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The Russian invasion of Ukraine as a contestation of the liberal script? - № 1

by Tobias Rupprecht

№ 38/2022 from Feb 26, 2022

Russia has had a long history as a contester of the global liberal script – and an astonishing number of anti-Western admirers and defenders worldwide, as Tobias Rupprecht shows in his blog post. The full-blown invasion of Ukraine has now shattered the illusions of many across the political spectrum. One less role model for these opponents of the liberal script?

Shattered illusions

Shattered illusions
Image Credit: Jilbert Ebrahimi on Unsplash

Before Russia’s military invasion of Ukraine, the global reactions to Russia’s official recognition of the Donetsk and Lugansk pseudo-republics still followed predictable patterns: unanimous rebuttal by Western governments countered by declarations of support from illiberal regimes and political figures on the extreme left and right. As Moscow fully re-activated its assertive anti-Western foreign policy of the Cold War era, critics of the liberal script welcomed Russia’s assistance in their struggle against a US-dominated world order.

The most obvious expressions of this Cold War hangover came from challengers of a geopolitical liberal script in Latin America. The Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, a Sandinista guerrilla turned president, was a Soviet ally already in the 1980s and became one of the first world leaders to back Russia's stance on the ‘people’s republics’. Just like Fidel Castro had publicly justified the Soviet invasions of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and of Afghanistan in 1979, the current leadership of the Cuban Communist Party reacted by condemning ‘the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’ and ‘unjust sanctions imposed by the West’. Venezuela, whose close relationship with Russia only dates back to the first socialist government of Hugo Chávez in 1999, spoke merely of a ‘military operation to protect Donbass’ and declared its ‘full backing of president Vladimir Putin and Russia’.

The Brazilian president and right-wing populist Jair Bolsonaro drew much criticism for his state visit to Russia while preparations for the invasion were underway. Just two weeks earlier in the beginning of February, also in the Kremlin, Argentine president and Peronist Alberto Fernandez positioned his country as ‘the gate of access for Russia to Latin America’. Both echo Cold War foreign policy of seeking greater economic and geopolitical independence from the United States: Brazilian populists in the 1950s and 1960s were equally open to Moscow’s advances; Argentina never joined the Western trade embargo after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and became a key supplier of grain and meat.

Similar supportive signals were initially heard from former Soviet allies, many of whom retained close ties with the Russian Federation, around the world: the Syrian regime announced it would recognise the independence of Luhansk and Donetsk, just as it had done earlier with South Ossetia and Abkhazia in the Caucasus. The military government in Myanmar spoke of Russia’s ‘appropriate measure to preserve its sovereignty’. China and India were careful not to condemn Russia and underlined their respect for security interests. Serbian volunteers had been fighting Ukrainian forces in Donbass, while their President Aleksandr Vučić demanded Ukraine condemn the NATO bombing of Belgrade before he takes position in the current conflict. Influential figures around the Hungarian prime minister blamed the US for warmongering: ‘there is no chance that Russia will attack Ukraine. Even a fool would know this’, announced Viktor Orbán’s confidante Zsolt Bayer.

How much this cosying up to Putin’s Russia was not only geopolitics, but also a rejection of the social liberal script, became obvious once more in early statements from Western populists. They stood in an even longer historical tradition that goes back to 19th century romanticisation of Russia’s anti-modernism. Like many Central European intellectuals of the interwar period who posited themselves against an ostensibly decaying occident, modern Putinists saw Russia as defender of tradition, against political pluralism, globalisation, progressive gender norms, individualism and secularisation. Echoes of this could be heard in many reactions: Bolsonaro during his visit underlined the common interest in national sovereignty and Christian values. Donald Trump (‘This is genius… Here’s a guy who’s very savvy’) and his former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (‘Very capable. I have enormous respect for him’) were full of admiration for Putin’s virility – praise now shown in heavy rotation on Russian state media.

The end of Russia-romanticism and ‘Putinversteher’?

Russia’s full-blown invasion of Ukraine seems, however, seems to have brought most of the motley crew of Russia admirers and Putin defenders to their senses. Western European populist parties, all of them with a history of links to the Kremlin, were unequivocal in their sharp criticism of Russia’s aggression. Far-right figures like AfD-boss Tino Chruppalla, Rassemblement National leader Marine Le Pen, and the head of the Italian Lega Matteo Salvini published almost identically-worded statements: ‘absolutely nothing can justify the Russian aggression’. Die Linke, socialist apologists for Russia, ‘utterly condemned the new level of Putin’s aggression’ and called for demonstrations in front of the Russian embassy.

Hungary and Poland’s populist governments, forerunners of anti-immigration policies in the European Union, have now opened their borders for refugees of the ongoing Ukrainian war. Bolsonaro kept conspicuously silent after having insinuated that his visit had helped prevent war in Europe. Most Asian governments with an illiberal bent have cautiously distanced themselves from Putin. Press coverage in Vietnam is now critical towards its long-standing ally Russia, although China is still reluctant and, with an eye on Taiwan, is probably monitoring Western reactions closely.

Reflexive lamentations about US and NATO transgressions whenever Russia is criticised (the popular ‘whataboutism’) will certainly not disappear for good. But there is reason to believe that any kind of comprehension, calls for equidistance, or even admiration for Putin from now will be limited to an insignificant minority of extremists and despots. Russia has for the foreseeable future abdicated its role as a model for contesters of the liberal script.

Last edits for this blog entry were on 26 February 2022, 4:34 p.m. CET

Dr. Tobias Rupprecht is a global historian with a particular interest in the history of (state) socialism and (neo)liberalism. His research has mostly addressed Soviet and Eastern European encounters with the Global South, and economic reform debates in socialist countries. He taught both Russian and Latin American history in Denmark and the UK before joining Scripts in 2020 as the head of the Junior Research Group “Peripheral Liberalism”.