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The West Tried to Isolate Russia. It Didn’t Work – NYTimes (Graphics)

After Russia invaded Ukraine, the West formed what looked like an overwhelming global coalition: 141 countries supported a United Nations measure demanding that Russia unconditionally withdraw.
After Russia invaded Ukraine, the West formed what looked like an overwhelming global coalition: 141 countries supported a United Nations measure demanding that Russia unconditionally withdraw.

Josh Holder, Lauren Leatherby, Anton Troianovski and Weiyi Cai, NYTimes

EnergiesNeet.co 02 23 2023

But the West never won over as much of the world as it initially seemed. Another 47 countries abstained or missed the vote, including India and China. Many of those “neutral” nations have since provided crucial economic or diplomatic support for Russia.
And even some of the nations that initially agreed to denounce Russia see the war as somebody else’s problem — and have since started moving toward a more neutral position.

A year on, it’s becoming clearer: While the West’s core coalition remains remarkably solid, it never convinced the rest of the world to isolate Russia.

Instead of cleaving in two, the world has fragmented. A vast middle sees Russia’s invasion as, primarily, a European and American problem. Rather than view it as an existential threat, these countries are largely focused on protecting their own interests amid the economic and geopolitical upheaval caused by the invasion.

The landscape recalls the many neutral states during the Cold War. But the world is now even more interconnected. The scale and complexity of global communications, economic ties and security links offer far more opportunities for the West’s rivals to gain leverage.

On Thursday, the U.N. General Assembly endorsed another resolution demanding that Russia withdraw from Ukraine’s territory — but China, South Africa, India and many countries in the global south continued to abstain, underlining their alienation from what they regard as the West’s war.

Here is how Russia is taking advantage.

Getting around sanctions

At first, the West’s economic sanctions seemed like they might undermine Moscow’s ability to sustain the war. A U.S.-led campaign, which included 37 countries, rattled the foundations of Russia’s financial system by freezing its foreign-currency reserves and targeting its main banks.

The sanctions blocked key imports like spare parts for aircraft and semiconductors for electronics. And hundreds of companies voluntarily stopped doing business in Russia, leaving regular Russians without Apple retailers or Netflix subscriptions.

But the sanctions have not been as devastating as the West hoped. A handful of countries have filled the gap, increasing exports to Russia well above prewar levels, according to data collected by Silverado Policy Accelerator, a Washington nonprofit. Other countries’ exports decreased when the war began but have since reversed course.

Source: Analysis of trade data from Silverado Policy Accelerator, using data from Global Trade Tracker; U.N. Comtrade; CEIC Data; national statistics databases. Note: A significant increase includes countries with exports to Russia at least 25 percent higher between Aug. to Nov. 2022 than their averages before the invasion, between Jan. 2019 and Jan. 2022. Other countries had increases of less than 25 percent.
Source: Analysis of trade data from Silverado Policy Accelerator, using data from Global Trade Tracker; U.N. Comtrade; CEIC Data; national statistics databases. Note: A significant increase includes countries with exports to Russia at least 25 percent higher between Aug. to Nov. 2022 than their averages before the invasion, between Jan. 2019 and Jan. 2022. Other countries had increases of less than 25 percent.

China and Turkey made up most of the export gap on their own.

Chinese passenger vehicles replaced Russia’s past supply from Western manufacturers. China exported more machinery and semiconductors, too. Other goods produced by multinational firms that can no longer be exported directly to Russia are now flowing through post-Soviet states.

Even as Turkey has sold weapons to Ukraine, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has opened up an increased flow of goods to Russia, tearing a hole in the Western dam of sanctions.

“We have always maintained a policy of balance between Ukraine and Russia,” Mr. Erdogan said in September, six months after Turkey voted with the United States to denounce Russia’s invasion.

Altogether, after initially falling post-invasion, trade levels have rebounded because enough countries remain willing to trade with Russia.

Source: Silverado Policy Accelerator Note: Includes data for 98 countries, which account for the vast majority of pre-invasion exports to Russia.

The sanctions could still be devastating to Russia in the long term. They are already stunting foreign investment and starting to drain the government’s coffers. Restrictions on oil trading have forced Russia to cut production. And reorienting the country’s natural gas pipeline infrastructure toward Asia will take years.

But even though Russia’s economy isn’t thriving, it’s strong enough to keep the war going. The International Monetary Fund projected last month that the Russian economy would grow by 0.3 percent this year, a sharp improvement from its previous estimate that it would contract by 2.3 percent.

Buying weapons and components

The United States and its partners have been dispatching ever more lethal weapons and military equipment directly to Ukraine. And they have attempted to cut off Russia’s own supply of military equipment by imposing export controls that prohibit many companies from selling critical technology to Russia.

The weapons have helped Ukraine surprise the world and hold off Russia’s much larger military. At least 40 countries have provided military aid to Ukraine, either by sending offensive weapons or by providing other forms of military aid.

