It's All About the Alliances
Cracks have emerged in Russia's coalition. Will the West hold together?
The recent Ukrainian advances indicate that Kyiv has the upper hand in morale: Ukrainians are locked in an existential struggle, and for many people, Putin's rhetoric isn't enough for soldiers to put their lives on the line.
But another component of the war's trajectory came into focus this week -- alliances. Russia and Ukraine are not just fighting each other. The war is global. The West has lined up behind Ukraine and given it massive military aid to be able to compete with Russia, whereas China had lined up behind Russia and India had kept its criticism of the war muted. Until now.
This past week, at the annual Shanghai Cooperation Organization meeting in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, Russian leader Vladimir Putin met with the leaders of India and China -- Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping. India had sought a more pro-Moscow course than the West over Ukraine: it had not joined in on economic sanctions, bought cut-rate oil from Moscow, and abstained from criticizing Russia. That changed. On September 16, Modi assailed Putin directly, saying, "Today’s era is not an era of war, and I have spoken to you on the phone about this."
Xi did not rebuke Putin publicly. However, in their first in-person meeting since the war broke out, China's Foreign Ministry statement made no mention of Ukraine, and instead said the two countries will work together on "each other's core interests." It was a far cry from the statement that the Chinese Foreign Ministry made on February 4 -- 20 days before the invasion -- where China said there were "no limits" to the partnership with Russia. In addition, this past week, Putin publicly acknowledged China's "questions and concerns" about the Ukraine war.
It is not yet clear what the policy results of this diplomatic earthquake will be. India and China have yet to join in on a global price cap on Russian oil introduced by the G-7. (There are substantial questions over whether the plan would actually be enforceable in practice.) Were they to, it could be a substantial addition to the West's economic warfare against Russia.
Still, India's rebuke and China's muted statement show that there are, in fact, limits to Russia's alliances. Putin has an almost religious belief that the Western alliance will collapse. But his own alliances are proving to be quite shaky as Russia loses on the battlefield.
The West, meanwhile, has been steadfast in its defense of Ukraine. With the exception of Hungary's Viktor Orban, the Western sanctions coalition has remained intact. Elections in Italy and Sweden, however, could threaten that coalition. Italy's elections are slated for September 25, and Giorgia Meloni of the far-right Brothers of Italy party is favored to win in a far-right coalition. She has condemned the war and is in favor of sanctions. However, one of her coalition partners, Matteo Salvini, recently questioned the costs of Western sanctions against Russia. Another coalition partner, Silvio Berlusconi, was very close to Putin and has made wishy-washy comments about the war. This past week, the far-right party Sweden Democrats won the second-most votes, and is poised to be part of a right-wing coalition. A week before the Ukraine invasion, its leader Jimmie Akesson was asked whom he preferred -- U.S. President Joe Biden or Putin, and he replied: "it depends on the context.” However, since the invasion, the party has favored Sweden's entry into NATO, which is already undergoing ratification, and Akesson called Russia a "full-scale dictatorship." There aren't any immediate signs of the Western alliance crumbling, but it is difficult to predict the future with the possibility of a cold winter, potential gas shortages, and a swing to the right in Europe.
Even with Ukraine's recent military progress, the Russia-Ukraine War seems poised to go on for months, or even years. Western countries have launched an unprecedented sanctions regime against Russia. The full impact of some of those sanctions will also take several more months, or even years. Recently, U.S. officials told CNN that they were frustrated with how slow some of the sanctions were taking to bite. As such, whose coalition holds together the longest may win.
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