Analysis: Putin’s invasion of Ukraine could be backfiring
Even as he puts his nuclear forces on high alert and his troops close in on Kyiv, Russian President Vladimir Putin has reason to worry: His war on Ukraine appears to be backfiring.
Unmasked as an unpredictable, even existential threat in the view of governments around the world, Putin has emerged as a dangerous symbol of tyranny, stoking the biggest European defense reassessment in decades. A reinvigorated NATO is emerging. Resurgent Western unity — wounded under former president Donald Trump — has enabled sanctions on Moscow that are some of the harshest ever imposed. With Germany suddenly off the fence in what is shaping up to be a historic realignment against Moscow, Putin faces new, as opposed to neutralized, security challenges in Russia’s backyard.
Earlier this month, Chinese President Xi Jinping, who has called Putin his “best friend,” welcomed him to Beijing. But reportedly taken aback by the speed, scope and force of Russia’s assault on Ukraine, Beijing is proving a more reluctant ally than Putin might have hoped, with Xi urging Putin to settle the conflict at the negotiating table. Delegations from Russia and Ukraine will meet near the Belarus border for their first talks since Russia launched its invasion Thursday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said.
Putin’s supportive oligarchs live in a shrinking world — their foreign mansions, super yachts and billions under threat of seizure. “Russian-owned, Russian-registered or Russian-controlled aircraft” are banned from E.U. airspace. Amid stirring images of the Russian bombardment — and the rise of Zelensky as a global cause celebre — foreign leaders who had cozied up to Putin before the invasion are suffering repercussions at home.
In the United States, several senior Republican lawmakers typically quick to back Trump have danced sidesteps after he praised Putin’s “genius.” Even some of Moscow’s closest international allies, including Venezuela and Cuba, are offering nuanced responses, betraying unease with the modern precedent set by Russia’s violation of Ukrainian sovereignty.
“Putin wants to establish a Russian empire,” a newly steeled German Chancellor Olaf Scholz declared Sunday in parliament. The question is, he continued, “whether we can summon the strength to set boundaries to warmongers like Putin.”
Nowhere is the about-face on Russia more full than in Germany, where the rumbling of Putin’s tanks and the toll of his missiles on Ukrainian cities is jolting awake a sleeping giant.
Since reunification, Germany has shrunk from geopolitical confrontation and sought a careful relationship with Moscow based on post-World War II penance and energy security through Russian gas.
On Saturday, the normally reluctant Germans agreed to target a number of Russian banks, cutting them off the vital SWIFT global network that allows international movement of funds. But as an outpouring of 100,000 demonstratorsfanned out from Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate to decry the Russian invasion on Sunday, Scholz went far further, unveiling a previously unthinkable surge in defense spending.
As part of a remarkable security rethink, German military spending will get a one-off spike of $110 billion, about twice last year’s defense budget. Scholz also pledged Germany’s annual military spending would immediately begin to exceed a 2 percent of gross domestic product target for NATO nations — a level Berlin was not projected to reach until 2024. It shows how the Russian threat seems to havecrystallized for Germans more over the last four days than in the last two decades combined.
Over the weekend, Berlin also cut through its long-standing resistance to sending weapons to conflict zones, authorizing the dispatch of 1,000 shoulder-launched antitank rockets and 500 surface-to-air Stinger missiles to Ukraine. This from a country ridiculed only last month for a muted response involving a gift of helmets to Ukrainian forces.
“There has been an awakening, not just by the political class, but also by ordinary voters,” Marcel Dirsus, a German political scientist and fellow at the Institute for Security Policy at the University of Kiel, told my colleagues.
In Beijing, where earlier this month Putin and Xi issued a 5,300-word joint statement outlining a Russian-Chinese effort to counter Washington’s reach, “many Chinese officials seemed startled that Russian President Vladimir Putin would move so far so fast — and so forcefully,” Melinda Liu wrote in Foreign Policy. “Beijing’s rhetoric has become less overtly supportive of Putin,” she noted. A senior Biden administration official pointed my colleagues to media reports this week stating that China had also restricted financing for Russian commodity purchases, suggesting limits to Beijing’s support.
Building on historic ties to authoritarian regimes and more recent vaccine diplomacy, Russia accelerated its courting of Latin America in recent weeks — seeing economic and military cooperation there as strategic warning to Washington. This month, leaders of South America’s two largest nations, Brazil and Argentina, held lovefests with Putin in Moscow. Now, both of them — along with other global Putin cheerleaders — are facing awkward moments, with signs of at least some diplomatic backtracking.
“We are in solidarity with Russia,” Brazil’s far-right President Jair Bolsonaro declared in Moscow during a meeting with Putin just eight days before the invasion.
After Thursday’s invasion, Bolsonaro’s vice president, Hamilton Mourão, seemed to indirectly call out his boss. Saying the “Western world” was repeating the 1938 mistake of giving space to Adolf Hitler, the former Brazilian army general called for more than sanctions.
“The use of force is needed, a support for Ukraine,” he said. “That’s my view. If the Western world just lets Ukraine fall, Bulgaria will be next, then the Baltic States, and so on. Just as Hitler’s Germany did in the 1930s.”
Bolsonaro publicly rebuked his No. 2. But despite a certain tiptoeing around Russian aggression from Brazil’s Foreign Ministry, the country still stood with the 11 members of the U.N. Security Council that voted in favor of a resolution to denounce the Russian invasion — a measure that Moscow vetoed.
On Feb. 3, Argentina’s President Alberto Fernández, also meeting with Putin in Moscow, heralded a future with Russia as an antidote to U.S. power. But, as images of fleeing Ukrainian refugees and Russian missile strikes began rippling across social media Thursday, Fernandez called for Moscow to “end” action in Ukraine. His reluctance to say much more sparked an influential group of opposition politicians and intellectuals to demand he make “a clear and forceful condemnation” and show “the immediate alignment of our country with the West.”
“I think this invasion, and all the images that are just so egregious, are going to cost these leaders, and that’s why they’ve backtracked a little bit,” Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, told me. “Any kind of sympathy with Russia is not sustainable with the public opinions in Brazil or Argentina right now.”
Putin also sought to boost long-standing strategic ties to communist Cuba and the left-wing authoritarian states of Venezuela and Nicaragua. Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro, after meeting with senior Russian officials two weeks ago, pledged new and powerful “military cooperation” with Moscow.
Maduro has blamed NATO for Putin’s woes and criticized Western sanctions. But a government statement Thursday ventured close to suggesting cooler heads were needed on both sides, calling for a “peaceful resolution” to the conflict and “a return” to diplomacy to “avoid escalation.”
Even communist Cuba seemed to hide a nugget of criticism inside a lengthy statement blaming Washington and NATO for Putin’s “use of force.” Havana’s Foreign Ministry still described the Russian action as “the nonobservance of legal principles and international norms.”
“You’re not going to see Venezuela or Nicaragua break with Russia over this, but I think they are sensitive to the violation of principles they hold dear, of national sovereignty and non interference,” Shifter said. “They have the U.S. in mind. The theory that this gives the United States free rein to do what it wants in its own backyard in Latin America.”