Uuntil the invasion of Russia Ukraine in February 2022, President Vladimir Putin capitalized on the image of being highly successful in his previous uses of force. In fact, his reputation for successful use of force was so great that it was expected in the West that Russian troops would quickly defeat the Ukrainians. But as we all know, that didn’t happen.
Not only did Putin fail to defeat Kyiv, he did couldn’t even save all his territorial acquisitions in the eastern and southern parts of Ukraine, such as the latter disgraceful flight of Russian forces in the face of the Ukrainian offensive showed. It remains unclear whether Ukrainian forces will be able to retake even more territory, or whether Russia can hang on to what it has seized. Either way, Putin no longer enjoys a reputation for military success.
Read more: How Ukraine turned the tide against Russia
We have already seen the Chinese president Xi Jinping go from describing Sino-Russian relations as a “no-holds-barred” partnership when he and Putin met just before the Russian invasion to stay out of the Russian military effort in Ukraine in their latest meeting at the summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in Samarkand. Unlike America and the West, which supply arms to Ukraine, China does not supply arms to Russia.
At the same summit, Indian Prime Minister Modi, who did long courted Moscow— publicly reprimanded Putin for the war in Ukraine. In a less noticed but perhaps even more telling case of possible neglect, the president of Kyrgyzstan — a small former Soviet republic in Central Asia where Russia maintains military forces —kept Putin waiting for more than thirty seconds before their public meeting in Samarkand.
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks with Chinese President Xi Jinping during the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) leaders’ meeting in Samarkand on September 16, 2022.
SERGEY BOBILOV/SPUTNIK/AFP via Getty Images
Declining influence of Russia
All this has an impact. Many governments in the “Global South” (Asia, Africa, Latin America) that initially either expressed support for Putin’s war “against NATO” or remained neutral may have done so at first because they thought Russia would win in Ukraine, and there was no point needlessly incurring the wrath of Moscow, which would soon win. But now all – except those like Iran and North Korea, which have poor or non-existent relations with the West – are likely to follow the example of China and India by not voicing support for Putin’s war effort, even if (like Beijing and New Delhi ) they take advantage of the opportunity to buy sanctioned by the West Russian oil with a serious discount.
Moreover, it does not seem coincidental that the resumption of Azerbaijani hostilities against Armenia occurs at a time when Russia is bogged down in Ukraine and cannot provide such support to Armenia as before in decade-long grudge match between these two former Soviet republics. Russia has also been unable to pay much attention to resolving the recent outbreak of fighting between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in former Soviet Central Asia.
The longer the war in Ukraine drags on, the less able Moscow is to quell the conflict in the former Soviet space. This will be particularly ominous for Putin if Muslim opposition groups in Chechnya and elsewhere in the North Caucasus see Putin’s quagmire in Ukraine as an opportunity for them to renew their insurgency.
Since Russian forces first intervened in Syria in 2015, Middle Eastern leaders have often noted how Putin staunchly defended his ally Bashar al-Assad while the US failed to prevent the fall of several of its allies (including the Shah of Iran in 1979 . Hosni Mubarak in Egypt in 2011 and the government in Kabul in 2021). But with Russian forces unable to prevail over its next-door neighbor Ukraine, Middle Eastern leaders must wonder how much Putin will be able to do for them—a matter of of particular concern to Assad.
A Ugandan officer poses for a selfie photo in front of the 2S25 Sprut-SD (“Kraken SD”) self-propelled anti-tank gun during the Army 2022 International Military Technical Forum, Aug. 15, 2022, in Kubinka, outside Moscow, Russia.
Several African governments are willing to invite Russian private military forces in their countries to fight Islamist groups that Western powers have failed to defeat. It was also a popular way for them to show their independence from the former colonial powers (especially France) as well as the United States. Even when Wagner forces have not been particularly successful in the fight against jihadists, African governments have appreciated the fact that Russia has not questioned them about their human rights records in the way that Western governments have.
But now they have to worry about how much Russia can do to protect them when Moscow needs more and more resources for the war in Ukraine. Even if it does not pull Wagner’s mercenaries out of Africa, Moscow seems unable to send more.
Finally, the war in Ukraine has disrupted countries’ ability to buy weapons from Russia, as Moscow is not only less willing to export weapons when it needs them in Ukraine, but also less able to produce more complex ones due to its inability to import semiconductors and other foreign components for them due to Western sanctions.
All of these negative impacts on Russia’s influence abroad will continue as long as the war in Ukraine continues.
Read more: Russia’s problems go far beyond Putin
If war breaks out in Ukraine turmoil within Russia, this situation will further decrease, but not necessarily lead to an increase in American influence. Those who sought military support from Russia in the recent past can now turn to China, India, Turkey or others (including some Western countries) that will not question them on democracy and human rights. Notably, some African governments facing jihadist opposition forces are now turning to Rwanda for military support.
Just as the collapse of communism and the Soviet Union led to a precipitous decline in Moscow’s influence abroad, which Putin took decades to partially recover, Putin’s inability to prevail in Ukraine could cause it to weaken again. If so, it is doubtful that a post-Putin leader will be able to restore Russia’s influence in the face of a rising China and India, a perennially hostile Ukraine, and a post-Soviet space where conflict seems likely to only intensify.
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