Can Putin Survive?
The Lessons of the Soviet Collapse
When Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, the United States and its allies across Europe and Asia responded swiftly and with surprising unity. Within days, a U.S.-led coalition rallied to Kyiv’s side—supplying Ukraine with weaponry and intelligence, imposing sanctions and export controls on Russia, and isolating Moscow on the world stage. This endeavor has had some initial success. Bolstered by Western security assistance, the Ukrainian military pushed back the Russian advance and has forced the Kremlin to confine its ambitions to eastern Ukraine.
These separate lines of allied effort—military, economic, and diplomatic—involved concentric circles of states. A small number of advanced military powers supplied Kyiv with powerful weaponry, including antitank weapons, artillery, and drones—the bulk of which came from the United States and Europe. A wider set of countries, allies or not, joined a sanctions and export-control regime designed to damage the Russian economy. Neutral Switzerland signed up, adopting a slate of EU sanctions targeting Russia.
Western states looked to an even broader range of countries to isolate Russia diplomatically, especially at the United Nations. Through a series of UN resolutions, Washington and its allies sought to condemn the Kremlin’s behavior, eject Moscow from prominent multilateral organizations, and transform Russia into a pariah state. These efforts, however, have been less successful than their military and economic counterparts. India and the United Arab Emirates abstained from crucial votes, and 35 countries—representing almost 50 percent of the world population—abstained or voted no on a March 2 resolution to condemn the Russian invasion. Against the backdrop of deepening rivalry with China and Russia, the United States is now concerned by the prospect of a revived nonaligned bloc of countries intent on staying on the sidelines of this geopolitical competition or on playing the West and its rivals off against each other.
The United States and its European allies are right to be apprehensive. The original Cold War–era nonaligned movement established in the 1960s was a constant thorn in Washington’s side as the United States sought to combat Soviet influence around the world. But this band of states is not the nonaligned movement’s natural successor: the current group is neither new, nor nonaligned, nor a bloc. Instead, this loose grouping represents a variety of clusters of states—each with its own unique set of interests, concerns, and objectives. An effective response will require Washington and its allies to develop a more granular understanding of regional interests and specific, not sweeping, responses to emerging crises.
If Washington wants to shore up diplomatic support for its defense of international order, the first set of countries it needs to consider are hesitant U.S. partners in the Middle East. Unlike Washington’s European and Asian allies, these states—including Israel, Morocco, and Saudi Arabia—largely avoided direct involvement in U.S. efforts to isolate Russia. Israel, for instance, dithered about backing U.S. diplomatic efforts, and then offered to serve as an “impartial” mediator, with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett making several unsuccessful attempts to head off an invasion. Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, in turn, refused to increase oil production, a move that would have lowered prices and therefore eased the costs of sanctions on Russian energy. Turkey also sat on the sidelines, although it supplied Kyiv with drones. Morocco abstained from the first UN General Assembly vote, and Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE all abstained in the second, on April 7—as did countries representing fully 70 percent of the world’s population.
Each state had its own reasons for inaction: Israel relies on Russian cooperation for military operations in Syria. Egypt needs Russian weaponry and Russian wheat. The UAE needs Moscow’s support as Abu Dhabi tries to get its Houthi adversaries in Yemen designated as terrorists. For oil-producing Gulf countries, the imperative of maintaining delicate relations within OPEC—the organization of oil producers that controls prices by setting production quotas among its members—discourages action against Russia. What’s more, China is the world’s largest oil consumer, and Beijing worked hard to dissuade countries in the Middle East from isolating its Russian partner, joining Moscow in anti-Western diplomacy at the UN and amplifying Russia’s narrative about the war.
With U.S. President Joe Biden planning a trip to the region in July, Washington seems to have decided to follow the advice of Martin Indyk, the former U.S. ambassador to Israel, to cut its Middle Eastern allies some slack. After all, the United States can do little to alter the geopolitical calculations of states in the region. That may be sensible in the short term, but in the long term Washington will have to reevaluate its posture in a region where it provides security guarantees to countries whose central role in the global economy now consists of exporting oil to the United States’ primary rival.
