“We will make sure that Putin will be a pariah on the international stage.”
That was the message from President Joe Biden as Russia launched its attack on Ukraine at the end of February, one that has been echoed regularly by leaders across Western capitals — from London, to Paris, to Berlin and beyond. And it has been backed up by condemnation at the United Nations and unprecedented sanctions on the Russian economy, its central bank and Russian oligarchs. Hardly a day passes without some new measure to ostracize Russian President Vladimir Putin and his regime.
In some ways, “pariah” sounds right.
But Russia — the world’s second-largest gas supplier, its third-largest oil supplier and the U.S.’s main competitor in global arms exports — still has friends around the world. Dozens of countries have rejected or abstained from U.N. votes criticizing the Kremlin. Some major powers — China in particular — have toed the Putin line on the war. And while sanctions have no doubt dealt a body blow to the Russian economy, a Bloomberg Economics report found that Russia could actually earn a third more from energy sales this year than last — netting around $321 billion to help line the wartime coffers.
In month two of Putin’s war, the Russian leader has been punished and vilified in meaningful ways. But he is far from out in the cold.
Incoming from Europe: $1 billion a day
Even within the Western coalition — home to the sharpest criticism of Putin and the war — the picture is far from black and white.
On the one hand, faced with a conflict on its doorstep, the European Union has been unambiguous in its rhetoric. “To this act of war, we will respond without weakness, with calm, determination and unity,” France’s President Emmanuel Macron said in late February; last week, German Finance Minister Christian Lindner said the union must “end as quickly as possible all economic ties to Russia.”
In concert with the U.S., the bloc has acted against various Russian economic interests, including its biggest banks. But one huge sector remains largely untouched: energy.
As Grid has reported, Europe relies on Russia for more than a third of its gas needs. And, despite the war, supplies from Moscow, via three major pipeline routes, currently remain steady. As do payments from West to East. The EU’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, put it starkly last week: “We’ve given Ukraine nearly 1 billion euros [around $1.1 billion],” he said. “That might seem like a lot, but 1 billion euros is what we are paying Putin every day for the energy he provides us with.”
The money matters — hugely. To put this in perspective: Russia spends around $62 billion a year on its armed forces, according to one recent estimate — meaning that, since the beginning of the war, Europe has already covered about two-thirds of Moscow’s annual military budget.
Lithuania was the first country to turn off the Russian tap, announcing last week that “from this month on — no more Russian gas.” “If we can do it,” Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda said, “the rest of Europe can do it too.”
Certainly the rest of Europe “can,” albeit not without hardship; but thus far, the Europeans are still sending their payments to Moscow. Lithuania’s Baltic neighbors are moving to cut their energy ties to Russia later this year, and Poland has said it will make itself independent of Russian supplies by the end of 2022.
The debate is perhaps most vigorous, and the consequences most important, for Germany. Russia was the source of more than half of Berlin’s gas imports in 2021, according to Reuters data. Which is why, when the country’s finance minister called for severing economic ties with Moscow, he also added a giant caveat: An embargo on Russian energy would, he said, “inflict more damage on ourselves than on them.”
Already, economists are anticipating an economic slowdown in Germany as a result of the war. Severing ties completely could turn that into a full-blown recession, according to Germany’s top banking lobby group.
Finland, less dependent than others on Russian supplies, has in recent days boosted its investments in the energy sector in a bid to ease and ultimately end its reliance on resources from Moscow. For now, as Finland’s Prime Minister Sanna Marin made clear, “We are supporting and actually financing Russia’s war by purchasing oil, gas and other fossil energy fuels.”
Friends on the global stage
Beyond the energy money, one could argue that — when it comes to the U.S. and Europe — Putin is indeed a pariah. These countries have imposed harsh economic sanctions, withdrawn their diplomats and accused the Kremlin of war crimes, among other actions. Zoom out to the rest of the world, and you get a very different picture.
China, India, Brazil, Argentina and Mexico, along with several other Asian and African nations, have maintained ties with Moscow. Even NATO ally Turkey — which has sent weapons to Ukraine — has not sanctioned Russia, nor has it closed its airspace to Russian aircraft.
Some in that list voted to condemn the Ukraine invasion at the U.N. — but they continue to resist direct action against the Kremlin.
China not only abstained from the vote, it has repeatedly echoed the Kremlin view of the war in public pronouncements and via its state media. China doesn’t call it a “war,” refuses to blame Putin or Russia for what is happening, and says regularly that NATO and the U.S. are at fault. All this reflects Beijing’s calculus of its own interests, which as former Australian prime minister and Asia Society President Kevin Rudd told Grid last week, “point definitively in the direction of Moscow.”
“They want a benign relationship with the Russians because of the length and history of the Russian-Chinese border,” Rudd explained. “They want to be able to dedicate all their strategic energies to their principal global and regional strategic adversary, the United States, rather than having to divert some of those resources — military or otherwise — to handling the Russian question.”
