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Vladimir Putin's Post-West Disorder 

Vladimir Putin's Post-West Disorder 
 Angela Stent
Senior Nonresident Fellow at the Brookings Institution

Russia's war against Ukraine is set to fundamentally transform the international order. Institut Montaigne proposes a series of articles to shed light on the dynamics at play in a world shaken by the new distribution of power. For Ukraine Shifting the World Order, Angela Stent, Senior Nonresident Fellow at the Brookings Institution, covers Putin's intentions and on what should come next.

In the years leading up to Russia's second invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, Vladimir Putin repeatedly announced the end of the unipolar world and the dawn of the multipolar world-one in which Russia would play a major role. It began with his infamous speech to the Munich Security Conference in 2007, when he declared "One state and, of course, first and foremost the United States, has overstepped its national borders in every way," adding "I am convinced that we have reached that decisive moment when we must seriously think about the architecture of global security". But did he have a clear idea of what that architecture would look like? For many years he upheld the Yalta system as the best model, where the post-West order would be the twenty-first-century version of the nineteenth-century Concert of Powers with Russia, China and the United States presiding over their respective spheres of influence. Since the invasion of Ukraine however, it appears that Putin’s brave new world order would be a disruptive one in which there are no rules. 

One key to understanding Putin's vision is his concept of sovereignty. There are, in his view, only three or four truly sovereign states-Russia, China, the United States and India. The rest can at best enjoy limited sovereignty, or, as Putin told a group of young entrepreneurs in June 2022, "there is no in-between, no intermediate state: either a country is sovereign, or it is a colony, no matter what the colonies are called". He went on to describe the three aspects of sovereignty: military/political, economic and technical/social. This Brezhnevian notion of limited sovereignty means that in the future the "colonies" must comply with the demands of their great power overlords, surely an archaic definition of a future world order. 

One key to understanding Putin's vision is his concept of sovereignty. 

The 1945 Yalta agreement, which effectively divided Europe into US and Soviet spheres of influence which both sides observed for 45 years, elicited praise from Putin in his September 2015 speech to the United Nations "Let's be fair: it helped humankind pass through turbulent, and at times dramatic, events of the last seven decades. It saved the world from large-scale upheavals".

Writing in the National Interest five years later, Putin added: "the major historic achievement of Yalta and other decisions of that time is the agreement to create a mechanism that would allow the leading powers to remain within the framework of diplomacy in resolving their differences". In other words, accepting great power spheres of influence helps to avoid war. Because the US and Europe would not accept that Russia had a droit de regard over the post-Soviet space, Russia, in Putin's telling, was forced to embark on its "special military operation" in Ukraine.

At the Munich Security Conference in 2017, Sergei Lavrov announced the need for a "post-West order". However, his definition was vague and his main point was that this should be an order where NATO, a relic of the Cold War, no longer exists. If Putin and his colleagues really favor a Yalta-type system, then that would be one with rules. After all, for much of the Cold War, neither of the main protagonists interfered in each other's sphere of influence. But with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Putin's hints that his ambitions to "gather in" Russia's traditional lands do not stop at Ukraine, it appears that his vision of a future world order goes beyond Yalta to one in which there are few rules of the game. It is a Hobbesian world order in which Russia could seize as much territory as it could until it was stopped, a bellum omnium contra omnes.

Putin's talk about world order represents an important part of his grievance narrative about the United States and its allies, complaining that after 1991 the West created an order that ignored Russia's interests. But in fact, Russia has also been a beneficiary of the post-Cold War order. Its globalized economy experienced high rates of growth in Putin's early years, it became a key player in the G20 and managed to restore its great power status. The war with Ukraine has now undermined that status and Russia will emerge from its deglobalized, unmodernized, autarkic and isolated from the West, although not from the rest of the world. The Post-Cold War period that began in 1992 is now over but what will replace it will not necessarily be more advantageous for Russian interests.

What were Putin's intentions in the run-up to the war? 

Early on in his tenure, Putin proclaimed, "anyone who doesn't regret the passing of the Soviet Union has no heart. Anyone who wants it restored has no brains". But in the 22 years since he took office, Putin has clearly revised his ideas. He no longer views the Soviet collapse as a completed process and believes that it can be reversed. He is not interested in reviving the USSR; rather he wants to create his version of the Russian empire. Defensive expansionism has been at the core of Russian foreign policy at least since the era of Catherine the Great, who famously proclaimed: "That which stops growing begins to rot. I must expand my borders to keep my empire safe". Putin's Russia defined its defense perimeter not as the borders of the Russian Federation but as the post-Soviet space. And Ukraine was the key to reversing the Soviet collapse.

