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The Russian invasion of Ukraine as a contestation of the liberal script? - № 11: Systemic Antagonism? The (Neo-) Liberal Order, Russia, and the West

by Gregor Walter-Drop

№ 48/2022 from Apr 04, 2022

There is general agreement that Russia's invasion of Ukraine has resulted in surprising coherence in the Western world – more than ever since the end of the Cold War. A line of conflict seems to have crystallized between democracy and autocracy. Gregor Walter-Drop stresses that we should not forget, however, that all the internal problems of the West have not vanished into thin air. It appears that the line of conflict between democracy and autocracy actually runs across both the Western world and Russia rather than between them.


Image Credit: Image Credit: Jilbert Ebrahimi on Unsplash

The “free world” is back. It is caught in an epic “battle between democracy and autocracies,” as declared in President Biden's 2022 State of the Union address, which illustrates that, at least rhetorically, the lines of conflict in world politics are almost as clear again as they were during the Cold War. In Biden's speech on March 26 in Warsaw, it even appears as if the war in Ukraine is a sequel to the Cold War: “Today's fighting in Kyiv and Mariupol and Kharkiv are the latest battle in a long struggle. Hungary, 1956. Poland, 1956, and then again, 1981. Czechoslovakia, 1968.” Things start looking a little more complicated, however, when we remind ourselves that the electoral victory of the US president who gave these emphatic speeches was almost overturned by a home-grown right-wing mob with authoritarian sympathies – not too long ago. And that the incumbent right-wing president at the time was supported, as asserted by the US National Intelligence Council (2021), in the elections of 2016 and 2020 by the very Russian president who now has become the embodiment of the armed challenge to democracy. By cutting through the “fog of war” it might be helpful to remind ourselves that all the internal problems of the West are still here and that internal and external challenges to the liberal order are intertwined. The real line of conflict might run rather differently than the current Cold War rhetoric has it.

Let us start with the question of how Russia turned from democratic hopeful (back) to global villain in just 20 years. Russia’s development in the 1990s is a textbook case of neoliberally inspired transformation policies combined with weak state structures leading to disaster in the form of kleptocracy and oligarchy. Given the track record of structural adjustment programs (SAPs) in the Global South, this was not exactly surprising, but the level of the ensuing disaster was quite unique. “The West” (particularly in the form of the IMF) was deeply involved in the botched transformation process that culminated in the Russian financial crisis of 1998. (It really is worth re-reading, e.g., Rutland 1999). This failed transformation, in turn, paved the way for the emergence of state capitalism in the form of an authoritarian oligarchy with control over one of the world's largest armies and one of the world's largest arsenals of nuclear weapons. This authoritarian oligarchy has turned externally aggressive and has now invaded neighboring Ukraine, complete with putting its nuclear forces on alert and thus threatening the entire Western world. No doubt: Russia's case is rather disturbing.

At the same time, there is a strange coincidence between Russia's descent into autocracy and democratic decline in the Western world. While Putin curtailed liberties domestically and turned ever more aggressive externally, the West saw an increasing mistrust in political elites, a rise of populism, an epistemic crisis, a decline of traditional institutions, and the real threat of an authoritarian turn in more than one major democratic country. Of course, the historical trajectories of Russia and the West after 1990 are quite different. But there is a common denominator.

It was neo-liberal economic thinking (with surprisingly little regard for the role of political institutions) that led Western economic advisors, in effect, to funnel the riches of Russia to a handful of oligarchs while leaving large parts of the population in misery. In the meantime, citizens in many Western countries experienced round after round of tax-breaks for the rich, the privatization of public services, the (re-) commodification of labor, “starving the beast”-austerity, and “reforms” of the welfare state – all of which were very much based on the same neo-liberal ideas that originally animated the Russian transformation. Inequality rose, globalization accelerated, and the financial system became increasingly brittle. Eventually, it saw a major collapse in 2008, when (yet another) financial crisis left more and more people in the West wondering whether “the system was still working for them” (or rather for the bankers and the rich). For many Russians, this question was already answered ten years earlier when the Russian financial crisis had wiped out the assets of the budding Russian middle class. Afterwards, Putin “combined neoliberal economic policies with a centralization of political control" (Rutland 2021: 1264) and, after the protests of 2011, he added nationalism and “Myths of Empire” (Snyder 1991).

It thus appears that the common denominator of the authoritarian (rather than democratic) transformation (in Russia) and of the democratic decline (in the West) has been a “liberal order” that was predominantly interpreted as a “neo-liberal order” in the wake of the Western post-1990 hubris. In Russia, the ensuing failures have contributed to the state crossing the line to full-fledged aggressive authoritarianism. In Western democracies this has not happened – yet. However, the aberration of liberalism in the service of the few has been thriving in many Western countries for the better part of the last 30 years as well (Fukuyama 2022). And this, in turn, has fueled populism and nationalism to such an extent that now democracy itself seems under significant pressure.

Things in the West have become so bad that one has to start wondering whether there really is a systemic antagonism at all. Given that the Russian decline into authoritarianism has been going on for at least 20 years, it is rather surprising that its “battle with democracies” is being discovered only now. To put it in slightly polemic terms: what exactly is wrong with a Russian oligarch from the perspective of an American plutocrat? More than half of the members of the US Congress are millionaires. More than 50 have a net worth of more than $50 million (opensecrets.org). And then there are the billionaires. Do the likes of Murdoch, Koch, Mercer, or Schwarzman really wield so much less political influence than Russian oligarchs? Hasn't the US long ago reached a point where an appropriate re-framing of Lincoln's famous quote is government “of the 1%, by the 1%, for the 1%” (Stiglitz 2011)? In fact, rigorous empirical research has confirmed already years ago that the preferences of economic elites best explain policy outcomes in the US while “the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy” (Gilens/Page 2014: 575).

