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US campaign to isolate Russia shows limits after two years of war

by SuperiorInvest

The Biden administration and its European allies call President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia a tyrant and war criminal. But he enjoys a standing invitation to the corridors of power in Brazil.

Brazil's president says Ukraine and Russia are to blame for the war that began with the Russian military invasion. And his nation's purchases of Russian energy and fertilizers have skyrocketed, injecting billions of dollars into the Russian economy.

President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva's views sum up the global bond between the United States and Ukraine as the war enters its third year.

When Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, the Biden administration activated a diplomatic offensive that was as important as its fight to send weapons to the Ukrainian military. With economic sanctions and calls for a collective defense of the international order, the United States attempted to punish Russia with economic pain and political exile. The goal was to see companies and countries cut their ties with Moscow.

But two years later, Putin is not as isolated as American officials had hoped. Russia's inherent strength, rooted in its vast oil and natural gas supplies, has fueled a financial and political resilience that threatens to outlast Western opposition. In parts of Asia, Africa and South America, its influence is as strong as ever or even growing. And his grip on power at home appears stronger than ever.

The war has undoubtedly taken its toll on Russia: it has destroyed the country's standing vis-à-vis much of Europe. The International Criminal Court has issued an arrest warrant for Putin. The United Nations has repeatedly condemned the invasion.

And according to what Biden administration officials say, Russia has suffered a major strategic failure.

“Today, Russia is more isolated than ever on the world stage,” Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken declared in June. Putin's war, he added, “has diminished Russian influence on all continents.”

Beyond North America and Europe, there is evidence to the contrary.

China, India and Brazil are buying Russian oil in record quantities, enjoying the deep discounts Putin is now offering to countries willing to replace their lost European customers. With those growing economic relations have come strong diplomatic ties, including with some close partners of the United States. Putin visited Beijing in October and received India's foreign minister in Moscow in late December. A few weeks earlier, Putin was warmly received in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, where he was greeted with a 21-gun salute and fighter jets overhead leaving a trail of smoke in the red, white and blue colors of the Russian flag. .

Russian influence is also expanding in Africa, according to a new report from the Royal United Services Institute, a London-based security research group. When Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, the leader of the Wagner mercenary group, died last summer, Russia's military intelligence service took over Wagner's extensive operations in Africa and made further inroads with governments that depend on the group for their security. .

“There is no way Russia is locked in,” said Michael Kimmage, a Cold War historian at the Catholic University of America who was a State Department official during the Obama administration. “He is not limited economically or diplomatically and conveys his message about the war.”

For some Russia experts, American and European leaders have not fully taken this reality into account.

“What Western leaders clearly have not done is come clean to their public about the enduring nature of the threat from an emboldened and revisionist Russia,” Eugene Rumer and Andrew S. Weiss of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace wrote in November in a essay for The Wall Street Journal accuses the West of “magical thinking” about Putin's plight.

A prime example of the disappointment is Putin's welcome mat in Brazil, Latin America's largest and most globally influential nation.

Lula has extended an invitation to Putin to attend a Group of 20 leadership summit in Brazil in November, even though his country is a member of the International Criminal Court and is obliged to enforce the court's arrest warrant. against the Russian leader. (Lula dodged questions in December about whether Putin would be arrested if he appeared, calling it a “judicial decision.”)

Brazil's persistently neutral stance on Russia's war in Ukraine emerged at a meeting Wednesday in Brasilia, the country's capital, between Lula and Blinken. Lula has called for peace talks, a position Ukraine has criticized, and has said the United States is fueling the war with its arms shipments to kyiv. Blinken told Lula that the United States did not believe conditions were right for diplomacy now.

Later that day, Blinken landed in Rio de Janeiro for a meeting of Group of 20 foreign ministers and heard Brazil's top diplomat, Mauro Vieira, say: “Brazil does not accept a world in which differences are resolved.” through military use.” force.”

Sergey V. Lavrov, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Russia, was present. While Blinken and a handful of counterparts from allied nations denounced Russia's war, other officials followed the Brazilian minister's lead in expressing neutral sentiments or remained silent about the conflict.

At a news conference on Thursday, Blinken claimed that Lavrov had heard criticism throughout the meeting and said there was a “very strong chorus” speaking about “the imperative to end Russian aggression.”

