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20 March 2024

Putin’s fractured world

The Russian president is using the wars in Ukraine and Gaza to divide the West and the Global South.

By Katie Stallard

When Vladimir Putin celebrated his 70th birthday on 7 October 2022, the outlook for the Russian president was bleak. His assault on Kyiv earlier that year had failed and his invasion of Ukraine was foundering. The Russian lines in the north-eastern region of Kharkiv had collapsed the previous month and his troops were preparing to retreat from the southern city of Kherson. Western support, meanwhile, was proving unexpectedly resilient. The next morning there was more bad news: Ukrainian forces had bombed the Kerch Bridge – the only direct link between Russia and Crimea, and one of Putin’s prized projects. Oleksiy Danilov, the head of Ukraine’s national security council, posted a clip of the burning bridge on Twitter alongside Marilyn Monroe singing, “Happy birthday, Mr President.”

But 12 months later, the world looked very different. Putin’s birthday in 2023 coincided with Hamas’s barbaric attack on Israel, and despite the horrific scenes then emerging of the slaughter of Israeli civilians, the Kremlin’s propagandists saw only cause for cheer. Marat Bulatov, who hosts the popular Day Z show on Russian social media, began by congratulating “our boss” on his 71st birthday and reading out upbeat messages from viewers. “It’s not like last year, when the Crimea bridge was destroyed for Putin’s birthday,” wrote one woman from St Petersburg. “We have only good news today!”

In the crudest of terms, the Israel-Hamas war is good news for Putin. It has distracted international attention and diverted Western resources from Ukraine. Where Russian military atrocities and bombardment of civilian infrastructure had been front-page news in the US, now the news cycle was dominated by the humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza and the ongoing ordeal of the Israeli hostages held by Hamas. The death of the Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny in an Arctic prison colony on 16 February – either directly or indirectly Putin’s responsibility – generated stern statements from political leaders and a day or two of outraged global coverage, but no popular outcry to stop the Russian leader in Ukraine at all costs. Instead, US public support for aid to the country has weakened markedly. An Associated Press-NORC poll conducted in late February found 37 per cent of Americans thought the US was doing too much to help Ukraine, up from the 7 per cent Pew Research found in March 2022. Among Republicans, the figure was 55 per cent.

Joe Biden has attempted to link the two conflicts, delivering a prime-time speech from the White House on 19 October last year in which he likened the Hamas attack to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, denouncing the terrorists and dictators attempting to annihilate a neighbouring democracy.  But this argument has so far failed to move the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, which only voted to approve aid for Israel in November after stripping it from a package that included more than $60bn for Ukraine. The Pentagon has already been forced to slow the supply of weapons to Ukraine as it runs out of congressional funding: on 12 March the White House announced a $300m delivery of military weapons as a stopgap measure, though the US national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, said it “is nowhere near enough to meet Ukraine’s battlefield needs”.

The consequences are already being felt on the front line. Russian forces captured the city of Avdiivka in Donetsk on 17 February after months of heavy fighting as the Ukrainian forces were forced to begin rationing ammunition. Speaking that day at the Munich Security Conference, Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky complained of an “artificial deficit” of weapons that was undermining his country’s ability to defend itself against the Russian onslaught. These shortages will only fuel the increasingly prevalent narrative in the US, particularly among Republicans, that this war cannot be won. It is not only Kyiv’s detractors articulating this view. After Ukraine’s much-hyped counteroffensive last summer petered out with no breakthrough, the fighting has settled into a pattern of grinding attritional warfare, which Valery Zaluzhny, then the military’s commander-in-chief, described as a “stalemate” in November.

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The sense of unity that characterised the initial response to the war is also fracturing. Confronted with this increasingly bleak outlook, politics has returned to Ukraine. On 8 February Zelensky fired Zaluzhny, his popular commander-in-chief, after months of tension and replaced him with an ally, the commander of Ukrainian ground forces, General Oleksandr Syrsky. Vitali Klitschko, the mayor of Kyiv and a long-time political rival of Zelensky, warned in December that the country was sliding towards authoritarianism under the president’s leadership. “At some point we will no longer be any different from Russia,” Klitschko told Der Spiegel. “Where everything depends on the whim of one man.”

