With the invasion of Ukraine now in its sixth day, things are still not really going Russia’s way. Of Ukraine’s 20 largest cities, not one so far has clearly changed hands, although control of Mykolaiv and Kherson (both in the south, north-west of Russian-occupied Crimea) is disputed. Peace talks on the Belarusian border have, not surprisingly, failed to produce any agreement; both sides seemed to treat them as a mere formality, although they agreed to meet again “in the next few days.”
For ordinary Ukrainians, the difficulties that Vladimir Putin is experiencing are a mixed blessing. They increase the chance that the eventual outcome will be the preservation of Ukrainian independence, but on all but the most optimistic scenarios that outcome is still a long way off. In the short term, the most likely response is escalation: the use of heavier and more indiscriminate firepower. Many more people will die.
As I said yesterday, only regime change in Russia will ultimately offer a solution. But for the west to proclaim that truth from the rooftops would be fraught with risk: if Putin feels he is backed into a corner, he may lash out even more dramatically. A leader with the world’s second-largest nuclear arsenal at his disposal simply has to be taken seriously.
But it’s possible that other players will be able to have some influence. The obvious candidate is China’s Xi Jinping: previously tagged as a firm ally of Putin, but evidently having some misgivings about the Ukraine venture. China merely abstained on the UN security council resolution to condemn the invasion, leaving Russia to cast the only negative vote.
Although China in its way is a rogue player, it has an interest in a rule-governed international order in a sense that Putin does not. Of course it wants those rules to work in its favor, but it knows that to a large extent they already do: the rule against disturbing existing boundaries, which Putin has so wantonly violated, protects it from any outside interference with its colonies in Tibet and Xinjiang.
China will be particularly unhappy about the threat of nuclear escalation. Its relative paucity of nuclear weapons is its most obvious disadvantage vis-a-vis both Russia and the United States: it very much does not want a world in which nuclear threats are common currency in international relations. And Xi may be the one leader with the standing to be able to quietly encourage Putin to back down, perhaps via some sort of mediation.
In light of that, and to be parochial for a moment, it is especially wrong-headed for Australia’s leaders to try to use the conflict as an excuse to attack China. Just as it did during the Cold War, the west’s interest lies in keeping Russia and China apart as much as possible. That doesn’t mean we should turn a blind eye to China’s wrongdoing, but now is not the time to be browbeating its leaders.
Before the invasion, Putin seemed to have a lot more allies and semi-allies around the globe, but their ranks have thinned considerably in the last week. The most striking shift has come among far-right parties in Europe, whether in government or opposition. Marine Le Pen and Éric Zemmour in France, Viktor Orbán in Hungary, Janez Janša in Slovenia, Miloš Zeman in Czechia, Matteo Salvini in Italy – all have run for cover, condemning the invasion and supporting aid for Ukraine.
Similarly Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, much cultivated by Putin in recent years (and who has imitated many features of Putin’s regime), has remembered that his country is a member of NATO and has invoked the Montreux Convention to close the Black Sea straits to foreign warships. Even Serbia, traditionally Russia’s strongest ally in Europe, declared its support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity, although it has so far refused to join in with sanctions.
There are still some holdouts. President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, for example, seems undiminished in his admiration for Putin. Nonetheless, his country still voted against Russia in the security council. Donald Trump has equivocated, whether deliberately or through genuine incoherence; many of his supporters remain in Putin’s camp, but it’s clear that on this at least they no longer represent the bulk of the Republican Party.
Only recently, Putin appeared to be at the head of a global authoritarian movement that was steadily encroaching on democracy. Suddenly it has all collapsed: his former allies have not ceased to be authoritarians, but their unity has gone, and with it much of their dangerousness.
For that we can be grateful. Unfortunately the people of Ukraine are paying the price, and that price is likely to become heavier still.