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In announcing that Russia would intensify its eight of years aggression against Ukraine in the interests of “denazification” and protecting oppressed Russian speakers (read: pro-Moscow separatists), Vladimir Putin has offered the thinnest pretext for cross-border war since the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. And yet, the official position of the United States is that Russia is undermining a rule-based global order that supposedly has prevailed since the close of World War II.
Of course, Putin’s true goal is not humanitarian. It has more to do with suppressing a democracy in Russia’s sphere of influence—a democracy whose mere presence makes his own tyranny the more obvious and distasteful at home. The invasion of Ukraine must be condemned in the strongest possible terms. But we cannot at the same time ignore the duplicity of the United States and its allies, not least because that duplicity is a key element of Putin’s propaganda. Putin lies about many things, but he is right when he says that the West holds Russia to standards to which it doesn’t itself abide—a grievance that Russians appear widely to share and that imbues his own unjust and illegal war with a patina of legitimacy.
It is indisputable that, in practice, the rule-based global order evoked both by Russia’s critics and by Russians calling out the United States does not exist. Where was it in 2003? Where was it when NATO bombed Yugoslavia in 1999? When the United States bombed Libya in 1986? When the United States supported a coup in Honduras in 2009, or the coup in Iran in 1953? Where, for that matter, was it when Russia invaded Georgia in 2008, to muffled grumbling abroad? Russia has repeatedly targeted civilians in Syria while the rest of humanity yawns. None of these actions was authorized under the UN Charter or other conventions governing the laws of war, the backbones of the alleged global order.
We are told that the global order emerged from Germany’s defeat in 1945, yet this was a stillbirth. The world remembers all too readily the Nuremburg Trials, the Allied project to bring Nazi war criminals to justice, but we forget how selective and one-sided that justice was. The Allies spared their own war criminals, including those who carpet-bombed cities in Europe and Japan, perpetrating mass civilian slaughter. No justice befell France’s Vichy collaborators. And all but a handful of historians ignore the largest instance of ethnic cleansing ever perpetrated, when, in the immediate aftermath of the war, the Allies expelled more than 12 million German civilians from their homes and forcibly relocated them. Many, in the course of their transfer, were imprisoned in the same concentration camps where the Nazis had carried out genocide. Half a million died, and no one was punished.
The Versailles settlements following World War I, the urtexts of the law-bound system American officials and commentators now pine for, also did not stay the hand of the well armed and well financed. The League of Nations, the foremost expression of the new order, licensed British and French colonization in the Middle East, even as the guiding principle of the league was supposed to be the self-determination of nations. While U.S. President Woodrow Wilson sang paeans to that ironclad principle, Congress was rejecting independence in the Philippines, where the United States had recently completed a brutal campaign of colonial counterinsurgency. And Vladimir Lenin, another voluble supporter of self-determination, had barely assumed control of the new Soviet state when he began the forcible annexations of Poland and Ukraine.
Today, the so-called rules continue to serve the same purpose they always have: laundering the self-aggrandizing choices of powerful states. Consider the evolution of humanitarian intervention. Humanitarian interventions have in many past instances been supported by the UN Security Council, yet these days powerful states do not wait for approval. Their declared intentions are the only justification they need; that the wishes of the powerful may supersede the rules is itself now a kind of rule, as long as those wishes are expressed in humanitarian terms. While peddling falsehoods about Saddam Hussein harboring weapons of mass destruction, the administration of George W. Bush also justified attacking Iraq on humanitarian grounds. In the course of bombing Yugoslavia, President Bill Clinton, urged on by international rule of law fan Hillary Clinton, resurrected self-determination while decrying human rights abuses. If it is good enough for the United States, why not any other state? Russia’s claims of humanitarian motives in Ukraine are only the latest instance of this strategy.
Putin takes advantage of international law in order to weaponize his nationalist myths. He complains, for instance, that Ukraine is not a “real country” but actually a piece of Russia that was wrongly wrested from it. This is a childish logic game gone awry; a real country is any country strong enough to maintain its government and its borders, a truth that Russia’s president knows as well as anyone. But Putin’s twisted and cherry-picked history of Ukraine’s twentieth-century independence has force because it appears to place Russia in the position of vindicating the system of international rules. That such a claim can win adherents is proof positive that the rules provide cover for the self-interested acts of the powerful. The rules tell us what we need to say in order to make what sounds like a good argument—the sort of argument that impresses partisans at home, helping the ruler maintain power and his country remain “real.”
