Is Russia impossible to isolate as Putin claims?

“No matter how much some would like to isolate Russia, it is impossible to do so,” Vladimir Putin said on Wednesday during an economic forum focused on Asia in Vladivostok (Russian Far East). The Russian president, who is at war with Ukraine, believes that Covid-19 has been replaced by “the sanctions fever of the West” which “threatens the whole world”. Is it really impossible to isolate Moscow, as the head of the Kremlin insists? Do Westerners refuse to “see the facts”, as the Russian head of state claims? 20 minutes make the point.

Can we say that Russia is isolated?

“Russia is isolated from Europe and Westerners but not from the rest of the world”, sums up Carole Grimaud, geopolitical analyst and specialist in Russia. “We can isolate Russia from Europe. We do it on the energy plan, the banking plan and even on mobility with the discussions on the visas granted to the Russians. However, it continues its partnerships with many countries,” explains the researcher. Because it is difficult to geographically isolate the largest country in the world.

“Even if one tried to isolate Russia on its western flank, it would not be isolated on its eastern or even northern flank. [au Nord] since the melting of the ice allows passages today”, abounds Taline Ter Minassian, specialist in the contemporary history of Russia and author of a biography on Gorbachev released at the university presses of France. With 14 borders shared with other nations, Moscow can switch partners more easily than Lesotho.

Among the countries which refuse to line up behind Washington, some, such as Belarus, were allies with Russia long before the start of the invasion, others themselves maintain strained relations with the United States, such as Beijing, and the latter “reflect on their interests and realize that they have more to lose by following the Western line”, deciphers Carole Grimaud. This is the case of certain African countries, which Moscow is aware of since Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov embarked on an operation of seduction on the continent this summer. Moreover, “the African Union is campaigning for the lifting of sanctions”, notes Taline Ter Minassian. However, it is above all its relationship with Asia that the Kremlin jealously maintains and tries to consolidate through the war.

Who is Russia turning to?

Isolated from the West, which is chaining sanctions against it and weighing down its economy, Russia has nevertheless managed to establish and consolidate bilateral relations. “Russia maintains relations with a large part of Asia, including China and India,” explains Taline Ter Minassian. And this orientation predates the invasion of Ukraine. “There has been for about ten years, since 2014 in particular with the annexation of Crimea, a certain desire to turn towards the East, towards China and towards the countries of Asia”, explains Carole Grimaud. Since the night invasion of Ukraine, launched by the Kremlin, the Russian government has redoubled its efforts to consolidate its Eastern relations.

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Moscow is also very active within the Shanghai Cooperation (OCS). Because Russia not only consolidates its economic interests with the East but also security ones. Last week, the country held large-scale military exercises, dubbed Vostok-2022 (Orient-2022), in the Russian Far East. India and China participated.

Why is Russia so keen to assert that it is not isolated?

As early as 2014, Vladimir Putin hammered it: no one will manage to “intimidate or isolate Russia”. Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the leader has repeatedly said this. This speech allows the Kremlin to “reassure the Russians” but also the financial circles, shaken by the sanctions, notes Carole Grimaud. It is also a way for Moscow to pretend that cutting itself off from the West has little consequence.

“Russia’s goal is certainly to compensate for the losses of the West with Asia or other countries of the world, but the technologies are mainly produced in Europe and the United States”, recalls Carole Grimaud. Because of the sanctions, Russian airlines are forced to dismantle airliners to recover spare parts and allow other aircraft, built abroad, to continue flying.

This discourse allows Russia to forget – or to make people forget – that “cutting itself off from its European part cuts it off from part of its identity”, notes Carole Grimaud. “The emblem of the country is the double-headed eagle. It is characteristic of Russia to straddle its European part and its Asian part. The first is the most developed, the most populated, the richest. And if a Siberian sees the break with Europe from a distance, for a Muscovite, it’s a real break”, underlines the founder of the think tank Center for Russia and Eastern Europe Research (Creer) in Geneva. A fracture that the words of Vladimir Putin will find it difficult to forget.

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