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

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

Russia has managed to maintain diplomatic relations in the Asia-Pacific region with China and India, its biggest allies, despite Western sanctions. But its decision to cut energy exports has strengthened Europe’s alliance with the US, especially as Europe continues to deliberate on additional sanctions against Russia.

The Kremlin defended the move as a necessary measure to protect Russia’s financial reserves after heavy sanctions.

“They blocked our accounts or – to put it in Russian – they ‘stole’ a significant part of our reserves,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told media during a news conference.

Europe imports a third of its oil and gas from Russia, but that hasn’t stopped it from using sanctions as a tool to stop the country’s aggression in Ukraine. The European Union has already launched five rounds of economic sanctions against Russia and is expected to introduce more penalties in the coming weeks.

Russia’s decision to cut gas exports to Poland and Bulgaria – the latter of which remained undecided on its stance towards Russia until the recent ban – is a risky move that serves as a wake-up call to other European countries. But some experts dismissed the change as a miscalculation.

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

“One of the main arguments for people advocating additional energy sanctions is saying that Russia is an unreliable partner, that they are using energy as a political tool,” Herrera said. “So by cutting off gas to Poland and Bulgaria, they are arguing that they are not a reliable partner.”

While no formal proposals have been put forward, Bloomberg reports that the EU is likely to 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 undermine their ability to wage war because they will run out of money. So I think this is something that Russia should be concerned about,” Herrera said. “His continued misbehavior in Ukraine, atrocities is what I think is driving Europe to radically change its position on things, on energy.”

Russia maintains allies since the invasion of Ukraine

Large black screens hovering over the crowd show white text with the UN vote to remove Russia from the Human Rights Council.

The screens show the passing of the UN resolution to remove Russia from the UN Human Rights Council after the General Assembly vote on April 7, 2022.
Timothy A. Clary/AFP via Getty Images

Despite widespread condemnation and efforts by Western powers to isolate Russia, the country has managed to retain allies. In April, the UN General Assembly voted on a resolution to suspend Russia from the Human Rights Council for its invasion of Ukraine. The resolution was successful after receiving a two-thirds majority vote from member states, with 93 nations voting in favor of Russia’s suspension from the body. But 24 of the body members voted against the action, while 58 members abstained from the vote.

The 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 choosing to retain their independence when it comes to relations with Russia.

In Asia, where growing vigilance over China’s growing influence is shared across borders, nations in the continent’s southeast and south expressed their intention to remain on good terms with Russia despite the situation with Ukraine. Among Russia’s most loyal allies is India, with whom it has maintained a strong alliance since the Soviet Union’s support for India during the 1971 war with Pakistan.

Another factor behind their ongoing friendship is India’s dependence on Russia as a supplier of military weapons – from the 1950s until now, the country has received around 65% of firearms exports from the Soviet Union or Russia, according to with the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. India’s Himalayan border disputes with China, which sparked a bloody confrontation in 2020, is another motivating factor for India as Russia has functioned as an important mediator in the conflict with China.

The close ties between India and Russia pose challenges for Western powers, as India is seen as a vital partner in curbing Russian influence in the region.

China, another key Russian ally, refrained from condemning Russia outright, instead calling on the countries in conflict to reach a peaceful resolution. In a virtual March meeting with France and Germany, President Xi Jinping called for “maximum restraint” on the matter and expressed concern about the wider impact of sanctions on Russia. But some, like Herrera, doubt the extent to which China will continue to toe the line if the situation worsens.

“China did not say it would not comply with the sanctions and so far it is agreeing to sanctions against Russia,” Herrera said. A potential turning point, she said, could be Europe’s upcoming sanctions, particularly any secondary sanctions that are rolled out, which will be “a major crossroads for China to decide whether to participate in them.”

But its ties to Russia could still end up serving China economically. President Vladimir Putin has said Russia will “redirect” its energy exports to “fast-growing markets” elsewhere to help resist sanctions, perhaps in an effort to maintain support from its main ally.

Russian forces continue to face military obstacles in Ukraine

After two months of conflict, tensions on the war front between Russia and Ukraine showed no signs of abating. The Russian military has shifted focus in recent weeks to take control of eastern Ukraine, known as the Donbas Territory, where fighting between Ukrainian troops and Russian-backed separatists has been ongoing since 2014.

Russia also continued its advance on Kiev, launching an airstrike on the capital last week during a diplomatic visit by UN Secretary-General António Guterres. The attack was widely condemned as an unnecessary act of aggression by Russian forces.

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

“It says a lot about Russia’s true attitude towards global institutions, about the Russian leadership’s efforts to humiliate the UN and everything that the organization stands for. It requires a strong response,” Zelenskyy declared in a public speech after the airstrike.

Former Deputy UN Secretary General Mark Malloch-Brown said the international community “will recognize that it cannot have its UN Secretary General treated in this disrespectful, casual and downright dangerous manner by Putin”.

With the conflict showing no signs of abating, US President Joe Biden last week asked Congress to send an additional $33 billion in military aid to support Ukraine’s military defenses. Biden’s proposal, which includes strategies to potentially use funds confiscated from Russian oligarchs to fund Ukraine’s military operations, is more than double the $13.6 billion in military and humanitarian aid already passed by Congress last month.

Herrera believes that an extra boost could be extremely useful to Ukraine, both strategically and physically, even so far into the war. Combined with Europe’s energy sanctions, she said Russia could be looking at significant obstacles to achieving its goals, as “it would make a big difference in Russia’s ability to fight the war.”

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