A New Russian World Order?

Even before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, there was much focus on Russia’s place in the world and its increasing antagonism with the rest of Europe and the United States. Ever since the disastrous attempt to incorporate Russia into the fold of the dominant international order after the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia has adopted a slow but increasingly obstreperous foreign policy that confronts the prevailing global liberal consensus and attempts to disrupt its ability to properly function. These efforts began with cyberattacks against newly inducted NATO members like Estonia in 2007 to a limited military invasion in Georgia in 2008 to intervention in Syria to prop up the morally dubious regime of Bashar al-Assad to the “non-linear” war waged against Ukraine in the wake of the 2014 uprising to attempts at information warfare during the 2016 US presidential election (and possibly in other elections in other countries).[1] 

     On February 24th, 2022, a dangerous new chapter in Russia’s confrontation with the liberal world began with its invasion of Ukraine. Given the more limited scale and more clandestine nature of Russia’s previous acts, the invasion represented a disquieting escalation into the realm of overt and kinetic action. Putin apparently felt Russia was now powerful enough to assert its national interests in the realm where states not interested in cooperation traditionally realized those interests—the battlefield. The Russia of 2007 or even 2016 was not confident or powerful enough to pursue this strategy of overt armed conflict and was content to fight from the shadows. Having success in fighting from these shadows as well as perceiving a weakened North Atlantic coalition led Putin to the conclusion that Russia was now powerful enough to emerge from those shadows and seize its rightful place at the head of a twenty-first century Russian Empire.

The idea that Russia was still powerful enough to serve as a hub of an alternative world order has been in the conversation of global politics since the emergence of Vladimir Putin as twenty-first century “man of destiny.”[2] However, the volume of this discourse, while always somewhat muted in the past given the focus on the rise of China, has now returned with a roar.[3] Nevertheless, the question remains whether a state with a strength in the ability to effectively deploy misinformation and sow confusion around the world able to constitute a counterhegemonic assemblage of power that could supplant the passing liberal international order and replace with it with some viable alternative? Even if successful in its designs on Ukraine, would a newly reconstituted Russian Empire offer a credible alternative the liberal world order still in existent (however problematically)?

     To answer this question, the theoretical framework of the neo-Gramscian scholar of international politics prove useful. As argued by Robert Cox, a global assemblage of power requires three elements: a particular set of social relations of material production (usually relating to the way international political economy operates), a model of state and political institutions that serves as a rough framework for other states to imitate or copy and an interactive framework for interaction (including global norms of behavior, a code of international law and set of global institutions to facilitate cooperation among the various forces and actors. A global assemblage of power also usually requires a leading state to serve as principal (or hegemonic) manager responsible for system maintenance and, when necessary, enforcement. Since 1945, the dominant world order has been a liberal international assemblage of power with the United States as its hegemonic sponsor. This order features a capitalist economic structure the prioritizes the movement of goods and money for the purposes of increasing the value of global assets and increasing aggregate planetary wealth. The most common model of state has been the liberal republic built on the principles of those civil and political rights that maximize economic freedom and the facilitation of global trade and investment. Multiple variants of this liberal republic exist (Anglo-American, European, East Asian, etc.) but they all are built on common conceptions of what constitute “good” liberal governance. At the global level, a set of intergovernmental organizations manage how the various states of the world interact based on these liberal principles in order to minimize the conflict among the world’s dominant liberal states and assisting in the socialization process for states not fully integrated into this assemblage of power. Institutions like the World Bank and IMF provide financial assistance to developing nations who struggle with the sometimes harsh demands of liberal economics while security institutions ensure states that remain outside or only partially assimilated do not threaten the smooth working of the system for the rest of its members.[4]   

When a world under is under duress due to what Antonio Gramsci called a “legitimation crisis,” it signals the possibility that an alternative assemblage of global power is perhaps waiting in the wings, ready to supplant the current hegemonic framework. The question in looking at Russia is whether the invasion of Ukraine represents Russia’s attempt to assert this “counter-hegemonic” assemblage of global power and usher in a new historical period led by Russian hegemony. Properly answering such a question would likely take a great deal of space and time to fully elaborate. But the short answer for now is: No. As mentioned above, the components of a global assemblage of power include a set of economic relationships governing global material production, a form of state that creates stable political actors and a framework for global interaction centered on shared ideas and institutions. On top of this is a leading state that accepts and performs a supervisory role including the punishing and discipline of rogue elements. Russia is certainly familiar with playing the role of the rogue agent, but it is difficult to see how its performance as illiberal malcontent sets it up to lead a counter-hegemonic assemblage of power.

