Vladimir Putin’s invasion was meant to last just a few days. But Ukrainian resistance turned it into yet another imperial quagmire — showing that the great powers aren’t as able to reshape the modern world as they think.

Russian president Vladimir Putin and Russian defense minister Sergei Shoigu attend a wreath-laying ceremony in Alexander Garden in Moscow, Russia on February 23, 2023. (Pavel Bednyakov / Sputnik / AFP via Getty Images)

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has turned into a quagmire, defying initial expectations. Although Russian forces appear set to launch a new offensive this spring, they will face a Ukrainian army — bolstered by aid from the United States and Europe — that has already scored several key successes in the fight to roll back the invaders. Barring a breakthrough on the frontlines, Vladimir Putin’s invasion looks like it will join the post-1945 world’s long litany of failed wars of conquest.

Yet Russian military setbacks contrast with the situation on the diplomatic front, where Putin’s invasion has shed light on the growing isolation of Ukraine’s NATO partners. Key nations in the Global South refuse to follow the Western bloc into a confrontation with Moscow, whether through economic sanctions, military aid to Kyiv, or by supporting UN resolutions condemning the invasion.

The war thus looks like an example of what Bertrand Badie, one of the foremost French experts on global politics, calls the “powerlessness of power.” Emeritus professor of international relations at Sciences Po, Badie has pinpointed the growing inability of military means to achieve political ends, as social forces emerge as the dominant factor in international relations. This argument contradicts the common interpretation of the Russia-Ukraine war as heralding a revival of power politics. But the critique is an important one, as the Left struggles to cope with the “‘stormy’ geopolitical weather of the times.”

Ahead of the first anniversary of the invasion, Badie sat down with Jacobin’s Harrison Stetler to discuss what the war reveals about the state of global politics.

Harrison Stetler

You have studied global politics for nearly half a century, analyzing things as varied as state formation and the role of memory in international relations. A year into Russia’s full-fledged invasion of Ukraine, have any of your certainties been shaken?

Bertrand Badie

Undermined, certainly not — I might even say “reinforced,” perhaps at the expense of coming off as stubborn. I think that 2022 didn’t deliver much in the way of anything new. Rather, it revealed a lot about the underlying forces that have been at work for years and even decades, which we haven’t wanted to get to grips with. I have always considered, for example, that there have been three major ruptures since 1945, which have unfortunately been underestimated.

The first rupture was decolonization, which the old colonial powers have downplayed because it marked their first great defeat. But with decolonization, we discovered an absolutely remarkable international phenomenon, which was that the “weak” could beat the “strong” and that power was not always effective. This realization should have led us to consider that international politics was about more than the crude balance of power. If raw power was all that mattered, then decolonization would not have taken place, or the Soviets would have won in Afghanistan, or the Americans in Afghanistan, and Vietnam, and Iraq, or France in the Sahel.

Something is going on that we’ve been reluctant to take on board. Decolonization saw the victory of the “weak” over the “strong” and revealed that societies could be more decisive than states — in other words, that the social could now prevail over the political. We are seeing this again today to a certain degree, in Ukrainian society’s capacity to resist the much-vaunted Russian army.

The second rupture is depolarization, which is not only the end of the “bipolar” Cold War world but also the discovery of another grammar of international relations, the consequences of which have not been fully drawn. The fault lies first with Bill Clinton’s two catastrophic terms in office. NATO was consolidated after the Warsaw Pact disappeared. I don’t know if NATO should have been dissolved. In any case, it should have been rethought in an extremely profound way so as to allow the Western powers to do what all the other states in the world have allowed themselves to do since then, i.e. to engage in a fluid international situation.

Harrison Stetler

After 1989, NATO transformed itself into one of the crutches of what you call the “oligarchical club.”

Bertrand Badie

Yes, it turned into a closed club, losing many remarkable opportunities to diversify its relations, notably with countries in the Global South. A lot of time was lost by not moving forward in this domain, where Putin’s Russia, we have to admit, has been much more adaptive thanks to forums like the BRICS and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. Russia too has known how to establish itself in a particularly cynical and brutal way in Africa, where we now see Russian flags flying. The great misfortune of Europe, and I would say of the Western world in general, including the United States, is not having understood that it was no longer alone in the world and that there were new powers that now mattered.

The third rupture is globalization, which has completely changed the rules of the game. It has made us move from the sovereigntist stage [of international politics] to a stage of interdependence.

We continue to speak of Western hegemony while the West has been beaten in wars over and over again.

Harrison Stetler

You’re going a little bit against what is the most common interpretation of this war: that overnight we suddenly found ourselves in a “new world,” or better yet, back in a new old world, with war once again “back in Europe.” In your telling, what we’ve seen since February 24, 2022 has been more of an acceleration of processes or forces already at work.

