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The Rebirth of the Liberal World Order?

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has given the world’s democrats a renewed sense of unity and purpose. Putin’s reckless gamble may unexpectedly strengthen democracy in Europe and beyond.

By Lucan Ahmad Way

March 2022

As Russian rockets bombarded Kyiv on the night of Thursday, February 24, the world appeared to be on the cusp of a dark era. Many worried not simply about Ukraine but about the security of Europe. Would Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked attack inspire similar aggressions by other authoritarian powers against vulnerable democratic neighbors? Would China seize the moment to move against Taiwan? Would we descend into a period of expansionist authoritarian rule? Such scenarios could still come to pass. Regardless of what follows, Russia’s brutal assault on Ukraine has already generated one of the worst humanitarian catastrophes in Europe since World War II.

At the same time, there is considerable evidence that Putin’s attack on international norms could ultimately strengthen the liberal world order. It has so far generated a unified and vigorous response from Western democracies, many of which have been suffering significant dysfunction and persistent authoritarian threats for more than a decade. The war has also been far more costly for Russia than Putin expected — both on the battlefield and as a result of unprecedented Western sanctions. The invasion will almost certainly weaken Russian geopolitical power by entangling it in a fruitless and bloody quagmire, demonstrating the limits of Russian military power and reducing Europe’s future dependence on Russian energy supplies. Finally, the war is likely to sow divisions within the loose coalition of authoritarian states that emerged in the early twenty-first century to combat democracy’s advance.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine comes after more than a decade of serious — but often subtle and ambiguous — attacks on democracy. First, authoritarian populists in Europe and the United States emerged from within the democratic system. They have mostly refrained from attacking democracy directly via military coups, overt assaults on civil liberties, or (with the notable exception of Donald Trump in the 2020 U.S. presidential contest) attempts to steal elections. Instead, the main challenge to Western democracy has come through less visible efforts to politicize state bureaucracies and to infiltrate previously independent media outlets. Thus Viktor Orbán in Hungary and the Law and Justice party in Poland have not jailed oppositionists or attempted to steal elections, but instead have flooded state bureaucracies with loyalists. These governments have not arrested journalists but rather have muzzled them by helping allies to take control of media companies. Reliance on such nonviolent, ostensibly legal measures to monopolize political control has obfuscated their assault on democracy. It took eight years of authoritarian abuse by Orbán for Freedom House to cease labeling Hungary as Free. And despite the significant erosion of democratic norms in Poland, Freedom House still calls that country Free today.

In a similar vein, Chinese and Russian efforts to shape regime outcomes outside their borders have also been ambiguous, more focused on degrading the quality of democracy than on dismantling it wholesale. Russian information warfare targeting numerous Western democratic elections since 2014 has been aimed mostly at stoking tribalism and polarization rather than directly attacking democratic institutions. Within the former Soviet states, Russian actions have been varied. Under President Vladimir Putin, Russia in the 2000s worked behind the scenes to support pro-Russian autocrats such as Ukraine’s Viktor Yanukovych, on the one hand, but also to undermine anti-Russian autocrats in Georgia and Kyrgyzstan, on the other. In the early 1990s under Putin’s predecessor Boris Yeltsin, the Russian government happily backed the pro-Russian democratic opposition in Ukraine.

Until recently, Russia’s most serious assaults on the liberal order involved the invasions of Abkhazia and Ossetia in Georgia in 2008 and of Crimea in Ukraine in 2014. These attacks targeted areas far from the center of Europe, however, and thus did not appear to threaten core Western interests. Moreover, pro-Russian sentiment was already high in these regions, so Putin could plausibly claim that the Russian incursions were supported by significant portions of the local populations. Furthermore, in Crimea, Russia’s involvement was initially disguised and involved limited violence. The 2014 invasion was undertaken by “little green men” with no insignia on their uniforms. According to some, this operation inaugurated a “hybrid” warfare that relied less on conventional forces and much more on the “extensive and well-coordinated use of intelligence, psychological warfare, intimidation, bribery, and internet/media propaganda.”

