Rethinking the Global Order: Russia and Ukraine
Updated: Mar 12
by Samuel Soman
When the US won the cold war, it was clear that modernity would be defined through a unipolar, liberal democratic global order. The US had led the construction of the post-World War Two order, and now with the vanquishment of the Soviet Union, western institutions had become the preeminent global infrastructure via the United Nations. Thus, it became a common consensus that the US hegemony was dominant in every political and socio-economic sphere. Further, this trend was only thought to last as the US was most apt to capitalize on globalization. At the same time, ill-feelings formed among non-Western countries (the 'Global South') as institutionalized Western influence triumphed over objective global standings. This imbalance was shown through the exclusivity of the G8, United Security Council permanent members, and disproportionate IMF quotas. But, ever since the 2008 financial crisis that devastated the liberal-world order, there has been a shift in global dynamics. When the recommendations of the economically resilient BRICs (Brazil, Russi, India, China, adding South Africa to become BRICS in 2010) were favored during the G20 summit, opportunity arose for the international playing field to become exponentially more competitive.
Now with their prominent roles within the US-made world order, global powers such as Russia and China's existence directly challenge the theoretical bearings of the western world. In the bipolar cold war era, the USSR and the US were economically and ideologically divergent, leading to a clearer-cut scenario. But, in this emerging multipolar polar world, nations are financially dependent despite their ideological divergence creating ambiguity and allowing for coercion. The 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent western condemnation gives perfect insight into this scenario. Through one lens, Western nations' rejuvenation of NATO showed strength through Western alignment and efficient mobilization. But, on the other hand, the UN's legitimacy as a global ordinance has been dampened through the 'non-alignment' of the Global South. Now, defiant of Western pressure, the emerging nations of the Global South refuse to limit their economic outlooks, opting to continue relations with Russia. So, through analyzing the global- social, and economic responses to this invasion, we're given valuable insight into the shifting underpinnings of the modern era—an era characterized by both growing dependency and polarization.
When Russia initially invaded Ukraine on February 24th, 2022, the UN rallied 141 nations to condemn Russian actions. Four nations rejected this notion, and another 47 either abstained or 'missed the vote.' Then following US-led initiatives, 39 countries imposed global sanctions on Russian exports to isolate them economically. Sanctions have become the primary offensive, non-combatant tactic of the West, but there is speculation about whether this antic is effective. Sanctions "too often inflict economic pain on normal citizens without causing the desired behavioral changes in target governments," not accounting for the versatility of global exports.
Despite the sanctions, Russia has been able to simultaneously weaponize European reliance on their exports while shifting their markets to non-western nations. Due to natural gas's pipeline supply chain, Russia has been able to strategically lower European exports from over 400 million metric tons in January 2021 to less than 100 in October 2022. As Russia typically supplied ⅓ of European gas flow, this commodity weaponization has helped contribute to a 14-fold price increase in European energy from the third quarter of 2019 to the third quarter of 2022. Russia has redirected its exports outwards for a discount- India's Russian oil imports have increased by 16-fold, while China imported record numbers of Russian gas in 2022. Russia has also been able to preserve the Ruble's purchasing power by raising interest rates at the expense of their civilians as well as increasing Yuan trade with China 34-fold within the first nine months post-invasion. Hence, this has mitigated the consequences of the barred dollar reserves. So now, with maintained purchasing power, Russia's imports have been able to rebound to nearly pre-war levels via 'non-aligned' nations (this includes ones that partook in UN condemnation), advancing their interests through a less crowded Russian market.
The Global South feels no obligation to involve themselves in what they see as distant western affairs. After centuries of colonialism and imperialism, Western morality is not seen as legitimate. This has led them to find their own "independent solutions rather than an alternative set of widely held approaches to global issues." Due to this rationale, much of the developing world distanced itself from the Russia-Ukraine conflict, demonstrating non-alignment. They don't see economic opportunities as mutually exclusive. Instead, they opt to leverage their position outside either power bloc to benefit from competitive foreign policies/charm offensives. This quote by Senegalese and African Union President Macky Sall best captures this objective, "Let no one tell us no, don't work with so-and-so, just work with us. We want to work and trade with everyone".
Overall, the point is not to say that these sanctions aren't potentially damaging to Russia in the long run, but they are clearly not as effective as the West would hope. Further, it's projected that despite the economic sanctions, in 2023, Russia's economy will grow by 0.3%. This stat is even more shocking compared to Germany's projected growth rate of 0.1% and Britain's negative rate of 0.6%. Through contrasting Russian economic resilience and European decline, the constraints of the liberal world order are being made ever-so apparent.
Since its birth, Western statecraft has been built upon the positive correlation between liberal economics and liberal democratic values. It was believed that sovereign wealth has inherent governmental checks and balances due to the leverage held by the middle class. Theoretically, this should create a dynamic of altruistic global convergence, but it has been made clear that this theory has many pitfalls, as authoritarian regimes such as China's economic success goes to show.
As a result of this ongoing conflict, scholars are re-evaluating WTO-era economic partner uniformity as free trade continues to generate illiberal outcomes. As shown through the Russian sanctions, and the subsequent gas crisis, democratic dependence on defiant authoritarian regimes creates a "zero sum game" characterized through mutual decline and non-alignment. All in all, multipolarism's triumph over unipolarism has seriously exacerbated the once seemingly stable underpinnings of the liberal international order, creating disorder and uncertainty. Ultimately, Western nations must re-evaluate their current approach to global governance.