albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy
07 March 2022

Revisionism, revanchism, and the war in Ukraine

Prof. Gopalan Balachandran’s intervention at the Graduate Institute’s Town Hall.

This is a somber moment for all of us. The Albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy, like everyone else in this room, is committed to a just, democratic, inclusive, and rules-based international order. This order is now beset by fresh and dangerous uncertainties. In co-hosting this event we would like to underscore the importance of this commitment as we try to grapple with the dangerous uncertainties caused by Russia’s unjustified and brutal invasion of Ukraine.

Russia has been a revisionist power since the 1990s. Its invasion of Ukraine could be a signal that it is now embarked on a dangerously revanchist project. Time alone will tell how this revanchist tendency might unfold. A revanchist war in Ukraine risks being prolonged, it can also spread and escalate to threaten the entire world. I must underline this obvious point because the European dimension of the crisis has attracted attention. But in the last 250 years, Europe has been remarkably unsuccessful in containing conflicts in Europe to wars within Europe. So the whole world has a right to be concerned.

A ‘just, democratic, inclusive, and rules-based international order’ is not just a mouthful. It can be an oxymoron. A just, democratic, and inclusive international order has to be rules-based. It cannot be otherwise. But there is no reason, a priori, why a rules-based order should necessarily be just, democratic, or inclusive. The international order at any point in time is a constitutional settlement reflecting power relations at its moment of origin. It changes slowly, if at all, and often conditionally or contingently, as power equations change.

Revisionist projects, and resistance to them, are therefore the stuff of international relations, and intrinsic to the international order and its dynamics. Most such projects play by the rules. Brazil, Germany, India, and South Africa have been campaigning unsuccessfully for years to expand the permanent membership of the UN Security Council. They can lead to institutional innovations: after failing to reform the governance of multilateral financial institutions, China decided to set up the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank which is now backed by nearly 100 countries, among them five members of G7. The Bandung conference of 1955 was feared in the West as a move to set up a parallel, non-Western United Nations. But despite problems with the UN system, this remains unthinkable so long as we have hopes of reforming it.

What has this all got to do with Ukraine? All powers, or constellations of powers, have revisionist interests. Just consider here Britain’s demand to re-negotiate Brexit agreements within months of signing them. Or US attitudes to various treaties and agreements, including treaties to limit nuclear weapons and anti-ballistic weapons systems. But some revisionist claims can have systemic implications or affect incumbent powers in ways that make negotiations about them difficult if not impossible.

Yet we cannot avoid talking, if revisionism is not to be allowed to slide into revanchism. The original European project holds important lessons for its success in resolving decades of one-sided settlements, revisionist claims, and revanchist wars through processes of engagement.

Elites in many countries nurture revanchist fantasies. It is clear Putin has them. He has probably had them since the 1990s, and it is possible the wars in Chechnya already had a revanchist dimension. It is not my intention to peer into the mind of a president in his labyrinth. But Russia’s slide from revisionism—by which I mean a power that sought a relatively peaceful revision of the post-1990 security settlement in its neighbourhood—to revanchism and war is bound to occupy historians for a long time to come.

A question they are bound to ask is could the war have been prevented? War is a defeat for peace, as the Director’s communication yesterday underlined, so could the Russian invasion have been forestalled, and what could have been an acceptable price for forestalling it? Another question we might soon be asking—sooner than later if it is not to become moot—is what lessons Russia’s slide from revisionism to revanchism offer for managing or resolving other revisionst claims in ways that don’t endanger world peace.

The world is united, or nearly united, in condemnation of the Russian invasion even as it fears and prays against an escalation. Part of the credit for this unity must go to Putin. Even on the eve of the invasion, let us not forget, there were differences within the West—between France and Germany on the one hand and the US-British axis on the other—about how to manage the threat. There were equally crucial differences between the Ukrainian leadership and the US-British axis. It is important to keep these differences in mind and revisit them, to resist an emerging narrative that the US-British axis was right all along in its assessment, this brutal war was always a foregone conclusion, and that Ukraine and France and Germany have been proved to have been naïve about Putin. Recalling these differences may seem somewhat academic now, given especially the suffering of the Ukrainian people and their justified and complete disillusionment, if that is the right word, with Russia. But they may still be relevant to forging the peace. We also need to keep them in mind for managing relations in the future with other revisionist powers who may be tempted to turn towards revanchism and war.

Make no mistake. Vladimir Putin and his close cronies if he has any, and they alone, are to blame for starting the war and for its brutal conduct so far. However, blame does not exhaust responsibility, and future historians will wonder whether the constant US-British drumbeats, at one point with real time intelligence updates, about Putin’s war preparations were best calculated to promote Russian disengagement and withdrawal. We always knew the Russian army had mobilized its vast armour. But its logistics have been revealed to be in complete disarray—even basic fuel supplies seem to be in short supply. This is fortunate to the extent it has held back the Russian advance. But such gaps, together with Russia’s failure to motivate its troops, may point to a wide gulf between mobilization and invasion. The Ukrainian leadership may have been aware of this gulf, hence perhaps its relative equanimity in the face of Russian provocations and the US-British drumbeats. So did the latter drown out more sober Ukrainian voices? Could the drumbeats have undermined Franco-German peace efforts? Could we have been more attentive to the Ukrainian reading of the situation, perhaps with more being done to equip and train Ukrainian forces to deter a possible Russian invasion?

The slide from revisionism to revanchism can and must be prevented. Prevention is vital given the costs of failure and the immense challenge of reversing the slide once it begins. This slide does not happen in a vacuum even with a leader as dominant or isolated as Vladimir Putin. It is always an interactive process involving other powers and interlocutors. Leaders motivated and determined to reassert the status-quo, whether or not beleaguered by Afghanistan or Brexit and whether or not they nurse Rooseveltian aspirations and Churchillian fantasies, may not be disposed to acknowledge and engage with revisionist claims. They cannot always be trusted to prevent war or restore peace.

So let me conclude by making three main points. Revanchism should be fought and defeated, there is no alternative. But Ukraine underlines the imperative of making every reasonable effort to prevent or arrest the slide from revisionism to revanchism and war. Finally, the danger of revanchism is the strongest argument against the status-quo, it cannot and should not be its alibi or justification.

Watch the full event here