Vladimir Putin and his elite allies who currently rule Russia never believed that the cold war ended, and they never accepted the loss of a significant proportion of “Russia’s” territory, population, and influence that the dissolution of the Soviet Union entailed. The country’s ruling elite chafed, and still chafe, at being treated as a minor player in the global system, insisting that Russia remains a “great power” with security interests and a “sphere of influence” that must be respected. In short, Russia’s current rulers have never accepted the post–cold war international order.
Ever since Putin came to power, his goals internationally have been focused on what Georgetown professor Angela Stent described in Foreign Policy magazine as “reversing the consequences of the Soviet collapse, splitting the transatlantic alliance, and renegotiating the geographic settlement that ended the Cold War.” Putin has tried to accomplish these goals using hard and soft power, but in the past he has always been risk-averse. For example, Putin used brute force in the Russian region of Chechnya in 1999, but that was an internal affair. He first used force externally in the breakaway Georgian region of South Ossetia in 2008, but that operation had a limited scope—Russia did not invade the whole of Georgia. Even the 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula was an opportunistic and relatively limited operation, which Putin rightly assumed would not lead to a robust Western response.
This is why virtually no one in the international relations community expected Putin to invade Ukraine, an aggression that represents a much more profound challenge to world order than anything he has done before. But now that war is once again a reality in Europe, scholars and non-specialists alike must grapple with the question of whether we are witnessing the end of the post–cold war international order. The war in Ukraine certainly has the potential to destabilize the entire post-Soviet region and Europe for years; it is disrupting the global economy, and it is leading Russia down the path to Orwellian dictatorship. Answering the question of why Putin decided to invade is necessarily speculative, but three factors appear paramount. First, Putin has increasingly embraced the view that he is destined to restore Russia’s greatness, adopting the ideology of Yuri Kovalchuk, his closest confidant, with whom he shares “a worldview that combines Orthodox Christian mysticism, anti-American conspiracy theories and hedonism,” as the journalist Mikhail Zygar recently put it in a New York Times article. Second, Putin saw the West—particularly the United States—in disarray, embodied in Donald Trump’s contempt for democratic norms at home and alliances abroad, and Trump’s open admiration for Putin and other authoritarian figures. Third, the decision was driven by miscalculation and misinformation. Putin’s small group of acolytes refuse to tell him anything that he does not want to hear. As a result, Putin miscalculated about the performance of his military, the strength of Ukrainian resistance, and the response of the West. Putin has created what is an existential crisis for Ukraine, but also a perilous crisis for the world as a whole.
Can Russia succeed in overturning the post–cold war order? Given what we know about Vladimir Putin, it is clear that he wants to. On the surface, that order has appeared to be remarkably stable. On the security side, there have been no direct confrontations among the major powers in the system, and most states (most of the time) have respected the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity. On the economic side, the global economy has been integrated through free trade and the construction of global commodity and supply chains (that is, “globalization”). Ideologically, the post–cold war order has been based on universal values of human rights and freedoms as reflected in international conventions and law. Not everyone would subscribe to all of the particulars of the above description, but it reflects the dominant Western narrative since 1991.
In reality, this world order is more fragile, and less just, than the above suggests. While there has been no major conflict among the most powerful states, the “great powers” never stopped pursuing what they perceive to be their fundamental interests. The United States has adhered to a “rules-based system” when convenient, and ignored it when not, as in the Iraq War in 2003. In the 1990s, Moscow basically followed the rules—because it had no choice, since Russia was politically, economically, and socially prostrate. But simply put, there are no global institutions with the power to enforce norms if an aggressive dictator like Putin decides to invade another country.
So, could Putin actually overturn the current world order? The answer to this question must also be speculative, given the ongoing war in Ukraine. It is of course possible that Putin, if he feels trapped, could resort to using nuclear weapons, which would make the question of international order moot. Barring that, there are a number of factors that make it highly unlikely that Russia will succeed.
The first concerns the political economy of Russia. The Soviet Union had a diversified industrial economy that was insulated from the pressures of global markets. After 1991, the Soviet economy collapsed, and Russia rejoined the global economy as a center for resource extraction. As the world moves away from fossil fuels, the basic sources of Russia’s wealth will disappear, and Putin’s invasion of Ukraine will only accelerate this process. Corruption, built into the system at all levels, meant the long-term prospects for the Russian economy were dismal even before the latest round of sanctions. It is entirely possible that existing sanctions will damage the Russian economy in ways that rival what occurred in the 1990s. If this were to happen, it would wipe out any semblance of the economic and social stability that has been Putin’s core source of legitimacy.
The second factor involves allies: Russia alone simply does not have the heft to change the post–cold war order. Since the invasion, it has been widely noted that China has refused to criticize Russia. China might well stand by Russia for now, but any long-term alliance between these two dictatorships is unlikely. Russia does not have that much to offer China except gas, oil, and minerals, and China is focused on developing its power in Asia. It is also hard to believe that either Vladimir Putin or Chinese President Xi Jinping would be willing to play the role of junior partner in any anti-Western bloc. It is not necessarily easier for dictatorships to cooperate with each other than it is for democracies. Whether China could succeed in changing the terms of the post–cold war system is another matter, but if it did there is no guarantee that Russia would like the new terms any better than the old ones.
Finally, Putin’s invasion of Ukraine so far has accomplished strategically the exact opposite of what he expected. Ukraine is now unified in its desire to be part of the West; the European Union is more united than ever in its desire to distance itself from Putin’s regime; and NATO is strengthening its presence on its eastern borders, with further NATO expansion now more likely rather than less.
The post–cold war international order faces a number of challenges, and Putin’s fantasies of imperial restoration are not the most important of them in the long run. Climate change is the most central challenge; it affects Russia as much as it does all of us, and Russia’s existing environmental threats are legion. In terms of both climate change and global trade, the future of the Arctic is key to the future of the world order, as melting sea ice opens the Northern Sea Route for shipping and natural resources for exploration and exploitation. How Russia approaches the Arctic will be crucial; the future of both the Russian and global economies will be profoundly affected by how that region is managed and developed. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of global cooperation in the face of threats to global health; in this regard as well, Russia will be an important player, for good or ill. In short, Russia remains an important country in terms of thef uture of the world order, but ultimately the use of force and intimidation will only leave it more isolated and less capable of meeting the challenges that it faces along with the rest of the world. If Putin can learn anything from the invasion of Ukraine, it is that the world will not take orders from him.
People around the globe have been rightfully inspired by the courage and resilience of the Ukrainian people in defense of their country, the democratic values that they seek to protect, and their rights as human beings to live in peace and security. One can only hope they prevail, and that we will take the opportunity to honor them by striving to make the postwar world order work better for everyone.
Paul T. Christensen is a political science professor of the practice whose research focus includes Russian domestic politics. He is working on the book Semi-peripheral Globalization and the Political Economy of Labor in Post-Communist Russia.