Even as he puts his nuclear forces on high alert and his troops close in on Kiev, Russian President Vladimir Putin has reason to worry: his war on Ukraine appears to be backfiring.
Unmasked as an unpredictable, even existential threat to governments around the world, Putin has become a dangerous symbol of tyranny, prompting the biggest reassessment of European defense in decades. A reinvigorated NATO is emerging. Resurgent Western unity – hurt under former US President Donald Trump – has enabled sanctions against Moscow that are among the toughest imposed.
As Germany suddenly steps away from what promises to be a historic realignment against Moscow, Putin faces new, rather than neutralized, security challenges in Russia’s backyard. The Washington Post reports.
Earlier this month, Chinese President Xi Jinping, who called Putin his “best friend”, welcomed him to Beijing. But who would have been surprised by the speed, scale and force of the Russian assault on Ukraine, Beijing is proving a more reluctant ally than Putin might have hoped, with Xi urging Putin to settle the conflict at the table negotiations.
Delegations from Russia and Ukraine will meet near the Belarusian border for their first talks since the launch of the Russian invasion on Thursday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said.
The oligarchs who support Putin live in a shrinking world – their foreign mansions, their super yachts and their billions threatened with seizure.
“Russian-owned, Russian-registered or Russian-controlled aircraft” are banned from EU airspace. Amid moving images of the Russian bombardment – and Zelensky’s rise as a global cause celebre – foreign leaders who had grown close to Putin before the invasion are feeling repercussions at home.
In the United States, several senior Republican lawmakers usually quick to support Trump danced sideways after praising Putin’s “genius”. Even some of Moscow’s closest international allies, including Venezuela and Cuba, offer nuanced responses, betraying unease with the modern precedent set by Russia’s violation of Ukrainian sovereignty.
“Putin wants to establish a Russian empire,” a new German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, told parliament on Sunday. The question is, he continued, “if we can find the strength to set limits on warmongers like Putin.”
Nowhere is the about-face on Russia more complete than in Germany, where the roar of Putin’s tanks and the sound of his missiles on Ukrainian cities startle a sleeping giant awake.
Since reunification, Germany has moved away from geopolitical confrontation and sought a cautious relationship with Moscow based on post-World War II penance and energy security through Russian gas.
On Saturday, the normally reluctant Germans agreed to target a number of Russian banks, cutting them off from the vital global SWIFT network that enables international movement of funds. But as a wave of 100,000 protesters rolled out from Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate to denounce the Russian invasion on Sunday, Scholz went much further, unveiling an unthinkable increase in defense spending.
Over the weekend, Berlin also ended its longstanding resistance to sending weapons to conflict zones, authorizing the dispatch of 1,000 shoulder-launched anti-tank rockets and 500 surface-to-surface missiles. Air Stinger to Ukraine. It comes from a country ridiculed only last month for a low-key response involving a donation of helmets to Ukrainian forces.
“There has been an awakening, not only of the political class, but also of ordinary voters,” Marcel Dirsus, a German political scientist and researcher at the Institute for Security Policy at the University of Kiel, told my colleagues.
In Beijing, where earlier this month Putin and Xi issued a 5,300-word joint statement outlining a Russian-Chinese effort to counter Washington’s reach, “many Chinese officials seemed surprised that Russian President Vladimir Putin was going so away, so fast and with so much force,” Melinda Liu wrote in Foreign Police. “Beijing’s rhetoric has become less overtly pro-Putin,” she noted. A senior Biden administration official pointed my colleagues to news reports this week indicating that China has also restricted funding for Russian commodity purchases, suggesting limits on Beijing’s support.
The authoritarian hesitation
Drawing on historic ties to authoritarian regimes and more recent vaccine diplomacy, Russia has accelerated its conquest of Latin America in recent weeks – viewing economic and military cooperation there as a strategic warning to Washington. This month, the leaders of South America’s two largest nations, Brazil and Argentina, held love parties with Putin in Moscow. Now the two – along with other Putin global cheerleaders – face tough times, with signs of at least one diplomatic backlash.
“We stand in solidarity with Russia,” Brazil’s far-right President Jair Bolsonaro said in Moscow during a meeting with Putin just eight days before the invasion.
After Thursday’s invasion, Bolsonaro vice-president Hamilton Mourão appeared to indirectly challenge his boss. Saying the “Western world” was repeating the 1938 mistake of giving space to Adolf Hitler, the former Brazilian army general called for more than sanctions.
Putin has also sought to strengthen longstanding strategic ties with communist Cuba and the left-wing authoritarian states of Venezuela and Nicaragua. Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, after meeting with senior Russian officials two weeks ago, promised new and powerful “military cooperation” with Moscow.
Maduro blamed NATO for Putin’s misfortunes and criticized Western sanctions. But a government statement on Thursday ventured close to suggesting cooler heads were needed on both sides, calling for a “peaceful resolution” to the conflict and a “return” to diplomacy to “avoid escalation”.
Even communist Cuba seemed to hide a nugget of criticism in a lengthy statement blaming Washington and NATO for Putin’s “use of force.” The Havana Foreign Ministry further described the Russian action as “a failure to respect legal principles and international standards”.
“You are not going to see Venezuela or Nicaragua breaking with Russia over this, but I think they are sensitive to the violation of the principles that are dear to them, of national sovereignty and non-interference,” said Shifter. “They have the United States in mind. The theory that it gives the US the freedom to do whatever it wants in its own backyard in Latin America.