     In the first instance, Russia does not offer the world an alternative political economy built around a new set of productive relations. The most common refrain with regards to the Russian economy is the inability to maximize its economic potential and engage in a more ambitious program of development. A recent World Bank report stated, “Russia continues to face relatively low potential growth which, unless addressed, will impede its ability to achieve high-level development goals and, raise incomes and living standards.”[5] For most of the post-Soviet period, Russian demographics were in a state of crisis with very little consumer spending outside of the major metropolitan areas, little prospect for professional employment for individuals with college degrees, little industrial growth outside of its oil and gas extraction industries and an enormous hinterland filled residents whose lifestyle still resembled the great peasants masses of centuries past.[6] Some of these trends were starting to turn in 2022, but even on the eve of the invasion of Ukraine Harvard economist Jason Furman referred to the Russian economy as “basically a big gas station” and not having much of an economy beyond fossil fuel production.[7] All of this speaks to an economic structure that is still heavily reliant on the already existing liberal economic order and not able to stand on its own system of material production, much less offer different arrangements for alternative assemblage if global power. The old Soviet Union of the twentieth century had the virtue of being able to a genuinely alternative framework of economic production, even if it proved to be flawed. The new Russia of the twenty-first century does not.

     Still, perhaps there are other components of an alternative world order on offer in Russian power that could serve as an alternative to globalized liberalism. Russia, like many states that have deployed the new digital technologies for the purposes of disruption, has shown that authoritarianism for select “men of destiny” still has a place in the twenty-first century. The numerous autocrats that rose to prominence since 1999, while perhaps not strictly emulating Vladimir Putin, nevertheless follow “a model of successful market authoritarianism that can be imitated around the world,” including Venezuela, Hungary, former Soviet republics in central Asia and scattered other budding despots on five continents.[8] In this sense, Russia is the main contributor to a renewed and streamlined form of exportable kleptocracy that can interconnect itself just enough with global capitalism to generate sufficient wealth to fund a national hegemonic ruling apparatus that sustains its legitimacy through discourses of populism, xenophobia and military jingoism. This alterative form of state certainly appears to provide a solid foundation for a possible counterhegemonic bloc that could fill a potential gap global power left by an unraveling liberal international order. Yet a closer examination of this model shows some fatal flaws, including a government that is almost always at war with some faction of its constituency and flat or declining outcomes on a number of social health indicators including government corruption, rates of higher education, public health and protections of civil rights. On a number of indexes measuring state performance, Russia never ranked above the middle of the pack, with most other authoritarian states congregating at the bottom of the lists.[9]

     If the authoritarian model of the state does not hold much appeal for much of the world, a world order built on such principles would stand far worse. A world order needs a hegemonic state to stand at the center of it and neither Russia nor any other state that takes after it is powerful enough to assume this role. It is difficult to see how a nation whose most effective foreign policy strategy has been online trolling could rally the world’s states to its cause in the halls of the United Nations or, assuming the UN is an obsolete relic of the twentieth century, create alternative institutions of its own. Authoritarian states often criticize the “rule-based” order of liberal internationalism, but usually cannot offer any viable alternative framework for state interaction. Even the one core principle that authoritarian states could emphasize—sovereign autonomy—was thrown out the window the moment the first Russian tank crossed the border of Ukraine in February 2022.

     Yet one should not dismiss the prospect of an authoritarian world order too quickly. Russia has developed a working relationship with China in the form of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and has shown it can create viable, if tenuous bonds with other authoritarian states. Indeed, when China is added to the picture and Russia is added as a possible junior partner, a very different picture emerges. It is not clear if Vladimir Putin’s vision of a Russian Empire for the twenty-first century includes substantial accommodation to Russia’s Asian neighbor, but a shrewd Machiavellian operator (as Putin is often portrayed to be) would realize that a viable world order centered around Russian power and hegemonic influence is not possible if Russia acts alone. Russia partnered with China, however, does provide the three basic elements of a global assemblage of power. In this sense, despite the focus on Russia and its future in world order given its invasion of Ukraine, China remains at the center of analysis if the study is a possible competitor for the liberal world order.

     [1] For more see Peter Pomerantsev, This Is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality (New York: Public Affairs, 2019). 

     [2] J.L. Black, Vladimir Putin and the New World Order (Lanham, Maryland: Rowan and Littlefield, 2014). 

     [3] See  https://www.aljazeera.com/program/inside-story/2022/3/27/is-the-war-in-ukraine-ushering-in-a-new-world-order

     [4] See Robert Cox, Production, Power and World Order: Social Forces in the Making of History (New York: Columbia University Press, 1987). 

     [5] https://www.worldbank.org/en/country/russia/publication/rer

     [6] Theodore P. Gerber. “Stalled Social Mobility in Post-Soviet Russia.” Current History 117, no. 801 (2018): 258–63. https://www.jstor.org/stable/48614373.

     [7]  Patricia Cohen and Jack Ewing. “What’s at Stake for the Global Economy as Conflict Looms in Ukraine.” New York Times Company. February 21, 2022.

     [8]  Michael McFaul and Kathryn Stoner-Weiss. “The Myth of the Authoritarian Model: How Putin’s Crackdown Holds Russia Back.” Foreign Affairs 87, no. 1 (2008): 68–84. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20020268.

     [9] Ibid.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s