Opinion | Vladimir Putin’s Big Backfire
One year into his war with Ukraine, Vladimir Putin’s world has shrunk. He’s lost his claim to be a global leader. Prior to his launching the invasion of Ukraine a year ago, the world treated Russia as a great power with a seat at the table on major international issues. Relations with the West may have been tense, but European and American officials continued to engage with Russia. Russia was an energy superpower with the geopolitical heft that went with that, and Putin had just established a “no limits” partnership with China’s President Xi. And Ukrainians were divided over how they viewed Russia.
What a difference a year has made. The devastation wreaked by Russians on the Ukrainian people has consolidated the entire country against them and ensured that Ukrainians will despise their large neighbor for a long time to come. Ukraine will emerge from this war with one of the most effective armies in Europe and with the prospect of European Union membership and close ties to NATO. Ukraine, as numerous officials reiterated at last weekend’s Munich Security Conference, will become part of the European family, the exact opposite of what Putin hoped to achieve with this war.
Russia’s relations with the West are broken and will remain so for the foreseeable future. Few Western leaders advocate engaging Russia anymore. And the collective West is united in its opposition to the war as it increases sanctions on Russia and severs economic ties. Russian officials are sanctioned, no longer welcome in many international fora. And Russian oligarchs have lost access to their homes and yachts in Europe.
Putin may have believed a year ago that Europeans were so dependent on Russian hydrocarbons that they would not jeopardize their access to them by opposing the war. But Europe has managed to wean itself from Russian oil and gas in a remarkably short time, jettisoning 50 years of energy interdependence. Russia will no longer have the geopolitical influence that had qualified it as an energy superpower even as it sets its sights on the Asian market.
Putin has closed the window on the West which his much-invoked favorite Tsar Peter the Great opened three centuries ago. But Russia’s ties with China remain strong. China repeats the Russian narrative about the West being responsible for the war, while indirectly criticizing Putin’s threats that Russia might use nuclear weapons. China does not want Russia to lose this war because of concerns that a leader who might succeed Putin might re-evaluate Russia’s ties to China. China needs Russia for ballast in this new era of great power competition. So China remains the anchor of Putin’s world, even as the relationship increasingly makes clear that Russia is the junior partner.
In one part of the world Russia is still a player. Since Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, Putin has assiduously courted the developing world, the global South, and this part of his world has expanded in the past year. No country in Africa, the Middle East or Latin America has sanctioned Russia and some have abstained on United Nations resolutions condemning the invasion and subsequent annexation of four territories in Ukraine. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was recently in South Africa, where he and his South African counterpart agreed to conduct joint naval exercises with China this week. Russia’s influence on the African continent has grown this year with the mercenary group Wagner becoming increasingly active in supporting autocratic leaders and profiting from their ample natural resources. Many countries in the global south view the Russia-Ukraine war as a regional European conflict of little relevance to them and refuse to take sides. Ironically, given their own experience of colonialism, they do not view Russia as a colonial power seeking to restore its lost empire.
Putin’s world may have shrunk, but he has used this past year to consolidate his power at home. The poor performance of the Russian military and the significant casualties — over 200,000 killed or severely wounded — have not damaged his political position. As many as 1 million Russians have left the country in the past year, many of them coming from the most dynamic parts of the economy, but those that remain by and large support the war or are indifferent to it. Greater repression and jail time for those who dare to question the “special military operation,” plus an endless barrage of propaganda about Russia fighting “Nazis” and NATO in Ukraine, have acted as a disincentive to oppose the war. Unlike during the Soviet-Afghan war, there is no independent Soldiers’ Mothers committee to protest. When Putin met recently with the mothers of dead soldiers, the cold-blooded words he offered them was that it was better that their sons die as war heroes than drink themselves to death.
Putin has also made the Russian political elite accept the war by making clear that there is no alternative. Very few of them have left, perhaps out of fear about what might happen to them if they do. The rest, including those once known as pragmatic technocrats who favored ties to the West, have adapted to the war and its constraints. There is no obvious challenger to Putin. The Russian people have been told that Putin is the leader of great power fighting the West just as the USSR fought Nazi Germany in World War II and that Russia will prevail because, according to Putin, there’s no alternative. The degree of state control and repression which has grown in the last year, where anyone who dissents is branded a traitor, makes it unlikely that Russia’s fading international stature will backfire on him domestically.
Putin launched this war hoping to reincorporate Ukraine into the Russian state and gather in other lands which, he believes, Russia has a right to rule. Russia would emerge from the conflict a larger, stronger power with a sphere of influence in its neighborhood, regaining aspects of great power status which were lost when the USSR collapsed.
But Putin will emerge from this war no longer the leader of a great power. His status as a competent leader has been diminished by his army’s poor performance and by the West’s isolation of him. Russia may still have the largest number of nuclear warheads and a veto on the U.N. Security Council, but it will have lost its seat at the table of global leadership.
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