In his July 2021 treatise "On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians", Putin denied that there is a separate Ukrainian nation or identity, blamed the West for artificially trying to create one, and equated all Ukrainian "nationalists" with Nazis. The original sin was Lenin and the Bolsheviks' creation of a separate Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1922, instead of creating the USSR with no ethnic republics. In so doing "Russia was robbed." When the Soviet Union collapsed, Ukraine wrongfully, in Putin's view, declared itself an independent state. Putin concluded his essay with this warning: "I am confident that the true sovereignty of Ukraine is possible only in partnership with Russia". Putin apparently believes as he told George W. Bush in 2008 that "Ukraine isn't a real country". He signaled quite clearly that he wanted to subordinate Ukraine to Russia and prevent it from joining either the European Union or NATO-although neither of these was on offer in February 2022.

Since the war began, loud choruses in the United States, Europe and elsewhere have blamed NATO enlargement for the Russia-Ukraine war. Putin and other top Russian officials have complained that NATO's Eastern enlargement was a betrayal of promises made to Gorbachev in the months preceding German unification. This claim has been contested by officials involved in negotiations at the time. No written guarantees that NATO would not enlarge were made. When NATO enlarged to include the Baltic states in 2004 for instance, Putin did not object.

Since the war began, loud choruses in the United States, Europe and elsewhere have blamed NATO enlargement for the Russia-Ukraine war. 

The Kremlin's current narrative about the "threat" from NATO has focused on the 2008 declaration at the Bucharest NATO summit that Ukraine "will join NATO". This unfortunate sentence was a compromise reached after hours of bargaining between the United States - which wanted to offer Ukraine a concrete NATO perspective - and Germany and France, who were not prepared to do so for fear of provoking Russia. Indeed, nothing had been done since 2008 to advance Ukraine's NATO candidacy, but the Kremlin in the run-up to the war suggested that Ukraine might imminently join. Putin apparently does not have a problem with Sweden and Finland joining NATO because they do not pose a direct threat to Russia. The threat Ukraine NATO membership poses is that Russia would not be able to control Ukraine were it a NATO member. And Ukraine in NATO would offer an alternative path to Russians. Indeed, Russia would not have invaded Ukraine had NATO accepted it as a member.

Nevertheless, some prominent Western voices have reiterated the claim that NATO is to blame for the war. Even the Pope has said that Russia was somehow "provoked". Those who put much of the responsibility for the war on the West also assume that Russia would be willing to negotiate a peace settlement, despite Russia’s claims that it seeks complete regime change in Kyiv.

Putin's miscalculations  and correct assumptions

Putin’s ideas about a post-Ukraine world order were contained in the pronouncements he made before the war began and in several key assumptions, he made in the run-up to the invasion. Many of those assumptions have proven mistaken, but some have not. 

His first significant miscalculation was his failure to understand what the Ukrainian nation has become in the thirty years since independence. He apparently was convinced that Ukraine was weak and divided, that Russia could capture Kyiv in a three-day Blitzkrieg, and that the government of Volodymyr Zelenskyy would collapse and be replaced by a Moscow-friendly regime. His second miscalculation (and many Western governments shared this view) was to overestimate the prowess of the Russian military. Despite its modernization since the Russia-Georgia war of 2008, its performance was brutal but mediocre. It turns out that the corruption that pervades the Russian state and society also affects the Russian military, and money that should have been spent on training and equipment was lining people's pockets instead. Putin's third miscalculation was to believe that a distracted, divided West could not unite to punish Russia for its unprovoked attack. Finally, his fourth miscalculation was to believe that Europe was so addicted to Russian gas and so invested in its economic relations with Russia that it would not agree to any far-reaching financial or energy sanctions that the United States might impose.

Putin was, however, correct in one calculation. Whereas he expected a negative reaction to the invasion from the West, he anticipated that the rest of the world would remain neutral.

Putin was, however, correct in one calculation. Whereas he expected a negative reaction to the invasion from the West, he anticipated that the rest of the world would remain neutral.

Since the annexation of Crimea in 2014, when the West sought to isolate Russia, Putin focused on deepening ties with China and also assiduously courted countries in the Global South. China came to Russia's rescue after the Crimean annexation, signing the $400 billion Power of Siberia gas pipeline deal with Russia and supporting it in many other ways. What many in the West had characterized as a marriage of convenience has increasingly become a strategic partnership where, despite the asymmetries in the relationship, the shared sense of grievance against what they see as the US-dominated global order bound the two countries together. 

