0

Was Russia’s decision to cut off natural gas exports a mistake?

Last week, Russia announced it would cut off natural gas deliveries to Poland and Bulgaria after both countries refused to honor its request to make export payments in rubles, Russia’s national currency. It is the latest off-battlefield move to counter Western efforts to weaken the country, even as Ukrainian troops continue to slow down their armed forces in the beleaguered eastern territory of Donbas.

Russia has largely been able to maintain diplomatic relations in the Asia-Pacific region with China and India, its biggest allies, despite Western sanctions. But his decision to cut energy exports has strengthened Europe’s alliance with the US, particularly as Europe continues to deliberate additional sanctions against Russia.

The Kremlin defended the move as a necessary measure to protect Russia’s financial reserves following heavy sanctions.

“They blocked our accounts or, to put it in Russian, ‘stole’ a significant part of our reserves,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told the media during a news conference.

Europe imports a third of its oil and gas from Russia, but that hasn’t stopped it from using sanctions as a tool to stop the country’s aggression in Ukraine. The European Union has already launched five rounds of economic sanctions against Russia and is expected to introduce more sanctions in the coming weeks.

Russia’s decision to cut off gas exports to Poland and Bulgaria, the latter of which had remained hesitant in its stance towards Russia until the recent ban, is a risky move meant to act as a warning to other European countries. But some experts have dismissed the move as a miscalculation.

According to Yoshiko Herrera, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who specializes in Eurasian politics, it can have the opposite effect.

“One of the key arguments for people who are in favor of additional energy sanctions is to say that Russia is not a reliable partner, that they are using energy as a political tool,” Herrera said. “So by cutting off gas to Poland and Bulgaria, they are showing that they are an unreliable partner.”

Although no formal proposals have been tabled, Bloomberg reports that the EU is likely to introduce a ban on Russian oil by the end of the year, gradually limiting its imports until then.

“Complete European energy sanctions would really hurt [Russia’s] economy and damage their ability to wage war because they will run out of money. That, I think, is something that Russia has to be concerned about,” Herrera said. “Her continued misbehavior of hers in Ukraine, the atrocities are what I think is pushing Europe to radically change its position on things, on energy.”

Russia has maintained allies since its invasion of Ukraine

Large black screens looming over the crowd show white text of the UN's vote to remove Russia from the Human Rights Council.

Screens show the passing of the UN resolution to remove Russia from the UN Human Rights Council following a General Assembly vote on April 7, 2022.
Timothy A. Clary/AFP via Getty Images

Despite widespread condemnation from Western powers and efforts to isolate Russia, the country has managed to retain allies. In April, the UN General Assembly voted a resolution to suspend Russia from the Human Rights Council for its invasion of Ukraine. The resolution succeeded after receiving a two-thirds majority of member states’ votes with 93 nations voting in favor of Russia’s suspension from the body. But 24 of the body’s members voted against the action, while 58 members abstained entirely.

The results of the UN vote show the complexities of real-world diplomacy even in the face of war. Countries in Africa, South America and Asia have increasingly tried to resist taking sides as the war between Russia and Ukraine threatens to turn the world into political factions. But the West’s waning influence in other parts of the world, combined with the economic and political interests at stake, has resulted in many nations choosing to remain independent when it comes to relations with Russia.

In Asia, where growing vigilance over China’s growing influence is shared across borders, nations in the southeast and south of the continent have expressed intentions to remain on good terms with Russia despite the situation with Ukraine. Among Russia’s staunchest allies is India, with whom it has maintained a strong alliance since the Soviet Union’s backing of India during the 1971 war with Pakistan.

Another factor behind their continued friendship is India’s dependence on Russia as a supplier of military weapons: from the 1950s until now, the country has received approximately 65 percent of the firearms exports of the Soviet Union or Russia. , according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. India’s Himalayan border disputes with China, which triggered a bloody standoff in 2020, is another motivating factor for India as Russia has functioned as a major mediator in the conflict with China.

The close ties between India and Russia pose challenges for Western powers as India is seen as a vital partner in curbing Russian influence in the region.

China, another key ally of Russia, has refrained from openly condemning Russia and has instead called for the warring countries to come to a peaceful solution. In a March virtual meeting with France and Germany, President Xi Jinping called for “maximum restraint” on the issue and expressed concern about the broader impact of sanctions on Russia. But some, like Herrera, doubt to what extent China will continue to toe the line if the situation worsens.

“China has not said that it would not abide by the sanctions and so far it is in agreement with the sanctions against Russia,” Herrera said. One possible turning point, she said, could be Europe’s upcoming sanctions, particularly any secondary sanctions it comes up with, which will be “a big crossroads for China to decide whether to engage with.”

But its ties to Russia could still end up serving China economically. President Vladimir Putin has declared that Russia will “redirect” its energy exports to “fast-growing markets” elsewhere to help tighten sanctions, perhaps in an effort to maintain support from its key ally.

Russian forces continue to face military obstacles in Ukraine

After two months of conflict, tensions on the war front between Russia and Ukraine have shown no signs of abating. The Russian military has shifted its focus in recent weeks to seize control of eastern Ukraine, known as the Donbas territory, where fighting between Ukrainian troops and Russian-backed separatists has been ongoing since 2014.

Russia has also continued its advance on kyiv, launching an airstrike on the capital city last week during a diplomatic visit by UN Secretary-General António Guterres. The attack drew wide condemnation as an unnecessary act of aggression by Russian forces.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who met Guterres during his visit to the capital, accused Russia of deliberately trying to humiliate the UN.

“It says a lot about Russia’s true attitude towards global institutions, about the Russian leadership’s efforts to humiliate the UN and everything the organization stands for. It requires a strong response,” Zelenskyy declared in a public speech after the airstrike.

Former UN Deputy Secretary-General Mark Malloch-Brown said the international community “will recognize that it cannot allow Putin to treat his UN Secretary-General in this disrespectful, casual and downright dangerous way.”

With the conflict showing no signs of abating, US President Joe Biden last week asked Congress to send another $33 billion in military aid to support Ukraine’s military defenses. Biden’s proposal, which includes strategies to potentially use funds seized from Russian oligarchs to finance Ukraine’s military operations, is more than double the $13.6 billion in military and humanitarian aid already approved by Congress last month.

Herrera believes that extra boost could be extremely helpful to Ukraine, both strategically and physically, even so far into the war. Combined with Europe’s energy sanctions, he said Russia could be looking for significant obstacles to achieving its goals, as “that would make a big difference in Russia’s ability to fight the war.”