Russia continues an aggressive international campaign to restore lost legitimacy despite the recent International Criminal Court (ICC) order to arrest Vladimir Putin that in theory binds 154 signatory countries to detain the Russian president on arrival.
Moscow’s plans hinge on four factors: 1) the West’s failure to sanction Russian metals; 2) the Biden administration’s fixations on a new Iran nuclear deal and advancing climate change polices with China; 3) manipulating the anti-Western bloc and nonaligned movement; and 4) exploiting political concerns and aspirations of Middle Eastern states, particularly in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).
Sanctioned senior Russian officials are facing limited travel options. Unnerved by the toxicity of Russia’s reputation, Latin American countries are unlikely to be receiving someone like Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov anytime soon. But Russia can use quasi-official actors with links to intelligence, such as Rosneft’s Igor Sechin, for shadow diplomacy and securing deals. Removing the head of the octopus – referencing Israel’s doctrine of targeting Iranian personnel, not just proxies – may no longer be sufficient.
Western sanctions have focused almost exclusively on Russian oil and gas while largely ignoring metals, a lifeline for Russia’s crumbling economy. In 2022, the EU and U.S. sharply increased their purchases of nickel, aluminum, and other industrial metals from Russia. It took a scandal to convince U.S. defense contractors, such as Airbus U.S. Space & Defense, to announce their planned decoupling from Russian titanium. A planned 200% US tariff on Russian aluminum is yet to materialize because of economic and political factors driving increased demand.
The pandemic created shortages of aluminum and aluminum-based alloys from China, which over the past two decades overtook the U.S. as the leading global supplier. China’s strict lockdown in 2022 made Russia, the second leading exporter, a natural alternative. Geopolitical tensions between the EU, U.S., and China also played a role. Some of the key actors remain deluded about the possibility of weakening ties between Beijing and Moscow through sanctions and trade policies. Others have justified trade with Russia as they moved away from China for domestic security reasons. Finally, there are bipartisan political conflicts of interest. Russia’s “aluminum king” Oleg Deripaska poured millions of dollars into Kentucky, a state whose junior senator, Rand Paul, is notoriously pro-Putin, during the Trump administration. Deripaska also allegedly had a relationship with Hunter Biden, who at one point pitched himself as an expert on the Russian oligarch.
Other countries with raw materials could satisfy the demand, but have higher prices than Russia, need time to ramp up capacity, and/or lack the relationships with U.S. corporations that Russian suppliers and oligarchs have cultivated over time. Whatever the case may be, the West’s continued business with Russia is why the collapse of its weak economy has yet to fully happen.
The Biden administration’s conflicted foreign policy is ripe for exploitation, from its fear of escalation to its misplaced trust in diplomatic norms when contending with totalitarian and expansionist regimes. For instance, after two Russian fighter jets downed a U.S. drone in international airspace and Russia responded by denying the attack while pinning medals on the pilots for the attack’s success, the Biden administration’s response was to move its drones further away from the Black Sea area around Ukraine in order not to provoke Russia. The Kremlin sees this as weakness and will respond with further provocations.
Moreover, the U.S. Energy Secretary’s recent praise for China’s openness to climate change talks despite the Uyghur genocide, its threats against Taiwan, the spy balloon incident, or even its record as the world’s worst polluter show that the White House prioritizes imaginary cooperation over real-world concerns. Similarly, in a recent comment President Joe Biden insinuated that he finds that the Republicans and others are exaggerating the threat of Russia and China.
Even if he meant this phrasing as a show of strength, the message to our adversaries is that he is out of touch. Senator Ted Cruz criticized the administration for funding both sides of the war in Ukraine by empowering Russia through leniency on Iran, its primary military supporter. And the recent normalization between Iran and Saudi Arabia, brokered by China, gave an opening to Beijing and its coconspirators to countries that perceive Washington as abandoning them and ignoring their security concerns.
Russia intends to pay with yuan in the Middle East and elsewhere. The conflicted U.S. and European positions on Iran and China are opening diplomatic and economic doors for Moscow. Biden has empowered Moscow by putting Russia in charge of negotiating with Iran on America’s behalf in pursuit of a new nuclear deal; the result has been Iran’s reemergence on the international stage and increasing numbers of military projects with Russia.
