appealing on social media for donations. And Tesla billionaire Elon Musk activated his SpaceX company’s satellite broadband service in Ukraine to provide high-speed internet after a Ukrainian official tweeted at him for help from Russian efforts to disconnect Ukraine from the world.
Commercial U.S.-based satellite companies, like Maxar Technologies, have enabled anyone to view from space hundreds of desperate people lining up for food outside a supermarket in Mariupol — even though the Russians have the town surrounded on the ground and have banned any journalists from entering.
Then there are the cyberwarriors who can jump into the fight from anywhere — and have. CNBC reported that “a popular Twitter account named ‘Anonymous’ declared that the shadowy activist group was waging a ‘cyber war’ against Russia.” The account, which has more than 7.9 million global followers — almost eight times larger than Russia’s whole army (including some 500,000 new Anonymous followers since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine) — “has claimed responsibility for disabling prominent Russian government, news and corporate websites and leaking data from entities such as Roskomnadzor, the federal agency responsible for censoring Russian media.”
Such nongovernmental, super-empowered global players and platforms were not present in WWI or II.
But just as so many more people can affect this war, so, too, can more be affected by it. Russia and Ukraine are key suppliers of wheat and fertilizer to the agricultural supply chains that now feed the world and that this war has disrupted. A war between just two countries in Europe has spiked the price of food for Egyptians, Brazilians, Indians and Africans.
And because Russia is one of the world’s biggest exporters of natural gas, crude oil and the diesel fuel used by farmers in their tractors, the sanctions on Russia’s energy infrastructure are curbing its exports, causing gasoline pump prices to rise from Minneapolis to Mexico to Mumbai, and forcing farmers as far away as Argentina to ration their diesel-powered tractor usage or cut fossil-fuel-rich fertilizer usage, jeopardizing Argentina’s agriculture exports and adding further to soaring world food prices.
There’s another unexpected financial globalization angle on this war that you really need to keep your eye on: Putin saved up over $600 billion in gold, foreign government bonds and foreign currency, earned from all of Russia’s energy and mineral exports, precisely so he would have a cushion if he were sanctioned by the West. But Putin apparently forgot that in today’s wired world, as is standard practice, his government had deposited most of it in the banks of Western countries and China.
According to the Atlantic Council GeoEconomics Center, the top six nations where Russian central bank foreign currency assets are stowed by percentage are: China, 17.7 percent; France, 15.6 percent; Japan, 12.8 percent; Germany, 12.2 percent; U.S., 8.5 percent; and Britain, 5.8 percent. Also, the Bank of International Settlement and the International Monetary Fund have 6.4 percent.
Each of these countries, except China, has now frozen the Russian reserves it is holding — so around $330 billion is inaccessible to Putin, according to the Atlantic Council’s tracker.
But not only can the Russian state not touch those reserves to prop up its crumbling economy, there will be a huge global push to tap this money to pay reparations to rebuild the Ukrainian homes, apartment buildings, roads and government structures the Russian army destroyed in Putin’s war of choice.
Message to Putin: “Thanks for banking with us. It will be legally difficult to seize your savings for reparations, but you’d better get your lawyers ready.”
For all these reasons, all of those leaders around the world who have drifted toward some version or another of Putin-inspired authoritarian capitalism or kleptocracy have to be worried, though they will not be easily dislodged no matter what happens in Russia.
These regimes have become adept at using new surveillance technologies to control political opponents and information flows and to manipulate their politics and state financial resources to keep themselves ensconced in power. We are talking about Turkey, Myanmar, China, North Korea, Peru, Brazil, the Philippines, Hungary and several Arab states. Putin was surely hoping that a second Trump term might transform the U.S. into a version of this kind of strongman kleptocracy and tip the whole global balance his way.
Then came this war. To be sure, Ukraine’s democracy is frail, and the country has had its own serious issues with oligarchs and corruption. Kyiv’s burning aspiration, though, was not to join NATO but to join the European Union, and it was in the process of cleaning itself up to do just that.
That’s what really triggered this war. Putin was never going to let a Slavic Ukraine become a successful free-market democracy in the EU next door to his stagnating Slavic Russian kleptocracy. The contrast would have been intolerable for him, and that is why he is trying to erase Ukraine.
But Putin, it turns out, had no clue what world he was living in, no clue about the frailties of his own system, no clue how much the whole free, democratic world could and would join the fight against him in Ukraine, and no clue, most of all, about how many people would be watching.