How Russia’s Ukraine War Is Undermining World Order

How Russia’s Ukraine War Is Undermining World Order

Russia’s rhetorical devaluation and practical subversion of international law, order, and organization not only concerns the European continent. It may be more dangerous for militarily weak non-Western countries.


There is no doubt that Moscow has shaken the international security system with its full-scale invasion of peaceful Ukraine and subsequent territorial annexations, genocidal policies, open nuclear threats, and abuse of its veto power in the UN Security Council.

After more than ten years of war in Ukraine, the results of Russia’s attack on its purported “brother nation” remain uneven for the Kremlin. On the one hand, its image as a supposed military superpower has suffered disastrously. The war in 2022 became an international embarrassment for the Russian leadership, army, and weapons industry. Moscow’s campaign in Ukraine led to the loss of Western partners, markets, and investors. These and other related setbacks will have far-reaching regional, geopolitical, economic, and possibly even domestic political consequences for Russia.


Moscow’s Achievements

On the other hand, a number of partly ignored and partly underestimated results of Russia’s Ukraine policy have weakened the international order and the West. The invasion launched in February 2022 led to a partial consolidation of the Western bloc: NATO and the EU have moved closer together; Western countries have supplied military and other support to Ukraine; Finland and Sweden have joined NATO; at the same time, the EU is about to start membership negotiations with Ukraine and Moldova and has granted candidate status to Georgia.

Despite certain positive side effects of the confrontation, the global political damage caused by the Russian war is already—and will continue to be—enormous. Although this was not the Kremlin’s primary goal, it should be assumed that these secondary effects on international stability are also in Moscow’s interest. Current and potential revisionist actors across the planet are benefiting from Russia’s subversion of the foundations of international law and order. The Russian attack on the world security system, in many ways, weakens the West and international organizations, thereby strengthening—at least in the Kremlin’s zero-sum calculations—Moscow itself, its anti-Western allies, and other revanchist forces around the world.

Alongside the devastation in Ukraine, Russia’s adventure is the most worrying blow to global stability and cooperation since the end of the Second World War. It is true that the post-war Yalta Order—with its spheres of influence and limitations on sovereignty—was never particularly just nor liberal. Since 1945, there have been several equally tragic wars in various regions of the world. The legality of various armed interventions by Western and non-Western states under international law is also open to questioning.

Nonetheless, in the sum of its specific characteristics, the Russian war against Ukraine, especially since 2022, has a novel quality. It is not only Moscow’s attempt to undo the European Security Order established by the Paris Charter of 1990. Putin’s war goes beyond the rules and conventions of the pre-1990 Cold War era. A combination of five violations of fundamental rules of international order sets the Russian assault on Ukraine apart from other post-World War II military invasions.

Moscow’s Five Cracks in the World Order

First, in 2014, Russia attacked a hitherto peaceful and militarily powerless country without provocation. The Russian leadership has many times since pronounced that Ukraine, the West, or both left them with no choice but to invade. Still, the change in Ukraine’s domestic and foreign policies after the victory of the Euromaidan Revolution of 2014 was far less dramatic than Moscow and its apologists abroad have portrayed. Ukraine’s policy towards the ethnic Russian minority remained tolerant immediately after the regime's change in Kyiv. It only became more restrictive in reaction to the war that started after the revolution, and especially as a result of the escalation in 2022. Ukrainian right-wing extremism has always been—and is still—weak by European standards. The European Union’s 2014 Association Agreement and free trade area with Ukraine was not a challenge to Russia’s then-operational free trade agreement with Ukraine.

Ukraine’s potential accession to NATO was in 2014 and remains a distant prospect today. According to the logic of this particularly popular justification for Putin’s behavior, Russia should have, for instance, withdrawn its troops from the Republic of Moldova long ago. Moldova is, according to Article 11 of its today still valid 1994 Constitution, officially non-aligned, which has precluded NATO accession. Nonetheless, Moscow has maintained, with active military and economic support, an unrecognized Transnistrian satellite state on Moldovan territory for thirty years.

