The Beginning of History: Russia, Ukraine, and the Global Order
Updated: Mar 10
On 24 February 2022, the Russian Federation began a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, promising to “de-nazify” and “de-militarize” a country (with a Jewish president, no less) that it claimed was a threat to Russian interests and to Russian-speaking communities within. This escalated an eight-year-old conflict within eastern Ukraine that had recently boiled over into Russian recognition of separatist governments within Luhansk and Donetsk. President Putin had, just days prior, made the case that Ukraine had no claim to sovereignty.
Ukraine, of course, has full claim to sovereignty and should enjoy the freedom to chart its own future. As in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, Russia has directly infringed upon all Ukrainians’ collective right to enjoy this sovereignty as well as to live in peace. Ukrainian society has all but come to a screeching halt in the face of the Russian invasion force, terrorized by incessant shelling and urban warfare.
Although Ukrainian forces have, to this date, managed to resist the Russian onslaught, the situation continues to deteriorate. Hundreds of non-combatants have died, including 38 Ukrainian children (as of 6 March 2022). The continued shelling of Kharkiv, Kyiv, Mariupol, Sumy, and others, which has leveled numerous businesses and homes, is shaking the foundations of Ukrainian society. Evidence mounts by the day that Russia is committing war crimes in Ukraine as a refugee crisis mounts, in which over two million people have fled the country.
Putin’s war in Ukraine is part of a broader quest for power, ongoing for most of his time in the Kremlin. Despite a weak economy largely reliant upon a single commodity (oil), he remains emboldened by the veto that Russia’s United Nations Security Council (UNSC) delegation has on top of the massive nuclear stockpile inherited from the Soviet Union. The events of the past week have captured international attention as well as NATO concern. However, NATO is as paralyzed to stop Russia from committing atrocities as the organization had been to stop the Soviet Union from its Cold War aggressions.
The war in Ukraine is a symptom of wider trends within international history that further indicates an urgent need to reform global institutions and power structures to ensure that crises like this can be prevented or stopped before becoming full-blown calamities.
The Nineties in International Relations
Our postwar order was strong enough to hold through the Cold War and into what Francis Fukuyama once called “the end of history,” an idea and article namesake adapted in the dying days of the Soviet Union to herald the global adoption of liberal democracy. Liberal values championed by an increasingly unipolar world—led by the triumphant United States—appeared to be victorious. Soon-to-be ex-Soviet satellites democratized, reorganized, and internationalized. NATO expanded and the European Union formally came into being. The Berlin Wall fell and, soon after, so did the Soviet state.
Not all was as peaceful as Czechoslovakia’s and Poland’s 1989 revolutions, though. The nineties also brought the collapse of federated Yugoslavia, which devolved into ethnic conflict, bloodshed, and genocide. International criminal law, no longer bound by stalwart opposition in the UNSC, was able to emerge and prosecute perpetrators of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide in the former Yugoslavia and elsewhere. In 1998, the Rome Statute was adopted, paving the way for the International Criminal Court’s functional beginning in 2002.
Indeed, the international political landscape of the 1990s lent no lack of plausible evidence to assert a final political victory for the liberal internationalist world. And while Fukuyama’s assessment of contemporary China underestimated the eventual political ability of the CCP to remain in place given increased market liberalization and global integration, at the time further liberalization could have been a plausible projection: especially so given the Tiananmen Square protests and massacre occurring just as his article was published.
These projections did prove, though, to be inaccurate. History would continue.
Putin in the World
Putin’s rise to power and ability to maintain power was not foreseeable at Fukuyama’s “end of history.” It has, however, shown that liberal democracy and the international order is not the end stage of political history. Putin’s Russia is a kleptocracy with himself in the center, supported by a billionaire class (commonly referred to as “oligarchs”) that he enriches. Political freedom is sparse and viable opponents oftentimes find themselves targets of the regime.
He has long sought to destabilize both his neighbors and members of NATO. Tales of coup attempts and political interference typify his strategy, which has normally been one of subterfuge and disinformation.
The American intelligence community concluded that Russia was behind attempts to interfere in the U.S. 2016 presidential election, as part of a broader campaign to sow discord in the society of Russia’s main Cold War foe. President Trump (as a candidate and then in office) showed great deference to Russia, and his own brash style only further fomented societal fissures in the United States. By 6 January 2021, political rancor spilled over into violence as Trump’s supporters stormed the Capitol complex, which resulted in several casualties. The United States today is arguably as divided politically as it has ever been since its Civil War.
