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Putin's war in Ukraine has made Russia a 'liability' whose few friends are 'hardly at the top' of anyone's wishlist'

Business Insider logo Business Insider 1/13/2023 kvlamis@insider.com (Kelsey Vlamis,Erin Snodgrass,John Haltiwanger)
Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un shake hands during their meeting in Vladivostok, Russia on April 25, 2019. Alexander Zemlianichenko, Pool, File/Associated Press © Alexander Zemlianichenko, Pool, File/Associated Press Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un shake hands during their meeting in Vladivostok, Russia on April 25, 2019. Alexander Zemlianichenko, Pool, File/Associated Press
  • Criticism from Russia's allies mounted this week, with one Chinese official saying "Putin is crazy."
  • Some worry Russia may be "more of an albatross than ally," a former US ambassador to NATO said.
  • Others, like China, have criticized the war without meaningfully reducing ties with Russia.

Eleven months since Russian President Vladimir Putin launched an attack on Ukraine, the longtime leader remains in a precarious position with growing discontent among his country's few remaining allies.

"Nobody wants an ally who is a liability, and it's hard to see Putin's Russia as anything else," Simon Miles, an assistant professor at Duke University's Sanford School of Public Policy and a historian of the Soviet Union and US-Soviet relations, told Insider.

"I think we can see the consequences already in that the most active support is coming from Iran and North Korea — hardly the top of anyone's friend wishlist," he added.

Russia's relationship with some key allies appeared to be on even shakier ground this week. Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said Tuesday the country had canceled plans to host Russian military drills. Both Armenia and Russia are members of  the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a military alliance made up of six post-Soviet states that Putin has touted as NATO's counterpart.

"At least this year, these drills won't take place," Pashinyan said, adding the drills would be "inappropriate in the current situation."

Criticism from Beijing also appeared to intensify, as The Financial Times on Monday reported several Chinese officials tried to distance China from the Ukraine invasion and expressed mistrust in Putin himself.

"Putin is crazy," one unnamed Chinese official told FT. "The invasion decision was made by a very small group of people. China shouldn't simply follow Russia."

Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) and Chinese President Xi Jinping pose for a photograph during their meeting in Beijing, on February 4, 2022. Photo by ALEXEI DRUZHININ/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images © Photo by ALEXEI DRUZHININ/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) and Chinese President Xi Jinping pose for a photograph during their meeting in Beijing, on February 4, 2022. Photo by ALEXEI DRUZHININ/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images

The officials also said Beijing has come to believe that Russia may emerge from the conflict as a "minor power," with their economic and diplomatic standing on the global stage greatly reduced.

Russia's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine has left Moscow increasingly isolated. The war prompted condemnation in the United Nations and saw Russia booted from the UN Human Rights Council. Since the invasion began last February, Putin has limited international travel to the dwindling list of nations with amicable ties to Moscow — skipping the G20 summit in Bali in November.

The US and its allies have issued unprecedented sanctions against Moscow. Finland and Sweden, two historically or militarily non-aligned neutral countries, moved to join NATO. The EU has taken steps to end its reliance on the Russian energy supply. Indeed, the war has united the West against Russia in historic ways.

Russia: An albatross or an ally?

Meanwhile, the war has also complicated Russia's relationships with China and India, two vital trading partners that declined to institute sanctions and have continued buying up Russian energy products. When the UN Security Council voted in September to condemn Russia's annexation of Ukrainian territories as illegal, both countries abstained.

"Until February 24, Russia and China declared a partnership 'without limits' based on the idea that the west was divided, decadent, and in decline and that the east was rising in power and stature," Ivo Daalder, a former US ambassador to NATO, told Insider. "The invasion changed all that."

"China has been caught between its desire to align with Russia and the realization that it might be more of an albatross than ally," he added.

While China has not offered a full-throated endorsement of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, it also hasn't significantly reduced ties with Moscow, despite the mounting criticism and recent comments by Chinese officials. Beijing has walked a careful line since the invasion began, at times exhibiting impatience with Russia's war in Ukraine.

Putin in September acknowledged that China had "questions and concerns" about the war while meeting with Xi in Uzbekistan. However last month, China's foreign minister said the country would "deepen strategic mutual trust and mutually beneficial cooperation" with Russia and defended Beijing's "objectivity and impartiality" on the war.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and Chinese President Xi Jinping gather for a group photo at the start of their summit in Goa, India, Sunday, Oct. 16, 2016. Anupam Nath/AP Images © Anupam Nath/AP Images Russian President Vladimir Putin, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and Chinese President Xi Jinping gather for a group photo at the start of their summit in Goa, India, Sunday, Oct. 16, 2016. Anupam Nath/AP Images

'China may be trying to have it both ways'

The apparent mixed messaging from Beijing could ultimately come down to diplomatic strategy.

"China may be trying to have it both ways," Robert English, a professor at the University of Southern California who studies Russia, the Soviet Union, and Eastern Europe, told Insider.

English said the war benefits Beijing by distracting the West from confrontation with China, while also providing the country with discounted Russian energy. But in order to avoid jeopardizing its trade partnerships with the West, China may want to give the appearance of distancing itself from Russia.

"The key is appear to criticize Russia, in words, but what about their deeds? Their economic support for Russia has not flagged, nor have they altered their official position blaming NATO for the conflict," English said of China. "I'm afraid some analysts are thinking with their hearts, not their heads."

"Putin's allies are not 'turning on him,' only expressing dissatisfaction at the difficulties his war in Ukraine is causing them," he added. "There's a big difference."

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