Beyond Washington’s partners in the Middle East, two dozen African and Latin American states also chose not to align themselves with the U.S.-led effort to defend Ukraine. To be sure, few of these countries could make any meaningful contribution to anti-Russian sanctions, but Washington still wanted their votes at the UN. Despite U.S. arguments for the necessity of defending the “rules-based order,” many still chose to abstain.
As with some Middle Eastern states, many of these countries, such as Bangladesh and South Africa, were worried about losing vital Russian food and fuel supplies. As the sanctions took hold, others, such as Kenya, Mexico, and Sri Lanka—were also worried about secondary effects on food prices, which could destabilize their economies. Careful Russian and Chinese diplomacy magnified this concern by highlighting how sanctions targeting Russia, rather than Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, had driven up food prices. Western diplomats also heard a good deal from African and Latin American diplomats at the UN about Washington’s a la carte adherence to the so-called rules-based international order when U.S. interests were at stake.
Still, Western diplomats were surprised by the number of countries across the global South that refused to condemn Russia and by the sense of frustration they encountered in negotiations; one analyst characterized the Western reaction as “disappointed and a bit confused.” That’s partially because many in the United States and Europe, understandably preoccupied with the COVID-19 pandemic and China’s rising international profile, had not been listening to a growing chorus of anger in developing countries directed at U.S. and European policies. The diffidence of many of these states was not a measure of geopolitical balancing or purposeful nonalignment, but the product of deep resentment toward the United States and the West.
Two dozen African and Latin American states chose not to join the U.S.-led effort to defend Ukraine.
Since the end of the Cold War, states across the global South have sought two main things: economic growth and a greater voice in international affairs. They partially secured the first by profiting from the huge boom in commodity prices driven by Chinese growth. But they’ve gotten nowhere on the second, repeatedly running into a dispiriting combination of high-minded rhetoric and low-minded resistance. Washington and its allies frequently promised them greater involvement in international decision-making but never actually ceded ground on leadership roles within key global bodies.
As a result, Western policies have consistently locked developing countries across Africa and Latin America out of decisions that directly impact their interests. An early flashpoint was the U.S. and European failure to fulfill a decades-old promise to raise $100 billion per year in climate change assistance. Elizabeth Cousens, president of the UN Foundation, described a mood of “rising impatience, and even anger” as powerful countries failed to meet their promises, leading many states to ask challenging questions about whose interests the international system actually serves.
U.S. and European COVID-19 policies drove this point home. National vaccine hoarding, border closures, and vast domestic expenditures in the United States and elsewhere crystalized for many developing countries a sense of deep structural inequality. These states may not like Russia’s actions in Ukraine, and they may be wary of China’s growing influence, but they have also lost confidence in the ability of Western states to manage global order. That China and Russia would surely be far worse leaders of the international system is an argument that holds some sway in Brussels and Washington but very little in the global South.
Western states cannot address these concerns overnight, but two kinds of action would help. First, major donors should finally take the oft-recommended step of aligning and coordinating their development spending. This would increase their leverage at a time when China is flexing its economic muscles in the developing world. Second, Western states should heed the demands of developing countries for a greater voice in international development and financial institutions. The United States and others already command influence by virtue of the funding they deliver; they need not hold on to leadership roles and governing board seats, stoking resentment in the global South.
Then there is India. New Delhi’s lukewarm response to the U.S.-led anti-Russian coalition has something of both dynamics—dependence on Russia and resentment toward the West’s freewheeling use of the “rules” of international order. Some Indian commentators, for instance, noted that the United States and western Europe did little to respond when China deployed 100,000 troops to its border with India in 2021. Others pushed back on U.S. and European efforts to force countries to pick sides in the wake of the Russian invasion.