Putin’s initial bet that he could outlast the West’s resolve and the immediate impact of international sanctions that followed his invasion of Ukraine appears to be paying off. Russia’s casualties are mounting and he is wanted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court, but these difficulties have proved surmountable. Polling by the independent Levada Centre in November 2023 found that Russian public support for the war, still officially described as a “special military operation”, had been relatively static over the past two years at 74 per cent, although more than half of those questioned also said they would support peace talks. Analysing the results in a November paper for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the scholars Denis Volkov and Andrei Kolesnikov described a “learned indifference” among many Russians, who had adjusted to living alongside the conflict and broadly accepted the Kremlin’s narrative that Russia was fighting to defend itself against the West.

Where Ukraine is running short on ammunition and its Western partners are showing signs of fatigue, Putin has found valuable support among a network of US adversaries, including plentiful supplies of lethal drones from Iran and artillery shells and rockets from North Korea. His “old friend” Xi Jinping has also provided crucial diplomatic and economic support, with record trade between China and Russia helping to sustain the Russian economy. With the support of this nascent axis of the aggrieved, and the US distracted by its approaching presidential election and the intensifying crisis in the Middle East, Putin is increasingly confident in his ability to sustain a long war in Ukraine. As Sergey Mardan, a prominent Russian state television host, summed up the outlook from the Kremlin at the start of the Israel-Hamas war: “This mess is beneficial for Russia because the globalist toad will be distracted from Ukraine and will get busy trying to put out the eternal Middle Eastern fire.”

But the most tantalising prospect for Putin and his fellow autocrats is in how the Israel-Gaza conflict is reshaping global politics by deepening the divide between the West and the Global South. Biden’s backing of the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, as his military continues its assault on Gaza, as well as support from European nations, including Germany and the UK, has left Western leaders confronting charges of hypocrisy. They are accused of caring only about the suffering of white Europeans in Ukraine, and not the tens of thousands of Palestinian civilians being killed in the Gaza Strip. “We have definitely lost the battle in the Global South,” an unnamed senior G7 diplomat told the Financial Times about the resulting backlash. “Forget about rules, forget about world order. They won’t ever listen to us again.”

By contrast, Putin was quick to show support for the Palestinians, comparing Israel’s blockade of Gaza to the Nazi siege of Leningrad and taking nine days to call Netanyahu to express his condolences after the 7 October attack. Senior Hamas figures travelled in the weeks following the attack to Moscow, where they met Russian officials and praised Putin’s response to the war. He has seized on the crisis as an opportunity to criticise the US for the failure of its policy in the Middle East, while his diplomats have tabled UN resolutions demanding a ceasefire, which the US and its allies have voted down. As Putin presents it, the war in the Middle East is part of the broader anti-colonial struggle he claims to be waging against the West in general and US imperialism in particular in Ukraine. This is a cynical and disingenuous ploy. But there is an audience for the Russian president’s message.

“Putin sees this war as an opportunity for him to leave his pariah box and return to the global stage,” Izabella Tabarovsky, a senior adviser at the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute, told me from Jerusalem. “He wants to be seen as a leader of the Global South and to renew the friendship with the Arab states, many of which still remember the old ties with the Soviet Union. So there are a lot of very warm feelings remaining towards Russia.” At the start of the crisis, Tabarovsky wondered whether Putin might be trying to position himself as a potential mediator by emphasising his existing relations with all sides, but she now views his actions as an open break with the West. “A number of Arab states are American allies and have peace agreements with Israel, so he may be trying to tear them away from the US and betting fully on the countries that don’t openly belong to the Western coalition,” she explained. “Whatever masks may have been in place, all that is off now.”

