The American campaign to isolate Russia shows its limits after two years of war

The American campaign to isolate Russia shows its limits after two years of war

The American campaign to isolate Russia shows its limits after two years of war

The Biden administration and its European allies are calling Russian President Vladimir V. Putin a tyrant and a war criminal. But he enjoys a permanent invitation to the corridors of power in Brazil.

Brazil’s president says Ukraine and Russia are both responsible for the war that began with Russia’s military invasion. And his country’s purchases of Russian energy and fertilizer have soared, pumping billions of dollars into the Russian economy.

President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s views nicely sum up the global conflict the United States and Ukraine find themselves in as the war enters its third year.

When Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, the Biden administration unleashed a diplomatic offensive as significant as its rush to supply weapons to the Ukrainian military. By brandishing economic sanctions and calling for a collective defense of the international order, the United States has sought to punish Russia with economic pain and political exile. The aim was to see companies and countries sever ties with Moscow.

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

The war undoubtedly took its toll on Russia: it destroyed the country’s standing with much of Europe. The International Criminal Court has issued an arrest warrant for Mr. Putin. The United Nations has repeatedly condemned the invasion.

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

“Today, Russia is more isolated than ever on the world stage,” Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said in June. Mr. Putin’s war, he added, “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, feasting on the deep discounts Mr. Putin is now offering to countries eager to replace his lost European customers. These growing economic relations have been accompanied by strong diplomatic relations, particularly with some close partners of the United States. Mr. Putin visited Beijing in October and received the Indian foreign minister in Moscow in late December. A few weeks earlier, Mr. Putin had been warmly welcomed in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, where he was greeted by a 21-gun salute and fighter jets overhead trailing colored smoke. red, white and blue of the Russian flag.

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

“Russia is not locked in by any means,” said Michael Kimmage, a Cold War historian at the Catholic University of America and a former State Department official in the Obama administration. “He is not framed economically, he is not framed diplomatically and he is getting his message across on the war.”

According to some Russian experts, American and European leaders have not fully taken this reality into account.

“What Western leaders have conspicuously failed to do is live up to their public perception of the continuing nature of the threat emanating from an emboldened and revisionist Russia,” wrote Eugene Rumer and Andrew S. Weiss of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in November in an essay for the Wall Street Journal accusing the West of having “magical thinking” about Mr. Putin’s fate.

A prime example of this disappointment is Mr. Putin’s reception in Brazil, the largest and most influential country in Latin America.

Mr. Lula invited Mr. Putin to attend a summit of Group of 20 leaders in Brazil in November, even though his country is a member of the International Criminal Court and is obliged to carry out the court’s arrest warrant against the Russian leader. (Mr. Lula in December sidestepped the question of whether Mr. Putin would be arrested if he ran, calling it a “judicial decision.”)

Brazil’s still neutral stance toward Russia’s war in Ukraine was discussed during a meeting Wednesday in Brasilia, the nation’s capital, between Mr. Lula and Mr. Blinken. Mr. Lula called for peace talks, a position criticized by Ukraine, and said the United States was fueling the war with its arms deliveries to kyiv. Mr. Blinken told Mr. Lula that the United States did not believe the conditions were right now for diplomacy.

Later in the day, Mr. 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 disputes are resolved through the use of the military. force.”

Sergei V. Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister, was present. While Mr. Blinken and a handful of his counterparts from allied countries denounced Russia’s war, other officials followed the Brazilian minister’s lead in expressing neutral sentiments or remaining silent on the conflict.

Last year, Mr. Lavrov attended a similar event in India, was welcomed by Mr. Lula at the presidential residence and visited more than a dozen African countries, including South Africa, Sudan and Kenya.

He was meeting in New York last month with António Guterres, the secretary-general of the United Nations – which the Russian Foreign Ministry announced in a statement. Press release which showed the two men shaking hands.

At the United Nations, American 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 in a competition between great powers,” said Alina Polyakova, president of the Center for European Policy Analysis in Washington. “The last administration did a lot of damage to our relationships with a lot of these countries. “We were not seen as a credible partner.”

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

Moscow has also sought to avoid being blamed for rising food and energy prices that followed its invasion. A few weeks ago, Russia delivered 34,000 tons of fertilizer free of charge to Nigeria, one of many such shipments it has sent to Africa.

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

At the same time, its oil export revenues stood at $14.4 billion that month, the lowest in a half-year. The agency said Western efforts to impose a price cap on Russian oil appeared to have impacted overall revenues, as did the decline in the price of crude oil on the global market.

Russia’s position benefits from President Biden’s support for Israel’s war in Gaza, analysts say. Many leaders see hypocrisy in US condemnations of Russian strikes against civilian areas and infrastructure in Ukraine, insensitive to the argument that Israel is working to avoid civilian casualties while Russia has deliberately targeted innocent.

Beyond that, Russia has managed to forge closer ties with its close partners, what Ms. Polyakova calls a “new authoritarian alliance.” These countries – China, North Korea and Iran – have provided aid to Moscow in various forms. North Korea sends ballistic missiles to Ukraine, Iran continues to deliver drones and China, while refraining from exporting weapons to Russia, lets equipment fall into the hands of Moscow that the Civilians and military personnel can use.

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 intended to limit Russia’s access to high technologies, particularly equipment that can be used for modern weapons, Mr. Putin has found solutions. Neighboring countries like Armenia and Turkey, members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, have not joined the US sanctions regime, and private companies import microchips and other items there to re-export them to Russia.

Western sanctions and corporate boycotts have certainly affected daily life in Russia, but in many cases through inconveniences like the loss of Apple Pay and Instagram – not enough to encourage popular unrest or change the behavior of Mr. Putin.

“In the immediate term, the sanctions have disappointed,” said Edward Fishman, a former State Department official in the Obama administration who oversaw sanctions against Russia after Mr. Putin’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.

Over time, Mr. Fishman said, Western sanctions will have an even greater impact. Despite the loopholes and the black market, Russia will struggle to acquire essential high-tech components. And breaking deals with Western energy companies will deprive Russia of the investments it needs to maintain efficient oil and gas production.

But he said Mr. Putin had prepared his country for a wave of sanctions and had found enough options to maintain his war machine and influence on the world stage.

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

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

Likewise, many companies making large profits from serving as intermediaries for banned technology products are in Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, two partners Mr. Biden would prefer not to confront.

Perhaps most daunting is the fact that reduced Russian oil exports are likely to drive up global oil prices – bad news for the United States and for a president facing voters this fall.

“I think there’s a lot of nervousness about doing anything that could shake up global oil markets,” Mr. Fishman said, “especially in an election year.”