Defender of Liberal Order No More, Russia Embraces America’s “No Rules” World
Careful what you wish for. One serving of rogue state Russia coming up
Once I heard a Balkan guy say that he loved reading about Russia in the Western mainstream press. He said he loved it because Russia presented on its pages was much more badass than real Russia. The based Russia of Western MSM imagination was what he wanted Russia to be, but what Russia was sadly not.
I imagine that guy might be quite happy today.
Western press loved to present the picture where the US was the status quo power, whereas Russia was supposedly going around the world trying to undermine America and the liberal-Westphalian order that underpinned its strength.
That would have been intuitive, but it wasn’t the truth.
It was actually the US that was celebrating its 30-year “unipolar moment” by throwing Molotov cocktails at the globe, scorching countries and the “rules-based international order”. While it was Russia that was sticking up for sovereignty, non-interference and stability. It was Russia that was the status quo power, the power defending the liberal-based international order. And it was the US that was acting like a drunken wolverine in a chicken coop, and whose neocons and “humanitarian interventionists” were penning long ideological tracts explaining why the world order rooted in classical international law had to go.
Ironically in doing so the neocons and liberal interventionists were attempting to subvert and demolish a system that US and Britain — more than any other power — had built.
However, where the egalitarian notion that small countries have all the same rights as great powers may in the past have served as a bulwark against Napoleon, Kaiser and Hitler, it now limited the power of Washington’s own apparatchiks.
In the past, these high-minded ideals could be mobilized to help freeze the European continent in its disunited state. Preventing any continental power from attaining the mastery of Europe with which to threaten British/American global dominance.
However, with 1991 seeing the last challenger to American mastery of the world on its knees, these rules no longer did anything but hamper Washington’s arsonist Cold War-victory celebration tour that took it to Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, etc.
Russia intuitively understood this and so spoke up for the international order and its rules.
Bizarrely you had the situation where the Americans were trying to burn down the rules they had inaugurated, and the defeated Russians trying to defend them.
That is as if interwar Germany had been defending Versailles, while Paris-London-DC were tearing it up as not enough.
Such was the disparity in power!
Moreover the Russians were doing so albeit the dissolution of the Soviet Union now left international law a bitter pill to swallow, since it ruled out liberating any of the 20 million Russians who now found themselves on the wrong side of the new borders.
— Any yet for a quarter of a century Russia didn’t lift a finger to liberate any of them, instead staying true to sovereignty, non-aggression, and inviolability of borders (that until very recently had been internal). — Even as the US was going around the world making a mockery of these ideals.
Now, it is true that sometimes Moscow collaborated with the US in tearing up the classical liberal international order. In the 1990s because it was weak and a vassal state herself, Russia was complicit in sanctions against Yugoslavia. Later on, as it was hoping that collaboration might buy it some goodwill it went along with sanctions against Iran and North Korea.
However, increasingly Russia started to defend small nations against the jihads of the Washington pyromaniacs. First rhetorically and then materially and militarily.
Now Syria, Venezuela, Nicaragua actually had a foreign friend to help counter the very worst aspects of the lawless US assault against them. The help wasn’t always a lot, but at least they weren’t completely alone as had been the case with Libya, Afghanistan, Yugoslavia.
Now, Moscow wasn’t helping these alleged “rogue states” because it was invested in them per se. It was aiding them as part of its strategy of forcing the US to engage with it. Allowing the US to use the UN Security Council to make a mockery of international law hadn’t paid dividends. No goodwill was earned and DC remained as unwilling to talk about Russia’s core concerns as it had been before. If enabling the Washington gang hadn’t worked — Moscow reasoned — maybe stepping on its bomb-throwing toes here and there might.
Thus Russia ventured into Latin America and the Middle East — not to overthrow the US — but to force a conversation on a few issues in the post-Soviet space that actually mattered to it.
(The Western press omitted this all-important context, and furthermore greatly exaggerated Russian reach and role, making Moscow seem far more badass than it really was.)
Nonetheless, whatever the Russian motivation for doing this, having a great-power backer of laws, rules, and treaties was incredibly refreshing. The world over people under imperial assault suddenly had at least rhetorical support.