Last year, Lavrov attended a similar event in India. He visited more than a dozen African countries in 2023, including South Africa, Sudan and Kenya. And last April he was received by Lula at the presidential residence, and he was expected to see the Brazilian president again in Brasilia on Thursday.

He met in New York last month with António Guterres, the secretary general of the United Nations, something the Russian Foreign Ministry announced in a press release that showed the two men shaking hands.

At the United Nations, U.S.-led resolutions condemning the war have found little support among countries not closely aligned with the United States or Russia, demonstrating their reluctance to be forced to take sides in the conflict.

“These countries fear being seen as pawns on a chessboard of great power competition,” said Alina Polyakova, president of the Center for European Policy Analysis in Washington. “The last administration did a lot of damage to our relationship with many of these countries. “We have not been seen as a credible partner.”

“Russian disinformation has been effective in many places,” he added. “And in many of these countries, Russia has invested for decades.”

Moscow has also worked to avoid blame for the higher food and energy prices that followed its invasion. Several weeks ago, Russia delivered 34,000 tons of free fertilizer to Nigeria, one of several such shipments it has sent to Africa.

Putin can afford such largesse, not to mention a war of attrition in eastern Ukraine, because Russia has replaced lost energy customers in Europe by selling much more to other continents. The International Energy Agency reported last month that Russia exported 7.8 million barrels of oil a day in December, the highest in nine months and only slightly below pre-war levels.

At the same time, its oil export revenue was $14.4 billion that month, the lowest level in half a year. The agency said Western efforts to impose a price cap on Russian oil appear to have hit overall revenues, as has a decline in the price of crude oil on the global market.

Russia's position is benefiting from President Biden's support for Israel's war in Gaza, analysts say. Many leaders see hypocrisy in American condemnations of Russian attacks on civilian areas and infrastructure in Ukraine, indifferent to the argument that Israel is working to avoid civilian casualties while Russia has deliberately targeted innocents.

Beyond that, Russia has managed to form closer ties with its closest partners, what Polyakova calls a “new authoritarian alliance.” Those countries (China, North Korea and Iran) have provided aid to Moscow in various forms. North Korea is sending ballistic missiles for use in Ukraine, Iran continues to send drones and China, while refraining from exporting weapons to Russia, is allowing equipment that civilians and the military can use to reach Moscow.

China has maintained trade with Russia and is filling gaps left by Western companies, ensuring supplies of everything from household goods to financial services.

As for sanctions aimed at limiting Russia's access to high technology, particularly equipment that could be used for modern weapons, Putin has found solutions. Neighboring countries such as Armenia and Turkey, a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, have not joined the US sanctions regime, and private companies import microchips and other items for re-export to Russia.

Western sanctions and business boycotts have certainly affected daily life in Russia, although in many cases through inconveniences such as the loss of Apple Pay and Instagram, not enough to foment popular unrest or change Putin's behavior.

“In the here and now, the sanctions have disappointed,” said Edward Fishman, a former State Department official in the Obama administration who oversaw sanctions on Russia after Putin annexed Crimea in 2014.

Over time, Fishman said, Western sanctions will take a greater toll. Despite loopholes and the black market, Russia will have difficulty acquiring critical high-tech components. And breaking deals with Western energy companies will deprive Russia of the investment it needs to maintain efficient oil and gas production.

But he said Putin had prepared his country for an avalanche of sanctions and had devised enough options to maintain his war machine and his influence on the world stage.

“Unfortunately, Russia has now built a sort of alternative supply chain,” Fishman said.

He added that Biden could take even bolder steps to crack down on Russian energy exports and technology imports. But that would mean friction with nations that have become major buyers of Russian oil, such as India, which could reduce their imports only under the threat of sanctions or other punitive measures that could risk a diplomatic crisis.

Similarly, many companies enjoying big profits by acting as middlemen for banned tech items are located in Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, two partners Biden would prefer not to confront.

Perhaps most discouraging is the fact that reducing Russian oil exports will likely drive up global oil prices — bad news for the United States and for a president who will face voters this fall.

“I think there's a lot of nerves about doing something that could shake up global oil markets,” Fishman said, “especially in an election year.”

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