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May 26, 2022
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World Order: The Limits to Revisionism

Oleg Barabanov

The current developments are an important practical test for the limits of political revisionism. The Russian case will undoubtedly become a visual aid for other revisionist powers. The further prospects of political revisionism in the “post-February” world order will depend on what conclusions they come to, writes Valdai Club Programme Director Oleg Barabanov.

Events in Russia and the world after February 24 are developing at a great speed. They qualitatively change the entire system of international relations and international law. The world order that somehow emerged after the end of the Cold War no longer exists. And it will hardly be possible to return to it later, even if the Russian-Ukrainian negotiations lead to a compromise.

One of the characteristic features of this “pre-February” world order was the dialectical struggle between the Western centre of power (power understood in every sense — military, economic, value) and the largest non-Western powers that sought to challenge it. This dynamic state of affairs was theoretically defined either through the concept of a multipolar world or through the concept of revisionism in world politics. From our point of view, a multipolar world is unlikely to work in the current situation. At least from the non-Western poles (except for Russia itself, of course), now only cautious phrases are heard in the spirit of “for all that is good and against all that is bad”. It is clear that everyone is waiting and trying to predict the consequences. And against this background, it is, in our opinion, the theory of revisionism that can most accurately characterise the unfolding developments.

At the same time, the Russian case has become an important example of the limits of revisionism. Do they even exist? What will be the consequences of transferring political revisionism to the military level? Will revisionist Russia survive this? How acceptable will the socio-economic consequences of sanctions be for Western society itself? And, perhaps most importantly, in the Russian example, all other non-Western countries with revisionist political ambitions are now asking themselves the question: should they follow the path of Russia in order to achieve their goals? Or choose other ways to advance their ambitions? Or is it better to abandon them altogether, and instead become a “normal country” in the Western sense, as George W. Bush once spoke about.

Naturally, in analysing possible answers to these questions, the key factor for all other revisionist observers will be their assessment of Russia’s success in the current conflict. Both directly in military terms, and in the ability to withstand sanctions and maintain the local potential for development. As for purely military assessments, it is probably too early to draw any unambiguous conclusions. But at the same time, we can’t help but cite one remark by the thoughtful Chinese expert Wang Wen, published in his article on the Valdai Club portal a couple of weeks ago: “More importantly, most Chinese do not understand why Russia did not win a final victory over Ukraine in more than half a month?

This phrase, in our opinion, is very revealing. This feeling of the apparent absence of a “quick victory” has not gone unnoticed, both among the Russian public opinion and foreign observers. However, we note in this connection the regular statements of the Russian leadership that everything is proceeding strictly according to plan. In any case, for other revisionists, this is one of the forks in assessing the situation and, accordingly, in calculating their own potential strategy for the future. Does this apparent absence of a “quick victory” mean a universal rule: that if any other revisionist power decides to cross the red line and transfer the confrontation to the military plane, then it too will not be able to achieve such a “quick victory”, even over a militarily weaker adversary? Because of large-scale assistance to him from the West? Or, in this case, are we talking only about purely Russian specifics?

A foreign revisionist observer can conclude that it was only the Russian army which turned out to be “not as strong” in reality as was thought. And that in a conventional conflict with humanitarian constraints, its power is not particularly overwhelming. Whether this is actually so is not important for the purposes of our article. The important thing is that the choice of an answer to this question will serve as the basis for the entire future strategy for other revisionist powers. If it is recognised that this is “only Russian specificity”, and “we are stronger”, then, when studying the eventual Russian experience, such a revisionist power may also retain military ambitions to revise a status quo that does not suit it. If they decide that “it’s not about Russia”, but a principle of modern conflict, then the strategies of direct military revisionism will definitely be put on pause.

The second equally important question that the other revisionist powers will have to answer for themselves is the economic consequences of such a direct transition to breaking the status quo. Here again, the example of Russia will be decisive. Despite the severity of the sanctions imposed on Russia, it is too early to give an assessment here. It will be possible to understand whether Russia survives only in the medium term. But even now, for a thoughtful revisionist observer, quite definite conclusions can be drawn.

The first is that military-political revisionism cannot but rely on the economic self-sufficiency of the country, on its developed manufacturing industry across the entire spectrum of industries, including primarily in the high-tech sector. The second is the self-sufficiency of the country’s financial system, the strength of its national currency and its use in making international payments; the absence of dependence of national reserves on Western financial instruments and currencies. The old Marxist idea that the economy is the basis and politics is the superstructure may well once again prove its truth in the eyes of such a revisionist observer. He may well come to the conclusion that moving forward, having the military-political superstructure without the appropriate economic substrate is perhaps not the most effective solution. But, in any case, here other revisionist powers can conclude that this is also merely a Russian specificity, and “we are stronger”.

In addition, the negative consequences of the imposed sanctions for the West itself are already quite visible in the Russian example (both in terms of rising prices, and, most importantly, in terms of the trend towards de-dollarisation). If the West itself depends much more on the economy of another revisionist power than on Russia’s, is it possible to conclude that in the event of a direct conflict, Western countries will beware of imposing equally comprehensive sanctions against it as in the case of Russia?

The third theme is the media-image implications for the Russian-style revisionist strategy. The total ban and collective responsibility of Russia in the Western information space, in culture, in sports, and in social relations — is this acceptable for other revisionist powers? Or is all this not so important for them due to the specifics of their political system and public life? In any case, preparing your society for the possibility of such a total ban and developing strategies to counter it should also be an important task for other powers that now decide to maintain their revisionist ambitions. It is clear that it is better to do this in advance, and not after the fait accompli.

The fourth issue is the perception of the conflict, sanctions and collective responsibility in one’s own society. Here, too, it is too early to give an assessment of the Russian case. Over the past weeks, it was possible to see the elements of delimitation, including the demonstrative departure abroad of many architects of the West-dependent economic system that was created in Russia. On the other hand, the well-known sociological regularity that under conditions of severe external pressure, society rallies in its opposition to it, works in Russia as well; this can be seen both in opinion polls and in everyday behaviour. All this Russian experience can also be studied in other revisionist powers. The inclusive social policies and the nationalisation of the elites are two possible conclusions that such revisionist observers might draw.

Finally, last but not least, the Russian example shows an extremely important aspect of problem personalisation. Both Joe Biden and Olaf Scholz said outright that relations with Russia could not be restored under the current president. Accordingly, such personalisation may occur in other similar cases, and other revisionists should be ready for it. This entails questions regarding the stability of the political system, as well as trust among the highest political elites.

All in all, the current developments are an important practical test for the limits of political revisionism. The Russian case will undoubtedly become a visual aid for other revisionist powers. The further prospects of political revisionism in the “post-February” world order will depend on what conclusions they come to

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