The order, recently slandered by Putin, refers to the collection of international institutions and norms developed after the war to prevent further global conflicts. The history of the order can be divided into two phases: before and after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. But Russia’s place in this international system is complicated because it evolved in part to accommodate communism and the expansion of the Soviet Union oppose .
After World War II, an elaborate financial network – from credit institutions like the IMF to a currency rating system – was put in place to improve economic cooperation between countries. This was done to prevent the harmful economic competition that caused the Great Depression and created the conditions for the rise of fascism. While the Soviet Union participated in the negotiations that created this financial pillar of the Order, its refusal to ratify the accords foreshadowed the Cold War.
As the post-war period turned to competition between capitalist and communist nations, military conflicts between powerful countries became more likely. NATO was created in 1949 as a form of collective security capable of deterring Soviet militarism. This was the second pillar of the international order, along with institutions like the United Nations that encouraged diplomacy over war.
Preventing the rise of aggressor states that could disrupt the post-war higher standard of living became a primary goal of the system. Economic cooperation and collective security were decisive for this. The increasing political rhetoric about a “free world” located outside the borders of the Soviet Union became synonymous with “Western” concepts. At the same time, leaders like John F. Kennedy promoted terms like “community peace” and “world security system” to inform citizens on the fringes of the Order of the benefits of joining.
Although the Iron Curtain provided a barrier between the Soviet system and the post-war order, the Soviet Union continued to have limited access and influence through its participation in the United Nations and through the brokering of arms limitation agreements with the United States.
Putin is certainly not the first critic of the order. Scholars point out that the United States has frequently subverted the order’s rules and spirit by overthrowing foreign governments and forcing smaller states to support its causes. But over the past two decades, Russia has arguably benefited most from the rules-based order in its second phase.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, the rules-based order went global, and former Soviet republics and countries not allied to either side during the Cold War became legitimate stakeholders in a truly international community. This helped Russia overcome some of the obstacles in its transition from communism and return to great power status.
In 1998, a financial crisis caused the state to default, its currency to depreciate and its foreign reserves to be depleted. Russian miners were known to be on strike over unpaid wages, some of which had gone unpaid for over a year. External debt was also high, with a large balance thanks to the IMF for stabilization loans. Russia relied on this aid, as well as foreign capital, to build a sustainable macroeconomic system.
In the military field, Russia does not fare any better. Despite the relatively peaceful collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, war broke out in 1994 after three years of breakaway Chechnya taking steps to gain formal independence. When Putin came to power, the war did not go well for the Russian state. Economy and military might go hand in hand, so it was not surprising that Moscow’s defense spending fell to historically low levels in the late 1990s as spending was stretched by the debt crisis. This changed estimates of Russian military power. In the words of one observer, Russia had a “hollow army.”
But Putin was quick to use the international mandate to improve Russia’s global standing. Former Cold War rivals in Europe were comfortable investing in Russia’s energy industry and even became dependent on Russia for their energy needs. In addition, the world’s four largest oil services companies became heavily involved in Russia and invested in expanding its oil drilling and production capabilities during the two decades of Putin’s rule.
Putin used this newfound wealth from the international energy markets to elevate Russia’s status in the rules-based order. One of the first things he did after taking office in 2000 was to strive to achieve the same standard of living as Western Europe. To achieve this, Putin positioned himself as a reformer, calling for new tax laws that encourage small business and land reform that unraveled Russia’s complicated pre- and post-Soviet restrictions on land sales. He also surrounded himself with market-oriented and sometimes even liberal advisors like Aleksei Kudrin, who promoted fiscal policies that integrated Russia into the world economy while also making Russia a major influencer.
For a while, Putin’s approach worked. Russia achieved annual growth rates of between 5 and 10 percent in its first decade. In a way, Russia became the seventh largest economy in the world. In 2012, the Obama administration helped pave the way for Russia to join the World Trade Organization. It was the last of the world’s 20 largest economies to do so, and it symbolized Russia’s entry as a key player in the global economy – a pillar of the rules-based order.
This development came despite concerns about Russia’s interference in the political affairs of its neighbors, including Ukraine, as well as its violations of other states’ sovereignty, such as its invasion of Georgia in 2008. Indeed, there was a desire to avoid an all-out attack on the country Conflagration with Russia prevented the world’s leading powers from engaging, even as Putin vociferously flouted the rules of the Order with such a military resurgence. Putin has understood this military restraint on the part of the international community, particularly after US mistakes in Afghanistan and Iraq paved the way for a philosophy of restraint, and has consistently exploited it.
Putin established himself as a major player in global affairs, giving Russia a seat at the negotiating table on landmark issues such as Iran’s nuclear program and Syria’s chemical weapons. Up until 2012, American leaders such as Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney claimed that Russia under Putin was “geopolitical enemy number one,” demonstrating that Putin had managed to work within order to restore Russia’s geopolitical status.
Russia is now out of order, and as a result, Putin risks losing his gains. To counteract this, Putin is trying to disrupt the order and create a new narrative, starring himself. He wants a new international community with different values - he says, for example, that new gender norms are “satanic” and that Russia will therefore remain an outsider. It’s hard to ignore the fact that Putin is meddling in an ongoing culture war within the order and posing as an alternative global leader.
Putin’s speech could be seen as a desperate attempt to bolster his political support in Russia after the backlash he received for ordering the mobilization. But it can also be read as a bold attempt to offer a new grand narrative of history that deviates from values that have so far successfully prevented another world war.
Either way, Putin is signaling that he no longer wants to participate in the rules-based order. This is significant because not only does it return Russia to its former status on the periphery of the international system, but it also means that the classic conditions for war that the rules-based order was designed to prevent—isolation, economic dislocation, and an uncontrolled military—are abolished become aggression – all returned.