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The Russia-Ukraine war and the crisis of liberalism



As long as crimes against Uyghurs, Palestinians, or Yemenis go unchallenged, western support for Ukrainians resisting Russian aggression will make little difference

While ordinary Ukrainian men and women pick up arms to defend their homeland in the trenches, audiences in the US and Europe sit in the comfort of their homes, glued to their screens and stunned by the resilience with which people on the eastern flank of Europe are resisting the encroachment of authoritarianism.

The struggle of Ukrainians against Russian aggression shows the West that the liberal order can be defended. But for this to truly happen, the liberal momentum must extend far beyond the focus on eastern Europe. 

Not only is the war in Ukraine a pivotal moment in redefining Europe’s geo-strategic raison d’etre, but it is also a potential turning point

Today, the liberal order is not being defended by the self-styled “old liberal bastions” of the US and western Europe, whose passive complacency towards creeping authoritarianism worldwide only fuelled Russian President Vladimir Putin’s hubris.

Instead, it is Ukrainians who have mobilised, not just to avert Russian aggression but to fight for liberal self-determination and freedom from repression.

Not only is the war in Ukraine a pivotal moment in redefining Europe’s geostrategic raison d’etre, but it is also a potential turning point, showcasing the limitations of the authoritarian resurgence witnessed in the 2000s. 

In 1989, American political scientist Francis Fukuyama wrote famously about the end of history, suggesting that with the collapse of Soviet-style communism, humanity had reached “the end-point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government”.

In recent years, this thesis has widely been countered. US President Joe Biden spoke of a liberal order in crisis during his inaugural address. Putin in 2019 even went as far as to state that the liberal ideology that underpins western democracy had “outlived its purpose”.

Crisis of liberalism

The crisis of liberalism is real – both at home in the US and Europe, as well as overseas. The liberal grand strategic narrative of the universality of human rights and civil liberties lost its appeal amid the widening of the say-do gap between what liberalism promises and what it actually delivers.

The liberal grand strategic narrative of the universality of human rights lost its appeal amid the widening of the say-do gap between what liberalism promises and what it actually delivers

The “war on terror” provided a pretext for liberals to undermine liberal rights and norms in the name of security, both domestically and overseas. The Iraq War, launched in 2003, first saw the exploitation of liberalism to justify an unjust war, before triggering the withdrawal of western leadership from the region and surrendering the Middle East to authoritarian self-determination. 

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The Arab Spring presented an opportunity for the West to rebuild the appeal of the liberal narrative, demonstrating that the US and Europe would stand firmly with revolutionaries fighting for liberal self-determination and against authoritarian repression.

Yet, untouched by the fate of those desperately butchered by repressive regimes, the bastions of liberalism stood idly on the sidelines, watching first the revolutionaries fail and then the counterrevolutionaries win.

The illiberal pretexts of the “war on terror” employed by the West were now appropriated by authoritarians to justify an indiscriminate war against civil society activism, under the banner of fighting “terrorism”

A decade later, the counterrevolutionaries returned to authoritarian stability, with help not just from Russia but also from illiberal liberals in the West, driven by the fear of the Islamist bogeyman.

Russian soldiers patrol Mariupol, Ukraine, on 12 April 2022 (AFP)
Russian soldiers patrol Mariupol, Ukraine, on 12 April 2022 (AFP)

Moscow, meanwhile, was emboldened by the authoritarian reconquista across the Middle East and North Africa. Russian mercenary outfits supported war crimes in Syria and Libya, helping their partners in Damascus and Abu Dhabi to achieve their objectives – with little active resistance from western liberals. 

Shared worldview

It is also not surprising that Putin’s regional partners in the UAE and Saudi Arabia have so far taken a visibly “neutral” approach to Russia’s attempt to roll back the achievements of the 2013 Maidan revolution by force.

Just as the Kremlin is haunted by a phobia of colour revolutions in its sphere of influence, the authoritarian crown princes in Abu Dhabi and Riyadh are fearful of a renewed regional tide of liberalism sweeping them off their feet.Russia-Ukraine war: Why Middle Eastern leaders will not take a standRead More »

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It is in their interest to boost Russia’s campaign in Ukraine, as it advances a shared worldview and ideological belief system.