Conversely, according to the logic of Kremlin spokespersons and apologists, Moscow should have reacted far more resolutely and negatively than it did to NATO’s significant eastern enlargements of 1999 and 2004. More recently, Russia should have attacked Finland in response to its application for NATO membership. After Helsinki’s intention to join was made public in early 2022, it was obvious that NATO would satisfy Finland’s request far sooner than Ukraine’s membership application of the same year. While the Russo-Finnish border is not quite as long as the Russo-Ukrainian border, it is substantial. When Finland joined NATO in 2023, this roughly doubled the total length of the NATO-Russia border.

In addition, Finland’s accession has now put Putin’s and numerous other leading Russian politicians’ native St. Petersburg in a precarious strategic position. The second Russian capital is now in close proximity to NATO from both the west (Estonia) and the north (Finland). This new geopolitical situation for St. Petersburg has made Finnish accession to NATO a more worrying strategic issue for Russia than a potential Ukrainian accession in the probably distant future.

Nonetheless, apart from some noise, there has been no material Russian reaction to Finland’s NATO application and accession. In fact, over the past two years, Russia has withdrawn troops from its Western and Northern Military Districts on or close to the Russian-Finnish border. Despite Finland’s—in contrast to Ukraine’s—actual rapprochement with and eventual accession to NATO, the Kremlin’s reaction, until now, has been mainly rhetorical rather than material.

Second, the Russian invasions of 2014 and 2022 were not only aimed at the temporary occupation of conquered territories or Ukraine’s inclusion in a zone of influence. They have led to the—from a Russian perspective—final and complete annexation, first of Ukrainian Crimea and later of four additional regions on the southeastern Ukrainian mainland. Such a blatant war to extend state territory at the expense of an internationally recognized neighboring country is not unique. Still, it has been a rare move, to say the least, since 1945.

Third, the Russian invasion in 2022 has been a war not only for expansion but also for annihilation of the Ukrainian state. It aims to abolish Ukraine as a sovereign entity and eradicate the Ukrainian people as an independent cultural community apart from Russia. Moscow’s genocidal intent is expressed not only in its many official statements but also in its terroristic behavior, from the deliberate bombing of civilian infrastructure to targeted destruction of Ukrainian cultural institutions, such as churches and libraries, arbitrary mistreatment and killing of hundreds of civilians and prisoners of war, mass deportation of tens of thousands of accompanied and unaccompanied children, Russification campaigns in the occupied territories, re-education camps for Ukrainians of minor and adult age, and so on. This genocidal approach is also not a unique phenomenon since 1945. However, it has never been practiced in this form beyond its territory by a permanent member of the UN Security Council.

Related to this is a fourth specific feature of the war—Russia’s deliberate use of the UN Security Council seat, which it inherited from the Soviet Union in 1991, to diplomatically abet a war of annihilation and secure territorial enlargement. Russia’s approach has, since 2014, turned the UN’s original function on its head. Created to protect international law and, in particular, its member states’ borders, integrity, and sovereignty, the UN Security Council has, in Russia’s hands, become an instrument of the violation of these most basic principles.

A curious side issue is that Ukraine, a former Soviet republic, was one of the founders of the UN in 1945, while the predecessor Soviet republic of today’s Russia, the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR), was not. Nonetheless, the successor state of the RSFSR, the Russian Federation, which joined the United Nations only in late 1991, today officially includes five forcibly annexed regions of a UN-founding republic. Against this backdrop, it might come as no surprise that Russia bombed Kyiv in late April 2022 while UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres was in the city. Guterres had to hide in a Kyiv bomb shelter from missiles sent by a permanent member of the UN Security Council in his immediate vicinity.

The most far-reaching consequences of Moscow’s conduct and rhetoric for the world security system are related to a fifth feature—the nuclear aspect of Russia’s war of expansion and annihilation against Ukraine. The behavior of all actors in this confrontation is shaped by Russia’s possession and Ukraine’s non-possession of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction. Ukraine, the West, and other allies are calculating their actions and signals in light of Moscow’s blatant threats to use nuclear weapons and Kyiv’s inability to reciprocate.

The most scandalous aspect of this constellation is that the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), signed in 1968, explicitly allows Russia to possess nuclear weapons but absolutely forbids Ukraine to acquire or build them. Like the paradoxical effects of Russia’s permanent seat on the UN Security Council, Moscow has turned the meaning of the NPT on its head. Conceived as an instrument for peacekeeping, today’s consistent implementation of the NPT, in the context of Russia’s behavior towards the non-nuclear Ukraine, has had the effect of enabling a war of expansion.