Russian President Vladimir Putin gave a fiery speech on Sept. 30 declaring that he intends to continue invading Ukraine and that Ukraine and its Western partners were the true instigators of the war. His characterization of himself as an embattled figure against a predatory West is revealing.
The order that Putin recently maligned refers to the collection of international institutions and norms that were developed in the aftermath of the war to prevent further global conflict. The history of the order can be divided into two phases: before and after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. But Russia’s place in this international system is complicated because it developed, in part, to oppose communism and the expansion of the Soviet Union.
After World War II, an elaborate financial network — from lending institutions like the IMF to a currency valuation system — was established to increase economic cooperation between countries. This was done to prevent the harmful economic competitiveness that caused the Great Depression and created the conditions for the rise of fascism. While the Soviet Union attended the negotiations that created this financial pillar of the order, its refusal to ratify the agreements foreshadowed the Cold War.
As the postwar period transitioned to a competition between capitalist and communist nations, military conflict between powerful countries became more likely. NATO was established in 1949 as a form of collective security that could deter Soviet militarism. This was the second pillar of the international order, along with institutions like the United Nations that promoted diplomacy over war.
Preventing the rise of aggressor states that could disrupt the higher living standards of the postwar era became a primary objective of the system. Economic cooperation and collective security were instrumental for this. Increased political rhetoric about a “free world” that was outside the confines of a Soviet one became synonymous with concepts of “the West.” At the same time, leaders like John F. Kennedy promoted terms like “community peace” and “world security system” to appeal to citizens on the margins of the order about the benefits of joining.
Although the Iron Curtain was a barrier between the Soviet system and the postwar order, the Soviet Union continued to have limited access and influence through its participation at the United Nations and by brokering arms limitation agreements with the United States.
Putin is certainly not the first critic of the order. Scholars point out that the United States frequently undermined the rules of the order, as well as its spirit, by toppling foreign governments and coercing smaller states into supporting its objectives. But, over the past two decades, Russia has arguably benefited the most from the rules-based order in its second phase.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, the rules-based order went global, and former Soviet republics, as well as countries unaligned with either side during the Cold War, became eligible stakeholders in a truly international community. This helped Russia overcome some of the obstacles of its transition from communism and return to great power status.
In 1998, a financial crisis led to the state defaulting on payments, losing the value of its currency and exhausting its currency reserves. Russian coal miners famously went on strike over unpaid wages, some of which hadn’t been paid in over a year. External debt also ran high, with a large balance due to the IMF for stabilization loans. Russia relied on this assistance, as well as foreign capital, to establish a sustainable macroeconomic system.
Russia didn’t fare better in the military sphere. Despite the relatively peaceful breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, war came in 1994 after three years of breakaway region Chechnya taking steps to formally make itself independent. By the time Putin came to power, the war was not going well for the Russian state. Economics and military power go hand-in-hand, so it was not surprising that Moscow’s defense spending fell to historically low levels in the late 1990s as expenditures became stretched with the debt crisis. This changed estimates of Russia’s military power. In the words of one observer, Russia had a “hollow army.”
But Putin quickly took advantage of the international order to elevate Russia’s global standing. Former Cold War rivals in Europe became comfortable investing in the Russian energy industry and even became reliant on Russia for their energy needs. Moreover, the four biggest oil servicing companies in the world got heavily involved in Russia and invested in expanding its oil drilling and production capabilities during the two decades of Putin’s rule.
Putin utilized this newfound wealth from the international energy markets to raise Russia’s status in the rules-based order. One of the first things he did after assuming the presidency in 2000 was strive to reach the same living standard as Western Europe. To achieve this, Putin positioned himself as a reformer and called for new tax codes that promoted small businesses and land reform that untangled Russia’s complicated pre and post-Soviet restrictions on selling land. He also surrounded himself with market-oriented, and even sometimes liberal, advisers, like Aleksei Kudrin, who encouraged fiscal policies that integrated Russia into the global economy while also making Russia an important influencer.
For a time, Putin’s approach worked. Russia achieved annual growth rates between 5 and 10 percent in his first decade. By some measures, Russia became the seventh-largest economy in the world. In 2012, the Obama administration helped pave the way for Russia to join the World Trade Organization. It was the last of the 20 largest economies in the world to do so, and it symbolized Russia’s accession as a key player in the global economy — a pillar of the rules-based order.
This development occurred despite concerns over Russia’s interventions in the political affairs of its neighbors, including Ukraine, as well as its violation of other states’ sovereignty, such as its invasion of Georgia in 2008. In fact, a desire to avoid an all-out conflagration with Russia prevented the world’s leading powers from engaging, even when Putin loudly violated the rules of the order with such military resurgence. Putin understood this reticence for military action in the international community, particularly after U.S. mistakes in Afghanistan and Iraq paved the way for a philosophy of restraint, and repeatedly exploited it.
Putin established himself as a key player in global affairs, giving Russia a seat at the negotiating table for landmark issues like Iran’s nuclear program and Syria’s chemical weapons. By 2012, leading American politicians, like Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, were asserting that Russia under Putin was a “number one geopolitical foe,” thus demonstrating that Putin had succeeded in working within the order to restore Russia’s geopolitical status.
Russia is now outside the order and, as a result, Putin risks losing his accomplishments. To counter this, Putin seeks to get rid of the order and create a new narrative with himself in the leading role. He wants a new international community with different values — saying, for instance, that new gender norms are “satanic” and therefore Russia will remain an outlier. It is hard to ignore that Putin is inserting himself in an ongoing culture war within the order and setting himself up to be an alternative global leader.
Putin’s speech could be seen as a desperate attempt to shore up his political support in Russia after the backlash he received for ordering the mobilization. But it can also be read as a bold effort to offer a new grand narrative of history that departs from values that have, so far, successfully prevented another world war.
Either way, Putin is signaling that he no longer wishes to participate in the rules-based order. This is significant because not only does it return Russia to its former status on the periphery of the international system, it also means that the classic conditions for war that the rules-based order was created to prevent — isolation, economic dislocation, and unchecked military aggression — have all returned.