The last decade, then, has been a period of democratic malaise. While the world remains far more democratic than it was during the Cold War, autocrats have taken the initiative, and have done real damage to relatively established democracies such as Hungary, India, and, most significantly, the United States. The attacks on pluralism, however, have been confusing, piecemeal, and gradual. Until now, we have witnessed a slow encroachment, not an all-out assault.

A Muted Response

The ambiguous or seemingly distant character of threats to liberalism engendered a limited reaction from the West. First, Orbán’s use of legalistic attacks on Hungarian democracy helped him to limit pressure from the European Union. For years, members of the European People’s Party (EPP) — Hungary’s allies in the European Parliament, including then–German chancellor Angela Merkel (2005–21) — refrained from openly criticizing Orbán and shielded his government from punishment for its authoritarian behavior. The EPP took until 2019 to suspend Orbán and managed to mobilize sufficient support to expel his party, Fidesz, only in 2021. (Before he could be expelled, Orbán quit the EPP.)

In a similar vein, sanctions imposed on Russia after its invasion of Crimea had limited impact on the Russian economy and did not seriously threaten the interests of the Russian elite. The invasion failed to halt European support for the Nord Stream 2 natural-gas pipeline, owned by the Russian state company Gazprom, that would link Russia and Germany. Likewise, few sanctions resulted from Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. election.

Europe’s ability to respond to the Russian threat was hampered by Russia’s deep integration into the European economy and society after the Cold War. Trade between Europe and Russia had already skyrocketed during and after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union — rising to about half of Russian foreign trade by 2013. While commerce with Europe declined after the invasion of Crimea, it still represented nearly 40 percent of Russian foreign trade in 2020. Last year, Russia was the fifth-largest partner for EU exports of goods and the third-largest for EU imports of goods. Russian banks were also deeply integrated into the global financial system. Most important, Europe is extremely dependent on Russian energy — especially Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, and Poland. In 2020, the region relied on Russia for about a third of its energy. Before Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, one of Russia’s largest trading partners was Germany, which imported 55 percent of its gas from Russia.

In addition, since the Soviet collapse, wealthy Russians have been flocking to Europe. London, in particular, became an attractive destination for Russian oligarchs due to its developed financial sector (with lax regulatory oversight), strong educational system, and good shopping. In the last six years, about US$2 billion worth of U.K. property has been purchased by Russian nationals accused of corruption or having ties to the Kremlin.

One impetus for the West’s strengthening economic ties with Russia was a belief that increased integration would encourage the country to liberalize further as its economy became more dependent on Western democracies. These optimistic theories of integration, however, failed to consider that economic linkage could also hamper efforts to hold Russia accountable for abuses. As Patricia Cohen and Stanley Reed note in the New York Times,the flip side of mutual interest is mutual pain.” This reality has reduced Europe’s appetite for sanctions. In fact, Putin’s regime has been able to dig its claws into portions of the European elite — a phenomenon best exemplified by former German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder (1998–2005), who once called Putin a “flawless democrat.” Schroeder has a leadership position in the state-owned Russian oil company Rosneft, which was sanctioned after the Crimean invasion. A consistent lobbyist for Russia’s interests in Europe, the ex-chancellor was recently tapped to join the board of Gazprom.

Putin has also strengthened ties with autocrats in Serbia and Hungary. The Russian government has been a steady ally of Serbia — opposing the NATO bombing in 1999 and rejecting Kosovo independence in 2008. Orbán likewise has close relations with Putin. Russia recently cut deals with both countries to keep their energy prices low.

Finally, an effective response to attacks on liberalism has been hampered by general demoralization and dysfunction within the West. The Iraq War (2003–11) discredited Western democracy promotion in the eyes of many, while the 2008 financial crisis and 2009 European debt crisis revealed fundamental problems in Western economies and governance structures. The European Union became highly fractured in the wake of the U.K. decision to leave the EU. Acrimonious relations between the United Kingdom and the EU have consumed European politics since 2016. The situation was even worse in the United States, which became increasingly polarized. Instead of promoting democracy abroad, President Trump repeatedly praised authoritarian leaders.

