Diplomatic choices: Who is Russia leaning on for international support?

Diplomatic choices: Who is Russia leaning on for international support?

Many factors have contributed to Russia’s diplomatic support from different countries (SPUTNIK/AFP)
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Putin congratulated his “dear friend” Recep Tayyip Erdogan on his victory in the Turkiye presidential elections. In the recent geopolitical context, this victory is as important an event for Russia as it is for Turkiye, as under Erdogan’s leadership Turkiye remains NATO’s second-largest military force, but at the same time maintains friendly relations with Russia. Who else is Russia leaning on for international support, especially since the start of the Ukraine war?

In a UN General Assembly vote on Feb. 24 2022, 141 countries called for Russia’s immediate withdrawal from Ukraine and supported an end to the fighting, while 34 states abstained. Some states voted against the resolution: Belarus, Syria, Eritrea, North Korea, Mali and Nicaragua showed direct support for Moscow.

Countries with a particular dependence on Moscow have shown direct support, particularly Syria and Belarus. On March 15, 2023, during his official visit to Russia, Syrian President Bashar Assad openly thanked Putin for backing Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. In return, he supported the Kremlin’s line that Russia was fighting neo-Nazis and “old Nazis” in Ukraine. This announcement was to be expected, as Russia offered Assad’s regime full support — from military backing to political leverage at the UN, for example. The acceptance of Assad by the Arab League can also be described as a Russian diplomatic victory to some extent. Belarus supported Moscow as a close ally of Russia, and has further escalated nuclear rhetoric since the start of the Ukraine war. In a recent announcement, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko promised nuclear weapons to any nation that joined Russia and Belarus. The country has already confirmed the transfer of Russian nuclear weapons to Belarus. The alliance with Russia has contributed to an increase in trade, but also to greater dependence on its eastern neighbor.

Being the most sanctioned country in the world has contributed to Russia’s realignment toward countries with a shared anti-Western sentiment, and competitors to the Western-led world order. In this regard, Moscow relies on China and Iran. United by common “Look East” policies, in addition to defense and security, the three countries rely particularly on their economic partnerships. It is perhaps not a coincidence that the G7’s newly approved sanctions produced an immediate response, in the visits of high-level Russian officials to Iran and China. Elvira Nabiullina, chief of the Bank of Russia, made a rare visit to Iran to meet the Iranian central bank chief in Tehran, to discuss bilateral trade, banking cooperation and the enlargement of currency truncations between Russia and Iran. Meanwhile, Russia’s Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin signed a set of bilateral agreements to deepen investment in trade, promote agricultural exports and boost sports cooperation.

It is perhaps not a coincidence that the G7’s newly approved sanctions produced an immediate response, in the visits of high-level Russian officials to Iran and China

Dr. Diana Galeeva

Along with de-dollarization and building alternative financial systems, the countries involved are aiming to find alternative logistical routes. For example, the International North-South Transport Corridor is crucial in linking India, Iran, Russia, Azerbaijan and other states via railways and sea, allowing Russia to rely on other states’ connectivity and offering Russia a stable diplomatic platform for economic alternative routes, such as via India and Azerbaijan. The project has boosted the strategic partnership with Iran, with a deal signed recently to finance and build the Rasht-Astara railway. This project has already been proclaimed as a competitor to the Suez Canal as a key worldwide trade route. This policy of looking east boosts bilateral links, in addition to institutional ties, which Moscow can rely on.

Russia plays a key role in the BRICS and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and therefore also relies diplomatically on the member states of these organizations, as well as having a motivation to attract new members. The BRICS members — Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa — did not reach the point of directly participating in the war, but have lent support to Moscow. BRICS drew membership bids from 19 nations before the summit, including Algeria, Indonesia and Egypt, which would add to the countries on which Moscow can rely on diplomatically.

Another crucial set of countries are those who adopt “hedging” policies. Deputy Prime Minister of Russia Marat Khusnullin hosted the organizing committee of the leading platform for economic collaboration with the Islamic world, the International Economic Summit Russia-Islamic World: KazanSummit 2023, this year. He “stressed that none of the Muslim countries imposed sanctions against Russia and did not support Western restrictions, which indicates their relatability as partners.” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky visited the Arab League summit in Saudi Arabia prior to addressing the G7 Summit, and spoke succinctly on the importance of the Arab world’s position on the Ukraine conflict. The energy power of the Arab world, as partners for the OPEC+ states, and their relatively neutral position, has made it particularly crucial for Russia to rely on their neutrality. By adopting new nationalist policies to prioritize their economic interests, the OPEC+ decisions in October 2022 and April 2023 demonstrate support for Moscow.

By early 2023, Russia’s real GDP was 7-10 percent below what it would have been had sanctions not been applied following the invasion of Ukraine. As outlined in a statement by Deputy Prime Minister of Russia Alexander Novak, revenues from the oil and gas industry increased by 28 percent in 2022. This was not only due to a rise in prices on the world market, but also due to an increase in oil production in Russia by 2 percent and an increase in oil exports by 7 percent, despite the imposition of sanctions. Therefore, energy deals have become crucial in making Russia’s economy resilient to sanctions.

To sum up, many factors have contributed to Russia’s diplomatic support from different countries: Assad’s Syria is paying Moscow back for the regime staying in power, Iran and China share anti-Western sentiment in efforts to challenge the existing world order. Other countries that are part of BRICS or the SCO, considering some transformations in economic and political scale, are trying to balance relations with all sides; while the Arab countries are similarly making calculations based on their national interests. Is it a diplomatic victory for Moscow? Perhaps not, as it shows instead that rather than prioritizing values as it had previously (liberal, for example), or choosing between blocs (as it was during the bipolar world of the Cold War), the world is moving toward nationalist policies as a multipolar world order takes shape.

  • Dr. Diana Galeeva is a former academic visitor to St. Antony’s College, Oxford University (2019-2022). Twitter: @Dr_GaleevaDiana
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