Russian Revisionism, Ukraine and Reflections on World Order
by Stefano Leanza
Konrad Adenauer, one of the founding fathers of the European project, once quipped that ‘History is the sum total of things that could have been avoided.’ Change is unavoidable, especially concerning the political life of states. At present, history flows and the outcome is simply impossible to predict. Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine raises inescapable questions that will define the conception of political order itself and it is a waiting game to see how the boundaries of European states will be modified by military action. This article does not set out to analyse the evolving Russia-Ukraine war but rather to cast light on the ideological core shaping current events and putting them in perspective.
First, it is important to note that the invasion, though shocking, was not truly a surprise. Chechnya, Georgia, Crimea, Donbas, and the near-constant effort to destabilise Western countries — including through election interference, cyber war, disinformation campaigns and violent acts such as the poisoning of Viktor Yushchenko in 2006 — speak to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy adventures. This recent upheaval simply tears off his mask. He has clearly switched off his calculator and is being driven by his more fanatical characteristics.
Putin’s motives are essentially ideological as he explained, over the years, with paradoxical candour. Already in 2005, during his annual State of the Nation Address, Putin described the demise of the Soviet Union as ‘the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the century’ since ‘tens of millions of our fellow citizens and countrymen found themselves beyond the fringes of Russian territory.’ Read through these lenses, and the subsequent moves by the Kremlin acquire a clarifying consistency. The system of beliefs of the Russian regime draws on a peculiar pantheon that somehow holds together nostalgia for the USSR and rejection of communism, admiration for Stalin and disdain for Lenin, the celebration of the Tsars but also of Soviet heroes like Yuri Gagarin. A political impasto in which a fil rouge could be singled out in the nationalist vision of a great Russian empire. And there is significant political divergence from the West in understanding revolution. Since 1789, Westerners have associated the concept of people in revolt with solid social progress to be benefited from so that almost every Western politician still promises “revolutions.” Things are different in Russia where order is the prime necessity; insurrection leads to chaos, discussion brings indecision and fragility. This notion produced the iconic expression of Boris Gryzlov, who, as the Speaker of the State Duma, said that Parliament is not a place for discussion. Insofar as they exist, these ideological orientations must be taken into account, according to the teachings of some of the most lucid commentators, particularly Paul Kennedy.
With all its tragedy, the current situation still offers the chance to reflect on a (now) classic of political thought: Samuel P Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order and his Chapter 6 argument that politics are now aligned primarily along cultural lines. According to Huntington, during the Cold War, countries were able to choose if to be aligned with either side. Currently, no country can avoid being culturally aligned because this alignment concerns not ‘whose side you are on’ but instead ‘who you are.’ Wanting to identify a fault line in the boundary between Russia and Ukraine, this formula explains this case well—but just from one perspective: the Russian.
Consider the Ukrainian perspective where the opposite is true. Ukrainians and Russians are ethnically and culturally intertwined, but Ukrainians are not asking themselves ‘who they are’ instead they openly declare it: they support liberal, Western democracy, the rule of law and the social market system. Often in public debates The Clash of Civilizations is regarded as prophetic while Francis Fukuyama's The End of History is presented as pushing a false prophecy. Nevertheless, it seems that, embracing the metaphor coined by Fukuyama Ukraine’s bandwagon has resumed moving toward liberal democracy, seeking protection under the Western shield not for ethnic reasons but rather for political ones. While just a few years ago, Putin stated in an interview to the Financial Times that liberalism was obsolete, the Ukrainian government is skilfully leveraging social media to emerge as a new point of reference for Western public opinion.
To address this disconnect it is important to consider what World Order is all about. The now infamous Cold Warrior, Henry Kissinger, captures it well in his eponymous work and argues that global order cannot be achieved by one country acting alone. According to Kissinger, to pursue it, many actors, while maintaining their own values, must develop a parallel culture that is global, structural, and judgemental. A concept of order that transcends regional or national perspectives and ideals. A modernised version of the Westphalian system shaped by contemporaries. The statesmen of the time overcame obstacles because they shared the terrible experience of the Thirty Years' War, and were determined to prevent it from happening again. Some of the more violent episodes of recent history should inform publics and policy-makers alike so that the mistakes of the past are not repeated in each generation. This remains to be seen.
While Russia clearly challenges the idea of World Order, a new frontier for the West is in the wider Middle East which in many ways shares the Euro-Atlantic vision of Global Order—socially, politically, economically and, crucially, culturally. In this sense, what has recently been unfolding in the Middle East — not only with respect to the Abraham Accords — deserves attention. The convergence of interests with previously culturally distant countries is not rooted on the denial of differences in values but rather on the desire to enter into a different global pact, as Kissinger described. Europe’s profound lack of interest in Middle Eastern and even Mediterranean affairs has been one of the major signs of the short-sightedness of continental politics, the consequences of which are being felt now. However, it is not too late to reverse course. While the West strengthens its cohesion and the gap between East and West deepens again, the Mediterranean and Middle East can wean Europe off of Russian energy products and is a real option for diversifying energy supplies. The CEO of Sonatrach, one of the world's leading oil companies, has already opened up new gas flows to Europe through Italy via the Transmed pipeline. Much more can be achieved.
A new World Order necessarily passes through the decayed shell of the former order—after it has been drained. But if a defence of the old order is to be mounted, it must be an inclusive defence and draw on the recognition that a single international security system under the aegis of the United Nations, a single trade system based on the concepts of globalisation and reinforcing an international culture is superior than the types of out-of-control revisionism being pursued by Russia today. More than ever, it is time for those that wish to maintain peace, prosperity and stability — the so-called status quo actors — to double down and invest in our World Order rather than wait and see.
16 March 2022