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  • Cameron Atkinson

Russia’s recent resurgence: a threat to the liberal international order?

Russia’s behaviour in recent years has raised questions about its role leading into the future and what impact its behaviour might have on the liberal international order.

To pose an existential threat to the liberal international order, a state would need a strong economy and military force, and also a high level of political and cultural influence. Possession of these attributes is necessary to coerce or convince other states to abandon the liberal international order. Undeniably, Russia holds a strong military force. However, its economy is inferior to those of the United States and China and what is more, Russia is also lacking in political and cultural influence. It has failed to fully displace liberal norms, such as the responsibility to protect doctrine and other liberal rights and freedoms. All things considered, Russia lacks the capabilities to bring an end to the liberal international order. But shouldn’t liberal states care for it anyway?

It seems unlikely that Russia will reach economic parity with the US or China anytime soon. For this to occur, there would need to be serious reforms to the Russian economy, including attracting more investment and further diversifying its exports. Russia would also need to rid itself of the economic sanctions it is currently shackled with. The imposition of such sanctions is significant because they could affect long-term economic growth and investment, further inhibiting Russia’s economic upturn. Similarly, Russia’s political influence shows no sign of growing. After Russia’s involvement in the Skripal case, Russia’s reputation in the eyes of many states has decreased further. Perhaps Russia will be able to spread illiberal norms in some religiously conservative countries, but this remains to be seen. In contrast, China, due to its stronger economic influence, is likely to have more success in spreading alternative norms.

China’s One Belt One Road initiative is a fitting example which demonstrates how the possession of a strong economy enables policies that can pose an existential threat to the liberal international order. This initiative involves the building of economic trade routes from China through to Asia, Africa, and Europe. China will facilitate the financing of the transportation and associated physical infrastructure required for these trade routes. This initiative will increase economic integration between China and these countries. China will also accrue economic and political benefits which will put it in a stronger position to challenge the United States. Such initiative could pose an existential threat to the liberal international order. Russia, however, simply does not have the economic means to carry out such a scheme.

Russia’s recent actions, including its involvement in Syria, its malignant attack on the Skripals in Britain, the annexation of Crimea in 2014, and its use of cyber-attacks levied against Western states and organisations, have certainly had an impact on the liberal international order. They have forced the West to take the concerns of Russia more seriously and they have caused undeniable disruption. However, disruption is the most Russia can hope to achieve. Indeed, the Middle East provides an apt example of the limitations of Russian power. Despite the military success achieved in Syria, Russian actions in the region have only yielded minimal gains. Thus, Russia’s success has zero effect on its political influence. The region remains politically and religiously divided, and Russia cannot fully enforce its will there.

Although Russia does not pose an existential threat to the liberal international order, it is imperative the West continues to treat Russia with due regard. Russia’s intervention in Syria demonstrates what happens when the West idly allows Russia to act unchecked. If Russia senses any Western weakness, it will utilise it to maximise its own advantages. The West should continue to match Russian aggression with economic sanctions and international condemnation. Economic sanctions are an effective deterrent to further Russian aggression as they limit Russia’s economic growth and hence, its ability to threaten the liberal international order. Of particular importance, Western allies must coordinate and continue developing effective defence systems and mechanisms to prevent irreparable damage caused by Russian cyber-attacks. Cyber-attacks have the potential to damage all aspects of society simultaneously. If the West were to fail to adequately guard against cyber warfare, then Russia would be in a much better position to pose an existential threat to the liberal international order, regardless of its economic or political clout.

Leading into the future, we can expect similar behaviour from Russia. It will try to limit Western advantages and will continue attempting to undermine the liberal international order. Yet, with the implementation of appropriate policy choices, there is no reason to assume Russia will be successful in its endeavours.

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