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Russia’s Place in the Emerging World

Mykhailo Minakov
Presidents Putin and Xi posing for a photo
Xiamen, China—September 5, 2017: Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping pose photo, at the 2017 BRICS Summit.

We are living through a period of radical change. Where it might take us is an open question. Possible outcomes range from the creation of a new world system with new international political, economic, and security relations to fragmentation of the current system into several small “worlds” and regional blocs.

The period we are living through is a historical caesura, a stage that puts the previous long-term process on pause and opens up chances for continuous processes, global or regional. The last time the world experienced an equally deep caesura was probably in 1989–1991, when the Eastern bloc, the USSR, and the global socialist bloc dissolved and the Greater Europe project, comprising territories from Dublin to Vladivostok, had a chance to come to fruition.

What we are witnessing today is the result of decisions made by contemporary political, economic, and cultural leaders during the recent twelve to twenty months. In conjunction with the growing institutional contradictions emerging in the U.S.-led world system, these decisions set in motion the avalanche of destructive events in Europe, as well as some promising developments in Asia and Latin America. Currently Ukraine, where Putin’s Russia started its revolt against the Western-led world order, is bearing the brunt of these changes.

Russia As a Postcommunist Loser
In many ways, Putin’s actions can be explained through the Russian ruling elites’ vision of Russia as having lost an essential part of its identity after the fall of communism.

The transformation of the ex-communist countries in the early 1990s was expected to follow four pathways. New states were expected to arise on the foundations of the rule of law, political freedom, and ideological diversity (the process of democratization). These new democracies would be rooted in new nations, whose new ethnic, linguistic, and cultural hierarchies would displace the old Soviet ones (the process of nationalization). The new national democracies would be supported by open-market economies installed in the global market (“marketization”). And most of these national democracies and market economies would become part of a single European community united through sharing similar legal, political, and economic systems designed for peaceful cooperation (westernization or europeanization). The region, and Russia in particular, took a different path.

Russia’s divergence was not clear at the beginning, however. In 1998, Russia joined the G7, making it the G8. The country joined the Council of Europe, oligarchs kept their money in Western-controlled offshore institutions, and Russian political, economic, and cultural élites integrated into the West. Rank-and-file Russians, meanwhile, enjoyed the country’s open borders and the ability to travel the world after decades of life in a semiclosed society.

Things started to change in the first decade of the twenty-first century. On the one hand, the Russian economy was booming, the Chechen war had ended, and living standards were improving. From a socioeconomic perspective, this was probably the best period in the last two centuries of Russian history. On the other hand, Russian citizens started losing their rights and liberties. Putin’s social contract stipulated an exchange of civic freedoms for households’ income and security.

This contract was drafted in 2003–2005, when NATO was expanding into the Baltic region and Central Europe and color revolutions were sweeping Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan. For the Russian elites, this marked the end of the romance with the West. They supported Putin’s autocratic anti-Western turn. By the end of his first presidential term, Vladimir Putin had defined a new Russian strategy: a return to “greatness,” which also meant self-isolation from the West and its values and increased interference in the internal affairs of the post-Soviet countries.

The valorizing of greatness also meant a change in Russia’s domestic politics. The federal government put the country’s regions under control; societal institutions, both formal and informal (oligarchic clans, criminal groups, and so forth) were consolidated in one pyramid of power; and international norms and rules were abandoned in favor of national ones, even if it led to conflict with the West (sovereignization).

This process reached its peak in the 2014 illegal annexation of Crimea and Russia’s incursion into the Donbas, and in the 2022 full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Russia’s aggression and the West’s response divided the European continent into two blocs once more. This geopolitical division turned once peaceful Ukraine into a horrific battlefield and Russia into an isolated civilization in systemic conflict with the West.

Russia’s Anti-Western Revolt
Russia has made attempts to upgrade its position in the world. It appeared to be trying to work its way from a peripheral position toward a central role in the global system. As has long been established in world system studies, such attempts put a country in a vulnerable situation. The states of the global core use sanctions and other tools to make such a transition costly and painful for a government aiming to reach great power status. China and Turkey have attempted to follow a similar path as Russia. This shared status created an incentive for these states to ally in some ways with Russia and distance themselves from the Western core.