Such dysfunction, argues G. John Ikenberry, may be partly traced to a “crisis of success” after the collapse of communism. Ikenberry suggests that the absence of a common existential threat weakened cohesion within the liberal West and created permissive conditions for fragmentation and the rise of politicians such as Trump and Orbán, who openly question the international liberal order. The horrors of World War II that motivated a generation of Europeans to unite in conquering the forces of autocracy and nationalism have become a distant memory. While challenges to liberalism and democracy have been very real, they have lacked the clarity that reigned during the Cold War. Threats have existed at a slow boil — with dangers too subtle and gradual to motivate a concerted and unified democratic response.

Russia’s Assault on the Liberal Order

All this changed on 24 February 2022. Two factors made Russia’s invasion a watershed moment in Europe’s battle for democracy: the stark moral clarity of Ukraine’s cause and the existential security threat presented by a newly aggressive Russia. There have been few conflicts in recent history that have been so completely black and white. At first, in the weeks before the invasion, a number of commentators echoed Putin’s argument that aggression toward Ukraine was a product of NATO expansion.15 While the Russian occupation of Crimea had already effectively taken NATO membership off the table for Ukraine, Putin was initially successful at tapping into some international commentators’ disagreements with NATO policies and expansion. This framing, however, did not survive the invasion. In a speech a couple of days before the attack, Putin discussed Ukraine in starkly imperialist terms, describing the country as “entirely created by Russia.” In contrast to previous endeavors, Russian involvement has been transparent and its goal — to replace a democratically elected government with a puppet regime — obviously and brutally autocratic.

Russia’s ferocious attacks on civilian targets, including a maternity hospital in Mariupol on March 9, further amplified international outrage. In the first two weeks of the war, Russia launched more than fifty missile attacks on Ukraine each day. The impact of these actions has been amplified by the fact that Russia has attacked an open society filled with Western journalists. In stark contrast to Russian military actions in Chechnya in 1999–2000 and Syria beginning in 2015, nearly every military atrocity in Ukraine has been and will be extensively covered in international media. Finally, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky’s unparalleled bravery and masterful appeals to domestic and foreign audiences, honed by years on television, have helped to unify Ukrainians and most of the world against Russia. His courageous decision to remain in Kyiv helped to inspire European politicians and the general public to make the sacrifices necessary to punish Russia.

Russia’s disregard for norms of international sovereignty also sparked intense fears for European security. In a speech on the eve of the Russian invasion, Putin explicitly attacked “the entire system of international relations” and reminded the world that “Russia remains one of the most powerful nuclear states.” In turn, many European leaders have focused on the imminent dangers that Putin poses. After the invasion, German chancellor Olaf Scholz argued that “in attacking Ukraine, Putin doesn’t just want to eradicate a country from the world map, he is destroying the European security structure we have had in place since Helsinki.”18 Putin’s assault struck a nerve in a part of the world that had repeatedly suffered Russian and Soviet military aggression since World War II, including invasions of Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968.

In stark contrast to the Russian actions of 2008 and 2014, there has been nothing ambiguous or particularly “hybrid” about today’s massive conventional assault on one of the largest countries in Europe. Furthermore, while previous Russian military incursions had targeted regions far from the European center, Russia’s invasion was right on NATO’s doorstep. This fact — together with the sheer scale of the invasion — has presented a much more obvious threat to European security than anything Russia has done since the end of the Soviet empire.

A United Response

The combination of moral clarity and existential peril proved a potent mix in motivating European powers to act, marking a profound shift in their policies toward Russia. Days after the invasion, an erstwhile fragmented and slow-moving EU responded with a barrage of measures that constituted the largest package of penalties ever imposed on a single country. Within a week of the invasion, the EU — together with the United States — had instituted the equivalent of financial “shock and awe.” Numerous Russian and later Belarusian banks were denied access to the SWIFT financial-transactions tool, a move that dramatically isolated the Russian economy. The EU and the United States also banned dealings with the Russian Central Bank, which made it impossible for the Russian government to access a significant portion of the financial reserves that it had set aside to blunt the impact of international sanctions.