The thought of Ukrainians succeeding in their struggle for liberal self-determination, alongside a western public sphere coming out of two decades of hibernation, must send shocks down the spines of those counterrevolutionaries who already bet on the rise of an alternative authoritarian order. 

Ordinary Ukrainians are sending out a liberal spark to salvage a liberal order that western states have done little to safeguard in the past two decades.

While the end of history might be further away than it was in the 1990s, the intrinsic value and appeal of liberalism must not be written off.

Instead, the liberal momentum needs to be nurtured to turn the tide in a global competition over grand strategic narratives. In a multipolar world where it is more important whose story wins than whose army wins, the power of appeal and influence depends on a robust grand strategic liberal narrative applied coherently and consistently – not just in Ukraine, but also around the world. 

The double standards with which liberal norms have been applied leave some people and communities more equal than others, in what has become a global competition over ideological visions between the will and rights of people versus the will and rights of regimes.

As long as crimes against the UyghursPalestinians, or Yemenis go unchallenged and unatoned for, the all-out mobilisation of western publics to support ordinary Ukrainians will only be a drop in the bucket – and it will do little to stop the creeping rise of global authoritarianism. 


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The Role of Media in Russian-African Relations



Since the collapse of the Soviet system, already a little more than three decades, Russia has been struggle to raise its influence in Africa. The culmination of such efforts, inconsistent though, was the first Russia-Africa Summit that brought together African leaders, corporate businesses, academics and other experts to the Black Sea city of Sochi on October 23-24. Since 2019 Summit, Russian and African leaders have agreed on measures toward building a consolidated relations that explicitly reflected in their joint declaration, only little have been achieved.

Last November, for instance, a special report was presented under the title ‘Situation Analytical Report on Africa’ and was prepared by 25 policy experts, headed by Sergei A. Karaganov, Dean and Academic Supervisor of the Faculty of World Economy and International Relations of the National Research University’s Higher School of Economics (HSE University). Karaganov is also the Honorary Chairman of the Presidium of the Council on Foreign and Defence Policy.

That policy report, however, praised the joint declaration adopted at the summit as it has raised the African agenda of Russia’s foreign policy to a new level. The historic declaration, so far, remains the main document determining the conceptual framework of Russian-African cooperation.

Some of the situation analysis participants, who contributed to the policy report, spoke very critically of Russia’s current policy towards Africa and even claimed that there was no consistent policy and/or consistency in the policy implementation at all. The intensification of political contacts is only with a focus on making them demonstrative. Russia’s foreign policy strategy regarding Africa needs to spell out and incorporate the development needs of African countries.

While the number of high-level meetings has increased, the share of substantive issues on the agenda remains small. There are little definitive results from such meetings. Apart from the absence of a public strategy for the continent, there is shortage of qualified personnel, the lack of coordination among various state and para-state institutions working with Africa.

The report lists insufficient and disorganized Russian-African lobbying, and combined with the lack of “information hygiene” at all levels of public speaking among the main flaws of Russia’s current Africa policy. Under the circumstance, Russia needs to compile its various ideas for cooperation with Africa into a single comprehensive and publicly available strategy to achieve more success with Africa.

Admittedly, there are various parameters of strengthening the relations with Africa. For the purpose of this article, we look at media cooperation with and in Africa. During the first Russia-Africa summit, there was a special panel discussion on media. The panelists and participants attempted to exhaustively, examine such questions as follows:

What issues are currently, encountered in the formation of the modern media landscape? What role does the media play in Russia-African relations? What are the prospects for collaboration in the information sphere? What needs to be done to develop a Russian media agenda in Africa? What is the role and place of Russia in the information space of Africa today?

Russian media resources, which are largely far from eminent in Africa, include Rossiya Sevogdnya (RIA Novosti, Voice of Russia and Russia Today), Itar-Tass News Agency and Interfax Information Service. Instead of prioritizing media cooperation with Africa, high-ranking Russian officials most often talk about information-war, the spread of anti-Russian propaganda by western and European media in Africa.

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The fact is that the African continent is rapidly becoming ever more important in today’s international order. Russian-African relations are adding an additional dimension to developments, especially with the boost provided by rapidly expanding links across a vast range of areas. The media can, and indeed must be a decisive factor in building effective ties.

