State of the Order: Assessing September 2022

Reshaping the order

This month’s topline events

Putin Annexes Parts of Ukraine.  In a choreographed ceremony at the Kremlin, Russian president Vladimir Putin signed decrees claiming annexation of four Ukrainian provinces in the south and east of the country, even as Russian troops continued to lose ground in these areas. Despite apparent doubts about the war from the leaders of China and India, Putin announced the mobilization of 300,000 additional troops, committing to defend the claimed territories and hinting at the possible use of nuclear weapons, a prospect that US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan warned would result in “catastrophic consequences” for Russia. The G7 issued a strong statement vowing never to recognize the annexations or the “sham” referendums that preceded them. 

  • Shaping the order. Putin’s actions represent a doubling down on the war in Ukraine, indicating that he is prepared to risk escalating causalities and domestic political unrest in what appears to be an increasingly desperate effort to achieve his war aims.  But with Russia’s continuing military setbacks, the moves also suggest that Putin has been forced to narrow his immediate aims, at least for now, from “denazification” and regime change to defending territory that Russian troops have attempted to seize.  At the same time, Putin’s 37-minute diatribe against the “imperialist West” could mark a potential expansion of the conflict and a deepening of Cold War-like tensions with the United States and its allies.
  • Hitting home.  Polls indicate continued bipartisan support for Ukraine among the American public, as Congress approved its third significant aid package that expands the delivery of advanced weapons systems to Kyiv.
  • What to do.  The US should provide the weapons that Ukrainian forces need to reverse Russia’s territorial gains, while continuing to warn against the use of nuclear weapons. At the same, Washington and its allies should prepare for potential responses if discuss Moscow resorts to a nuclear strike in Ukraine or engages in disruptive, asymmetric attacks against the US or its NATO allies.

Axis of Autocracy.  Meeting on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Summit in Uzbekistan, Putin and Chinese president Xi Jinping renewed their commitments to expand bilateral cooperation. While Putin publicly recognized China’s concerns about the war in Ukraine, Xi underscored Beijing’s “strong support on core interests” of Russia.  The SCO summit brought together the leaders of China, Russia, Iran, Belarus, and other anti-Western autocracies, but also India and Pakistan, and resulted in a joint statement of cooperation on counter-terrorism and other issues. Earlier, Chinese military forces participated in Russian-led exercises in the Sea of Japan, and North Korea offered to provide weapons to Russia to support the war in Ukraine.

  • Shaping the OrderDespite Beijing’s apparent uneasiness over Russia’s struggling miliary efforts in Ukraine, the meeting between Putin and Xi reinforced the strategic partnership announced by the two leaders in February and their joint determination to push back against the rules-based democratic order.  The SCO summit served to undercut efforts by the West to isolate Putin, though some of Russia’s Central Asian partners, including Kazakhstan, appeared reluctant in light of the ongoing war in Ukraine.
  • Hitting home.  The efforts by China and Russia to undermine the US-led global order could lead to a world that is more dangerous for US citizens and less hospitable for American businesses.
  • What to do. The US and its allies should increase penalties on states that provide material support for Russia’s war in Ukraine, and seek new approaches to incentivize India and other democracies to join in Western sanctions and pressure Russia to end the war.

Iran’s Nationwide Protests.  In the country’s largest anti-regime protests since 2009, Iranians took to the streets following the death of a young woman who died in the custody of Iran’s “morality police” after failing to comply with strict veiling laws for women.  In response to the protests, which were led by students across more than 45 cities, many shouting “death to the dictator,” Iranian security forces killed scores of protestors. With the Iran nuclear talks stalled, President Biden stated that the United States stands with the “brave women of Iran,” and the US and the EU considered new sanctions against the regime.

  • Shaping the Order. The potential downfall of Iran’s fundamentalist Islamic regime, which has ruled the country since 1979, would mark a significant turning point for the future of the democratic world order. But as the world enters its 16th consecutive year of democratic recession, autocratic regimes have learned from each other, employing effective countermeasures to clamp down on pro-democracy movements, and the Iranian government may well be able to ride out the storm.
  • Hitting home.  American values are better protected in a world where democratic norms and human rights are respected.
  • What to do.  Working closely with allies, the Biden administration should seek to bolster support for Iranian opposition groups, including by ensuring that they have continued access to the internet, as part of a broader strategy to constrain authoritarian governments and assist non-violent civil resistance movements across the world. 

Quote of the month

“This is not only a war unleashed by Russia against Ukraine. This is a war on our energy, a war on our economy, a war on our values and a war on our future. This is about autocracy against democracy.” 

– EU President Ursula Von der Leyen, EU State of the Union Address, September 14, 2022

State of the Order this month: Unchanged

Assessing the five core pillars of the democratic world order    

Democracy ()

  • After holding sham elections, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the purported annexation of Zaporizhzhia, Kherson, Donetsk, and Luhansk, four Ukrainian regions that Russia has partially seized during its seven-month long invasion.
  • Protests continued in several cities across Iran over the killing of a young woman while in police custody because she refused to wear a hijab, while human rights groups estimated scores of casualties as Iranian security forces sought to suppress the  demonstrations. 
  • The European Commission moved to suspend certain funding to Hungary over allegations of widespread corruption, and the European Parliament declared that Hungary can no longer be considered a “full democracy” and was “in serious breach” of EU democratic norms
  • Giorgia Meloni was set to become prime minister of Italy, after her Brothers of Italy party won the most seats in the country’s parliamentary elections. While the party has roots in the neo-fascist supporters of Benito Mussolini, Meloni has branded herself as a mainstream conservative who will stand up to Moscow and support NATO and the EU.
  • On balance, the democracy pillar was unchanged.

