Putin has lost plenty of friends, and is making some strange new ones

Maybe they just haven’t noticed I’m here…? EPA/Tatyana Zenkovich

Vladimir Putin’s actions in Ukraine have deeply polarised the international community. Traditional friends are now wearier of Putin than ever, and on the face of it, Russia may be on the verge of serious international isolation.

Gaining the trust of other states in world politics is a long and arduous process, and so it went with post-Soviet Russia. For two decades, the Kremlin has been trying to build and maintain a strong friendship with the US and Europe, and was rewarded: even after the Russian-Georgian war of 2008, the West largley kept faith in Russia regardless of Moscow’s increasing disregard for global norms and values.

EU support in particular was crucial, greatly easing Russia’s accession to the WTO and generally preserving Moscow’s status as a major global player.

But Vladimir Putin’s actions in Ukraine have all but trashed these years of painstaking work. Most of the West is now convinced that Russia is a disruptive power that wants to unilaterally dismantle the whole world system.

Forced handshakes

Traditional allies such as Belarus, Armenia and Kazakhstan have largely maintained their formal relationships with Russia, even though their trust in Putin’s intentions has all but evaporated. But as long as the West cannot offer these countries a viable alternative to the the Russosphere, they will have to behave as if they’re Russia’s closest friends.

Putin with Kazakhstan’s Nursultan Nazarbayev and Belarus’s Alexander Lukashenko. EPA/Alexander Druginyn/Ria Novosti

The same is not true of Europe’s Slavic countries and the former Yugoslav republics, which are extricating themselves from the Kremlin’s “sphere of influence” as fast as they can.

Despite their old cultural or religious ties with Moscow, governments such as Bulgaria’s have now spoken out publicly against Putin and the intervention in eastern Ukraine, a sign that the EU’s solid commitment to the region has at last allowed these states to reject Russia’s behaviour.

So which countries are actually left in Russia’s dwindling circle of friends – and which ones are starting to cosy up to Moscow?

In with the new

Outside of Central Asia, the only old friends that still seem to trust Russia are a handful of deeply authoritarian countries in Africa (Zimbabwe, Sudan), variously authoritarian ones in Latin America (Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia), and isolated, marginal regimes (Syria, North Korea).

These countries were among the few in the UN General Assembly who voted against the resolution that condemned Russia for the annexation of Crimea, and their support reflects respect and admiration for Putin’s own increasingly authoritarian regime.

But Putin’s assertiveness has also impressed a whole range of states that in the past did not have much admiration for Russia’s foreign policy. These are the emerging military powers that want to play a more strategic role in world politics, and who are fed up of a world order that marginalises and belittles them.

Various gulf states, among them Qatar and Saudi Arabia, have spent the past decade steadily building up their military capabilities. Their attitude has moved from supporting extreme Islamic movements in Chechnya to discreetly admiring Russia for its muscular performance on the world stage. Their hope is that in the new context created by Russia’s actions in Ukraine, they might also manage to shape the world order.

Japan is a surprising case. Superficially, Tokyo generally toes the US line on Russia, but Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is also seeking to create a stronger international profile for Japan based on developing new military capabilities – opening up natural common ground with Putin’s contestation of the current world order, in which Japan is simply not meant to be a military player.

So despite imposing sanctions on Moscow at the US’s behest, Abe’s government also continues to reach out to Putin to hedge its bets.

Perhaps most strikingly of all, old rival Turkey has suddenly become one of Russia’s most important allies.

Trying something new. EPA/Mikhail Klimentyev/Ria Novosti

The stall in Turkey’s EU membership bid pushed it into Russia’s arms as never before, as President Erdogan’s move from secularism and towards religious authoritarianism put Turkey on a collision path with the EU’s promotion of democracy or human rights.

The new Russo-Turkish friendship was made official by Putin’s visit to Ankara in December 2014, during which he announced the scrapping of the South Stream pipeline project and an effective freeze on Russia’s friendship with Bulgaria and Serbia. In turn, he sealed the newly revamped friendship with Turkey by announcing plans for a Turkish Stream pipeline.

These burgeoning alliances and realignments all prove that Putin does really care about diplomatic ties to other states, even if he’s also prepared to go it alone on actions as brazen as those he took in Ukraine. And while he is obviously interested in wrangling useful agreements with states regardless of their attitude towards him, he also needs to surround himself with heavyweight allies to make Russia’s coveted “great power” status more than a fantasy.

So if he can turn this rag-bag of other nations’ dissatisfactions to his advantage, the partnerships Putin has scotched with the Ukrainian venture may not be such a loss after all.

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