British intelligence has also concluded that there was likely Russian involvement in pushing disinformation in the leadup to the 2016 Brexit referendum. Regardless of whether this disinformation was effective enough to sway the vote in one direction or the other, it still occurred. Political divisions in the UK still widened. The United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union, which left Europe divided and arguably weakened.
Across the European continent, Putin has engaged Russia with far-right, populist, and Eurosceptic parties and politicians that turn inward with nationalistic rhetoric that further harms the “end of history” European alliance. He has been linked with, to name a few, the Italian far-right leader of the Lega party Matteo Salvini, the French nationalist (and one-time ‘Frexit’ supporter) Marine Le Pen, and the “illiberal democrat” Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban. Each has contributed to a respective turn away from either liberal democracy or from internationalism, or both, which—just like political divisions in the United States and United Kingdom—serve Putin’s goals.
Even wackier stories still percolate about more overt interference in the global order. Also in 2016, Russia was accused of orchestrating a coup attempt in Montenegro on the eve of a vote on NATO accession, which would eventually occur early in 2017. Russia, against all NATO expansion, stood to gain from a successful coup, which did not occur.
This is not to say that Putin is behind every event that has proven to undermine NATO and its allies. He did not invent populism, Euroscepticism, and nationalism. But he did stand to gain from all that has occurred in the last few years, from divisions in the U.S. and UK to growing tensions in the European Union to restrictions on NATO expansion. Russia’s covert involvement only served to Putin’s benefit, with the added bonus of increased plausible deniability.
In all that has been going on in the U.S. and Europe, it is easy for Ukraine to get lost in the fray, when it has been a primary objective of Putin’s for years.
Russia and Ukraine
Ukraine declared independence—supported by overwhelming margins of the populace—in 1991, just two years after Fukuyama’s article. It has since maintained a complicated relationship within the global theater of international relations, moving back and forth between European and Russian influences. Revolutions in 2004 and 2014 followed by the Russian invasion and occupation of Crimea as well as the proceeding war in Donbas set the stage for the late-2021 and early-2022 events that culminated in Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
The 2004 Orange Revolution represented a bloodless political shockwave in Ukraine in opposition to political corruption and election rigging. Pro-Russia Viktor Yanukovych’s initial win, annulled by the country’s supreme court after allegations of falsified results, was turned into a loss to Viktor Yushchenko, a more pro-European politician who had survived a dioxin poisoning under mysterious circumstances.
In 2010, Yanukovych managed to secure the presidency after defeating pro-Europe Yulia Tymoshenko in a free and fair election, only to be ejected in 2014 by a Ukrainian population angered at the former’s deference for Russia and hesitancy to sign an EU-Ukraine Association pact. The Euromaidan Revolution (or Revolution of Dignity) expelled Yanukovych from the presidency, which ended up in the hands of Petro Poroshenko, a pro-European billionaire who was in power when the Russians occupied Crimea and Russian-supported separatist movements broke out in the east of the country.
Current President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, a former actor and comedian, took power in 2019 on an anti-corruption and pro-European platform. He has emerged as a firebrand for his country and is, right now, an international hero for his bravery and leadership in today’s crisis.
The Return of the End of History?
The story of Ukraine as we know it is a story of a tug of war between European and Russian influences, and the national ethos of Ukraine has drifted significantly towards Europe.
Ukraine’s continued drift towards the EU west and the majority’s clear aspiration to become members of the European Union (and even NATO) is unacceptable to Putin, whose grand vision to restore Russian power relies on Ukraine’s alignment with Moscow, just as it does with Putin-aligned dictator Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus.
Having undermined the United States, the United Kingdom, and Europe, Putin calculated that now—when the liberal internationalist states are distracted and divided—is as good a time as ever to move forward on that plan. Had his calculations been correct, and had the Ukrainian resistance been scant and divided, perhaps Putin’s invasion would have had a more successful start.
His calculations, though, were not correct. The invasion has galvanized a Ukrainian nation he grossly misunderstands, pushing it directly into the arms of the European Union and to NATO’s doorstep—exactly the opposite of what he wanted. European nations—even the Eurosceptic ones (and most Putin-affiliated politicians)—have largely come together in the face of Russian aggression. The United States and the United Kingdom, putting aside the partisan divides that still afflict them, have again taken leading roles in addressing the crisis and shoring up NATO defenses.
