NYT: U.S. campaign to isolate Russia shows limits

10:06 25.02.2024 •

Sergey V. Lavrov, left, Russia’s foreign minister, met with António Guterres, the United Nations secretary general.
Photo: Getty Images

Many nations insist on not taking sides in the war in Ukraine, while China, India and Brazil are filling Russia’s coffers, ‘The New York Times’ admits.

The president of Brazil says that Ukraine and Russia are both to blame for the war that began with the Russian military’s 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, encapsulate the global bind in which the United States and Ukraine find themselves as the war enters its third year.

Wielding economic sanctions and calling for a collective defense of international order, the United States 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, Mr. Putin is not nearly as isolated as U.S. officials had hoped. Russia’s inherent strength, rooted in its vast supplies of oil and natural gas, has powered a financial and political resilience that threatens to outlast Western opposition. In parts of Asia, Africa and South America, his influence is as strong as ever or even growing. And his grip on power at home appears as strong as ever.

“Today, Russia is more isolated on the world stage than ever,” Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken declared in June. Mr. 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 steep discounts Mr. Putin now offers to countries willing to replace his lost European customers. With those growing economic relationships have come strong diplomatic ties, including with some close U.S. partners. Mr. Putin visited Beijing in October and hosted India’s foreign minister in Moscow in late December. A few weeks earlier, Mr. 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 trailing smoke in the red, white and blue of Russia’s flag.

Russian influence is also expanding in Africa, according to a new report from the Royal United Services Institute, a security research group based in London.

“By no means is Russia boxed in,” said Michael Kimmage, a Cold War historian at the Catholic University of America who was a State Department official in the Obama administration.

To some Russia experts, American and European leaders have not fully reckoned with this reality.

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

Brazil’s persistently neutral stance on Russia’s war in Ukraine came up in a meeting on Wednesday in Brasília, the nation’s capital, between Mr. Lula and Mr. Blinken. Mr. Lula has called for peace talks, a position that Ukraine has criticized, and has said the United States is fueling the war with its weapons shipments to Kyiv. Mr. Blinken told Mr. Lula that the United States did not think conditions were right for diplomacy now.

Later that day, Mr. Blinken landed in Rio de Janeiro for a meeting of foreign ministers from the Group of 20 nations and heard Brazil’s top diplomat, Mauro Vieira, say, “Brazil does not accept a world in which differences are resolved by using military force.”

Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, was present. While Mr. Blinken and a handful of counterparts from allied nations denounced Russia’s war, the other officials followed the Brazilian minister’s lead in voicing neutral sentiments or stayed silent on the conflict.

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

He met in New York last month with António Guterres, the secretary general of the United Nations.

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

Moscow has also worked to avoid blame for 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.

Mr. Putin can afford such largess, 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 per day in December, the highest in nine months — and only slightly below prewar levels.

Russia’s standing is benefiting from President Biden’s support for Israel’s war in Gaza, analysts say.

China has kept up commerce with Russia and is filling in gaps left by Western companies, ensuring a supply of everything from household goods to financial services.

As for sanctions meant to limit Russia’s access to high technology, particularly equipment that could be used for modern weapons, Mr. Putin has found workarounds. Nearby countries like Armenia and Turkey, a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, have not joined the U.S. sanctions regime, and private companies there import microchips and other items for re-export to Russia.

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

“Unfortunately, Russia has now built a kind of alternative supply chain,” said Mr. Fishman, a senior research scholar at Columbia University.

He added that Mr. 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, like India, who might reduce their imports only under the threat of sanctions or other punitive measures that could risk a diplomatic crisis.

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

“I think there’s a lot of nerves about doing anything that can rattle global oil markets,” Mr. Fishman said, “especially in an election year.”


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