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Russia’s misadventure: Will it herald a setback for populists and return of liberal democracy?

One other unintended consequence of the potential failure of the Russian operation is that it could slow down - and possibly stop the triumphant march of the autocrats – or so-called strongmen - the world over, writes Frank Islam for South Asia Monitor

Frank F. Islam Mar 24, 2022
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Vladimir Putin (L) and Volodymyr Zelensky (R)

Nearly a month into his unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, the war does not seem to be going the way Vladimir Putin envisioned when he ordered Russian troops to march into that neighboring country. While it is too early to term the invasion a quagmire, the fierce resistance Ukrainian soldiers and citizens have offered to date has prevented Russia from achieving its military and political objectives. 

In the run-up to the war, there were two major assumptions in the foreign policy circles in Washington, D.C. The first was that Russian forces would overrun the vastly outmatched Ukrainians in a matter of days, perhaps in fewer than 48 hours, leading to the installation of a Moscow-friendly regime. 

The second assumption was that the Russian misadventure — tacitly backed by China — would herald a new bipolar world order, with the United States and its allies on one end and Russia and China on the other. 

Moscow halted 

Now, more than four weeks after Moscow’s invasion began, the first assumption has been invalidated. In the face of a furious fightback by Ukrainians, the Russian advances have stalled on multiple fronts. 

Russia has been unable to topple Ukraine’s capital city Kyiv and there are ever-mounting losses on the Russian side. US officials estimate that 7,000 or more Russian soldiers have died in combat thus far. Additionally, according to Western observers, Russia has also suffered significant losses in terms of tanks, fighter jets and missiles,

Despite the fierce bombardment and missile attacks, the pro-Western administration of President Volodymyr Zelensky is not only intact but is also drawing massive support in many countries in Europe and around the globe. In fact, Zelensky, a former comedian and businessman, has become a hero and cult figure in much of the Western world. In a recent opinion poll, 64 percent of Americans said they have a favourable view of Zelensky.

Because of this, there is now a widespread belief in Washington, both within the administration and well as in the defense and strategic communities, that Putin underestimated the Ukrainian resistance and the West’s resolve while preparing for the war. It is evident that Putin miscalculated the resolve of not just the Ukrainians, but also the backbone and the perseverance of America and its allies.

New world order 

As for the second assumption, there is no doubt that the Russian invasion has upended the world order. But given the results to date, it can be reasonably concluded that this changing of the world order has not unfolded in a manner that either Russia or China wanted.

Over the past several decades, Russia’s claim to superpower status rested primarily on the basis of its assumed military strength. There is no question that the longer the war lasts, the more damaging it will be for Putin and the vaunted Russian military which has been considered the second-most powerful force in the world. That reputation has already been damaged substantially and that is why there are increasing mention from Putin and others about the possible use of nuclear weapons.

At the beginning of the war, the conventional wisdom was that China would be a major beneficiary of Putin’s war. Given the way war has transpired, China will probably still be a beneficiary but not in the manner in which it first appeared it might.
Chinese President Xi Jinping has undoubtedly learned a major lesson from Putin’s mistakes. Beijing became the second-largest economy in the world, in part, because of its trading relations with the US. 

Beijing will certainly be more cautious about overplaying its hand, in either Taiwan or even in India’s north and northeast, as it decides how to proceed in this new world order. 

US offensive 

And there is a new world order emerging. President Biden has committed the US to shaping that order. In a speech to the Business Roundtable on Monday, March 21, he stated: “Now is the time when things are shifting and there's going to be a new world order out there, and we've got to lead it.” 

He asserted: “We've got to unite the rest of the free world in doing it.” 

NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization), which was in retreat during the Trump years, is back as a cohesive unit, thanks to Putin. Every member of the alliance has risen to the occasion, including some of the smaller nations such as Slovakia, which was in the Soviet camp during the Cold War.

In the meantime, President Biden arrived in Brussels on Wednesday for emergency summits of NATO, the G7 and the European Union. He is expected to announce new sanctions on Russian leaders and an initiative to provide liquefied natural gas to Europe, which will reduce the dependence of European allies on Moscow.

As noted above, Russia’s invasion of and war upon Ukraine has had many unintended and very unhappy consequences for Russia. One other unintended consequence of the potential failure of the Russian operation is that it could slow down - and possibly stop the triumphant march of the autocrats – or so-called strongmen - the world over. 

Russia’s image 

“The (Russian) invasion has already done huge damage to populists all over the world, who prior to the attack uniformly expressed sympathy for Putin,” writes American political scientist Francis Fukuyama. “That includes Matteo Salvini, Jair Bolsonaro, Éric Zemmour, Marine Le Pen, Viktor Orbán and of course Donald Trump. The politics of the war has exposed their openly authoritarian leanings.” 

Fukuyama, author of the celebrated book “End of History” and the “Last Man”, writes that a Putin defeat could lead to the return of the liberal democracy, which has been in retreat for many years.  He states: “A Russian defeat will make possible a ‘new birth of freedom,’ and get us out of our funk about the declining state of global democracy. The spirit of 1989 will live on, thanks to a bunch of brave Ukrainians.” 

Yes, thanks to those brave Ukrainians, Putin’s war may have exactly the opposite result that he intended not only in Ukraine but for the world writ large. It has unified the politicians and people of the US in a way not seen since 9/11, caused a resurgence and renewal of the NATO alliance, and aroused support for democratic values around the globe. 

This is not the New World Order that Putin wanted when he started this war but it is the new world order that the world needs. 

(The author is a Washington-based entrepreneur, civic and thought leader. Views are personal.) 

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