It hasn’t been enough, though. NATO’s response is a testament to its overall resiliency, but this is not further evidence of Fukuyama’s conceptualization of the “end of history.”
The Beginning of History
Russian aggression continues still. The shelling of civilians—war crimes—continues. Most of the world is united in the face of aggression, to a point. Allied nations have levied crippling economic sanctions, more so than ever before. And while the sanctions have an important role to play in grinding the Russian war machine to a halt, they still reflect the physical powerlessness of Ukraine’s friends.
There have been calls for the United States, which has the most powerful military of the NATO alliance, to establish a no-fly zone over the skies of Ukraine in a bid to keep Russian aircraft out of its airspace. The US and NATO have been reluctant to take such measures because they may result in physical altercations with Russian forces and a possible invocation of NATO’s collective defense provision, Article 5. In such an event, Russia (and probably Belarus, and perhaps other actors friendly to Russia/unfriendly to NATO) could find itself in a full-blown war with the entire alliance.
We all know a full-blown war would not end well; it’s quite possible it would be a short affair involving nuclear weaponry that would quickly wipe out both sides—and with them, complex life on this planet for centuries. We here fall into a classic tenet of international relations in the nuclear age, mutually assured destruction (MAD), which has so far stopped one nation from launching such weaponry for fear that the chain of responses would simply destroy everything.
No one can guarantee, though, that MAD will always hold.
Other than its sheer geographical size, Russia does not have very much going for it these days. It has a rather one-dimensional economy now on the verge of collapse due to mounting sanctions. It does, though, still have its nuclear weaponry, and it can continue to hold the world hostage through threats of nuclear war should they involve themselves in the current affair. It’s P-5 status at the UNSC (a permanent member holding veto power over all UNSC resolutions), inherited from the Soviet Union, further stymies any United Nations-based responses that could hold any sway. In this way Russia acts not too dissimilar from its predecessor.
This is one of the fundamental issues of the current global order, and it is directly contributing to UN and NATO powerlessness to do anything about atrocities being committed daily by Russian forces in Ukraine. It also makes de-escalation that much harder, as Russia—despite quickly becoming an international pariah—still by UN Charter and by its nuclear status holds as much international power as does the United States, China, France, and the United Kingdom.
If this is how the “end of history” envisions global order, i.e., a perpetuation ad infinitum of a system built and concentrated amongst powers allied in 1945, then aggression, conflict, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide cannot be stopped. History since 1989 has shown time and again: a serious reconsideration of global order is required.
This reconsideration first relies upon a serious and sincere commitment to non-proliferation and full denuclearization. As long as a single nuclear weapon remains on this planet, peace cannot be assured. They are too powerful and too destructive for any one nation to hold, particularly one who uses them to scare adversaries into submission.
The United Nations itself requires some commendation for having held up as long as it has, significantly longer than its predecessor. Its Charter, though, requires amendments. There are significant issues in concentrating the organization’s security power amongst five members that can individually torpedo any resolution. While the veto is an important piece of the UNSC, there are certainly ways it can be augmented that could mitigate usage with malicious intent, i.e., requiring multiple non-permanent members to sign off on one.
The UN Charter itself allows for amendments in Chapter XVIII, Articles 108 and 109. In frustrating irony, amendments require full agreement among the P-5 members and any one veto can end the process, and that’s that.
It cannot hurt, though, to envision how to better perfect our international system. Perhaps one day soon there will be international consensus, forged in a realization of universal humanity or in the costly crucible of war, on doing so. For then we must be ready to act and provide these ideas. Then, perhaps, history can truly begin: of a truly global, peaceful, and united human experience.
A Concluding Prayer for Ukraine
For now, though, it is imperative to support the people of Ukraine in any way possible. Donate. Provide monetary support. Protest. Make your voice heard. May the people of Ukraine be safe and may its defenders succeed in their tough but righteous mission. May peace swiftly return to a free, democratic, and prosperous Ukraine.
Glory to Ukraine.
To donate, or find other ways to help the people of Ukraine, follow the links below:
BBC, Ukraine Help: https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-60562260
International Rescue Committee: https://www.rescue-uk.org/
Oxfam DEC Ukraine Humanitarian Appeal: https://www.oxfam.org.uk/oxfam-in-action/current-emergencies/ukraine-crisis-appeal/
UNICEF, Children in Need: https://www.unicef.org.uk/donate/donate-now-to-protect-children-in-ukraine/
UK Government, Helping Ukraine: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/ukraine-what-you-can-do-to-help
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