For example, when the West illegally revises the obscure 1994 Washington Treaty to marginalize Bosnian Croats, who do you think these have to back them? Croatia? No. the Russian ambassador to Sarajevo. Russian embassies all over the world turned into embassies for rules. The much-needed but absent NGOs against Western arrogance and despotism.
It is true that on a couple of occasions Moscow itself broke international law. Namely the 2008 recognition of South Ossetia, and the 2014 recognition of Crimea.
These are exceptions that prove the rule. Firstly they are infinitely less numerous than Western-led assaults on international law. Secondly, while there is no international law defense of these, there is a pro-stability argument for them, at least as seen by Moscow.
South Ossetia was recognized as non-Georgian after Georgia launched a surprise military offensive against Russian treaty troops during the Olympic peace. Moscow in turn proclaimed South Ossetia to no longer be Georgian territory as a warning across the post-Soviet space (Russia also has treaty peacekeepers in Moldova and Azerbaijan) that surprise military offensives on Russians will come with dire, irreversible consequences.
Crimea was recognized in 2014 after Putin helped talk Yanukovich into a power-transition agreement wanted by Paris and Berlin, only for Yanukovich to be run out of town anyway, and the one-half of Ukraine that had no enthusiasm for Maidanites completely sidelined. Putin could have taken far more — it was there for the taking — but he settled for the one piece he could have bloodlessly and where 95% wanted Russia to come in.
It was an international law violation, but what it was first and foremost for Moscow was fundamentally a defensive move — another reactive shot across the bow to show a possible future if the half of Ukraine (Little Russia) that had no interest in merging with the Russophobic West continued to be sidelined and made voiceless.
We are a long way from there.
On February 24 Russia launched a regime-change invasion against Kiev. Of course, Moscow had used the military for regime change before. In Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Afghanistan. But those were interventions against their own clients, inside Moscow’s own sphere of influence.
The 2022 undertaking was something else entirely. It was a US-style regime-change operation venturing outside own sphere of influence in order to expand it. It took inspiration from the 2003 invasion of Iraq, right down to the Rumsfeldian insistence that 130,000 frontline troops with 40,000 auxiliaries could do the job.
When that didn’t work (the Russians are novices at this stuff) the plan B was to annex whatever land was taken where the population was cooperative or ambivalent to Russia.
Note how different this is from the 2008 and 2014 recognitions. South Ossetia and Crimea were not premeditated. They were ad hoc reactions. Improvisations in the moment.
When the US (illegally) bombed Yugoslavia in 1999 it did so after a decade-long campaign to humble Belgrade and already with the intention to one day proclaim Kosovo non-Serbian.
But Russia didn’t arrive in South Ossetia in 1992 (as part of a joint Georgian-Russian peacekeeping force) with plans to one day proclaim it non-Georgian. Had the Empire not created the Kosovo precedent and had Tbilisi not attacked Russian peacekeepers it had invited in 1992 (because it refused joint patrols with Ossetians) South Ossetia would still formally be Georgian.
On the other hand, everyone with a brain cell knew on February 24 that if Russia failed to take power in Kiev it would start incorporating parts of Ukraine directly.
February 24, 2022 marks a turning point where Russia started using US methods for its own ends in a premeditated fashion.
As always this shift marks the recognition in Moscow that the previous approach had failed.
Up until 2002 the dominant tendency was for Moscow to try to secure the ear of the West for its own core concerns by being helpful. By serving as a helpful enabler of the Empire in the UNSC and in the early War on Terror. (1999 being the one big exception.)
After Putin’s help to Bush in Afghanistan was repaid by scorn this was increasingly recognized as a dead end. Now the dominant tendency became standing up for international law against the neocon-liberventionist assault on it. (The big exception being Medvedev and Libya.)
Until 2014 this Russian defense of principles of international order against Imperial arbitrariness was largely diplomatic and moral. But with the escalation of the Western-Russian tug-of-war over Ukraine (Malorus) Russia now started building real ties with besieged “rogue states” and offering them technical, trade — and in Syria’s case even military — support. (It is in this period that you hear the quip that Russia’s “foremost export is stability”.)
Russia was not doing so because it was organizing a Third World uprising against DC (something that even the USSR was too weak for). But to showcase it was a power with some reach whose concerns couldn’t be ignored forever. It did so to try and coerce the US into having to sit down with Moscow and hammer out a division of influence in the post-Soviet space that Russia could actually live with.
