Was Russia’s decision to cut off natural gas exports a mistake?
Last week, Russia announced it would halt natural gas supplies to Poland and Bulgaria after the two countries refused to comply with its request to make export payments in roubles, the national currency of Russia. It is the latest move off the battlefield to retaliate against Western efforts to weaken the country even as its armed forces continue to be held back by Ukrainian troops in the beleaguered eastern territory of Donbass.
Russia has largely succeeded in maintaining diplomatic relations in the Asia-Pacific region with China and India, its biggest allies, despite Western sanctions. But his decision to cut energy exports has strengthened Europe’s alliance with the United States, especially as Europe continues its deliberations on additional sanctions against Russia.
The Kremlin defended the move as a necessary step to protect Russia’s financial reserves after heavy sanctions.
“They blocked our accounts, or – to put it in Russian – they ‘stole’ a significant part of our reserves,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told the media during a press call.
Europe imports a third of its oil and gas from Russia, but that hasn’t deterred it from using sanctions as a tool to stop the country’s aggression in Ukraine. The European Union has already launched five rounds of economic sanctions against Russia and is expected to introduce more sanctions in the coming weeks.
Russia’s decision to cut off gas exports to Poland and Bulgaria – the latter having remained undecided in its stance on Russia until the recent ban – is a risky move meant to serve as a warning to other European countries. But some experts called the decision a miscalculation.
According to Yoshiko Herrera, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who specializes in Eurasian politics, this could have the intended opposite effect.
“One of the key arguments for people who are in favor of additional energy sanctions is to say that Russia is an untrustworthy partner, that they are using energy as a political tool,” Herrera said. “So by cutting off the gas to Poland and Bulgaria, they are sort of pretending that they are not reliable partners.”
Although no formal proposal has been put forward, Bloomberg reports that the EU will likely introduce a ban on Russian oil by the end of the year, gradually limiting its imports until then.
“Comprehensive European energy sanctions would really hurt [Russia’s] economy and hurt their ability to wage war because they will run out of money. So I think that’s something Russia has to worry about,” Herrera said. “Their continued misbehavior in Ukraine, the atrocities are what I think are causing Europe to change its stance quite drastically on things, on energy.”
Russia has maintained allies since its invasion of Ukraine
Despite widespread condemnation and efforts by Western powers to isolate Russia, the country has managed to retain allies. In April, the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution to suspend Russia from the Human Rights Council for its invasion of Ukraine. The resolution was passed after receiving a two-thirds majority vote from member states, with 93 nations voting in favor of suspending Russia from the body. But 24 of the body members voted against the action while 58 members abstained from the vote altogether.
The results of the UN vote signify the complexities of real-world diplomacy, even in the face of war. Countries in Africa, South America and Asia have increasingly sought to resist taking sides as the Russian-Ukrainian war threatens to shape the world into political factions. But the West’s waning influence in other parts of the globe, combined with the economic and political interests at stake, has led many nations to choose to retain their independence when it comes to relations with Russia.
In Asia, where growing vigilance over China’s growing influence is shared across borders, nations in the southeast and south of the continent have expressed their intention to remain on good terms with Russia despite the situation with Ukraine. Among Russia’s staunchest allies is India, with whom it has maintained a strong alliance since the Soviet Union’s support of India during the 1971 war with Pakistan.
Another factor behind their continued friendship is India’s reliance on Russia as a supplier of military arms – from the 1950s to the present, the country has received around 65% of firearms exports from the Soviet Union or Russia, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Another motivating factor for India is the border disputes between India in the Himalayas and China, which sparked a bloody clash in 2020, as Russia has played an important mediating role in the conflict with the China.
The close ties between India and Russia pose challenges for Western powers as India is seen as a key partner in curbing Russian influence in the region.
China, another key Russian ally, has refrained from outright condemnation of Russia, instead calling on the warring countries to reach a peaceful resolution. During a virtual meeting in March with France and Germany, President Xi Jinping called for “maximum restraint” on the issue and expressed concerns about the broader impact of sanctions on Russia. But some, like Herrera, doubt the extent to which China will continue to toe the line if things get worse.
“China hasn’t said it won’t abide by the sanctions and so far it’s accepting the sanctions against Russia,” Herrera said. A potential turning point, she said, could be Europe’s next sanctions, especially the secondary sanctions it imposes, which will be “a big crossroads for China to decide whether or not to participate in these. “.
But its ties to Russia could still end up serving China economically. President Vladimir Putin has said Russia will “redirect” its energy exports to “fast-growing markets” elsewhere to help oppose sanctions, perhaps in an effort to maintain support from its key ally.
Russian forces continue to face military obstacles in Ukraine
After two months of conflict, tensions on the warfront between Russia and Ukraine have shown no signs of escalating. Russian armed forces have shifted focus in recent weeks to take control of eastern Ukraine, called the Donbass territory, where fighting between Ukrainian troops and Russian-backed separatists had continued since 2014.
Russia has also continued its advance on Kyiv, launching an airstrike on the capital last week during a diplomatic visit by UN Secretary-General António Guterres. The attack was widely condemned as a needless act of aggression by Russian forces.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who met Guterres during his visit to the capital, accused Russia of deliberately trying to humiliate the UN.
“It says a lot about Russia’s true attitude towards global institutions, about Russian leaders’ efforts to humiliate the UN and everything the organization stands for. It requires a strong response,” Zelenskyy said in a public address after the airstrike.
Former UN Under-Secretary-General Mark Malloch-Brown said the international community “will recognize that it cannot see its UN Secretary-General treated in this disrespectful, flippant and downright dangerous manner, by Putin “.
With the conflict showing no signs of abating, US President Joe Biden last week asked Congress to send an additional $33 billion in military aid to bolster Ukraine’s military defenses. Biden’s proposal, which includes strategies to potentially use funds seized from Russian oligarchs to fund Ukraine’s military operations, is more than double the $13.6 billion in military and humanitarian aid already approved by Congress last month.
Herrera thinks an extra boost could be hugely helpful to Ukraine, both strategically and physically, even this far into the war. Combined with energy sanctions by Europe, she said Russia could face significant obstacles to achieving its goals because “it would make a big difference in Russia’s ability to wage war.”