For the last three decades the global geopolitical system has been in a state of transition. It first transited from the tight bi-polar arrangement of the Cold War, where two nuclear superpowers with closely integrated alliance systems (NATO and the Warsaw Pact, plus other related networks) strategicaly balanced each other by deterrence through credible counterforce. That is, the threat of nuclear counter-strikes prevented first use of those weapons and limited conflicts to conventional and unconventional wars in regions and theatres that were considered peripheral rather than shatter zones because the threat of escalation into nuclear war in those regions was low. Conversely, conventional wars in places like Central Europe were shatter zones because the possibility of escalation into nuclear war was distinctly feasible.
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, two years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the world transited to a unipolar geopolitical order, where the US reigned supreme (as the “hegemonic” power, in international relations parlance) over all adversaries and allies on both military and economic dimensions. Conflicts became increasingly “small,” meaning that wars tended to involve minor or failed states and/or non-state ideological actors that at best served as proxies for inter-state conflict (say, Iranian clients like Hamas and Hizbollah versus Israel).
What inter-state conflict did occur was limited and short. Irregular conflicts simmered and sputtered but posed no existential threat to either the hegemonic power or its alliance networks. After a period of glasnost (openness and transparency) in its foreign and domestic affairs and perestroika (reconstruction and reform) of its political institutions in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Russians retrenched at home and retreated from major commitments abroad. Several Warsaw Pact states became NATO members, and after the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989 the PRC began liberalising under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin. The “new world order” of the 1990s was a time of relative peace under what was then the dominant international relations ideology of the time (at least in the West): liberal internationalism, where the combination of democratic governments and free markets were considered to be the best possible political-economic combination. By analytic extension, the more nation-states adopted that combination, the less likely there would be wars between them. This was construed in foreign policy practice as the Pax Americana, which was theoretically grounded in a liberal internationalist sub-concept known as the democratic peace thesis (I am crudely summarizing here but readers will get the drift).
The unipolar world ended on September 11, 2001. It was not the spectacular terrorist attacks on US symbols of power that undermined the “hegemon.” It was its response.
In a classic sucker ploy (where a weaker belligerent provokes an over-reaction from a stronger opponent), Osama bin-Laden and his comrades provoked the US into its own type of Crusade, where not only did it invade Afghanistan in order to hunt down bin-Laden and other al-Qaeda events in that country, but also in order to overthrow and replace the Taliban regime that gave them shelter. Using the ruse of promoting democracy, the US then invaded Iraq under the pretext that it was somehow involved with al-Qaeda (it was not) and also was preparing to launch weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) against Israel and other Western targets (it was not). The US then expanded the scope of anti-jihadist operations world-wide, with special operations forces dispersed throughout the globe looking Islamicists of all stripes.
With that, the W. Bush administration turned liberal internationalism into a form of neo-imperialist hubris whereby it sought to redraw the map of the Middle East by conquering Iraq and turning it into a large US base, which it believed would not only make it easier to project force into Africa and Central Asia but also intimidate Iran and undermine Saudi and Emirati control of world oil supplies once Iraqi oil production resumed under US guidance (it did neither).
Instead, the US was sucked into a 20 year irregular war of a thousand cuts in Afghanistan and a ten year war of occupation in Iraq that gave rise to ISIS out of the ashes of the Iraqi Sunni rebellion (especially in Anbar and Najaf Governorates, where Sunnis were targeted by US forces because of their support for Saddam Hussein). Both turned out to be wars of attrition in which the will and commitment of the US public to them waned rapidly while local insurgents remained steadfast in spite of incalculable losses, which then became a political issue that Donald Trump eventually was able to exploit in his presidential campaign with his commitment to withdrawing troops from both countries (Barak Obama had initiated the process of withdrawals but they were ongoing during the 2016 US presidential election campaign).
During the time that the US pursued these wars of opportunity (since neither involved fighting an existential threat to the US that would have defined them as wars of necessity), its main rivals, Russia and China, politically regrouped, militarily rearmed, economically reintegrated into the global system of production, trade and exchange, and began to project power abroad. The US was able to cajole and coerce friends and allies into supporting the “War on Terror” around the world, but its two main rivals sat those conflicts out and used the window of opportunity to re-establish themselves as the giant’s rivals.
In addition, other powers began to emerge during the early 2000s and 2010s, especially India, Brazil and restored powers like Germany and Japan along with non-democratic states like Turkey and Iran. Under the Obama administration the US tacitly admitted the inevitability of geopolitical change and attempted to accomodate and channel the aspirations of the emerging and reemerging powers. Then, in the political equivalent of the last gasp of a drowning person, Trump reversed course and tried to grasp at one final attempt at global supremacy even while withdrawing from the world stage in order to focus on his domestic national-populist project. He misconstrued military capability and economic nationalism as primary measures of national strength and ignored the concepts of soft and smart power. He turned a relatively straight-forward pandemic mitigation effort into a ideological civil war over masks, mandates and vaccines, further dividing the country in the process. Along with his bullying of allies and his kowtowing and fawning to adversaries, his administration was the straw the broke the hegemon’s back. The world is now a different place and the US is no longer the only hub around which global wheel revolves.
