Why Russia should learn to love the rules-based international order

As a middling power, Russia could benefit from siding with international institutions, instead of disregarding them.

James Brown
James Brown
26 September 2019, 12.01am
Perevalne military base, Crimea, 2014
CC BY SA 3.0 Anton Holoborodko / Flickr. Some rights reserved

The Russian government wears its disdain for the rules-based international order as a badge of pride, believing that the system is a mask for US hegemony. Yet as the current order comes under increasing strain from both Chinese revisionism and US unilateralism, Russia should realise that the rules-based system actually protects the interests of lesser powers like itself. Rather than encouraging a bare-knuckle contest that it cannot win, Russia should support the rules that restrict the dominance of the real heavyweights.

Many countries can be accused of infringements of the established rules of the international system, yet Russia appears to revel in its defiance. The most egregious case is Crimea, which Russia annexed in March 2014 in violation of Article 2 of the UN Charter and the Budapest Memorandum of 1994. Other examples include Russia’s complicity in the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 in July 2014, as well as its involvement in the attempted murder of Sergey Skripal and his daughter using a nerve agent in Salisbury, UK in 2018.

The Kremlin is always ready with denials, yet its broader narrative is to attack the very concept of a rules-based international order. Instead of seeing adherence to international rules and norms as a framework for stable relations between states, the Russian leadership sees the concept as a tool of Western influence. In the words of Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, “the rules-based order” is “based on rules which they themselves invent for their own purposes but change every now and then, so they suit their own political ends.”

In making this case, Russian officials point to NATO’s bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999, as well as to the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Russia is correct that these cases represent infringements of international law. What Moscow gets wrong, however, is to conclude that the rules-based order is therefore a charade, and to despair, as President Vladimir Putin did ahead of the G20 summit in June 2019, that “Now, it seems that there are no rules at all.” Instead, Russia should recognize that such violations by the United States, as well as Chinese attempts to achieve hegemony over the South China Sea, are powerful arguments for strengthening the rules-based order.

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Benefitting from a rules-based order

All states ultimately benefit from a rules-based order, yet some gain more than others. The most obvious beneficiaries are smaller countries whose sovereign independence might otherwise be extinguished in a truly might-makes-right world.

By contrast, the advantages for the largest states are more subtle. The United States played a leading role in creating the post-war international order, yet its rules and institutions place limits on US power, which would otherwise be relatively unconstrained. US nationalists are therefore not wrong when they claim that the United Nations and International Criminal Court threaten to restrict US freedom of action. What these critics fail to appreciate, however, is that, by conceding to abide by the rules of the system and thereby encouraging others to do the same, the United States benefits from a degree of international stability that it could never maintain by force alone.

Logically then, Russia should be an advocate for the rules-based order since, even taking account of violations by the United States and China, the system still serves to bind the hands of the global giants. Under Putin’s leadership, however, Russia has reached the opposite conclusion, believing that it should be equally free to selectively disregard the strictures of the system. This might be rational if Russia were itself a superpower, but evidently it is not.

A middle-ranking power

Due to the country’s large territory, imperial history and cultural splendour, the Russian people have retained a great-power mindset. The Putin administration has also been effective in constructing the image of a resurgent Russia. Yet international status is not a matter of self-definition; it must be backed up by economic and military heft. In these areas, Russia is a second-tier power.

In terms of GDP, the Russian economy is the world’s 11th largest, behind that of Canada and just ahead of South Korea. Calculated per capita, Russia is the 73rd richest country.

Russia’s sole claim to first-class status is its vast arsenal of 6,500 nuclear warheads. While these are an effective deterrent to armed attack, they have limited value in terms of power projection. Instead, to exert influence abroad, Russia relies upon its conventional forces. These are substantial but far from being preeminent. Indeed, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute finds that Russian military expenditure was $61.4bn in 2018. That places Russia in 6th place, behind France and less than one tenth of the amount spent by the United States.

Russia is poorly equipped for an increasingly lawless international environment. However, instead of seeking to protect the existing rules, Moscow is contributing to their erosion.

Helping tear up the existing order

One example is the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which was signed by the U.S. and Soviet leaders in 1987 and committed each country to eliminating all land-based missiles with ranges of 500-5,500 km. Many in the U.S. defense establishment have long wanted to withdraw from this treaty since it does not bind China. They were prevented from doing so, however, by knowledge of the international opprobrium that unilateral abrogation would attract. By contrast, it is in Moscow’s interests to retain this treaty since Russia feels less threatened by China and the existence of the INF spares it from an expensive missile race in Europe.

However, instead of being meticulous in its adherence to the INF, Russia developed the Novator 9M729, a ground-launched cruise missile with an apparent range of more than 500 km. This gave the Trump administration the exact excuse it needed to announce U.S. withdrawal from the INF in February 2019 and to place the blame on Moscow.

Another example is national sovereignty. The Putin administration presents itself as a leading defender of state sovereignty yet, in reality, Moscow has done much to damage this principle by claiming a right to intervene in the countries of its “near abroad”. This was most clearly demonstrated in Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014.

In this behaviour, Russia is guided by a desire to see the emergence of a multipolar world, in which a few major powers exercise privileged rights within their own sphere of interests. Kremlin strategists clearly imagine a structure in which Russia - alongside China, India, and the United States - heads its own regional bloc in which it exercises a free hand. However, it is doubtful that Russia has sufficient mass to keep neighbouring states within its orbit. Former satellites in eastern Europe have already drifted away. Meanwhile, in Central Asia, China is increasingly displacing Russian influence.

To put it bluntly, middle-ranking powers do not get to have spheres of influence. Russia should therefore be careful what it wishes for. In a truly multipolar world, Russia may find itself, not as one of the regional hegemons, but as a semi-detached adjunct of the Chinese pole.

Learning to love the rules-based order

Nearly 30 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, it is high time that Russia adjust its foreign policy identity to fit its reduced status. This entails accepting that Russia has more in common with other diminished post-imperial powers, such as France, Britain, and Japan, than it does with the swaggering superpowers of the 21st century.

The Russian leadership is right when they claim that unilateral actions by the United States destabilise international politics. They are wrong, however, to respond with their own violations. Instead, the Kremlin should place pragmatism over pride, and acknowledge that, as a mid-ranking power, Russia has much to gain by acting in accordance with the rules-based order.

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