WAR in Ukraine


Cascading and systemic risks need to be increasingly considered in crisis and disaster preparedness especially in the wake of the Ukraine war.

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One Year of war against Ukraine

How quickly the world can change is shown not only by crises such as the COVID pandemic, but also by the war in Ukraine. War has been raging in Europe for a year now. In a time of multiple global crises, Russia’s invasion into Ukraine on the 24 February 2022, which has been against international law, is a human tragedy which have not been seen in Europe for decades and has deeply shaken the self-image of peace in Europe. This war has already resulted in tens of thousands of deaths and millions of refugees – people fleeing Ukraine or those displaced within the country (OECD 2023). The global cascading and systemic risks posed by this war show ‘the extent to which our lives and life support systems are now interconnected and how peacekeeping is at once global environmental, agricultural, health, social, financial, development and human rights policy and must therefore be the continuing top priority for action by the global community (UN)’ (Schwarze 2022a:2).

What are cascading and systemic risks?

Cascading Risks

Key characteristics of cascading risks (UNDRR 2021) 

‘Cascading risk can be understood as the risk posed by sequential occurrences of two or more events, where the first event triggers one or more events’ (UNDRR 2021). 

Systemic Risks

Key characteristics of systemic risks (UNDRR 2021)

Systemic risk is the sum of the different risk patterns, including cascading and compound risks. It is inherent or embedded in a system that is not itself considered a risk and is therefore generally unaddressed, but is known through system analysis to have a latent or cumulative risk potential that can negatively impact the overall performance of the system if some features of the system change (UNDRR 2021).

In the following, the global consequences of war on food security; energy security and climate change mitigation, displacement, social security, and justice, financial risks, technological and cyber risks, environmental and health risks, civil protection, and international cooperation are addressed.

Food security

Before the Russian invasion into Ukraine, Russia and Ukraine together exported about 30% of the world’s wheat supplies. The war has put the food security of millions of people at risk, but also exports of other important products such as sunflower oil and fertiliser have been affected. Globally, food prices and transport costs have risen extremely at times. This particularly affects countries in northern Africa, which are heavily dependent on imports from Ukraine. Due to the war, farmers in Ukraine live in constant danger, cultivated areas are damaged, supply routes are interrupted, and storage facilities are no longer safe, which is also reflected in global supply chains that have already been affected by the COVID crisis (Schwarze 2022b).

Displacement, social security, and justice

Since the beginning of the war, millions of people have been fleeing. Most are displaced within Ukraine, but many also come to the European Union, making this refugee movement the largest in Europe since World War II (UNRIC 2022). Especially in the area of forced mobility, cascading and systemic risks become apparent. Primarily vulnerable groups who are characterised by poverty, disability, social exclusion or other factors and who have had traumatic experiences as a result of the war need special support, which usually cannot be guaranteed at the places of reception. The longer the war lasts, the more uncertain and dangerous a possible return becomes for many people. The insecure conditions for refugees and those who remain at home are further exacerbated by the economic effects of the COVID pandemic and the high food and energy prices (Schwarze 2022a).

Technological and cyber risks

The technology industry is very globalised and thus affected by the war, as supply chains are repeatedly interrupted. Supplies for the automotive industry, for example, depend on whether goods trains, for example from China, can get through. Even large container ships cannot always dock at ports in Ukraine and large shipping companies no longer operate in Russia (Deutschlandfunk 2022). On the other hand, cyber attacks increase the risk of technological disasters. Targeted attacks on critical infrastructure and vital services can have devastating cascading effects and ‘cause long-lasting chaos in vital economic, utility and health systems’ (Schwarze 2022a:10).

International cooperation

To meet global challenges like climate change, international cooperation is essential. The Ukraine war now threatens to make this more difficult by diverting resources vital to transforming to a sustainable future. ‘Any reduction in funding for risk reduction, climate change or humanitarian aid will be felt most acutely in the poorest and least developed countries’ (Schwarze 2022a:13). ‘Furthermore, the war has an impact on global questions of order. This concerns the system conflict between western, liberal democracies and authoritarian systems as well as the power constellation between Russia, China, and the USA” (SWP 2023).

Energy security and climate change mitigation

Russia was one of the world’s leading exporters of fossil fuels. Oil and gas have become more expensive in the wake of the war against Ukraine, as Russia has suspended gas supplies to several EU member states and at the same time they want to reduce their dependence on Russia and thus import as little oil as possible (Europäischer Rat 2023). Higher energy prices affect the cost of living, increase inflation and market volatility, and negatively impact global poverty (Schwarze 2022a). To counteract this, some countries are focusing on forms of energy that are harmful to the climate, which actually have to be reduced in accordance with the Paris Agreement in order to approximate the 1.5°C target. In the interest of climate protection, the opportunity should now be seized to prioritise renewable energies and to operate energy-efficiently instead of increasing the use of coal and nuclear energy again (Schwarze 2022a).

financial risks

The economic and financial sanctions against Russia as well as the war damage in Ukraine lead to global financial risks. These include, for example, rising inflation, expensive commodity prices, fluctuating exchange and stock prices, spreads of government bonds, as well as tightened financial conditions and capital flows. Due to globalisation and multiple trade and financial interdependencies, negative effects were already felt in these sectors at the beginning of the war. The exclusion of Russian banks from the international payment system SWIFT can also lead to distortions in the financial system. Further systemic risks emerge against the backdrop that the global economy is still affected by the COVID pandemic, inflation forecasts are rising and thus planned funds (e.g. for sustainable development, humanitarian aid, education and social policy, but also for mitigating greenhouse gas emissions, disaster risk management and climate change adaptation) may be diverted (Schwarze 2022a).

Environmental and health risks

War poses a high risk to the environment, both regionally and globally. The use of firearms leads to increased forest fires, which not only pollute the environment, but also pose a health risk due to the pollutants released. The use of toxins as well as radioactive substances additionally pollutes air, water and soil, but also the health of the population. There is evidence of severe air pollution, soil degradation and greenhouse gas emissions as a result of the intense fighting (Pereira et al. 2022). Health risks additionally arise from outbreaks of infectious diseases, as hygienic and medical standards often cannot be maintained in war zones. The longer the war in Ukraine lasts, the more the risk of disease outbreaks increases, as the link between war and disease outbreaks has been known for centuries (Schwarze 2022a).

Civil protection

The Ukraine war has given civil defence a new significance. Now, Germany shall not only meet NATO’s two percent budget target, but the Bundeswehr, Military of Germany, will also receive a special fund of 100 billion Euros. In addition, funds are also planned specifically for civil defence, as this is not prepared for possible threat situations due to the perceived security up to now (BMVG 2022).

Future prospects

Working out future prospects for complex crises, disasters but also wars are very difficult, especially when simultaneous disasters have a crisis-reinforcing effect. ‘The war in Ukraine is taking place at a critical time in world history. It places an additional burden on global crisis management systems, which are still struggling to deal with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and its effects, and must deal with the existential climate crisis in an ever-shrinking window of opportunity’(Schwarze 2022a:2).

Taking a closer look at cascading and systemic risks is an important step to better understand complex situations and address appropriate resilience measures and risk prevention by promoting cross-sectoral systemic action. Only if joint scientific, political, and societal efforts are made risk dynamics can be better understood, minimised, prevented, and managed.

Created: February 2023