India’s abstention on all three U.S.-sponsored UN votes produced a flurry of angry commentary in Washington. “The Quad is dead,” lamented one close observer, referring to the nascent security partnership between Australia, India, Japan, and the United States. The Biden administration wisely took a more nuanced approach, soberly noting the abstentions but choosing not to overreact. “We know India has a relationship with Russia that is distinct from the relationship that we have with Russia. Of course, that is okay,” said Ned Price, the State Department spokesman. European diplomats, for their part, condemned New Delhi for agreeing to buy low-cost Russian oil—an odd response from governments that themselves refused to cut off imports of Russian oil until late May and continue to import Russian gas to this day.
According to political scientist Tanvi Madan, India’s posture is rooted in several factors. For one, New Delhi has a history of not publicly criticizing its partners—in this case, Moscow, which has long stood by India diplomatically. India also remains heavily dependent on Russian weaponry in its military competition with neighboring China and switching arms suppliers can’t happen overnight. Finally, although Indian policymakers take their military alignment with the United States against China seriously, they still view the arrangement as something well short of a formal alliance.
If Washington wants to isolate Russia, Biden will need to win the support of a broad set of countries.
Where India will sit in the coming fight over the contours of international order remains unclear. Washington needs to decide whether it should attempt to deepen its engagement with New Delhi. The United States must also determine whether bringing India deeper into global decision-making would help cement closer ties or merely generate opportunities for obstruction.
On the first point, ironically, the Ukraine crisis may nudge New Delhi in Washington’s direction. U.S. and allied export controls were designed to weaken Russia’s ability to arm its military, which means Moscow’s capacity to resupply India during a crisis is now in doubt. India’s alternative sources for military equipment are Europe and the United States. For once, Washington seems open to serious moves on defense supply and high-tech cooperation, and should move quickly to facilitate both U.S. and European exports to and technology cooperation with India.
On the second, potential efforts to expand the G-7 represent a litmus test for India’s integration into global decision-making bodies. During the United Kingdom’s G-7 presidency in 2020, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson flirted with proposing a D-10 model (the top 10 democracies, including India) only to encounter resistance both at home and abroad. Today, including India, whose democracy is eroding even faster than that of the United States or the United Kingdom, in a revamped G-7 remains controversial. In the short term, the best route forward is to schedule overlapping Quad and G-7 summits. This would allow India and Australia to participate in some G-7 deliberations and avoid angering excluded countries such as Brazil, whose economy is larger than Australia’s and thus grants it a more natural claim to participate in an expanded G-7 grouping.
Biden has emphasized the importance of democracies in upholding the so-called rules-based order. Democracies have played a notable role in responding to the Russian invasion of Ukraine: every full democracy voted to condemn Russia’s actions and the business of arming the Ukrainian resistance has largely fallen to powerful democracies such as the United Kingdom and the United States. But if Washington and its core allies want to build a wider alliance to isolate Russia—or down the road, respond to potential Chinese aggression—Biden will need to win the support of a much broader set of countries. Less than half the world’s partial democracies and hybrid regimes participated in isolation efforts targeting Moscow. Mobilizing a larger coalition to deal with Beijing will be an even taller order for Washington.
To make these inroads, the United States will have to reverse its recent tendency to ignore the politics of the global South. Tragically, the United States did not fulfill Biden’s promise of serving as a global “arsenal of vaccines” to help the developing world cope with COVID-19. Washington still has a chance to live up to its concrete commitments on climate finance, sustainable development, food price support, and global governance reform. In its global diplomacy, moreover, the United States would do well to eschew the rhetoric of democracy versus authoritarianism, in favor of more straightforward arguments about the destabilizing effects of allowing Russia and its partners to destroy core international norms, such as nonintervention. After all, Washington will need the widest possible coalition to triumph in tomorrow’s geopolitical contests.