Updating My Munich PredictionsProject Syndicate, March 16, 2023
The countries of the former Soviet empire, eager to assert their independence, eagerly await defeat of the Russian army in Ukraine. At that point, Vladimir Putin’s dream of a renewed Russian empire will disintegrate and cease to pose a threat to Europe, and the world will be able to focus on its biggest problem: climate change.
It is exactly one month ago that I gave a speech on the eve of the Munich Security Conference. Since then, so many remarkable things have happened – and have happened so fast – that it is worth comparing my predictions of a month ago with actual developments.1
The biggest changes have occurred in the global climate system. By this, I mean actual climate events and climate scientists’ understanding of those events. The main message I wanted to convey in Munich was that the global climate system is greatly dependent on what happens within the Arctic Circle. The Arctic Circle climate system used to be separate from the global climate system. Winds used to blow in a predictable counterclockwise direction; but, because of increased human interference, the separation between the Arctic climate system and the global climate system no longer prevails.
Indeed, cold air now leaks from the Arctic Circle and is replaced by warm air sucked up from outside. Consequently, the Arctic Circle has warmed up four times faster than the rest of the world over the last four decades, and the rate of warming is dangerously accelerating. Since my speech, temperatures in the Arctic Circle have soared over 20º Celsius above normal, setting records and intensifying concerns about the rate at which the Greenland ice sheet is melting.
Climate scientists’ understanding of the warming process has also taken a big step forward. They have been able to prove that the release of methane, a far more potent and dangerous greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, is greater than can be explained by the sources of emissions associated with human activity. This finding implies the existence of other sources – for example, increasing methane emissions from the warming permafrost – result from human disturbance of nature.
An increasing number of climate scientists believe it would be appropriate to declare a climate emergency, because, at the current rate, global warming is bound to exceed 1.5ºC. As Sir David King, chief science adviser to the British government under Gordon Brown and currently the head of the Climate Crisis Advisory Group, said last month, we need to “reduce emissions rapidly and remove excess greenhouse gases, but, most importantly and urgently, refreeze the Arctic.” That’s quite a large program, given the fact that we are already behind schedule.
The other domain where important changes have taken place is Russia’s war against Ukraine. Until October, Ukraine was winning on the battlefield. Then, Russia, with the help of Iran, introduced drones on a large scale. Their aim was to undermine Ukrainians’ morale by depriving the civilian population of electricity, heat, and water. This put Ukraine on the defensive.
The regular Russian army is in desperate straits. It is badly led, ill-equipped, and gravely demoralized. President Vladimir Putin recognized this and took a desperate gamble. He turned to Yevgeny Prigozhin, who had marshaled an army of mercenaries called the Wagner Group and was eager to prove that his forces could outperform the regular army. Putin allowed Prigozhin to recruit prisoners from Russia’s jails. With the former convicts’ help, and at an enormous cost in their and other mercenaries’ lives, Wagner started to gain territory around the town of Bakhmut while the regular army remained stymied or was losing ground elsewhere.
Putin’s gamble worked – up to a point. The regular army, feeling threatened, started waging a bureaucratic war against Prigozhin – which they won. They saw to it that Prigozhin was prohibited from recruiting more prisoners and supplied Wagner fighters with the wrong types of munitions. In recent weeks, Prigozhin went public with his complaints, an action that put Putin in a difficult position. At first, Putin tried to help Prigozhin, but the establishment supported the regular army. Together, they convinced Putin that Prigozhin poses a threat to his continued rule.
Ukraine is taking advantage of this Russian infighting. President Volodymyr Zelensky consulted his army’s leaders, and they unanimously recommended putting Prigozhin’s army through the proverbial meat grinder while it is so disadvantaged. Ukrainian forces will thus be able to mount a counterattack when they receive the up-to-date armaments, in particular Leopard 2 tanks, they have been promised. That should happen around May, but it could also be earlier.
So, most of the important predictions I made in Munich a month ago about the war – including that a powerful Ukrainian spring offensive will decisively turn the tide – are likely to come true. I am aware, of course, that a number of reputable publications have published articles that paint a much more dismal picture of the war’s progress. How can they be reconciled with the upbeat view that I hold? Only by postulating a successful disinformation campaign.
Putin is desperate for a ceasefire, but he does not want to admit it. Chinese President Xi Jinping is in the same boat. But US President Joe Biden is unlikely to jump at this seeming opportunity to negotiate a ceasefire, because he has pledged that the US will not negotiate behind Zelensky’s back.
The countries of the former Soviet empire, eager to assert their independence, can hardly wait for the Russian army to be crushed in Ukraine. At that point, Putin’s dream of a renewed Russian empire will disintegrate and cease to pose a threat to Europe.
The defeat of Russian imperialism will have far-reaching consequences for the rest of the world. It will bring huge relief to open societies and create tremendous problems for closed ones. Most importantly, it will allow the world to concentrate on its biggest problem, climate change.