Putin’s Ukraine War undermines Russia’s ambition to oppose liberal world order

By Tarik Mert

EVEN if you are a pro-Putin fanatic who blindly supports whatever action the President takes, you ought to stand against the invasion of Ukraine.

It will prove to be strategic mistake completely at odds with perceptive moves hitherto made – notably, the war on Ukraine undermines Russia’s ambition to form a counter-hegemony against the liberal democratic world order.

Retrospectively, Russia was doing quite well in creating this counter-hegemony, particularly in Europe, the main battlefield of ideas. It used to take advantage of growing social tensions within European societies to further its cause.

In the continent, from Poland to Portugal, the rise of far-right leaders was unprecedented; their slow but adamant campaigns trembled bastions of liberal democracies by winning the hearts and minds of the masses. It was an epidemic.

Besides, there was an ever-increasing admiration for the way Putin governed. The image of Vladimir Putin, systematically marketed as the masculine, honest, and stiff leader as opposed to “weak European puppets” allured many.

This authoritarian charm made people believe increasingly that it was better to be singlehandedly governed than to be governed by “impotent” politicians democratically elected. Hence, Russia promoted its ideology directly and where it is not possible to do so, it deliberately backed up promising politicians who adhered to similar ideologies, such as Le Pen, Salvini, and Orban.

As Antonio Gramsci, a notorious Italian theoretician, tells, this is the only way to establish a new hegemony against the predominant current one. You have to come up with “new” ideas which look brighter than those upheld by the current hegemons, then you make sure that people believe them. But violence cannot replace by conviction. Although a limited dose of violence might be needed to conceive a working hegemony, beliefs always come first. 

The smart strategy of Russia was initially following this proven pathway until it was ruined by the declaration of war which brought the whole endeavour, deliberately constructed over a decade, to a halt.

All of a sudden, it was remembered once again that autocracies are inherently disposed to revitalize forgotten evils, mainly, the war. It was remembered that brutalities Europe has long sought to put behind came from a regime lookalike to the Putin regime.

The war initiated by Putin’s kleptocracy showed Europeans that democracy, even in its worst form, is worth fighting for. Thus, all the energy put into marketing the Russian system as a better alternative turned to dust.

If Russia did not make such a terrible blunder that gave its true identity away and heartened apolitical masses to defend their democracy, it could have carried on with its initial plan of exploiting cracks within the Western block to form a new world order.

The humiliating defeat of Marine Le Pen in the French presidential election illustrates this staggeringly miscalculated trade-off. Before the war, Russia’s support for Le Pen was not posing an impediment to a potential Le Pen victory.

In normal circumstances, her chances of winning the election were much more than they had been in 2017 given the wide unpopularity of Macron among French voters. The possibility that France could succumb to Russia-backed populism and evolve into an autocracy was perilously real, which means that Russia’s patient effort could finally give its fruits.

Yet, the invasion thoroughly transformed the public image of Le Pen, waking up the French to the reality of the far-right. Suddenly, the close relationship between Le Pen and Russia, which even financed Le Pen’s political campaigns, appeared as an insurmountable obstacle on her way to Elysée. The French left, despite its deep-rooted aversion to Emmanuel Macron, showed historic support to the president. On the day of the election, Libération came out with a clear demand in its headlines “Against the far-right, we are voting for Macron”. This enthusiasm that Putin’s blunder provoked was not for Macron himself, but for France remaining a democracy independent from Russian influence.

This election is just an early sign that the cost of the invasion far exceeds its benefits, if there are any, for the global interests of Russia. Only a whim of a war council unable to make polished decisions, it undermined Russia’s long-term plan to defeat liberal hegemony by legit means which are pacifist and well-calculated.

Tarik Mert is a senior student at the Department of Political Science and International Relations at Bogaziçi University.

Featured Image: Kremlin

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