Ten days into the Israel-Hamas conflict, Putin travelled to China – only the second time he has ventured outside Russian-controlled territory since the International Criminal Court issued the warrant for his arrest in March 2023 – to attend the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing. The event was designed to showcase the tenth anniversary of Xi Jinping’s signature foreign policy project, which he insists is a global development initiative aiming to boost trade through investment in infrastructure, but the US calls a “debt and noose agreement”. But the two leaders also used the occasion to demonstrate their avowed “no limits” partnership, greeting each other as staunch allies in front of the cameras and striding out together at the head of the assembled dignitaries through the gilded doors of the Great Hall of the People for the opening banquet. They looked, as was surely intended, as though they were completely aligned in their vision of a new world order no longer dominated by the US.

The following day Xi delivered a speech to the forum portraying China as a peacemaker and a reliable partner for the developing world, in implicit contrast to the US. “Ideological confrontation, geopolitical rivalry and bloc politics are not a choice for us,” Xi declared on 18 October, clearly invoking the US. “What we stand against are unilateral sanctions, economic coercion and decoupling and supply chain disruption.” He spoke in vague, utopian generalities of the need to build an “open, inclusive and interconnected world for common development” and, repeating one of his favourite slogans, “a shared future for mankind”. (This is in stark contrast to China’s actual behaviour towards its neighbours, with its menacing military manoeuvres around Taiwan, increasing belligerence in the South China Sea and relentless crackdown on its own citizens’ rights at home.)

For Beijing, too, the conflict in the Middle East presents an opportunity. Following the same formulation they have used throughout Russia’s war in Ukraine, Chinese diplomats have positioned themselves as concerned, neutral observers of this latest conflict, with China using its rotating presidency of the UN Security Council in November to call for an immediate ceasefire and raise humanitarian concerns. As with its stance on Ukraine, Beijing’s claims to neutrality are unconvincing, with senior Chinese officials refusing to condemn Hamas’s atrocities against Israeli civilians while accusing Israel of “collective punishment” of civilians in Gaza. When China’s Middle East envoy, Zhai Jun, toured the region in November he did not visit Israel.

At the same time, China’s normally vigilant censors have permitted anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic commentary to proliferate online, with discussions of the term “anti-Jew” surging on social media platforms after the start of the conflict and Schindler’s List targeted with offensive comments on Chinese film review websites. An Israeli embassy worker was stabbed in Beijing on 13 October, the same date Hamas had called for a “Day of Rage” against Israelis and Jews around the world, although the motive for the attack remains unclear. Disinformation researchers have accused both China and Russia, along with Iran, of promoting hate speech and anti-Israel and anti-US content on social media in the latest manifestation of what the US State Department has called an “undeclared information war with authoritarian countries”.

To be clear, this does not mean China wants to see the conflict ignite a conflagration across the Middle East, from where it imports roughly half its oil and recently replaced the European Union as the region’s largest trading partner. Before 7 October, Beijing had boasted of China’s growing influence, vaunting its role in brokering a deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia and offering to facilitate Israeli-Palestinian peace talks to lead a “wave of reconciliation” across the region. This would have suited Xi’s ambition to position China as a credible alternative to the US, although in reality he showed little interest in wading into the region’s intractable politics.

Still, Beijing sees an opening to advance its broader geopolitical interests in its response to the war. “China is trying to appeal to two audiences,” explained Ahmed Aboudouh, an associate fellow with the Middle East and North Africa programme at Chatham House and the head of China Studies research at the Emirates Policy Centre. “It wants to convince its domestic population that it is a respected power on the international stage that stands for just causes, including the Palestinian cause. And it wants to bring the Global South countries, which mostly sympathise with the Palestinians, closer to its orbit.”

