Who Are Vladimir Putin’s Friends?
In recent days four events, all involving Russia, give us cause for alarm in the current troubled world. They each shine a light on Vladimir Putin’s short- and long-term priorities, as well as who his friends are.
First is the decision by Gazprom, Russia’s state-owned utility, to turn off the gas supply through its Nord Stream 1 pipeline to Germany, Europe’s biggest economy. The second event was another desperate and passionate demand by Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, for NATO weapons and money, as he tries to repel Russia’s invasion. Zelensky told the Sunday Times that neither French President Emmanuel Macron nor German Chancellor Olaf Scholz fully understood the threat to Europe posed by Putin, who he describes as a Nazi now behaving like Hitler in World War II. The third event is an urgent call from Egils Levits, president of Latvia, a key Baltic state which was once part of the Soviet Union, for NATO to step up its action against Russia. And finally, there was the death of Mikhail Gorbachev, the last president of the former Soviet Union, described in obituaries as a statesman, a word that can hardly be applied to many of the current crop of world leaders.
Born the son of a peasant in a remote part of Russia, Gorbachev spent this school holidays working hard on a collective farm, a devotion to duty for which he received the Communist Party’s Order of the Red Banner of Labour. That award got him into Moscow University to study law and begin his climb to the top of the party he always loved. His belief in perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness) was to change the map of Europe for ever. While President Leonid Brezhnev had sent in tanks to crush the liberal reforms of Alexander Dubcek’s Prague spring of 1968 and to demolish uprisings in Hungary and Poland, Gorbachev eschewed violence against Warsaw Pact countries.
Gorbachev’s critics say he destroyed the Soviet Union, but that is unfair. He sought to improve the lives of his people and believed his policies would achieve that. But the process was too slow. I remember standing in Moscow’s Gorky Park amid the scattered wreckage of broken statues of Lenin, Stalin, and other Soviet leaders and noting that they were broken by young Russians who had had enough of the Communist party and wanted more freedoms.
Ironically, perhaps the most accurate tribute to Gorbachev was to come from Vladimir Putin, who describes him as “a politician and statesman who had a huge impact on the course of world history,” a man who “led our country during a period of complex, dramatic changes.”
These words confirm that Putin has not, as some commentators suggest, lost either his sanity or his control over the Kremlin. It is increasingly obvious that we underestimate Putin at our peril. Almost two thirds of countries, representing 60 percent of the global population, do not support Western sanctions against Russia. So, which world leaders are friends or accomplices of Putin?
Especially significant is India’s Narendra Modi, head of the world’s largest democracy. In recent months Modi has extended a hand of friendship to Putin. Modi sides with him on Ukraine, and the two often speak. Under Modi’s increasingly authoritarian leadership, India has bought substantially more oil from Siberia and reduced imports from the Persian Gulf, further bolstering Russia’s economy.
Modi’s India is a key member of BRICS, a partnership that links Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa. Modi and China’s President Xi Jinping have declared publicly that unilateral sanctions are against international law, and none of the partners in BRICS have imposed sanctions against Moscow. Brazilian President Jair Bolsanaro, who is currently facing an election, and President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa are also friends, along with Alberto Fernandez of Argentina and the supreme leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei, both leaders of nations that have applied to join BRICS.
Putin has friends of a different kind in the Persian Gulf, including oil-rich United Arab Emirates. The ruler of Dubai and deputy president of the UAE, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, is encouraging Russian investment and participation in the opulent Palm Jumeirah development. Dubai’s Emirates airline has 23 flights a week to Moscow, dirhams and roubles flow freely in each direction, and Russian oligarchs such as Roman Abramovich, the banished former owner of Chelsea football club, park their yachts at Jebel Ali.
Another destination for Russian billionaires is Türkiye’s Mediterranean coast. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is a Putin collaborator who has a conflict of interest. Türkiye is an important member of NATO, but it trades freely with Russia and ignores sanctions. Moreover, Türkiye controls the entrance to the Black Sea, which is a critical route from Russian and Ukrainian ports into the Mediterranean. Erdoğan’s complicity – some say duplicity – has earned him brownie points, however. He recently worked with the United Nations to open a sea route for Ukrainian grain that had been blocked by Russia’s navy since the early days of the invasion.
For some, the most worrying friend of Putin is the longest serving European leader, Viktor Orbán of Hungary, whose defiance of the European Union’s sanctions against Moscow, and a pact to continue to import Russian oil and gas, exasperates Brussels. Within the EU, there is also increasing concern about the probable election of a far-right coalition in Italy later this month and the turbulence in Moscow-leaning states of the Balkans.
And then there is Donald Trump, more of a Putin accomplice than a friend. In their separate ways, they sought to weaken NATO, with Trump once threatening American withdrawal from the bloc. Putin’s Kremlin was also responsible for stealing a swathe of emails from the Democratic National Convention which, when leaked, scuttled Hillary Clinton’s chances in the election that gave Trump the presidency. If Donald Trump can evade the FBI’s ongoing attempts to prosecute him, he is likely to return to the White House in 2024.
What the world needs to realise is that Putin’s friends – and there are many more than I have listed here – to various degrees share the Russian leader’s dislike of NATO. They need to recognise that, for Putin, returning Russia to the size and power that the Soviet Union once enjoyed comes down to regaining territory, bit by bit, which has long gone. Gorbachev’s route to regaining Russian influence was based on reform and openness. It remains a far better way, but it will not be achieved under Putin, whose removal must be NATO’S top priority.
Colin Chapman FAIIA is editor-at-large of Australian Outlook and a fellow of the Australian Institute of International Affairs. He was president of AIIA New South Wales. Colin is a writer, broadcaster, and public speaker who specialises in geopolitics, international economics, and global media issues. He has held executive positions at the BBC and Financial Times.
This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.