Putin Accidentally Revitalized the West’s Liberal Order
The Russian president thought he sensed an opportunity to take advantage of a disunited West. He has been proved wrong.
Updated at 8:20 a.m. ET on March 1, 2022.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has unleashed a chorus of despair—beyond the cost in Ukrainian lives, the international order that the U.S. and its allies built after World War II is, we are told, crumbling. The writer Paul Kingsnorth has declared that the liberal order is already dead. The Indian journalist Rahul Shivshankar has argued that “in the ruins across Ukraine you will find the remains of Western arrogance.” Even the brilliant historian Margaret MacMillan has written that “the world will never be the same. We have moved already into a new and unstable era.”
The reverse is true. Vladimir Putin has attempted to crush Ukraine’s independence and “Westernness” while also demonstrating NATO’s fecklessness and free countries’ unwillingness to shoulder economic burdens in defense of our values. He has achieved the opposite of each. Endeavoring to destroy the liberal international order, he has been the architect of its revitalization.
Germany has long soft-pedaled policies targeting Russia, but its chancellor, Olaf Scholz, made a moving and extraordinary change, committing an additional $100 billion to defense spending immediately, shipping weapons to Ukraine, and ending the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which was constructed to bring gas to Germany from Russia. Hungary, thought to be the weakest link in the Western chain, has supported without question moves by the European Union and NATO to punish Moscow. Turkey, arguably the most Russia-friendly NATO country, having bought missile defense systems from Moscow, has invoked its responsibilities in the 1936 Montreux Convention and closed the Bosporus strait to Russian warships. NATO deployed its rapid-reaction force for the first time, and allies are rushing to send troops to reinforce frontline states. A cascade of places have closed their airspace to Russian craft. The United States has orchestrated action and gracefully let others have the stage, strengthening allies and institutions both.
We are a long way from the ultimate outcome of Russia’s invasion, but even if Ukrainian military forces cannot prevail or President Volodymyr Zelensky and his government are killed or captured, it’s difficult to see how Putin’s broader gamble succeeds. If Zelensky falls, another leader will step forward. Even Russian-speaking Ukrainians have become anti-Russian. The scene depicted in Picasso’s Guernica, one of wanton and barbaric violence, is the best Putin can hope for: Conquering Ukraine will require unspeakable brutality, and even if Moscow succeeds on this count, foreign legions are flowing to Ukraine to assist an insurgency in bleeding Russia’s occupation. If Ukraine fends off Russia’s assault, it will be welcomed into NATO and the EU.
The Ukrainian government that so recently seemed mired in corruption and division has been outstanding: President Zelensky has refused to flee and inspired resistance; outgunned and outmanned Ukrainian military forces seem to have held their own. They understand that they’re in a battle of ideas, establishing, for example, a hotline for Russian prisoners of war to call their families.
Civil activism is the lifeblood of free societies, and Ukrainians have been excelling, including the sunflower lady, who cursed Russian soldiers; civilians lining up to collect arms and make Molotov cocktails, or change out street signs to confuse the invaders; and breweries retooling to produce weaponry.
Ukraine’s tenacity and creativity have ignited civil-society energy, corporate strength, and humanitarian assistance. The hacker group Anonymous has declared war on Russia, disrupting state TV and making public the defense ministry’s personnel rosters. Elon Musk’s SpaceX has promised to help keep Ukraine online. The chipmakers Intel and AMD have stopped sending supplies to Russia; BP is divesting from its stake in the Russian energy giant Rosneft; FedEx and UPS have suspended service to Russia. Norway’s sovereign wealth fund is cutting all its investments in Russia. YouTube and Meta have demonetized Russian state media.* Belarusian hackers disrupted their country’s rail network to prevent their government from sending troops to support the Russian war. Polish citizens collected 100 tons of food for Ukraine in two days. Bars are pouring out Russian vodka. Iconic architecture in cities all over the free world is lit up with the colors of the Ukrainian flag to show solidarity. Sports teams are refusing to play Russia in international tournaments. The London Philharmonic opened its Saturday concert by playing the Ukrainian national anthem, and the Simpsons modeled Ukrainian flags. This is what free societies converging on an idea looks like. And the idea is this: Resist Putin’s evil.
Although we in the West sometimes lose faith that our values are universal, Putin certainly believes they are. Otherwise, why attempt to conquer a country to prevent it from succeeding? And why threaten prison sentences for Russians giving aid to Ukraine? Plenty of Russians seem to share our perspective: Protests took place in scores of Russian cities over the weekend, and thousands of people were arrested. The Russian tennis star Andrey Rublev wrote no war please on the lens of a TV camera during an interview. Russian soldiers are allowing civilian protesters to halt their tanks. Rumors abound that Putin has fired the chief of his military’s general staff. Reports have emerged that oligarchs such as Oleg Deripaska are calling for an end to the war.
Nor is the liberal international order just a project of the transatlantic alliance. The UN may not have been able to prevent Russian aggression, but it served its purpose of forcing accountability onto governments for their positions. Kenya’s ambassador to the UN reminded us all that smaller powers, countries that suffered imperial conquest, are some of the biggest beneficiaries of a system that affirms “the sovereign equality of states, and states’ inviolable rights to territorial integrity and political independence.” Japan has joined many of the Western sanctions against Russia, while Southeast Asian nations such as Singapore and Indonesia have condemned the invasion.
China has squirmed at having its longtime support for an individual state’s sovereignty conflict with its just-christened friendship treaty with Russia, and is balancing its political position of not enforcing sanctions by having to limit financing by Chinese banks for Russian goods because of the risk of exclusion from the global financial order. Russia’s argument that Ukraine isn’t really a state may seem consonant with China’s position toward Taiwan, but worldwide reaction to Russian aggression ought certainly to give Beijing pause before it considers an attempt to subjugate Taiwan.
Those of us already living in free societies owe Ukrainians a great debt of gratitude. Their courage has reminded us of the nobility of sacrifice for just causes. As Ronald Reagan memorably said, “There is a profound difference between the use of force for liberation and the use of force for conquest.” What Ukrainians have done is inspire Americans and others to shake ourselves out of our torpor and create policies of assistance to them, in the hopes that we might one day prove worthy of becoming their ally.
* This article originally misstated that Pornhub was denying Russians access to its site.