Russia risking its reputation in Ukraine
While Russia may yet have the military might to overcome pro-Ukrainian forces, it is taking punches in the parallel soft power battle.
In recent days, Moscow has been subjected to an array of not just economic sanctions, but wider diplomatic and cultural rebukes, including its participation in major sporting events. In so doing, Russia now risks its reputation to a degree that is unprecedented in the post-Cold War era.
Just one example of the wide-ranging anger is shown by Fridays for Future, the global youth movement launched by Swedish climate change activist Greta Thunberg, which has launched a series of events to protest the situation in Ukraine. Although the Ukraine conflict might seem distinct from global warming, the young activists see the two issues as stemming from the same problem: The world’s thirst for fossil fuels, which are key to Russia’s economic prowess. The group argues that the international community has not been able to counteract Moscow with full-fledged economic sanctions because of its dependence on Russian oil and gas.
Another example of the growing global blowback is the cultural boycott of Russia, with television networks such as the BBC withdrawing partnerships with Russian counterparts and London’s Royal Opera House canceling shows featuring Moscow’s Bolshoi Ballet. Meanwhile, in France, the Cannes Film Festival — the nexus of Riviera glamor often sought out by the Russian elite — is barring delegates with ties to the Kremlin.
On the sporting front, FIFA joined UEFA in announcing it would bar Russian teams from its events — including the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, which is scheduled to start in November — until further notice. That move came days after the football associations of Poland and Sweden announced that they would refuse to play Russia in the upcoming World Cup qualifying playoff matches.
While the gamble that Russia is taking in Ukraine is the biggest of any of its overseas operations in years, if not decades, it follows a playbook that Moscow has long championed as its foreign policy. It has also become increasingly emboldened. The post-Boris Yeltsin era has seen Russia seeking to achieve geopolitical prominence through international gambits like the annexation of Crimea, its intervention in Syria and the fostering of joint economic activities in the disputed islands off Japan’s northernmost main island of Hokkaido.
With Moscow’s ties with Washington and the wider West so frosty, Russia may increasingly opt for an even more confrontational relationship, with challenging implications for geopolitics and the global economy.
Economically, Moscow is also targeting Africa. In 2019, it hosted the first Russia-Africa summit as it sought to restore its influence on the continent that had faded following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Moscow had hoped to host a second such summit this year and is keen to entrench its foothold in Africa, with bilateral trade having risen significantly.
While Russia’s previous foreign policy escapades had generally played well domestically, the offensive in Ukraine may be a turning point. Last Saturday alone, more than 3,000 people protesting the war in Ukraine were arrested, as demonstrations in Moscow and St. Petersburg turned violent.
Even before the Ukraine offensive, there was widespread international concern about the direction Russia was taking. In 2019, Pew Global Research found that less than half of adults in most of the 33 countries surveyed saw Russia favorably.
A median of 41 percent of people across the six Asia-Pacific countries surveyed said they had a favorable view of Russia, while a median of 40 percent stated they do not. Only about a quarter in Japan (25 percent) and Australia (26 percent) saw Russia positively, contrasted with a 56 percent majority of Filipinos, while in India 49 percent had a favorable opinion.
North Americans and Western Europeans have been especially critical of Moscow. Even in 2019, only 18 percent of Americans and three in 10 Canadians had a positive opinion of Russia, while in Western Europe a median of only 31 percent saw Russia favorably, including 12 percent of Swedes, 23 percent of Dutch respondents and 26 percent of UK citizens. Little wonder, then, that Russia has had much frostier relations with the West, not least the US.
In this context, one of the key questions for international politics going forward is whether Russia’s recently warming ties with China will continue. President Xi Jinping initially refused to criticize Moscow’s actions, but Beijing this week expressed its “deep regret” at the situation.
This underlines why the implications of the Ukraine invasion are global, not least given Russia’s long-standing support for Western foes, including Venezuela, Syria, North Korea and Iran. With Moscow’s ties with Washington and the wider West so frosty, Russia may increasingly opt for an even more confrontational relationship, with challenging implications for geopolitics and the global economy.
- Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.