Bertrand Badie

Exactly. Once again, how is it that we do not see that since 1945, the Western powers have not won a single war? This is a terribly brutal fact when it comes to the conception that we have of ourselves, and even that others have of us. We continue to speak of Western hegemony while the West has been beaten in wars over and over again — with decolonization, in Vietnam, and in Iraq and the Middle East in general.

Harrison Stetler

There is certainly a parallel to be drawn with the incapacity of the Russian military to achieve the Kremlin’s objectives in Ukraine. But military setbacks aside, isn’t there too much being made about the supposed “decline” or “weakening” of the Western powers? I’m reminded of a column published by the New York Times in January 2020 that pointed out that despite a decade dominated by fears of national decline, the United States was the only major economy, with China, that saw its share of global output increase between 2010 and 2020.

How do you explain this situation, where the classical tools of power seem to be more and more devalued, even if the privileges of power are still consolidated around this oligarchic bloc?

Bertrand Badie

I don’t talk about the “weakening” of the West, which is doing very well in several areas. I prefer to call this phenomenon the “powerlessness of power.” There is certainly no “Western decline” either: I strongly disagree with this formulation. Rather, there’s a decline of “power” as such, a phenomenon that the USSR knew and that Putin’s Russia is now facing as well. And as soon as China ventures away from its strong points, it gets into trouble. We are in a world where power is devalued.

The devaluation of power should not be confused with economic and commercial performance, either. It is perhaps precisely because globalization has favored trade that it has also favored a blunting of power. In our liberal and Western frameworks, we tend to mix the two, but they have strictly no relation. The basis of globalization is interdependence. And this interdependence favors trade and, from a certain point of view, profits as well.

But on the other hand, it clearly undermines sovereignty. So, I don’t see any contradiction between the fact that while there is commercial or financial prosperity, state power recedes. Earlier I said that the social forces have a leg up on political ones, and I include economic exchange in the “social.” One of the main victims of globalization is Thomas Hobbes.

Harrison Stetler

But does the “powerlessness of power” really apply to the Russia-Ukraine conflict? Ukrainian society has been able to keep at bay what was considered to be a vastly superior Russian army. But the scales of the war have also been tipped by transfers from sophisticated Western arsenals, which is one of the arguments advanced by those in Europe and the United States calling for more military aid to Kyiv.

Bertrand Badie

We need to be lucid about the fact that on February 24, 2022, Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine on the premise of taking Kyiv in a few days or even in a few hours! And that was a total failure. This failure is attributable, of course, to arms deliveries from the West, but I believe that it is mainly attributable to social resilience, which is a factor that analysts of international relations have been reluctant to consider even if decolonization should have already alerted them to it. We French ought to know a thing or two about the power of social resistance — we saw the French army beaten by Algerian partisans, eight years after being beaten by the Vietnamese.

Now, what is very interesting in the Russia-Ukraine conflict is that Putin believed that he would restore Russian power through an old-fashioned war. What we have seen is just the opposite. Old-fashioned wars do not work anymore. There’s one major thing that we’re struggling to understand: since 1945, wars of conquest no longer work. What successful wars of conquest have there been? The West Bank by Israel? Yes, but this conquest has never really been finished off. The Palestinian resistance remains intact fifty-five years after the initial conquest by the Israeli military.

We French ought to know a thing or two about the power of social resistance — we saw the French army beaten by Algerian partisans, eight years after being beaten by the Vietnamese.

Harrison Stetler

The first Russian blitzkrieg was defeated. But could Moscow also have been banking on a permanent decoupling from an international system still institutionally dominated by the United States and Europe? Or even on moving toward a fortress-Russia model for national power?

Bertrand Badie

I don’t think so. The Russia-Ukraine conflict has revealed precisely the depth of interdependence between Russia and the rest of the world up to 2022. If there is a global energy crisis today, it is because of this interdependence. If there is a food crisis in the Global South, it is because of this interdependence. And if the Russian economy is facing increasing difficulties, it is proof that the survival of Russian society depends on its capacity to be linked to the world economy, which it had managed to achieve thanks to its energy resources. If I had to characterize the current situation, I would say there’s a crisis of interdependence between Russia and the rest of the world, rather than a crisis of an affirmation of Russia’s independence from the rest of the world.

The best proof is on the diplomatic front: as Russia moves away from the West, it is spectacularly deepening its relations with everyone else. How else can we make sense of the remarkable closeness between Russia and Saudi Arabia, or between Russia and Israel, between Russia and the United Arab Emirates and India, or between Russia and the other BRICS? We can see that Putin’s main concern is to compensate for the rift with the West by mending his relations with all the other countries of the world.