In other words, if Moscow couldn’t befriend DC enough to get it to stop penetrating deeper into former core Russian lands, perhaps that cooperation could be coerced out of it by throwing logs at the feet of Imperial transformations the world over.
2022 marks the turning point where Moscow recognized that this wasn’t working either, and that Russia was anyway running out of time.
All the while Russia was vying for a “Concert of Powers” solution, on the ground itself Ukraine, a core Slavic land of old Russia, was being steadily de-Sovietized and de-Russified. (Courtesy of Lenin who had picked out the Ukrainian project as the winner in the competition for loyalties in Ruthenia Minor over the All-Russian one.)
Thus in 2022 Moscow was forced to embark on what it had dreaded, and what it tried for 30 years to avoid and postpone. It embarked on the straightforward task of solving her own problems directly, by herself, and in contravention of America’s will.
Having left it late (and having failed to prepare properly) this “solution” takes the form of a bloody fratricidal war and rushed annexations to Russia.
It takes the form of Russia appropriating America’s own methods and using them to secure her own core interests.
It means that Russia has progressed from defending the international order in a convoluted 5D plan to eventually get what it wants with America’s coerced approval, to just going out and grabbing it the American way.
The Western press spent 20 years writing about Russia as a power in rebellion against “the rules-based order”. This wasn’t true. Moscow was precisely the world’s premier defender and champion of rules, stability, and non-aggression.
An imperfect defender (as North Korea, Iran and Yemen may testify) but the best we had.
That is in the past now. Henceforth when Moscow talks about the rights of weak states the words will fall empty. And Russia certainly is no exporter of stability right now.
After 20 years of constant accusations that Russia is a renegade power breaking international law, the slander has become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
But one part of the accusation remains a lie. The lie that remains is that there ever was a “rules-based order” to rebel against.
Where were these “rules” when two dozen Imperial clients ganged up together to thrash sovereign Libya? Where were these “rules” when the Empire got 140 governments to formally endorse its aggression vs Iraq? Where are these “rules” when DC has 100 governments proclaim that Kosovo is something other than Serbia?
The actual rules are what the rules have always been — the powerful do as they please and the weak suffer what they must.
The only difference is that the West is so bored, so narcissistic, and so devoid of actual external challenges that it will proclaim you Hitler and stomp you against the curb out of sheer boredom. Just to briefly drown out the terrifying lack of purpose that comes with having achieved absolute power with an imagined monster-slaying, feel-good moment.
At least when the Russians proclaim you Nazis and let the cruise missiles lose they are after tangible stuff. They are there to take your cities and people and make them Russian. (At least if your cities are as drenched in Russian history as Kharkov, Odessa and Kiev. & if your government is intent on de-Russifying them.) Somehow that feels refreshing, forthright, and downright flattering by comparison.
Certainly, I would rather have my town leveled because the Americans wanted it for themselves (something I can wrap my mind around), rather than because the Americans needed Hillary Clinton to be able to go to bed thinking of herself as the female Winston Churchill. (Or Paul Wolfowitz as the pro-capitalist Leon Trotsky.) — Something that is a whole nother level of evil.
Some will tie themselves into knots explaining how Moscow launching the march on Kiev and enlarging Russia by territories that 8 months ago it recognized as Ukraine do not violate international law. Others, with more pride, will decline to insult their intelligence thus.
The truth is that neocons are correct about one thing. International law is not an unambiguous good.
It is law developed by states to serve the needs of states. It is a mix of good and bad.
It can be useful to individuals trying to restrain government atrocities abroad by pointing out how these contravene the body of law that governments proclaim themselves bound to. But international law is not a moral category. Russia annexing Crimea and Donbass can be both moral and illegal at the same time.
Anyhow the “based” Russia that my Balkan friend once desired is now here. It is a Russia that looked Washington in the eye and said: “You want a world without rules? Okay, we’ll give you a world without rules.”
The ironic thing is that going around your neighborhood, making yourself just a little bigger is what states had done for 5000 years. It is only our own time that finds this novel. And it’s not because we’ve grown so enlightened and progressive. It is because for 70 years virtually nobody has been independent.
Now someone is.