Although the balance between ascendent and descendent states in the merging multipolar system is fluid and as of yet not fully established, what is clear is the the global geopolitical order has moved from a unipolar to a multipolar configuration in which the US is no longer the sole superpower but now one among several great powers. It may not like it, but its internal political and social divisions and over-extension in fruitless wars has exhausted the US capability to maintain its hegemonic status.
There is much more to the transitional dynamics that have marked international relations since 1990, but the gist is clear: we live in a period of transition that is seeing the emergence and consolidation of a new multipolar geopolitical order.
There is good news and bad news in this changing panorama. On the one hand, multipolar systems are considered by international relations scholars to be more stable that unipolar or bipolar systems. That is because a unipolar world breeds resentment and subversion on the part of would-be pretenders to the throne, and bi-polar systems limit state’s independence of action in foreign affairs because they have to chose between two opposing camps. The non-aligned movement (NAM) tried to straddle the fence during the Cold War, but other than India most of those who adhered to geopolitical neutrality wound up being marginalised or eventually forced to chose a side.
A multipolar world, preferably a system dominated by 3, 5 or 7 great powers, is more stable because those powers can balance each other on specific issues and form tactical coalitions to achieve majority outcomes on disputed subjects. Minor powers can ally or align with individual great powers on specific areas of mutual concern, thereby giving diplomatic “depth” or “weight” to those areas in the face of opposition from other great powers (say, on climate change or arms control). The operative premise is that the strategic balance is malleable and contingent: malleable because the specific coalition of great power partners changes over time based on their contingent agreement or disagreement on distinct matters within an overall framework of self-interested, yet collective respect.
The down side of the transition from one international order to another is that the transitional “moment”–which can last decades before being consolidated as a new status quo–is marked by an erosion of international norms and rules, increased violations of them, and by default the use of conflict as a systems regulator. Conflict may be economic, diplomatic, social, military or a combination thereof. It involves clashes between ascendent and descendent powers, that is, powers that are in decline and those that are in international ascendence. In most cases conflicts are initiated by descendent powers attempting to preserve or cling to the extant status quo and their positions within it. The trouble is that by the time a nation-state realises it is in decline and attempts to forestall its eclipse by others, it is too late. Confronted by the spectre of irreversible withering, sclerosis or collapse, descendent powers resort to all that they have left. War. And they lose those wars, which hastens their demise as great powers.
WW1 is a good example of this syndrome. The Austro-Hungarian and Russian Empires were descendent powers when war broke out. The Axis was defeated by a coalition led by the UK and France (at the height of their powers) belatedly joined by the US. Although the Tsarist regime was on the winning side of the war its Army disintegrated during fighting that left both Russian society and the Tsarists exhausted by the effort (and therefor ripe for revolution). It was overthrown and replaced by the Bolsheviks in 1917-23. As a result of defeat, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was dismembered. The US benefitted from its late arrival to the fray because its military-industrial complex enjoyed its first real Industrial Revolution moment of growth, something that sustained its rise to pre-eminence over the subsequent course of the 20th century (and many wars). As Poulantzas noted, in wars amongst Great Powers, the weak links in the imperialist chain wind up defeated by the stronger ones.
A brief aside here for those academically inclined. Although long time readers will know that I am a realist at heart, having studied under Hans Morgenthau and Henry Kissinger (and Albert Wohlstetter about nuclear strategy!), this analysis conforms to the systems school of international relations theory pioneered by Morton A. Kaplan, who I also studied under. Systems theory is a macro-level theory in the sense that it seeks to explain the workings of an (entire) unit of study in the aggregate rather than as the combined behaviour of its component parts. Realist international theory explains the behaviour of the component parts and the impact of their aggregated interaction, so is a meso-level theory when it comes to foreign policy analysis and international relations scholarship. Study of domestic sources of foreign policy behaviour round out the theoretical whole by focusing on micro-level approaches to international relations theory (the so-called “Second Image”).
There is plenty of reason to use realism, idealism or constructivism to explain the rise and decline of States in a process of international geopolitical transition, but here I have chosen to stick with a systems approach because there are plenty of analyses that explain individual state and multinational behaviour over the short-term.That has been the case with contemporary analyses of the Ruso-Ukrainian war.
Returning to the matter of transitional dynamics and for reasons outlined above, it has long been assumed that the great power in decline that was most inclined to war would be the US. The indicators are all there: social malaise, hyper partisanship, political sclerosis and corruption, economic decay, racial division, public and private unrest and violence, vulgarisation of popular culture, reification of xenophobic militarism and false patriotism. The symptoms are many and indeed the US has been trapped in a cycle of endless wars that mainly serve the interests of the military-industrial complex that profit from them and the politicians who enable and abet them (however the material benefits of war wind up trickling down to shareholders and employees of the complex).
But it turns out that while the US is a relatively young power that has managed to weather (not manage) its decline so far, there is another country whose descent is longer term and irreversible: Russia. That is why it has resorted to invading Ukraine, and that is why it is doomed to fail whether it “wins” or loses.