But unfortunately, Africa is frequently portrayed in the media as suffering from numerous intergovernmental, religious, and ethnic conflicts; political and economic instability; and an array of demographic and social problems. Knowledge of today’s Russia and the steps taken by its political leaders to tackle global challenges is also given little space in the continent’s media landscape.

Four years ago, acknowledging undoubtedly that Africa has become a new world center for global development, Russian legislators at the State Duma (the lower chamber) have advocated for a greater media representation to facilitate collecting important information to support business and economic cooperation with Africa.

Besides that, experts from the think-tank Valdai Discussion Club, academic researchers from the Institute for African Studies and independent policy observers have repeatedly suggested that authorities use Russia’s media resources available to support its foreign policy, promote its positive image, disseminate useful information about its current achievements and emerging economic opportunities, especially for the African public.

Here are the main reasons to consider the media also as a priority:

Reason One: Viacheslav Volodin, the chairman of the State Duma, told an instant meeting held, with participation of African diplomats, to brainstorm for fresh views on the current Russia-African relations: “it is necessary to take certain steps together for the Russian media to work on the African continent.”

“You know that the Russian media provide broadcasting in various languages, they work in many countries, although it is certainly impossible to compare this presence with presence of the media of the United States, United Kingdom and Germany,” he said as the ambassadors responded with a big applause.

Sharing additional matured sentiments and decisiveness about the media, Volodin added: “We propose to move from intentions to concrete steps. Our people will better understand each other through parliamentary relations.”

For the past few years, Russia has made some efforts returning with investment and business to Africa, but unfortunately, not all these steps have received adequate publicity. The presence of Russian media on the African continent and that of African media in the Russian Federation have been raised several times in the past by many policy experts.

Reason Two: Vladimir Shubin, deputy director of the Institute for African Studies in Moscow said that Africa has great potential for bilateral relationships with Russia and, most importantly, Russia’s contribution is very noticeable in dealing with the problems of Africa.

Perhaps, one of the reasons why some African leaders have written off Russia is the lack of information about Russia or rather plenty of distorted information they have received from the Western media coverage of Russia. In fact, Russia needs genuine and objective information about modern Africa, and here both state and private mass media linger a lot, according to Professor Shubin.

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Reason Three: Olga Kulkova, a research fellow at the Center for Russian-African Relations at the Institute for African Studies, said that “Africa needs broader coverage in Russian media. Leading Russian media agencies should release more topical news items and analytical quality articles about the continent. Russia has to adequately collaborate with African partners and attract Russian business to Africa. More quality information about modern Russia should be broadcast in African states.”

“Indisputably, it takes a lot of money and efforts, but the result will pay off. Russia ought to take the media into account if it wants to improve the chances for success in Africa. All the leading countries have been doing that quite efficiently for a long time,” Kulkova noted.

Reason Four: While many experts argue that African media seem uninterested in developing working links to Russia, Vasily Pushkov, an independent expert on international media relations wrote in an emailed comment that “it works both ways and the two regions are very far from each other.” Russia and Africa are not as interconnected as they were during the Soviet era, he stressed.

Pushkov explained that “Russia might have an image problem among African political and business elites, partly due to the fact that Russia has low presence in Africa compared to the Soviet era. Most African media get their global news from the leading Western media outlets, which in turn have a nasty and longstanding habit of always portraying Russia as the world’s bogeyman.”

Reason Five: “Russian media write very little about Africa, what is going on there, what are the social and political dynamics in different parts of the continent. Media and NGOs should make big efforts to increase level of mutual knowledge, which can stimulate interest for each other and lead to increased economic interaction as well,” argues research professor Fyodor Lukyanov at the National Research University – Higher School of Economics, Faculty of World Economy and International Affairs, and editor-in-chief of the journal Russia in Global Affairs.

“To certain extent,” Lukyanov said, “the intensification of non-political contacts may contribute to increased interest. Soft power has never been on a strong side of Russian policy in post-Soviet era.”

Reason Six: The trend may change for the better. In a foreign policy speech, President Vladimir Putin urged all his Russian ambassadors and diplomats actively use new technologies to highlight Russian success stories, improve Russia’s image and defend its interests abroad, according to Russian daily newspaper Kommersant, quoting an official who attended the meeting.

“It’s not enough to just crow something once… We should explain our positions again and again, using various platforms and new media technologies, until they understand,” the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, quoted Putin as saying.

Via MD

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