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

Despite Western sanctions, the country still maintains powerful friends — for now.

Vladimir Putin, Narendra Modi, and Xi Jinping stand together with hands linked in front of a row of flags.
Russian President Vladimir Putin links hands with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping at the G20 Osaka Summit in 2019.
Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images

Last week, Russia announced it would cut off natural gas deliveries to Poland and Bulgaria after both countries refused to comply with its request to perform export payments in rubles, Russia’s national currency. It is the latest maneuver off the battlefield to hit back against Western efforts to weaken the country even as its armed forces continue to be slowed by Ukrainian troops in the embattled eastern territory of Donbas.

Russia has largely been able to maintain diplomatic relationships in the Asia-Pacific region with China and India, its biggest partners, despite Western sanctions. But its decision to cut off energy exports has strengthened Europe’s alliance with the US, particularly as Europe continues deliberations over added 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 in Russian — they ‘stole’ a significant portion of our reserves,” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told the media during a press call.

Europe imports a third of its oil and gas from Russia but that has not deterred it from using sanctions as a tool to stop the country’s aggression in Ukraine. The European Union has already put out five rounds of economic sanctions against Russia and is expected to introduce more penalties in the upcoming weeks.

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

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

“One of the key arguments for people who are for the additional energy sanctions is to say, Russia is an untrustworthy partner, that they’re using energy as a political tool,” said Herrera. “So by cutting off gas to Poland and Bulgaria, they’re kind of making the case that they are an unreliable partner.”

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

“Full European energy sanctions would really hurt [Russia’s] economy and hurt their ability to wage war because they will run out of money. So that, I think, is something Russia has to be worried about,” Herrera said. “Their continued bad behavior in Ukraine, the atrocities are what is I think pushing Europe to quite radically change positions on things, on energy.”

Russia has maintained some global support since its invasion of Ukraine

Large black screens hovering above crowds show white text with the UN vote to remove Russia from Human Rights Council.
Screens show passage of the UN’s resolution to remove Russia from the UN Human Rights Council following a vote by the General Assembly on April 7, 2022.
Timothy A. Clary/AFP via Getty Images

Despite Western powers’ broad condemnation of and efforts to isolate Russia, the country has managed to maintain ties and partnerships elsewhere around the world. In April, the UN General Assembly voted on a resolution to suspend Russia from the Human Rights Council over its invasion of Ukraine. The resolution succeeded after it received a two-thirds majority of votes from member states 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 from the vote altogether.

Results of the UN vote signify the complexities of real-world diplomacy even in the face of war. Countries in Africa, South America, and Asia have increasingly sought to resist taking sides as the Russia-Ukraine war threatens to shape the world into political factions. But the West’s waning influence in other parts of the globe, combined with economic and political interests at stake, has resulted in many nations opting to maintain their independence when it comes to relations with Russia.

In Asia, where growing vigilance over China’s increasing influence is shared across borders, nations in the southeast and the south of the continent have expressed their intentions to remain on good terms with Russia in spite of the situation with Ukraine. Among Russia’s most loyal partners is India, with whom it has maintained a strong relationship since the Soviet Union’s backing of India during the 1971 war with Pakistan, even as India remained officially non-aligned during the Cold War.

Another factor behind their continued friendship is India’s reliance on Russia as a military arms supplier — from the 1950s to now the country has received an estimated 65 percent of firearms exports from the Soviet Union or Russia, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. India’s border disputes in the Himalayas with China, which triggered a bloody clash in 2020, is another motivating factor for India as Russia has functioned as an important mediator in the conflict with China.

China, another key Russian partner, has refrained from condemning Russia outright, instead asking for the warring countries to reach a peaceful resolution. In a March virtual meeting with France and Germany, President Xi Jinping called for “maximum restraint” on the issue and expressed concerns over the broader impact of sanctions on Russia. But some, like Herrera, doubt how far China will continue to toe the line if the situation worsens.

“China has not said they would not abide by the sanctions and they are so far going along with the sanctions against Russia,” Herrera said. A potential turning point, she said, could be Europe’s next sanctions, particularly any secondary sanctions it puts out, which will be “a big crossroads for China to decide whether to participate with those.”

But its ties with Russia could still end up serving China economically. President Vladimir Putin has stated Russia will “redirect” its energy exports to “rapidly growing markets” elsewhere to help buttress against sanctions, perhaps an effort to maintain support from its key ally.

Russian forces continue to face military hurdles in Ukraine

After two months of conflict, tensions on the war front between Russia and Ukraine have shown no signs of de-escalating. Russian armed forces have shifted focus in recent weeks to take control of eastern Ukraine, referred to as the Donbas territory, where fighting between Ukraine troops and Russia-backed separatists had 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.

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

“It says a lot about Russia’s true attitude to global institutions, about the efforts of the Russian leadership to humiliate the UN and everything that the organization represents. It requires a strong response,” Zelenskyy stated in a public address following the airstrike.

Former UN Deputy Secretary-General Mark Malloch-Brown said the international community “will recognize they cannot have their UN secretary-general treated in this disrespectful, casual and frankly, dangerous way, by Putin.”

As the conflict shows no signs of relenting, last week US President Joe Biden 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 seized funds from Russian oligarchs to fund Ukraine’s military operations, is more than twice as much as the $13.6 billion worth of 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 this far into the war. Combined with energy sanctions by Europe, she said Russia could be looking at significant roadblocks to achieving its objectives since “that would make a big difference in Russia’s ability to fight the war.”

Correction, May 2, 11:50 am: A previous version of this article misstated Russia’s relationship with China and India. They maintain close partnerships and have bilateral friendship and cooperation agreements but do not have official military alliances.