Another key abstention at the United Nations: India, which has deep ties with Moscow going back decades. Around 60 percent of India’s military hardware comes from Russia, making Moscow a critical partner for New Delhi. India is also a major oil importer, and although Russian supplies account for only 2 to 3 percent of the country’s purchases, it has resisted severing its ties. What’s in it for India? Among other things, Russia has reportedly been offering New Delhi oil at discounts of as much as 20 percent below global prices.
“Like other countries, we have important interests of our own that we have to factor in to all our decisions,” a senior Indian diplomat told Grid, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
An illustration of New Delhi’s position came earlier this month when India hosted Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who was greeted by both his counterpart and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Around the same time, British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss came for a visit. She was received by her Indian counterpart; there was no meeting with Modi.
In the Middle East, major players have resisted U.S. calls to isolate Russia — most notably the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, two countries with historically close ties to Washington. The de facto leaders of both countries reportedly declined calls with Biden in the aftermath of the Ukraine invasion.
For the U.S. and Europe, these gulf nations could help contain surging oil prices by boosting production — and in the process, help reduce the world’s reliance on Russian oil. But Middle Eastern powers have been reluctant to help in the way the U.S. would like, amid rifts over issues such as Washington’s push for a new nuclear pact with Iran. “The Biden administration’s determination to resurrect the Iran nuclear deal … has convinced the Saudis that America is determined to dismantle the regional order that it created, no matter what demons it may unleash,” Mohammed Alyahya, the former editor of Al Arabiya English, wrote in a recent Jerusalem Post op-ed.
For many African countries, meanwhile, a key concern when it comes to Russia is how the Kremlin might react to punitive measures — particularly at the U.N., where it remains a critical player, given its veto power on the Security Council. “There is a concern that Russia could lash out on other fronts,” Richard Gowan, the U.N. director at the International Crisis Group, told Grid. “Some African countries have been going quietly to the Russians and basically just checking to see that they are not going to start vetoing U.N. peace operations or blocking U.N. humanitarian work in Africa.”
The reluctance to criticize Russia was on vivid display at the U.N. last week, in a vote to remove Russia from the U.N.’s top human rights body. The U.S. led the charge against Moscow and succeeded, garnering 93 votes to suspend Russia. But nearly as many did not support the measure; 24 countries voted against — including China — and another 58 abstained — among them India, Brazil, South Africa, the UAE and Saudi Arabia.
Friends at home
Inside Russia, the story has not evolved in the way many in the West had hoped. A key aim of the sanctions was to spark dissent or at least some opposition to the Kremlin; that may have been a too-ambitious goal, and there are indications that Russian elites, far from abandoning Putin, have rallied around him as the war grinds on.
In a recent piece, the independent Russian journalist Farida Rustamova highlighted how, “over the past month, Putin’s dream of a consolidation among the Russian elite has come true.” She added that “these people understand that their lives are now tied only to Russia, and that that’s where they’ll need to build them.”
Among the billionaire oligarchs, for whom sanctions have meant banishment from their Western playgrounds, one in particular has at least drifted back toward the Kremlin.
For two decades, Roman Abramovich had built a new life — a very public and influential life — in Britain and beyond. His assets have now been frozen, he’s effectively been driven out of the West, but instead of turning against Putin, he has turned up at the negotiations with Ukraine. Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said Abramovich, although not part of the official delegation, was “ensuring certain contacts between the Russian and Ukrainian sides.”
Meanwhile, recent polling shows strong support for Putin inside the country, with about 60 percent of Russians in various surveys supporting the Kremlin’s actions in Ukraine, according to a summary compiled by researchers at the London School of Economics. Some of those polls show support strengthening since the war began.
The figures come with important caveats: As Grid has reported, Russia is in the grip of a brutal Kremlin crackdown on dissent that has squashed independent media and led to thousands of arrests. The remaining news outlets inside Russia are a nonstop cheerleading effort for Putin’s “special military operation” and the “denazification of Ukraine.” On these platforms, it’s not a “war” at all.
One analysis based on online questions put to a sample of 3,000 Russians concluded that a significant proportion of Russian citizens were “likely to be hiding their true views about the conflict.”
“Do Russians tell the full truth when asked about their support for the war?” the researchers — Philipp Chapkovski, formerly of HSE University in Moscow, and Max Schaub, from the University of Hamburg — said in their findings.
“Based on our experiment, we can safely conclude that they do not. On the one hand, this is good news,” they wrote.
But they also struck a note of caution: “Being against the war is not the same as being against Putin, whose high levels of support might well be real.”
None of which is to suggest that Putin is in an enviable position, at home or on the global stage. As Britain’s Truss put it last month, in a speech at the Atlantic Council: “Putin is shunned and isolated.” But given the money still pouring in, the countries lining up with the Kremlin — or at least refusing to join in the criticism — and internal polling numbers that would be the envy of leaders anywhere, the second part of her statement, that “he has made his country a global pariah,” does not apply. At least not yet.
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.