But the effort to deprive Russia of military equipment has been less successful. Russia has found help here, too. North Korea has shipped “a significant number” of artillery shells to Russia, the United States has said. Iran has provided Russia with unmanned “kamikaze” drones that Moscow has deployed for attacks against civilian infrastructure in Ukraine.

And other countries, including China, have continued to supply Russia with dual-use goods like microchips that make their way into military equipment.

To be sure, analysts say Russia does appear to be facing a shortage of precision weaponry, like cruise missiles, that require high-tech equipment. And Russian soldiers report a lack of night-vision equipment and surveillance drones on the front line.

Taking advantage of global ambivalence

A lot of world leaders don’t particularly like the idea of one country invading another. But many of them aren’t unhappy to see somebody stand up to the United States, either.

Throughout Africa, Latin America, Asia and the Middle East, many governments with strong official ties to the United States and Europe don’t see the war as a global threat. Instead, they’ve positioned themselves as neutral bystanders or arbiters, preserving as much flexibility as they can.

Reaction to the invasion was mixed in Asia, where more than a third of countries declined to condemn Russia in the initial U.N. vote. While most American allies have fallen in line, Russia has been able to take advantage of trade relationships and friendly public opinion dating to the Cold War.

At the beginning of the invasion, the United States asked India to buy less oil from Russia. Since then, it has softened its stance as India has continually defied alignment with either side. As tensions increase along India’s border with China, experts have said India doesn’t feel it can risk its relationship with Russia — a key source for weapons.

Gulf countries voted alongside the West to condemn Russia, but they have since largely sought to be seen as neutral arbiters.

President Mohamed Bin Zayed of the United Arab Emirates traveled to Russia to meet with President Vladimir V. Putin and said he sought to find a diplomatic solution. He also offered up an Abu Dhabi airfield for the Brittney Griner prisoner exchange.

Dubai, in particular, has become a hub for Russians — a haven for oligarchs and pro-Kremlin elites where Western sanctions cannot reach. And Saudi Arabia has said it must pursue its own interests, even if that causes friction in its longstanding relationship with the U.S.

Nearly half of African countries abstained or were absent from the vote to condemn Russia, suggesting a growing reluctance in many nations to accept an American narrative of right and wrong. Russia has won friends through relentless propaganda and hard power, with a growing number of countries contracting with Russian mercenaries and buying Russian weapons.

In South Africa, ties to Russia go back to Soviet support to end apartheid. Its leaders have seen an opportunity to align more closely with Russia, while filling in trade gaps left by Europe and the United States. But like many other African countries, South Africa appears careful to balance its growing ties with Russia against maintaining a relationship with the West.

Latin America, with its longstanding relationships with the United States, voted largely alongside its northern neighbor to condemn Russia. But cracks have begun to show more prominently in recent months.

Colombia recently refused a request from the United States to provide weapons to Ukraine. And when visited by Chancellor Olaf Scholz of Germany last month, President Luis Ignacio Lula da Silva of Brazil declined to speak in support of Ukraine, saying, “I think the reason for the war between Russia and Ukraine needs to be clearer.”

Trying to weaken the core Western coalition

Several dozen countries make up the core group backing Ukraine by providing military assistance or sanctioning Russia.

Western unity during the war has proven remarkable, with countries long seen as relatively friendly toward Russia — like Germany, France and Italy — remaining staunchly behind Ukraine. NATO, declared “braindead” by President Emmanuel Macron of France in 2019, once again serves the clear purpose of protecting the Western alliance from Russian attack.

But even among Western countries, the unity has not been perfect. Hungary has technically sanctioned Russia as a member of the European Union, but under leader Viktor Orban it has been a persistent outlier in support for Ukraine within the E.U. Hungary delayed several E.U. decisions that required unanimous support.

Others that provided Ukraine with military support have declined to impose economic sanctions on Russia.

And a much smaller group of countries have done everything: imposed sanctions, provided heavy weapons — such as tanks, armored vehicles and air defense missile systems — and committed at least 0.1 percent of G.D.P. as bilateral aid to Ukraine, according to data from the Kiel Institute for the World Economy.

As the war passes the one-year mark, Russia’s strategy is clear: to wait out the West. Eventually, Mr. Putin is betting, European countries worried about the war’s toll on their economies and their politics will drop their support for sanctions and weapons deliveries. The countries across Asia, the Middle East and Africa that are already neutral in the conflict will continue to increase trade with Russia.

And perhaps even the United States, with its presidential election next year, will tire of war and will pressure Ukraine to give in to Mr. Putin.

How unified the West can remain — and how much of the world it is able to keep at least partly on its side — could well determine the outcome of the conflict.

Vivian Nereim, Julie Turkewitz, Andrew Higgins, Ana Swanson and Abdi Latif Dahir contributed reporting.

Sources: Analysis of trade data comes from Silverado Policy Accelerator using data from Global Trade Tracker; U.N. Comtrade; CEIC Data; national statistics databases.

nytimes.com 02 23 2023

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