The United States, the EU, and Canada imposed individual sanctions against Putin, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, and hundreds of Belarusian and Russian elites. In turn, hundreds of foreign companies have begun to leave Russia — including firms in energy (BP, Exxon Mobil, Shell), media (Walt Disney), financial services (Citigroup, Deutsche Bank, Goldman Sachs, Western Union), manufacturing (Caterpillar), and travel and logistics (Hyatt, UPS, several airlines), as well as huge international chains such as Ikea, McDonalds, and Starbucks. Western companies that had long been an integral part of Russian middle-class life suddenly halted their operations. Before the invasion, Moscow looked like a prosperous European city. In the span of just a few weeks, the invasion has threatened to erase decades of economic progress.

The shift in the EU’s stance reflected rapid changes within individual European countries sparked by the invasion. The most important and radical transformation occurred in Germany, which had historically close ties to Russia and a longstanding commitment to pacifism since World War II. At first, the German government seemed reluctant to provide significant support to Ukraine. In the run-up to the invasion, Berlin offered to send five-thousand helmets — a move that provoked Kyiv’s mayor to ask if the German government would also provide pillows. Germany subsequently halted the Nord Stream 2 pipeline between Russia and Germany on February 22. Then, three days after the invasion began, the German Bundestag met in an extraordinary Sunday session to inaugurate a fundamental transformation of Germany’s role in the world. With Ukrainian flags flying outside the Reichstag, Chancellor Scholz announced that Germany would impose severe sanctions on Russia and provide lethal military assistance to Ukraine. Citing the “unscrupulousness of Putin, the blatant injustice, the pain of the Ukrainians,” as well as Putin’s efforts “to create a new order in Europe,” Scholz’s government agreed to send Ukraine a thousand antitank weapons and five-hundred surface-to-air missiles from German military stocks as soon as possible and to increase military spending by 100 billion euros, which would make Germany the world’s third-biggest defense spender.

Similar shifts rippled across Europe. Traditionally neutral Finland and Sweden decided to provide lethal weapons to Ukraine and announced plans to increase defense spending. Italy, which is heavily dependent on Russian energy, came out in support of sanctions despite the fact that three of the ruling coalition’s parties had earlier pursued closer ties to Moscow. Shortly after the invasion, the Italian government seized villas and yachts worth 143 million euros from five sanctioned Russian oligarchs. Meanwhile, British prime minister Boris Johnson has frozen the assets of numerous Russian oligarchs and fast-tracked legislation to target Russian money laundering. Finally, Switzerland, which remained neutral during World War II, adopted EU sanctions and froze Russian assets in the country.

Such a unified Western response has had an important impact on the trajectory of the war. The Ukrainian military has benefited significantly from weapons supplied by Europe and the United States. Ukrainians’ brave and effective resistance and Western military support have allowed the country to stand its ground against a much larger and better-equipped army for much longer than anyone expected. Simultaneously, the unprecedented sanctions have had a swift and severe impact on the Russian economy. The Russian stock market shut down for fear of a massive selloff. As of mid-March, the value of the Russian ruble had dropped by 50 percent. Overall, the sanctions were expected to cause a “gigantic, transformational downturn” in the Russian economy, with a projected contraction of 15 percent in 2022 — a decline that would wipe out about a third of the economic growth since Putin took power in 1999. This could undercut a critical source of public support for Putin, whose enormously high approval ratings have been grounded in his perceived ability to turn the Russian economy around after the economic collapse of the 1990s.