As for Putin’s nationalist historical claims, they are transparently absurd, as such claims inevitably are. In his February 24 speech declaring war on Ukraine in order to protect the “historical homeland” from those who have taken it “hostage,” Putin made numerous arguments strikingly similar to Hitler’s in his 1938 justification for the annexation of the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia. To rationalize this view, Russians have rewritten the history of not only the twentieth century but even the thirteenth and fourteenth. This past January, Russia’s Foreign Ministry admonished “the British Foreign Office to stop provocative activities, stop spreading nonsense and focus on studying the history of the Tatar-Mongol yoke.” This statement may have struck most of the world as affectation, but in Russia the period of Mongol control in Eastern Europe remains a powerful political touchstone.
Today, the leaders of the House of Muscovy who benefited from and then fought Mongol rule are celebrated as heroes of Russian self-determination—even as saints, a signal of Russian nationalism’s tight integration with Orthodox Christianity. But, as historian Marie Favereau shows, there never was a Tatar-Mongol yoke. There was Mongol indirect rule—the Western Mongol empire ejected the rulers of Kievan Rus, then made Russia’s princes their tax collectors—but this was greatly to the advantage of Russians in general, who thrived under the Mongols, and to Muscovy in particular. Far from suppressing Russian culture and accomplishment, the Mongol Horde integrated independent Russian traders and important commercial cities like Vladimir and Novgorod into its global economic networks, dramatically enriching the families who would lead what is now remembered as the historical Russian nation. Before the Mongols empowered Moscow’s leaders and vitalized its economy, Russia’s future capital was a ramshackle wooden hamlet trembling in the shadow of the stone-fortified Novgorod.
“The nation celebrated by Russian nationalists, the church, and citizens in general is the nation associated with the house of Moscow, whose rise was enabled by Mongols,” Favereau writes. “It was a family of Moscow [nobility], the Romanovs, who became rich and powerful enough to consolidate and reign over the modern Russian nation-state beloved of the Russian nationalist imagination. Yet that nation, envisioned in opposition to the Tatar yoke, might never have existed had the [Mongols] not disrupted the Kievan system and favored the house of Moscow, elevating it to the heights of Russian power.”
The point is not that Putin gets his history backward because he gives Moscow priority over Kiev. Rather, we should take special note of how Russians have built a sense of self on a foundation of grievances against foreigners. Those who accuse the Russian president of seeking an empire have the situation quite wrong. Putin and his supporters are nationalists, not imperialists; what matters is not to encompass others but to encompass Russians and purify them of outside influences. For Putin and like-minded Russians, Ukraine poses a problem for Russia not just because it is a democracy or because its government holds out the hope of joining NATO but because it is European: it is an outpost of Europe in the “historical homeland” of the Russian nation. Putin made this point explicit in his February 24 speech. “Of course, the question is not about NATO itself,” he said. “It merely serves as a tool of U.S. foreign policy. The problem is that in territories adjacent to Russia, which I have to note is our historical land, a hostile ‘anti-Russia’ is taking shape.” For Russian nationalists, the idea that Ukraine might be European is as intolerable as the thought that Mongols might persist in their political, cultural, and literal DNA.
The war playing out in Ukraine is a nationalist one, but it is cloaked in appeals to the terms of the global order. It is essential that world publics take note of this—that citizens recognize the role rule-based internationalism plays in propaganda, whether American, Russian, European, or otherwise. People everywhere are gaslighted and manipulated by political leaders and media figures, who joust over rule-breaking rather than admit that following the rules has always been optional for those with sufficient bombs and guns.
If there is hope for change, it lies in the impulse toward justice that propagandists prey on. Their appeals succeed in part because people yearn for a fair international system, for rules worth following. In the wake of still more death and destruction, it is up to us to channel our outrage into collective action and demand that such a just order at last be built.
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