How to Push Back Against Russia’s Persistent Influence

Moscow has increased its influence and leverage in many important countries, including ones that matter a great deal to Washington.

Moscow has increased its influence and leverage in many important countries, including ones that matter a great deal to Washington. These countries, in turn, have taken advantage of new global divisions to raise their regional and international profiles, writes ‘The Foreign Affairs’.

Over the course of this year, we held conversations with scholars, private sector experts, and policymakers from seven important U.S. partners — Brazil, India, Indonesia, Israel, Mexico, South Africa, and Turkey — to discuss the core issues in these countries’ relationships with Russia, how their governments engage with Moscow, and how they view Russia’s war in Ukraine. Across the board, we encountered a reluctance to take sides in what is largely seen as a strictly European conflict. Our interlocutors made clear that publics in their countries were receptive to Russian narratives blaming the West for the war.

This does not mean the United States and its allies have lost the battle for influence with Russia, but they cannot expect these countries’ full support. In a world of renewed great-power rivalry, middle powers are seeking opportunities, not alignment.

…Moscow is particularly adept at exploiting wariness toward Washington in countries such as Brazil, India, Indonesia, Mexico, and South Africa.  Western leaders have started to recognize Russia’s advantage in this war of rhetoric. At a conference in February, French President Emmanuel Macron said he has been “shocked by how much credibility we are losing,” referring to the West’s diminished status in the eyes of the rest of the world. At the same event, Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign affairs chief, acknowledged “how powerful the Russian narrative is.”

The Russian narrative about the war in Ukraine taps into a widespread resentment of the United States.

…Moscow has presented itself as a global defender of traditional values against licentious Western societies that promote abortion and LGBTQ rights, suppress religious freedom, and impose their cultural preferences on others. The Kremlin portrays Ukraine as a dangerous outpost of Western “wokeness.” Such ideas resonate among some culturally and religiously conservative populations across Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East, as well as in Europe and North America.

Russia has also instrumentalized the Soviet past to serve its present political purposes. In its dealings with India, Indonesia, Mexico, and South Africa, Russia draws on historical Soviet support for anticolonial movements.

Lavrov has positioned Russia on the side of countries that stand against the West’s “attempts to falsify history, to erase the memory of the horrible crimes of the colonizers, including genocide.” Such rhetoric has been particularly effective in South Africa, where the ruling African National Congress contrasts Moscow’s support  for the ANC with Washington’s inaction during the apartheid era. Many of  the party’s leaders were educated in the Soviet Union or in Russia. Their strong identification of Moscow with opposition to Western colonialism has led to a sense that they owe what one South African expert calls a “liberation debt” to today’s Russia — a sentiment the Russian government has cultivated.

Energy is Russia’s primary lever of economic influence. The West set a price cap on Russian oil in late 2022 to reduce Russian oil revenues, which help fund Moscow’s war effort, without stopping the sale of Russian oil, which would create global shortages. Europe has slashed its imports from Russia, but Russian oil continues to flow to global markets.

The biggest beneficiary is India, which imports 85 percent of its oil. Before the war, hardly any of that oil came from Russia; now, Russia provides half of India’s supply, and at a discount. Energy exports have driven large spikes in Russia’s overall trade with several countries — since the 2022 Russia’s trade volume with Brazil has doubled and its trade with India and Turkey has tripled.

Russia is also using nuclear energy exports, which have not been sanctioned, to gain influence abroad. In 2010, Russia and Turkey signed a deal for Rosatom, a state corporation that has a monopoly on the Russian nuclear industry, to construct Turkey’s first nuclear power plant. When Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan opened the plant in southern Turkey earlier this year, he thanked Putin personally and announced his intention to build at least two more plants “as soon as possible.” Under the arrangement with Rosatom, which now owns and operates the Turkish nuclear plant, Turkey’s reliance on Russia will continue for decades. 

Russian fertilizer and grain are important to Indonesia, Turkey, and other countries we examined, too. Brazil imports the vast majority of its fertilizers, a quarter of which come from Russia — making Brazil Russia’s biggest fertilizer customer.

Historically, arms sales allowed Moscow to collect profits and build relationships with foreign leaders and their militaries. Russia’s role in this area had been declining even before the war in Ukraine. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Russia’s share of total global arms exports in 2018-22 fell by roughly one-third compared with the previous five-year period. Now, the war is constraining Russia’s ability to export on the same scale as before. Yet defense remains the cornerstone of some bilateral relationships, most notably the one Russia shares with India, whose reliance on military materiel from Moscow dates back to the Soviet period. “It is in India’s interest to sustain a productive relationship with Russia for the purpose of its defense preparedness,” noted one senior Indian policymaker.

One of the most important reasons why Russia has maintained — and in some cases gained — influence in these countries has less to do with Moscow’s tactics than with the countries’ own foreign policy orientations. CIA Director William Burns has referred to the category to which these countries belong as the “hedging middle,” because the members are “intent on diversifying their relationships in order to expand their strategic autonomy and maximize their options,” and they “see little benefit and lots of risk in monogamous geopolitical relationships.”

Similar to the United States and Europe, these countries are practicing forms of “de-risking” in the face of unpredictable global currents. The difference is that, whereas the West is focusing on threats from China and Russia, middle powers are trying to avoid getting tangled up in great-power rivalries and other global disruptions. In some cases, these countries seek to exploit great-power rivalry to advance their own interests.  

The persistence of ties between Russia and these middle powers since the war began has challenged Washington’s ability to isolate Moscow and expand the coalition supporting Ukraine. Despite the Biden administration’s outreach, these countries have more or less remained committed to neutrality — and their positions are unlikely to change any time soon, stresses ‘The Foreign Affairs’.

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