A word of caution is in order. If the war drags on, the West will face challenges in sustaining a unified response over the long haul. This will be a marathon, not a sprint. Maintaining a united front will not be easy. After the shock of Russian aggression wears off, Europeans are likely to become less patient with economic sacrifices. Furthermore, the massive influx of fleeing Ukrainians is certain to disrupt Europe’s political landscape. Overstretched budgets and popular fears of Ukrainian competition for jobs and welfare benefits will eventually test European generosity toward the refugees. Nevertheless, the Western response to the invasion has been far more unified and significant than anyone expected. This united front could be sustained by continued Russian atrocities in Ukraine as well as the endemic security threat posed by an aggressive Russian military.

Cracks in the Authoritarian International?

Beyond unifying democratic forces, the Russian invasion also has the potential to weaken the “authoritarian international” — a term coined by the late Belarusian scholar Vitali Silitski to describe the loose alliance and coordination among diverse autocracies to combat democratic threats. Such coordination and cooperation have included the sharing of legal tools to stamp out civil society, diplomatic support, military assistance, and privileged access to Russian energy supplies. In January 2022, for example, Putin’s government sent troops into Kazakhstan to support President Jomart Tokayev in the face of mass unrest. The central hub of this authoritarian international is the alliance between Xi Jinping and Putin, who famously declared “no limits” to their friendship at the February 2022 Beijing Olympics. The informal alliance also includes autocrats in smaller nondemocracies such as Belarus, Burma, Hungary, Iran, Kazakhstan, and Serbia.

Thus far, Russia’s authoritarian allies have mostly backed Putin. As of mid-March, there were few open signs of division between Xi and Putin. Burma expressed support for the invasion and Serbian president Aleksandar Vuèiæ has resisted sanctioning Russia, in large part because of Putin’s overwhelming popularity among Serbians. Orbán has also firmly resisted entreaties to supply lethal weapons to Ukraine or allow weapons to pass through Hungary.

Nevertheless, there are signs that the authoritarian coalition is fraying. The invasion has put Orbán in a particularly difficult situation given Hungary’s dependence on EU financial assistance and the country’s own experience of Soviet invasion in 1956. Orbán was forced to do a “180-degree turn” on several key issues. He condemned the invasion and refrained from vetoing EU sanctions against Russia — thus preserving European unanimity on the question. He also reversed his recent hardline border policies, accepting about a hundred-thousand Ukrainian refugees in the week after the invasion. In addition, Burma, Hungary, and Serbia all voted for the March 2 UN resolution demanding an end to the Russian invasion. Despite Putin’s military backing of the Kazakh president just weeks before the Russian invasion, Tokayev has so far refused to openly support Russia’s action, abstaining from the vote. Overall, the UN condemnation was supported by 140 countries, with just five states — Belarus, North Korea, Eritrea, Russia, and Syria — voting against it and 34 abstaining.

The biggest question remains the degree to which China continues to back Russia. There are few signs at this point that China has backed away from the alliance, but one must wonder how much it will be willing to sacrifice in support of Russia, whose economy totals a mere US$1.5 trillion, against the United States, Canada, and EU, whose combined economies total more than US$35 trillion. Indeed, China in the first weeks after the invasion refrained from giving Russia full-throated support. It abstained from the UN vote condemning Russia rather than opposing the resolution, and refused, in line with Western sanctions, to supply Russian airlines with spare parts. On March 11, Chinese premier Li Keqiang called the situation in Ukraine “disconcerting” and supported ceasefire talks. A lot hinges on the outcome of the debate apparently going on within the Chinese elite about its commitment to the Russian alliance.

The invasion is likely to discourage others from following in Putin’s footsteps. Russia’s difficulties and the international reaction have probably made it less likely that China will attempt to absorb Taiwan anytime soon. Rather than auguring a new era of authoritarian military expansion, the invasion is likely to put autocratic governments on the defensive.

Finally, the war will almost certainly weaken Russia’s geopolitical power. Russia’s heavy military losses and its unexpected difficulty advancing across Ukrainian territory have significantly damaged the reputation of the Russian armed forces. Even in the event of a Russian military victory, Russia is likely to be bogged down in an endless guerrilla struggle made more difficult by intense Ukrainian resistance, Western support from allied countries on Ukraine’s western border, and the sheer size of the country. Furthermore, European measures to reduce dependence on Russian energy will undercut a key source of Russian influence in the region. In the space of a week, the invasion has turned Russia into a pariah state and strengthened the West. As David Von Drehle has argued, “Nothing makes friends for the U.S.A. like the rumbling of Russian tanks.”

