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Putin's Strike Against the World

Putin's Strike Against the World

Russia's war in Ukraine is the most worrisome blow to global stability and cooperation since the end of the Second World War.

Andreas Umland

At the end of the tenth year of war in Ukraine, Moscow's attack on the Russians’ alleged “brother nation” is a mixed bag for the Kremlin. On one hand, Russia has suffered a blow to its image as a supposed military superpower. The war has become an international embarrassment for the Russian leadership, army, and weapons industry. Moscow's campaign in Ukraine has also led to the loss of Western partners, markets, and investors. These and other setbacks will have far-reaching consequences for Russia. On the other hand, there are a fair number of currently underestimated consequences from Russia's Ukraine policy that are weakening the international order and the West.

To be sure, Russia's large-scale invasion on February 24, 2022 has led to NATO and the EU moving closer together. Since 2022-23 there has been the Western integration of not only Ukraine, but also Moldova and Georgia, which have taken a major step forward with their EU candidacies. 

Nevertheless, the global political damage caused by the Russian war is enormous. Current and potential revisionist actors are benefitting from Russia's subversion of international law and order. By weakening the West and international organizations, Russia's Ukraine adventure is the most worrisome blow to global stability and cooperation since the end of the Second World War. In the sum of its specific characteristics, Russia’s aggression has a new quality.  

Cracks in the World Order

Firstly, in 2014, Russia attacked a hitherto completely peaceful and then militarily impotent country. The turn of Ukraine's domestic and foreign policies in 2014 was far less dramatic than Russia and its apologists abroad portrayed. Ukraine's policy toward ethnic Russians remained tolerant after the Euromaidan Revolution, only becoming more restrictive as a result of the war. Ukrainian right-wing extremism was then and is today still weak by European standards. The 2014 EU Association Agreement with Ukraine was not in contradiction to Russia's still operational free trade agreement with Ukraine. 

Ukraine set out upon its much-lamented aim of NATO accession in 2014, and it remains today a distant prospect. When the war started with Russia’s occupation of Crimea in February of that year, Ukraine was, in fact, an officially non-aligned state. While a change of Ukraine’s then-neutral status to renewal of its aspiration for NATO membership was already predictable in 2014, the actual accession to the alliance was and is far away.   

According to the logic of the popular apology for Putin’s behavior with NATO’s eastward enlargement, Russia should have withdrawn its troops from the Republic of Moldova long ago. Moldova explicitly defined itself in Article 11 of its 1994 Constitution as non-aligned and has kept this status since. Nevertheless, Moscow has maintained its so-called Operational Group of the Russian Forces on the territory of its unrecognized Transnistrian satellite state on Moldovan territory for thirty years.

Following the logic of Kremlin spokespersons and apologists, Moscow should have attacked Finland in response to its application for NATO membership in 2022. After Helsinki made public its intention to join the Alliance, it was foreseeable that Brussels’ would satisfy Finland's request far sooner than it would Ukraine's simultaneous membership application. The Russian-Finnish border is not as long as the Russian-Ukrainian border, but it almost doubled the total length of the NATO-Russia border in 2022. 

In addition, Finland's NATO accession in 2023 has put Putin's and many other Russian top officials’ native St. Petersburg in a precarious position. The second Russian capital is now in close proximity to the Alliance from both the west (Estonia) and the north (Finland). This has made the Finnish entry into NATO a more worrisome strategic issue for Russia than the still far away potential Ukrainian accession. Nevertheless, there has been no material Russian reaction to Finland’s NATO application and accession. Instead, over the past two years, Russia has withdrawn its troops from the Western and Northern Military Districts at or close to the Russian-Finnish and Russian-Estonian borders.

Second, the Russian invasions in both 2014 and 2022 were not only aimed at temporary occupation of conquered territories. From the Russian perspective, they were to lead to final and complete annexation, first of Ukrainian Crimea and later of four additional regions on the Ukrainian mainland. Such a blatant war to extend one’s own state territory at the expense of an internationally recognized neighboring country is not unique, but has become an unusual foreign policy after 1945. 