Security ()

  • Following several successful Ukrainian counteroffensives, Putin announced the mobilization of 300,000 reserve troops to help Russia defend the newly annexed territories. 
  • North Korea joined Iran in offering to provide Russia with military supplies for its war in Ukraine, including millions of artillery rockets and shells, while the Pentagon indicated it was providing an additional $1.1 billion in security aid for Ukraine, including 18 more HIMAR rocket systems.
  • Moscow was suspected of causing the mysterious gas leaks in the Nord Stream One and Two pipelines, which NATO concluded was the result of deliberate sabotage.
  • In their first meeting since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping met on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Uzbekistan and pledged their mutual cooperation, though Beijing has stopped short of providing military assistance for Russia’s war in Ukraine. 
  • Despite Moscow’s war of aggression in Ukraine, China, India, and four other nations joined Russia for a series of military exercises in the coastal areas around the Sea of Japan and the western Pacific, including around 50,000 personnel. 
  • For the fourth time as president, Joe Biden stated explicitly that American forces would defend Taiwan if China invaded the island, though the White House later indicated this did not represent a change in US policy. 
  • In an bid to counter Chinese regional influence, President Biden hosted a summit with the leaders of 14 Pacific Island nations and announced a partnership agreement that included stronger security and economic ties. 
  • On balance, the security pillar was unchanged.

Trade ()

  • Seeking to limit the Kremlin’s ability to finance its war in Ukraine, the G-7 announced an agreement to cap the import price of Russian oil, and will seek to use insurance and shipping markets to force down the price of oil purchased by other importers, including China and India.
  • Officials from the United States and 13 other member states of the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework met in Los Angeles to launch formal negotiations on the four pillars of the initiative – trade, supply chains, clean economy, and fair economy — though India indicated it would not participate in the trade pillar. 
  • On balance, the trade pillar was unchanged.

Commons ()

  • With broad bipartisan support, the US Senate ratified a global treaty that would sharply limit the emissions of hydrofluorocarbons — pollutants from air conditioners and other types of refrigeration that have played a significant role in accelerating climate change.   
  • Concerned about the ruptures to the Nord Stream gas pipelines in the Baltic Sea, the United Nations Environment Programme estimated that the leaks likely represent the biggest single release of climate-damaging methane ever recorded.
  • Overall, the global commons pillar was unchanged.

Alliances ()

  • The US and its G7 allies issued a joint statement vowing never to recognize Russia’s “sham referenda” in Ukraine. 
  • In response to Russia’s annexation, Ukraine formally requested an “accelerated accession” to join NATO, though it appeared unlikely that NATO members would take up the request anytime soon. 
  • While Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi appeared to criticize Russia for its war in Ukraine, telling Putin publicly this “is not an era of war,” India later abstained on a resolution at the UN Security Council condemning Russia’s proclaimed annexation of Ukrainian territories.
  • Overall, the alliance pillar was unchanged.

Strengthened (↑)________Unchanged ()________Weakened ()

What is the democratic world order? Also known as the liberal order, the rules-based order, or simply the free world, the democratic world order encompasses the rules, norms, alliances, and institutions created and supported by leading democracies over the past seven decades to foster security, democracy, prosperity, and a healthy planet.

This month’s top reads

Three must-read commentaries on the democratic order     

  • Larry Diamond, in Foreign Affairscontends that the world needs the United States to support democracy, and despite its problems at home, the United States needs a more muscular and imaginative approach to spreading it.
  • Anne Applebaum, in The Atlanticargues that the West needs to have a plan for the day after a Ukrainian victory and the potential downfall of Vladimir Putin.
  • Dan Sullivan and Dan Twining, in Foreign Affairssuggest that to engage in a generational struggle to defend the free world, the United States must build a bipartisan foreign policy consensus around the imperative of countering authoritarian aggression.

Action and analysis by the Atlantic Council

Our experts weigh in on this month’s events

  • Matthew Kroenig, in an Atlantic Council Memo to the Presidentsets forth how the United States can deter Russia from employing nuclear weapons in Ukraine and should respond in the event that deterrence fails. 
  • Dan Fried, in Just Securityargues that Russia’s threats to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine cannot be dismissed, the US and its allies should not give in to Putin’s nuclear blackmail.
  • Fred Kempe, in CNBCsuggests that Russia’s battlefield failures represent an opportunity for world leaders to accelerate efforts to ensure Putin’s defeat and Ukraine’s defense.
  • Sayeh Isfahani, in the Atlantic Council’s IranSourcecontends that the current protests in Iran are a watershed moment as a women’s revolution spanning class and ethnic divides could spur the toppling of the Islamic Republic.


The Democratic Order Initiative is an Atlantic Council initiative aimed at reenergizing American global leadership and strengthening cooperation among the world’s democracies in support of a rules-based democratic order. Sign on to the Council’s Declaration of Principles for Freedom, Prosperity, and Peace by clicking here.

Ash Jain – Director for Democratic Order
Dan Fried – Distinguished Fellow
Jeffrey Cimmino – Associate Director
Danielle Miller – Program Assistant
Otto Hastrup Svendsen – Georgetown Student Researcher

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Image: Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a ceremony to declare the annexation of the Russian-controlled territories of four Ukraine's Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions, after holding what Russian authorities called referendums in the occupied areas of Ukraine that were condemned by Kyiv and governments worldwide, in the Georgievsky Hall of the Great Kremlin Palace in Moscow, Russia, September 30, 2022. Sputnik/Dmitry Astakhov/Pool via REUTERS