The war is also likely to isolate Putin within Russia itself. Putin’s control over the media and increasingly harsh treatment of any form of dissent have limited the spread of negative information about the war. If the sanctions are successfully blamed on Western aggression, they may even bolster Putin’s popularity or at least have their negative political impact blunted for a time. But several factors will make it harder for the government to control public opinion. First, the fact that many Russians have relatives in Ukraine gives them direct sources of information about the war outside the control of government censors. Second, the heavy concentration of Western journalists in Ukraine means that information about the war will be incredibly easy to find in even the most cursory online searches. Russia has been a far more open society than China. It will be difficult for Putin to completely suppress information about the progress of the war. Third and most significantly, the government will not be able to cover up the deaths of Russian soldiers indefinitely. Such casualties will almost certainly undercut support for the war. An economic crisis and the weakening of Russia’s geopolitical power will undermine two of the most important sources of Putin’s popularity over the last twenty years.

The Future of Democracy After Russia’s Invasion

After more than a decade of democratic malaise, the invasion has both weakened Russia’s global status and produced an unprecedented degree of unity in the liberal world, driven by both moral outrage and existential security threats. But what does all this mean for the future of democracy? Security threats and moral indignation did not enhance democracy after 9/11. In addition, during the Cold War, Soviet security threats often undermined democratic development by encouraging support for anticommunist dictators in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. It is also worth emphasizing that the conflict is still very young. The military trajectory of the war could easily shift in Russia’s favor. Furthermore, the dual strains of the mass influx of Ukrainian refugees and European economic pain created by sanctions could test Western unity and create a future wellspring of populism.

Yet there are several reasons to think that the new context will strengthen democracy in Europe and perhaps elsewhere. First, the Cold War motivated investment in transnational liberal institutions such as the European Union, which in turn became a driver for the spread of democracy to Spain and Greece. The current conflict is similarly likely to encourage increased commitment to the European project. Furthermore, in contrast to 9/11, the invasion has drawn sharp battle lines between authoritarian Russia on one side and a community of democratic states supporting Ukraine’s imperiled democracy on the other. The conflict may make it harder for European leaders to tolerate Orbán and other autocrats in the European Union. Russia’s invasion has not only heightened awareness of the dangers generated by nationalism and illiberalism, but it has also linked them to a broader existential threat posed by Russian autocracy to European security. This threat is unlikely to diminish anytime soon. The heightened stakes will make it more costly for politicians such as Trump or Orbán to condemn blithely the international liberal order.

More than sixty years after the horrors of World War II inspired the creation of the European Union, the invasion has again reminded the world of the brutal human cost brought about by the rejection of liberal values. Democracy is not simply an abstract good but has important implications for human welfare. While greater pluralism may not generate greater economic growth or reduce levels of corruption, it does allow societies to avoid the kind of brutal violence we see today in Ukraine and, to an increasing extent, in Russia.

The conflict may also facilitate liberal development by fragmenting the authoritarian international and drastically undermining the attractiveness of the Russian path. Even if Russia ekes out a military victory in Ukraine, the country is likely to have far fewer resources to project its influence abroad. Putinism will not be seen as a viable model for either building a prosperous society or generating stable autocracy. No matter what the future holds, this unjust and unprovoked invasion has been catastrophic for Ukraine and its people. Still, there remains a chance that the global liberal project may emerge from this darkness stronger and more invigorated than before.

Lucan Ahmad Way is professor of political science at the University of Toronto. He is coauthor (with Steven Levitsky) of Revolution and Dictatorship: The Violent Origins of Authoritarian Durability (forthcoming).


Copyright © 2022 National Endowment for Democracy

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