Nine countries have already withdrawn their ambassadors from Israel in protest against the latest conflict, including Turkey, whose president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has accused Israel of “genocide” and called for Netanyahu to be tried at the International Criminal Court. Bolivia has severed diplomatic ties with Israel altogether, while other prominent figures in the Global South have condemned its actions, such as Brazil’s president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who has denounced the “insanity” of Netanyahu in attempting to “destroy the Gaza Strip”. In December, South Africa filed a case against Israel at the International Court of Justice, accusing the country of committing genocide against Palestinian civilians in Gaza. (Israel says the claims are false and baseless and claims to be fighting against genocide.) Citing its own history of apartheid, South Africa has also accused Israel of “settler colonialism” and “inhumane discriminatory policies” in its occupation of Palestinian territories, in a separate case at the court which Israel has declined to attend. 

Like Russia, China hopes to capitalise on the damage to the US’s image through its close alliance with Israel and the growing perception of Western hypocrisy among countries of the Global South. “The US and its allies’ perceived double standards in their unequivocal initial support for Israel’s ground incursion and bombardment of civilians in Gaza [are] increasingly seen as a paradigm shift that will create a vacuum in the region and stain the US’s image for years to come,” Aboudouh told me. “China and Russia are taking early steps to fill that void.” American diplomats, too, have identified this danger. A confidential diplomatic cable to Washington from the US embassy in Oman, obtained by CNN in early November, warned that US support for Israel’s military campaign was “losing us Arab publics for a generation”.

Biden’s response to the crisis also carries domestic political risk. The 81-year-old president is a self-described Zionist who likes to boast of his half-century of support for Israel, but his own party is bitterly divided on the issue. A Gallup poll in February found that 62 per cent of Americans disapproved of his handling of the Israel-Palestine conflict, with his overall approval rating down to its lowest level since the start of his presidency at 38 per cent. That same month, more than 100,000 Democratic primary voters in Michigan – a crucial swing state Biden carried by just over 154,000 votes in 2020 – voted “uncommitted” in protest against his strong backing for Israel. His support among younger voters in general and voters of colour – both key constituencies he needs to turn out in order to hold on to the White House in November – has also declined precipitously. With less than eight months until that election, a majority of polls predict Donald Trump will beat Biden to the presidency.

This opens up the most intriguing prospect for Moscow and Beijing: the possibility of Trump’s return to power. At a minimum, it would be disastrous for Ukraine. Trump has promised to end the conflict within 24 hours, presumably by pressuring Zelensky to hand over swaths of territory to Russia. According to the Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán, who met with Trump on 8 March, the former president told him he would cut off US support for Ukraine if he is elected. This, in turn, would send a terrible message to Taiwan and to US allies around the world that far from being committed for “as long as it takes”, Washington’s support cannot be relied upon. Despite Trump’s anti-China rhetoric, Beijing also stands to gain from his resurrection and his “America First” approach to the world. At a rally in South Carolina on 14 February, Trump said that if Nato allies don’t pay their fair share of military costs, “I’m not going to protect you.” A vengeful president who is focused on “retribution” against his political enemies at home, and who disregards the value of US alliances abroad, would shatter the last remnants of the liberal international order Biden has sought to preserve. China will not have to challenge the US for global leadership if Trump cedes it of his own volition.

This fractured world benefits the new alignment of autocrats led by Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping, who seek to exploit the deepening schisms and cheer the demise of the West’s post-Cold War certainties, even if they have yet to offer a compelling vision of what comes next. Despite their domestic economic challenges, they are only becoming more confident in the global outlook for their model of authoritarian control.

This time last year, it looked as though the Russian leader was on the verge of defeat in Ukraine, which in turn threatened to weaken his grip on power. Now, with his most prominent political rival dead and the US in danger of abandoning Ukraine, he is surely feeling optimistic about the years ahead. On 17 March, to the surprise of no one, Putin won another six years as president in sham elections, claiming 87.8 percent of the vote. Asked afterwards whether the poll had been democratic, the Russian leader turned to the political dysfunction in the US. “The whole world is laughing at what is happening [there],” he said. “This is just a disaster, not a democracy.” The next day he rallied supporters at a celebration in Red Square. “Hand in hand, we will move forward and this will make us stronger,” he told the cheering crowd. “Long live Russia!”

[See also: War and the West Bank]

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This article appears in the 20 Mar 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special 2024