In addition to never letting a U.S. and NATO mistake go to waste, Russia is also pursuing its own agency in foreign policy. For instance, having co-founded the Shanghai Cooperation Organization along with China, Russia is attracting nonaligned countries – some of whom are defense partners with the U.S. and Europe – to its own economic and defense bloc, without demanding loyalty pledges. Members and observers range from openly anti-Western Iran to NATO member Turkey, “frenemies” like Pakistan, Quadrilateral Security Dialogue members like India, and even Western-leaning countries like Azerbaijan. Most of the group consists of the Central Asian countries largely forgotten by the West.
Russia, despite its weak economy and the crashing ruble, is playing a rising role in the BRICS alliance, pushing for the development of a common currency that could weaken and one day even displace the dollar. Russia is also using BRICS to create economic pathways to circumvent sanctions, which range from developing an alternative to the SWIFT system to increased cooperation, and efforts to sideline the IMF and the World Bank.
Russia also uses the Neo-Nazi Wagner Group as an instrument of diplomacy and political influence by disbursing the fighters to prop up various corrupt regimes around the world.
Finally, Russia presents opportunities to feed the political ambitions of various countries, particularly in the Middle East, and, by doing so, looks to position itself as a global actor and powerbroker on par with the U.S. and China.
For instance, Russia, following China’s assistance in the Tehran-Riyadh denouement, is brokering the reported normalization between Bashar al-Assad’s Syria and Saudi Arabia. This gives Moscow advantages on several fronts: first, it is seen as a legitimate mediator and strengthens its presence in the region. Second, it empowers the Islamist/Old Guard faction in Saudi Arabia and gives them incentive to be more invested in Russia. Third, it strengthens Russia’s leverage against Israel, which was being erased by the fact of Russia’s military weakness in Ukraine. Israel has used Russia’s role in Syria as an argument against providing military assistance to Ukraine, but Russia was at risk of being made irrelevant in part due to the Turkish blockade and in part due to having to redeploy its forces in Syria to replace devastating losses in Ukraine. Providing Assad with a favor returns Russia to a preeminent political role, whence it can continue to wield its threats at Jerusalem, now as part of a more integrated alliance with Iran and its proxies.
Moreover, Russia is now looking to play on the vanity of the officials in Saudi Arabia’s foreign ministry circles, who dream of elevating Riyadh to the role of the mediator between Russia and Ukraine. Although the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was personally involved in negotiating the release of international POWs captured by Russia, he in no way sought political proximity to the Kremlin.
Nevertheless, don’t be surprised to see the Crown Prince soon traveling to Moscow and Beijing to underscore the importance of these players to the implementation of Riyadh’s foreign policy ambitions. With Russia’s role elevated, and the Saudi foreign policy establishment deeply invested in Rosneft and pushing for a diplomatic coup, he may not have a choice.
Russia plays off Western inattention to and ignorance of the internal politics of nonaligned and non-Western states, the diminishing role of the U.S. abroad, and on polarization of domestic politics in Western countries. Ukraine can counter these moves by waging a more active foreign policy, strengthening alliances with factions that are concerned by Iran and China, and by forging new alliances based on the interests exploited by Russia, such as metals and energy exports, soft power collaborations, and defense.
Russia’s moves to regain power and prestige in the international arena are predictable, transparent, and are based more on exploiting the fallacies and delusions of others, not to mention by hanging on to the coattails of its partners in war crimes. It’s dominoes, not chess. Disrupt one of Russia’s moves and the dominos don’t fall their way.
The views expressed in this opinion article are the author’s and not necessarily those of Kyiv Post.
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Can't dispute anything said. Unfortunately, in my humble opinion, she has hit the nail on the head. From the very beginning the West, with few exceptions, has tried to stage manage this conflict toward a "negotiated" settlement that would see Russia losing nothing and Ukraine losing thousands of its best and brightest. This war could have ended in Russia's defeat in Ukraine in 2022 had the West responded more vigorously.
It is beyond belief that some of the most prominent and wealthiest of Ukraine's allies are only now looking to ramp up production of arms and ammunition. This after more than a year of savage war and the death of not only soldiers but, children and innocent civilians. Not good enough!
Hope someone at the state department is reading this....