Harrison Stetler

Let’s turn to the Global South. That term has gotten a lot of attention over the last year to make sense of the considerable number of states that have refused to back UN General Assembly resolutions condemning Russia. But this term covers a huge diversity of interests and power centers — can we really say that there is a common (let alone alternative) project uniting these countries?

Bertrand Badie

Yes, precisely. That’s the heart of the matter. A common denominator that unites the Global South — from the main emerging powers to the least-developed countries — is the feeling of exclusion from world governance, and these countries’ inability to bring their real weight to bear on globalization as it is developing today. It is less about economics, where they have had enormous success. But in any case, on the institutional level, it can be seen through the inability of certain states to obtain a seat as a permanent member on the UN Security Council, or the closing-off of the G7 while the G20, which was intended to gradually replace the G7, gets increasingly marginalized.

We can see that Putin’s main concern is to compensate for the rift with the West by mending his relations with all the other countries of the world.

The votes on the UN General Assembly resolutions, with about fifty states either abstaining or not participating, translates as a rejection of permanent passivity and these countries’ refusal to pay the price of a Russia-Ukraine conflict that is not of their making. This has taken on an increasingly anti-Western bent because Putin has sought to make inroads in the Global South, which the West has continued to ignore. The paradox is that Putin has been clever to try to draw dividends from his defeat by seeking to portray himself to the Global South as also being a victim of Western hegemony.

Harrison Stetler

How do you view what’s going on within the Western bloc? Talk of negotiation seems to have fully receded in the short term, but much of the divisions seem to be papered over as the discussion now centers on the extent of military support that ought to be sent to Ukraine.

Bertrand Badie

In fact, it is much more tragic than that. There is not a clearly thought-out Western strategy for the Ukrainian crisis. In a war, one defines political objectives and puts the necessary means — notably military ones — toward attaining those objectives. The type of conflict we are facing today does not allow for clear objectives. For example, Emmanuel Macron says that there can be no military victory, but that Russia must be defeated without being crushed. This is a perfect contradiction.

If there can be no military victory, Russia cannot be defeated. Would this mean its total withdrawal from the Ukrainian territory as it existed before 2014? Is it the cessation of hostilities? Is it the liberation of the Donbas? No one knows or cares to say. This is tragic because when an actor in a conflict does not know the assigned goal, they become completely paralyzed and cannot define the type of weaponry needed because they cannot identify the actual objectives.

Fortunately, the other side is in the same situation. Putin no longer has clear objectives. He knows that he cannot conquer Kyiv. He knows that he will not overpower the Western bloc. But what is he looking for? To consolidate what he has taken? To keep Crimea at all costs? We don’t know. This war is so bewildering because we’ve lost sight of what objectives are really being sought.

In this context, we need to change our thinking. We need systemic pressure from the whole world to stop this conflict. Look at all the wars since 1945. They have not ended in defeat or victory for anyone, but simply in abandonment thanks to the realization that the costs were too great to continue.

Harrison Stetler

A great deal depends on China. Since last weekend’s Munich Security Conference, the United States has sought to drum up attention around the possibility that China could soon deepen its partnership with Russia, and even go so far as to send military aid. What do you make of the Chinese position and talk of a further rapprochement between Beijing and Moscow?

Bertrand Badie

We need to be vigilant, but doubly cautious. First, because in conflicts of this nature, rhetoric is important and it is often dissuasive. Denouncing a supposedly imminent collusion between Russia and China is one of the best-known diplomatic tactics to prevent one from taking place.

Second, we have to be careful with the choice of words. The word “alliance” is often used to describe the relationship between China and Russia, but it’s not appropriate. Just look at the history of China: this multi-millennial empire has never technically been allied with anyone. What has long characterized China is its self-perception as a central power, which does not need to be embedded in a network of alliances. China, today more than ever, is playing the card of its own autonomy. But at the same time, it’s playing the card of systemic stability. In contrast to Russia, China has an enormous interest in the stability of the international system.

The word “alliance” is often used to describe the relationship between China and Russia but it’s not appropriate.

What is true, however, is that China does not see it as a bad thing that Russia and the West are weakening each other. But how much do the Chinese want to weaken us? If we are weakened too much, they lose markets. And for different reasons, China does not want this confrontation to lead to a collapse of the Russian empire, because this would be catastrophic for China and could leave it to face the Western bloc alone. It is true that Beijing is helping Moscow and that China’s leaders are savoring playing that role. That being said, I still don’t see — even if I could be wrong — what interest China would have in transforming this pragmatic connivance into a real alliance that would place it in an antagonistic position with the West. So, wait and see.

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