Hasn't exactly this feeling of disenfranchisement made the presidency of Donald Trump possible? It is deeply ironic that Trump himself (and significant parts of the US Republican party) certainly do not see a systemic antagonism. To the contrary: The rhetoric, the topics, the ideas are terrifyingly similar (Reich 2022). Consider Trump’s fascination with the “genius” Putin – shared by many US Republicans even in the face of the ongoing war. From Trump's perspective, the “Russian Way” (an outlandishly rich, authoritarian leader closely cooperating with cronies and loyal oligarchs, implementing aggressive domestic policies against opponents combined with the occasional scapegoating of minorities and external aggression) is a perfectly viable way to moderate declining prosperity, rising inequality, and the increasing concentration of power in the hands of a few. Conversely, it seems rather likely that Putin would subscribe to the idea that in Ukraine, he is actually in the business of “making Russia great again (MARGA)”. Is it possible that Russia was not framed as a systemic antagonist for so long because the maladies of at least some Western democracies were developing in the same direction as Russia's pathologies?

It is rather sad that a particular noteworthy personification of this hypothesis is former German Chancellor and “New Left”-Social-Democrat Gerhard Schröder. While in office he made it one of his core missions to “modernize” significant parts of the German welfare state in the service of increased efficiency and competitiveness in a globalized world. After he was voted out of office, he then took up (rather well-paid) jobs in the service of the increasingly oppressive Russian oligarchy, the leader of which he kept defending despite overwhelming evidence of undisguised authoritarianism. To this day, apparently without much cognitive dissonance.

While the outrage over Putin is more than justified, the newly-found unity of the West, and the whole flood of symbolic politics that is now upon us, will not change any of the problems within the West. The Atlantic recently ran an article entitled “Putin Accidentally Revitalized the West's Liberal Order” (Schake 2022). I fear this war rather serves to obscure the acute problems of that liberal order. Putin just made it so much easier to gloss over them. War or no war in Ukraine -- all the problems in the West are still in place. Democratic decline is still very real and times of war do not lend themselves easily to democratic resurgence. To the contrary: It is rather likely that the additional efforts now deemed necessary to strengthen the Western deterrence system will fuel the distributional conflicts that were already likely to intensify as a result of the climate crisis and the economic crisis caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The bottom line: A liberal order that has been twisted and distorted to serve a privileged minority can lead to democratic decline as well as to aggressive authoritarianism. Both options are different possible outcomes of the same underlying problem that vary by degree. While we now hear about epic battles between “light” and “darkness” (Zelenskyy) we should not forget that, in the West, we are actually standing in the looming shadow of the 2022 French presidential election and the 2024 US presidential election. The newly found “unity of the West” could disintegrate as quickly as it came about. But it could also get much worse: Democratic decline can turn into aggressive authoritarianism. This option is hardly exclusive to Russia.

Biden might be right after all: there might, in fact, be a “battle between democracy and autocracy”. But its line of conflict does not run between Russia and the West. It runs right through Russia – as the brave remaining protagonists of the Russian opposition remind us. However, it also runs right through the West – and the autocratic camp is not an insignificant minority. No army will be of any help in the trenches of this conflict – no matter how well-equipped. The real battle for democracy is not a geopolitical struggle – it has to be fought within.


Fukuyama, Francis 2022: Liberalism and its Discontents, ‎ New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Gilens, Martin / Page, Benjamin 2014: Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens, in: Perspectives on Politics, Vol. 12, No. 3, pp. 564 – 581.

National Intelligence Council 2021: Foreign Threats to the 2020 US Federal Elections, 10 Mar 2021, ICA 2020-00078D.

Reich, Robert 2022: Why do Putin, Trump, Tucker Carlson and the Republican party sound so alike?, in the Guardian, 29 Mar 2022; https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2022/mar/29/putin-trump-tucker-carlson-republican-party (last access 04 April 2022).

Rutland, Peter 1999: Mission Impossible? The IMF and the failure of the market transition in Russia, in: Review of International Studies, Vol. 25, Dec. 1999, pp. 183-200.

Rutland, Peter 2021: Understanding Putin’s Russia and the Struggle over Ukraine, in Perspectives on Politics, Vol 19, No. 4, pp. 1264-1258.

Schake, Kori 2022: Putin Accidentally Revitalized the West’s Liberal Order, in: The Atlantic, online available at https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2022/02/vladimir-putin-ukraine-invasion-liberal-order/622950/ (last access 04 April 2022).

Snyder, Jack 1991: Myths of Empire, Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Stiglitz, Joseph E. 2011: Of the 1%, by the 1%, for the 1%, in: Vanity Fair, No. 609, May 2011, pp. 126-129.

Last edits for this blog entry were on 04 April 2022, 12:16 p.m. CEST.

Dr. Gregor Walter-Drop is director of the SCRIPTS Knowledge Exchange Lab. Before, he was managing director of the Collaborative Research Center 700 "Governance in Areas of Limited Statehood" hosted at Freie Universität Berlin and director of the Center for Area Studies at Freie Universität. Gregor has specialized in International Relations and has published and taught in the fields of globalization, governance, limited statehood and foreign policy analysis.