Thirdly, the Russian invasion is a war not only of expansion but also of annihilation. Its aim is to abolish Ukraine as an independent state and eradicate the Ukrainian nation as a cultural community separate from Russia. Moscow's genocidal intention is expressed not only in numerous verbal statements by Russian political and intellectual leaders. It is also visible in a series of mass-terrorist forms of behavior: deliberate bombing of civilian infrastructure; targeted destruction of Ukrainian cultural institutions such as churches and libraries; arbitrary mistreatment and killing of thousands of civilians and prisoners of war; mass deportation of tens of thousands of accompanied and unaccompanied children; Russification campaigns in the occupied territories; re-education camps for Ukrainians of minor and adult age, and so on. This genocidal approach is also not unique, not even after 1945. However, it has never been practiced in this form and at this magnitude by a permanent member of the UN Security Council outside its territory.

Related to this is a fourth special feature of the war—Russia's targeted use of the UN Security Council seat (inherited from the Soviet Union in 1991) to politically secure territorial enlargement. With this approach, Russia has turned the UN's original function on its head. Once created to protect international law and, in particular, state borders, integrity and sovereignty, the United Nations has, in Russia’s hands, become an instrument of national expansion. 

The most far-reaching consequences of Moscow's behavior for the world security system, however, are related to a fifth feature—the nuclear dimension of Russia's war against Ukraine. The behavior of all actors in this war is shaped by the fact that Russia has nuclear weapons – and Ukraine does not. An especially scandalous aspect of this constellation is that the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), in force since 1970, allows Russia officially to possess nuclear weapons but prohibits Ukraine explicitly from acquiring or building them. Similar to the paradoxical effects of Russia's UN Security Council seat, Moscow has turned the purpose of the NPT on its head. Conceived as an instrument for peacekeeping, Russia is utilizing the non-proliferation regime to enable an illegal and mass-murderous expansion of its claimed state territory. 

There is a further historical curiosity regarding the NPT’s role in this war. After gaining independence in 1991, Ukraine briefly had the third largest arsenal of nuclear weapons after Russia and the United States. At the time, Ukraine possessed more atomic warheads than the remaining three official nuclear-weapon states—Great Britain, France and China—put together. 

However, in the mid-1990s, Kyiv not only agreed to destroy its (unusable) intercontinental missiles. In exchange for a special NPT attachment, the now infamous Budapest Memorandum of 1994, Ukraine liquidated or handed over to Russia all militarily usable atomic stockpiles, radioactive materials, and nuclear technologies as well as relevant delivery systems. Since 2022, a particularly tragicomic aspect of this story has been Russia’s use of some of the delivery systems it received from Ukraine in the 1990s, in fulfillment of the Budapest deal, to destroy Ukrainian cities.

Gravedigger of the Post-War Order

Russia since 2014 has shaken not just the liberal world order, but general inter-state order in Europe, if not globally. The subversive effects of this behavior by a permanent UN Security Council member and official nuclear-weapon state under the NPT are amplified by meek or ineffective behavior of the remaining Security Council members, other nuclear-weapon states, and by other powerful countries—including Germany.

For instance, these and other countries have neither engaged in protecting Ukraine’s nuclear power plants or their own embassies in Kyiv from Russian flying vehicles nor deployed their air forces to secure Ukrainian grain exports via the Black Sea. All of this would have been in the national interest of many foreign states, yet it was entirely left to Ukraine’s army. Also, there are many Western debates on the transfer of Moscow’s frozen funds to Kyiv, on punishment for Russian mass human rights violations in the occupied Ukrainian territories, or about repatriation of the tens of thousands of deported Ukrainian children to Russia. However, there have so far been few practical steps taken to adequately implement these noble intentions. 

Instead, the growing gap between public rhetoric and political practice gives the impression that the liberal world order is a mirage. To be sure, Russia itself is on the wrong track as a would-be empire and will come out of this war as a loser. Nonetheless, the Kremlin has made great strides toward destroying the post-war world order that emerged after 1945. 

Andreas Umland, Ph.D., is an analyst at the Stockholm Centre for East European Studies (SCEEUS) at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs (UI).

Image: Vladimir Putin during a visit to the Uralvagonzavod Research and Production Corporation. (Nizhny Tagil, Kremlin press corps)

AuthoritarianismDemocracyEastern EuropeUnited StatesU.S. Foreign PolicyUkrainePolitical PhilosophyEurope