*Editor’s Note: On March 4, Russia enacted a law that criminalizes public opposition to, or independent news reporting about, the war in Ukraine. The law makes it a crime to call the war a “war” rather than a “special military operation” on social media or in a news article or broadcast. The law is understood to penalize any language that “discredits” Russia’s use of its military in Ukraine, calls for sanctions or protests Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It punishes anyone found to spread “false information” about the invasion with up to 15 years in prison.
Russia is now being called a “direct threat to the world order” by the leadership of the European Union, among others. Leaders are passing these judgments because of current events in Ukraine, but in reality there are plenty of examples of how other countries are using much harsher measures to destroy everything that has preserved global stability for many years.
From the very beginning of the special operation, Western political scientists and journalists have worked out grim prognoses about how monstrous the repercussions will be for Russia. Total isolation, full blockade, a return to the stone age — there are many versions, each one more apocalyptic than the last.
However, almost three months have passed since Ukraine’s liberation from the Nazis began, and no apocalypse has occurred. Moreover the Western sanction machine is stalling. The EU has been unable to pass a sixth packet of sanctions (with an oil embargo) because a number of countries have come out categorically against them based on their own interests. Accordingly, the ringleaders are now trying to approach the issue from another angle. Countries are saying that Russia’s actions are a threat to the whole world, since Moscow is not defending its interests in Ukraine but dismantling the global order. The reasoning is thin, but it works.
Russia “is today the most direct threat to the world order with the barbaric war against Ukraine, and its worrying pact with China,” said European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen during her visit to Japan. Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida agreed. “Russia is the most serious threat to the world order. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is not just a matter for Europe, but it shakes the core of the international order including Asia,” Kishida said. Kishida needs to explain to his people about the break in economic relations with Moscow for the sake of a distant Ukraine.
Apparently, Moscow is propagating an ideology that is destroying the world order. “’Russkiy Mir’ is a cancer which is consuming not only the majority of Russian society, but is also posing a deadly threat to the whole of Europe. Therefore it is not enough to support Ukraine in its military struggle with Russia. We must root out this monstrous new ideology entirely,” according to Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki.
These words, of course, sound funny coming from Morawiecki. Conservative values, the preservation of historical memory, sovereignty — these are not only the foundations of the Russian world, after all, but of the worldview that Morawiecki and his country’s current leaders share.
“In political practice, the Russians and the Polish are very similar — in both cases we observe powerful emphasis on matters of the historical past. Traditional values and religiosity serve the preservation of identity, and the existence of an enormous diaspora of compatriots especially raises a national question and creates an elevated sensitivity to matters of preserving language and culture,” Dmitry Ofitserov-Belsky, senior researcher at IMEMO in the Russian Academy of Sciences, told Vzglyad.*
Values and Balance
However, von der Leyen and Kishida also need to think again about their words carefully. Indeed, the world order is being destroyed — not by the Russian Federation, but by the United States. It is Washington that is destroying the very foundations of this order: economically, politically, in the security arena and in the rules of interaction between states.
A stable global order is always founded on both written and unwritten norms; norms that everyone understands, accepts and is bound by. After the end of the Cold War, the U.S. created an order which was in part founded on the U.N. Charter and in part on those principles which America promulgated in the unipolar world and with which everyone then agreed (principles involving a liberal world, market economy, globalization, the role of the U.S. as international sheriff, and so on).
The United States began to destroy this order in the mid-90s in its war against Yugoslavia and the annexation of native Serbian Kosovo, when the principle of the indivisibility of postwar European borders was eradicated. In many ways, the principles of European stability and security rested on this principle of indivisibility. It was Moscow that asked the U.S. not to open this Pandora’s box then and to respect the principle of territorial integrity.
Washington refused to consider the change in the global balance of power in the 2000s. It refused not only to integrate new centers of power, i.e., Russia and China, into the system, but failed to recognize their status as great powers with their own spheres of responsibility and sovereignty.
At the same time the U.S. understood perfectly well what attempts at artificially preserving the system would lead to — that the system would collapse from within — but nevertheless it continued to constrain Moscow and Beijing rather than give them their rightful place in the sun. Russia, for its part, proposed a civil and dialogue-based approach to integrating with the international system, offering a variety of ways that could happen (i.e., a security space from Vladivostok to Lisbon and even admission to NATO).
It would have been fine if the United States only exerted constraint, but in the course of its containment politics, it began to destroy its own rulebook. In particular, it rejected the concept of free trade in order to prevent the PRC’s economic expansion, and by then, the World Trade Organization’s principles had begun to come apart at the seams.
In addition, Washington has abused sanctions against Russia so often that Russia is no longer afraid of them and Washington has wiped out whatever was left of Russian respect for American institutions. Washington also dealt a serious blow to the global character of these institutions; in particular, the U.S. dollar as a common currency, and also to American social media networks as a mechanism of universal connection between nations. It was the Kremlin that asked Washington to stop ignoring the rules and return to some kind of predictability and normative basis for Russian-American relations.
In the context of their conception of containment, the Americans also started to destroy the foundations of strategic stability. Beginning with the administration of President George W. Bush, Washington withdrew from a range of agreements (missile defense, the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, the Treaty on Open Skies, and so on) on which the international security system rested. These were agreements that helped two nuclear superpowers — the U.S. and the Soviet Union/Russia — coexist peacefully and avoid nuclear war. In the end the world arrived at a point where American nuclear missiles would be returned to Europe.
For many years Russia asked America to reconsider and return to the old playbook. And in 2021 and the beginning of 2022, Russia went to extreme lengths to dodge a bullet by trying to conduct essential negotiations with Americans about resurrecting the rules. No one listened, forcing the Kremlin to begin its special operation in Ukraine for the defense of its own interests by other, non-negotiative means.
Help the Terrorists
Finally, even in the course of this special operation, America has continued to destroy the world order. Here it’s not just about the sanctions, the global “cancellation” of Russia or forcing Europe to sacrifice its future for the sake of Ukraine.
It’s about the destruction of a system of control over dangerous armaments. In particular, portable air-defense systems, tens of thousands of which have been delivered by the West to Ukraine. The U.S. secretary of defense has publicly admitted that he has no control over how these systems will be used in the future. Thousands of Stinger MANPADS could very well be used by terrorists, including against passenger planes with American citizens.
If von der Leyen, Kishida and Morawiecki would soberly assess the status of the global order, then they would no doubt object to the United States action on all these points. “The problem with public interpretations of Russian actions from overseas is that they completely dismiss threats being made toward Russia; Russia’s readiness for dialogue is completely unrecognized. Instead, the discourse is purposely shifted to the discussion of the Kremlin’s ‘irrational’ behavior and random personal writings on other topics,” said Ofitserov-Belsky. This is the real threat to the world order.
*Editor’s note: IMEMO stands for the Institute of World Economy and International Relations, a Russian research institute.