Russia’s relations with the West are broken and will remain so for the foreseeable future. Few Western leaders now advocate involving Russia. And the collective West is united in its opposition to the war as it ramps up sanctions against Russia and breaks economic ties. Russian officials are sanctioned and are no longer welcome in many international forums. And Russian oligarchs have lost access to their homes and yachts in Europe.
Putin may have believed a year ago that Europeans were so dependent on Russian hydrocarbons that they would not jeopardize their access to it by opposing the war. But Europe has succeeded in disengaging from Russian oil and gas in a remarkably short time, throwing away 50 years of energy interdependence. Russia will no longer have the geopolitical clout that had branded it an energy superpower even as it sets its sights on the Asian market.
Putin has closed the window to the West that his much-vouted favorite, Czar Peter the Great, opened three centuries ago. But Russia’s ties with China remain strong. China repeats the Russian narrative that the West is responsible for the war, while indirectly criticizing Putin’s threats that Russia could use nuclear weapons. China does not want Russia to lose this war out of concern that a leader who could succeed Putin could reassess Russia’s ties with China. China needs Russia as a ballast in this new era of great power competition. So China remains the anchor of Putin’s world, even as the relationship makes it increasingly clear that Russia is the junior partner.
In one part of the world, Russia is still a player. Since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, Putin has assiduously courted the developing world, the global South, and this part of the world of his has expanded in the past year. No country in Africa, the Middle East or Latin America has sanctioned Russia and some have abstained from United Nations resolutions condemning the invasion and subsequent annexation of four territories in Ukraine. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was recently in South Africa, where he and his South African counterpart agreed to hold joint naval exercises with China this week. Russia’s influence on the African continent has grown this year with the Wagner mercenary group increasingly active in supporting autocratic leaders and benefiting from its abundant natural resources. Many countries in the global south see Russia-Ukraine as a European regional conflict of little relevance to them and refuse to take sides. Ironically, given their own experience of colonialism, they do not see Russia as a colonial power seeking to restore its lost empire.
Putin’s world may have shrunk, but he has used the past year to consolidate his power at home. The poor performance of the Russian army and the significant casualties (more than 200,000 dead or seriously wounded) have not damaged its political position. Up to 1 million Russians left the country last year, many of them from the most dynamic parts of the economy, but those who remain are generally supportive of the war or indifferent to it. Increased repression and jail terms for those who dared to question the “special military operation”, plus an endless barrage of propaganda about Russia fighting “Nazis” and NATO in Ukraine, have acted as a disincentive to oppose the war. Unlike the Soviet-Afghan War, there is no independent Soldiers’ Mothers Committee to protest. When Putin recently met with the mothers of dead soldiers, the cold-blooded words he told them were that it was better for his sons to die as war heroes than to drink themselves to death.
Putin has also made Russia’s political elite accept war by making it clear that there is no alternative. Very few of them have left, perhaps out of fear of what might happen to them if they did. The rest, including those once known as pragmatic technocrats who favored ties to the West, have adapted to the war and its limitations. There is no obvious challenger to Putin. The Russian people have been told that Putin is the leader of a great power fighting the West just like the USSR fought Nazi Germany in World War II and that Russia will prevail because, according to Putin, there is no alternative. The degree of state control and repression that has increased in the past year, with anyone who dissents being branded a traitor, makes it unlikely that Russia’s declining international stature will backfire on it domestically.
Putin launched this war in the hope of reincorporating Ukraine into the Russian state and reuniting other lands that he says Russia has the right to rule. Russia would emerge from the conflict as a larger and stronger power with a sphere of influence in its vicinity, reclaiming aspects of great power status that were lost when the USSR collapsed.
But Putin will come out of this war and will no longer be the leader of a great power. His status as a competent leader has been diminished by the poor performance of his army and by the West’s isolation from him. Russia may still have the most nuclear warheads and a UN Security Council veto, but it will have lost its seat at the world leadership table.