Between 2014 and 2022 Russia significantly increased its global presence, returning to areas of the world from which it had withdrawn after the Soviet collapse. Putin's return to the Middle East began in September 2015, when Russia began bombing Syria in support of Bashar Al Assad, who appeared to be on the verge of defeat in the ongoing civil war. Russia parlayed its reappearance as a great power in the Middle East into establishing ties with most powers in the region irrespective of their form of government or ideological leanings. Moscow cultivated relations with Shiite Iran, all of the major Sunni states, and Israel. As US attention to the Middle East waned, Russia was increasingly viewed as a regional power broker. Putin also had his sights on Africa, where reduced US interest and aggressive Chinese involvement increasingly endeared many countries on the continent to a Russia which they viewed as the heir to the USSR, an anti-imperial power. And the Wanger private military group moved in to support the leaders of a number of countries in their struggles with opponents-and also benefited economically from its involvement. Latin America also became increasingly interesting to Russia, as Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua were joined by a number of left-leaning governments critical of the United States. As Putin grew angrier about what he viewed as US interference in Russia's backyard, he was determined to strengthen Russia's foothold in America's backyard and found a receptive audience in a growing number of countries in the region. Russia offered arms and energy exports and training for security services. For his Latin America interlocutors, Russia's newfound interest provided an alternative to both China and the United States whose attention to the region had waned. By the time Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022, Putin had correctly assessed that a large number of countries in the Global South, many of whom are suspicious of or openly hostile to the United States, would either remain neutral or support Russia's actions.

What has emerged since February 24 is a new alignment. The collective West - which has both condemned and sanctioned Russia-consists of the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, the EU, Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand and Singapore. Between them, they account for the lion’s share of global GDP. They view Russia’s attack and the outbreak of the first major armed conflict in Europe since 1945 as a threat not only to European security but to the domestic stability of Western democracies. Arrayed against them are the BRICS countries-including India, a partner of the United States, Japan and Australia in the Quad- and much of the Middle East, Africa and Latin America-including Mexico, a US neighbor and major trade partner. These countries' combined populations far outnumber those of the West. They view the war as a local European affair with limited relevance for their interests and they continue to see the United States as an imperialist power whose actions in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan differ little from what Russia is doing in Ukraine. They view Russia as the heir to the USSR which supported national liberation movements against colonial powers. Unlike Russia’s neighbors who have for centuries been invaded and dominated by Russia, the global South does not view Russia as a colonial power. When President Zelensky, after weeks of asking for the opportunity to explain Ukraine’s case to the African Union, was finally able to arrange a remote meeting with the organization, only 4 heads of state of its 55 members bothered to show up.

World order after the war

How much has Russia's attack on Ukraine changed the world order? Are we on the cusp of a new era? Some will argue that everything is fundamentally altered while others disagree. It is far too early to have a definitive answer to this question, but the outlines of what may emerge from this conflict are beginning to take shape.

The West has reaffirmed its commitment to its collective security. NATO has emerged as the only organization capable of guaranteeing what remains of Euro-Atlantic security architecture. Finland and Sweden applied to join NATO because they understood that this was the only way to protect themselves against a possible Russian attack. They had believed, after the Soviet collapse, that EU membership would secure their position in post-Cold War Europe. 

Russia's invasion and the brutality of the war made them realize that EU membership was not enough. NATO has re-emerged after the debacle of the Afghanistan withdrawal with a new mission, which was its initial mission: the containment of a hostile Russia. The fact that Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand attended the Madrid NATO summit indicates that NATO will in the future also focus on an Indo-Pacific dimension since China has joined Russia as a major NATO adversary. Going forward, the West will seek to integrate NATO more closely into the emerging Asian partnerships AUKUS and the Quad.

The fact that Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand attended the Madrid NATO summit indicates that NATO will in the future also focus on an Indo-Pacific dimension.

Arrayed against the expanded West will be a large bloc of non-aligned countries, similar to what existed during the Cold War. They will refuse to choose sides between the West and Russia/China and will try to maintain ties with the great powers and their partners. The West should continue to try to persuade these countries that Russia’s breach of international law and violation of the UN Charter could have negative repercussions for them going forward, but that will be a major challenge. Under these circumstances, it will be impossible to isolate Russia and Russia will continue to pursue profitable economic and military ties with a variety of countries in the global South. As Putin told the Financial Times in 2019 when asked why Russia was putting all its eggs in one Chinese basket, "we have enough eggs, but there are not that many baskets where these eggs can be placed".  

Russia will emerge more dependent on China as a result of this war. Putin has now reversed three centuries of Russia turning to the West and has decisively turned East. China has supported Russia rhetorically during the war, but not materially, and has been careful not to violate Western sanctions. But Xi Jinping does not want Russia to lose. Beijing cannot afford the prospect of a post-Putin leader turning back to the West against China, however far-fetched that may seem now. For the time being, the Sino-Russian partnership will remain strong. The Russia-Ukraine war has reminded Europe how reliant it remains on the US for its own security.

In the emerging multipolar world, the United States will remain the predominant power. The dual challenge that Russia and China pose individually and together may galvanize the US, Europe and Asia into even closer cooperation. In the end, Putin's war may have achieved the very opposite of what he set out to do: a renewed commitment to Western values and collective action in response to Russian aggression.



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