Thursday, July 25

The US campaign to isolate Russia shows its limits after 2 years of war

The Biden administration and European allies call 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 nation’s purchases of Russian energy and fertilizer have soared, pumping billions of dollars into the Russian economy.

The views of the president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, summarize the global nexus 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 activated a diplomatic offensive as major as the rush to ship weapons to the Ukrainian military. By challenging 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 goal was to see companies and countries cut ties with Moscow.

But two years later, Putin is not as isolated as U.S. officials had 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 or even growing. And his grip on power at home appears stronger than ever.

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

And to hear Biden administration officials tell it, Russia has suffered a grave strategic failure.

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

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 that Putin now offers to countries willing to replace his lost European customers. These growing economic relations have been accompanied by strong diplomatic ties, including with some close US partners. Putin visited Beijing in October and hosted India’s foreign minister in Moscow in late December. A few weeks earlier, Putin was warmly welcomed in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, where he was greeted with 21-gun salutes and fighter jets trailing smoke in the red, white and blue of the Russian flag.

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

“Russia is not trapped at all,” said Michael Kimmage, a Cold War historian at the Catholic University of America and a State Department official in the Obama administration. “He’s not boxed in economically, he’s not boxed in diplomatically and he gets his message across about the war.”

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

“What Western leaders have evidently failed to do is be fair to their publics 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 an essay for The Wall Street Journal accuses the West of “magical thinking” about Putin’s predicament.

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

Lula invited Putin to attend the Group of 20 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. (In December Lula sidestepped questions about whether Putin would be arrested if he showed up, calling it a “judicial decision.”)

Brazil’s persistently neutral stance on Russia’s war in Ukraine emerged in a meeting Wednesday in Brasilia, the nation’s capital, between Lula and Blinken. Lula has called for peace talks, a position that Ukraine has criticized, and said the United States is fueling the war with its arms shipments to Kiev. Blinken told Lula that the United States doesn’t think conditions are right for diplomacy now.

Later that same 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 by resorting to military use. Force.”

Sergey V. Lavrov, Russian Foreign Minister, 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 on the conflict.

At a news conference Thursday, Blinken said Lavrov had heard criticism during the meeting, saying there was a “very loud chorus” speaking “about the imperative to end Russian aggression.”

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

Last month he met in New York with António Guterres, the secretary general of the United Nations, the Russian Foreign Ministry advertised in a press release in which the two men were seen shaking hands.

At the United Nations, US-led resolutions condemning the war have found little support among countries that are not closely aligned with the US 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 caused great damage to our relationships with many of these countries. We were not seen as a credible partner.”

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

Moscow has also worked to avoid being blamed for the rise in food and energy prices that followed its invasion. Several weeks ago, Russia delivered 34,000 tons of fertilizer free of charge to Nigeria, one of several such shipments 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 far more on other continents. The International Energy Agency reported last month that Russia exported 7.8 million barrels of oil a day in December, the highest level in nine months – and only slightly below pre-war levels.

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

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 works to avoid civilian casualties while Russia deliberately targeted innocents.

Beyond that, Russia has managed to form closer ties with its closest partners, what 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 for use in Ukraine, Iran continues to ship drones, and China, while refraining from exporting weapons to Russia, allows equipment that civilians and the military can use to end up in Moscow’s hands.

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

As for sanctions intended to limit Russia’s access to high technology, especially equipment that could be used for modern weapons, Putin has found alternative solutions. Neighboring countries such as Armenia and North Atlantic Treaty Organization member Turkey have not joined the U.S. sanctions regime, and private companies import microchips and other items for re-export to Russia.

Western sanctions and corporate boycotts have certainly affected daily life in Russia, albeit 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.

“Here and now, sanctions have failed,” 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 have a greater impact. Despite the loopholes and black market trade, Russia will struggle to acquire critical 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 Putin has prepared his country for an onslaught of sanctions and that he has come up with enough options to maintain his war machine and have influence on the world stage.

“Unfortunately, Russia has now built some kind 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.

Likewise, many companies that profit greatly from acting as middlemen for banned tech products are located in Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, two partners Biden would prefer not to deal with.

Perhaps most disheartening is the fact that reduced Russian oil exports will likely push 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 nervousness about doing anything that could shake up global oil markets,” Fishman said, “especially in an election year.”