The Russian Empire once extended across three continents from the Eastern Shores of Siberia and Northern and Central Asia deep into Scandinavia, the Baltics, Caucasus’s, Persian and Ottomon territories and Alaska. It was the third largest Empire to have existed.
Since then it has lost territory all along its former borders and, in spite of political reorganisation under the Soviets (into the Soviet Union (USSR)), it has not been able to maintain its once vaunted status in spite of being on the victorious side in WW2 and acquiring nuclear weapons. After the Cold War it has seen former “protectorates” join NATO and/or the EU and faced Islamicist irredentism in areas with significant Muslim populations like Chechnya. It has invaded and annexed territory in Georgia and Ukraine after they flirted with NATO membership. It has propped up the Assad regime in Syria and meddled in post-Gaddafi Libya as a way of demonstrating power projection capability.
After a decade trying to adopt democracy, it returned to personalist autocratic rule under Vladimir Putin, and because of the way perestroika was mismanaged by opportunists in the newly privatised former state enterprise sector in the wake of the USSR’s collapse, it has become a kleptocracy of epic proportions (hence the constant reference to oligarchs who made their money in less than honourable ways).
But there is more to Russian decline than its political and economic criminality. It has a declining birth rate and worsening health indicators. It has absurdly high levels of alcoholism. It has no genuine entrepreneurial sector, including in high technology. The much vaunted Russian hackers use Western technologies to do so, and basic industrial non-durables like tractors, automobiles and aircraft (once staples of Soviet production) are increasingly Western in origin. It has become reliant on fossil fuel exports for the bulk of its GDP. Its black market economies, be they trafficking in drugs, currency, pornography or humans (sometimes together), rival the “real” Russian economy in terms of size and scope.
There is much more to it but the picture should be clear. Russia has been on a long term decline since the early 20th century regardless of pogroms, putches, purges and reforms in and of its institutional bases. Since 1991 that slide has accelerated, ending in Putin’s desperate gamble to invade Ukraine.
The immediate justification for the invasion was that Russian geopolitical perspectives have always emphasised having “buffers” along their borders. Russia has the longest land borders in the world and, since the days of Empire, has always been apprehensive about controlling them. When the USSR collapse it resisted and warned against but could do nothing about NATO expansion up to its Western borders, with Estonia and Latvia becoming NATO members as well as former Warsaw Pact countries such as Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Slovakia, Rumania and Bulgaria. Whatever NATO’s intentions were at the beginning, it is clear that many of the former Warsaw Pact members asked to join NATO precisely because of their experience with the USSR. In retrospect it may have been foolhardy to ignore Russian warnings about the existential nature of the threat posed by NATO on its borders, but whatever the case, when Ukraine pondered the possibility of joining NATO, that became a key precipitant reason why the Russians decided to invade it (remembering that the 2014 invasion of the Dombas and Crimea was done for the exact same reason).
But this must be seen against the backdrop of long-term decline. In July 2021 Putin gave a speech emphasising the Russian origins of all Slavic people and openly mentioned the glory days of the Russian Empire. He and his associates have spoken of a Russian-centric sphere of influence ranging from “Lisbon to Vladivostok.” It is clear that such talk is destined for domestic consumption and part of a propaganda effort to get the Russian people behind Putin’s project of restoring the Motherland’s grandeur. But it is delusional nevertheless. Whether Russia “wins” or loses in Ukraine, that will not resolve and reverse the long-term negative trends that plague the country and may well accelerate them (for example, the exodus of highly educated Russians to the West since the invasion began). Even in the closed world of the Siloviki that surround Putin as a type of Praetorian Guard, there surely is little true belief that the long-term Russian decline can be arrested by a territorial grab of a neighbouring Slavic country with ethnic Russians inhabiting parts of it. As the war has already shown, being ethnic Russian and Russian speaking in the Ukraine does not necessarily translate into love of Mother Russia or support for the invasion. So what do the Russians hope to get out of this venture?
Truth be told Russia will not be any better for this war. It is more isolated, more reviled, demonstrably weaker and militarily exposed by what is clearly a miscalculated over-reach by Putin and the Siloviki. If Russia manages to annex the Donbas region in Eastern Ukraine, it will be a temporary victory at best and instead serve as a stop-gap, finger-in-the-dike last resort attempt to stem the tide of national decline. Eventually it will be exposed for what it is and fail, especially because Ukraine and its Western partners will work hard to make it fail even in the event of annexation. Exposure of the real costs of the invasion in turn will lead to domestic unrest and political in-fighting in the Kremlin, something that will eventually leach out into society at large. The sum total of the events is that Russia will enter into crisis and perhaps retreat into a form of isolationist hibernation while internal forces fight for national political control. It will still have a large military as a deterrent to aggression against the homeland but in an ironic twist it will have returned to what the USSR was at the end of its reign: a military hollow shell protecting a dejected and alienated society.
The precipitants of the Ruso-Ukranian War may be immediate in nature, but its roots lie in long term Russian decline. At systemic level the war will serve as a regulating device that will remove a descendent Russia from the Great Power constellation that will become the new multipolar status quo. Whether it is followed in terminal descent by the US is a matter of conjecture, but as things stand Russia has become the poster child for long-term Imperial decline.