Russia’s anti-Western revolt has also found some support in the global south and the international organizations alternative to the Western-led associations. From the perspective of many global south countries, Russia’s clearly neocolonial war against Ukraine is viewed quite differently, as a periphery state’s—Russia’s—revolt against the neocolonial forces of the West. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO, a Eurasian political, economic, security, and defense organization with eight member states and two observer states) and the BRICS group (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) are now understood as interstate alliances that can lay the foundations for either (1) a new and more just world order, an alternative to the Western-led world system, or (2) a new bloc capable of competing with the West for influence in some regions. China’s peace plan for Ukraine is an example of the first effort, while Brazil’s currency initiative for BRICS countries and the Chinese de-dollarization actions are examples of the second approach.

But even in this context, the Russian Federation does not have international support for its aggression against Ukraine. Even Tehran, which sells weapons to Russia, chooses not to publicly announce its support for Moscow. So far, Russia has managed to cobble together new international partnerships within the framework of bilateral relations or with organizations such as the SCO and the BRICS countries, but it has not found true allies.

Weakened by the resistance of the Ukrainian-Western alliance, Russia is also losing influence among other post-Soviet nations. Azerbaijan is deepening its alliance with Turkey. Kazakhstan promotes oil transit projects that distance Astana from Moscow. And the entire Collective Security Treaty Organization, where Russia traditionally played a major role, is in crisis, driven by the organization’s inability to respond to Armenia’s security needs.

The West’s Response to Aggression and Fragmentation
The United States and the EU are two major powers working on countering Russia’s revolt against the West. Today, Russia is the global leader in international sanctions, and its economy is beset by deepening difficulties. However, the sanctions against Russia have also hit Western and Central European economies.

In response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the United States, the EU, and NATO rallied around Kyiv. The West now is ready not only to back Ukraine in fighting the aggressor but also to dissolve the Russian Federation from within by supporting ethnic movements. The newly united West is ready to punish any violations of anti-Russian sanctions globally. NATO has undergone a fast and radical rebirth as Western and Central Europe’s security provider in 2022.

The West is not ready to give up its core position in the world system. The United States is trying to compete with Russian and Chinese influences in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. The recent visit of Emmanuel Macron and Ursula von der Leyen to China demonstrate that the EU is ready to do everything it can to prevent a rapprochement of Moscow and Beijing. The AUKUS alliance—the Trilateral Security Partnership of Australia, the UK, and the United States—has turned intro arguably the strongest military bloc in the Indo-Pacific region. The West is reorganizing the transformation of the world system and preparing for the challenges of a new globality—or a fragmented world.

Russia’s Return to the Periphery
While the contours of the emerging world order are not yet clearly defined, several trends hint at Russia’s role in it. The West has been able to contain Russia to a certain extent, but doing so has also caused further fragmentation of the Western-led global order.

In the Russia-West antagonism, some countries and regional blocs see an opportunity to become new global leaders and promote their own agendas. International organizations like the UN, the G7, or the Council of Europe are losing influence, while new and emerging groups are devising new solutions to old political problems.

Despite the loss of international influence and the high cost of the postcommunist transformation, Russia arguably enjoyed its historically best years in the early twenty-first century and since then has entered a period of decline. The Russian Federation is weakened by its own aggression against Ukraine, other post-Soviet nations, and the West. Moscow did manage to strike some new partnerships in Asia, but it has no real allies. Russia’s security is now in much worse shape than before February 2022.

Putin has brought Russia into the transforming world with a damaged international reputation, a weak army, a declining population, and a feeble economy. Drained of its strength, Putin’s Russia has very little chance to continue being an important international power and is likely to return to the periphery of an emerging new world order.

The opinions expressed in this article are those solely of the author and do not reflect the views of the Kennan Institute.

About the Author

Mykhailo Minakov

Mykhailo Minakov

Senior Advisor; Editor-in-Chief, Focus Ukraine Blog
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Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier U.S. center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more