For many around the world, especially in the West, a war in twenty-first-century Europe was unthinkable; but the unthinkable transpired. As warned by realists for years, the post-Cold War US grand strategy of liberal hegemony – pursued more fervently in Europe than anywhere else – contained the seeds of the current war in Ukraine. Although there cannot be a rationalization of the humanitarian toll the war is taking, overlooking the underlying causes of the larger Ukraine crisis only risks yet more geostrategic blunders in other parts of the world, presumably spawning even drastic consequences.
A gamble so momentous that even after it failed to topple the Ukrainian government and Russian troops couldn’t fight their way into any of the major Ukrainian cities, the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent Western response in the form of crippling sanctions on Russia have dealt the most serious blow to Liberal International Order (LIO) since the anti-globalization backlash and shift induced in the global balance of power owing to the rise of China.
The LIO is premised on three principal projects: (1) the global presence of international institutions (rules) to regulate state-to-state transactions; (2) creating an international liberal economy; (3) the spread of democracy worldwide – under the ‘indispensable’ leadership of the US backed by its ‘benign’ global military presence.
The Russian invasion and the linked events undermined all the three undertakings: (1) as the Russian troops marched into the territory of another sovereign nation, the disregard for international institutions was glaring; (2) the Western countries imposing crippling sanctions on Russia essentially reversed within a matter of days the gains made to integrate Russia into the liberal economic order, thereby jolting the most serious blow in recent years to global economic liberalization dream; (3) the liberal bet that economic liberalization in autocratic states can lead to political liberalization ran into yet another fiasco.
After the end of the Cold War, Europe was made the test case for liberalism. Democracy and economic liberalization were relentlessly spread to Eastern Europe with the core objective of integrating the continent into a liberal whole under the security umbrella of NATO. In the envisioned scenario, Russia – which initially experimented with liberalization under Boris Yeltsin – also was to be democratized and integrated into the liberal community. Nonetheless, after Putin’s rule re-established Russia’s autocratic quintessence, the goal transitioned to bolstering Ukraine as a liberal ‘bulwark’ on the border of totalitarian Russia.
The Russian invasion, even though it has largely failed to achieve the Kremlin’s political and military objectives and the invaders have suffered heavy losses all credited to steadfast Ukrainian resistance, for the broader ruling elite in Moscow, a Ukraine integrated into the European order, particularly NATO, constitutes an existential threat to Russia; they are inclined to willingly suffer even more losses to prevent Ukraine from turning into a pro-West democracy safeguarded under NATO’s Article V and hosting cutting-edge Western weapon systems. This in effect disgruntles the dream of Europe morphing into a liberal whole – a never-never land for LIO. Even more consequentially, the invasion has marked a return to security competition in Europe between NATO and the heir to the Soviet Union, Russia – though the geopolitical undercurrents drastically differ from the Cold War.
The Russian invasion and the subsequent Western response have posited before China – the primary beneficiary and also the foremost challenge to LIO – a dilemma. Moscow, after being sanctioned out of the US-led liberal economic system, is pinning high hopes on its ‘no limits’ partnership with China to keep its economy moving while the US government has issued repeated warnings of ‘implications and consequences’ if China provides some kind of support or helps Russia evade sanctions.
China is deeply integrated and has sky-high stakes in the US-led economic order; ergo despite criticizing the Western sanctions as an ineffective ‘way to solve problems’, it has largely abided by the sanctions to the content of the US. However, while trying to distance itself from both conflict and sanctions, China has vowed to maintain business as usual with Russia. In actual effect, Beijing is trying to trudge the tight rope: maintaining its current state of economic relationship with Russia while trying to minimize its vulnerability vis-à-vis Western sanctions.
Nonetheless, Putin-led Russia is China’s foremost strategic partner in the broader competition against the West, and a Russia defaulting under Western sanctions or facing domestic political turmoil resulting from an economic crunch are the imaginable scenarios Beijing would try to avert even if it entails incurring economic and political costs. Beijing can use the harbingers of its economic order – China-led financial institutions – to salvage Russia from the adverse upshots (supra) of Western economic sanctions, which would constitute an epoch-making stride towards the consolidation of the China-led economic order at the expense of the currently predominant US-led economic order. A China-led economic order gaining solid underpinnings would further augment the formation of a China-led bounded order, thereby further expediting the erosion of LIO on the course of its inevitable demise.