Western, Russian diplomats globetrotting to win support in ballooning sanctions battle

Western, Russian diplomats globetrotting to win support in ballooning sanctions battle
Western and Russian diplomats are travelling the world to drum up support for their sides as the war in Ukraine stalls / bne IntelliNews
By Ben Aris in Berlin March 8, 2023

French President Emmanuel Macron is in Africa. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has just been to Central Asia before visiting India, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has just completed a tour of Africa, India and the Caucasus, and has no plans to stop travelling. As the war in Ukraine becomes increasingly deadlocked the combatants in the proxy war have been roaming the world in a game of diplomatic speed chess to shore up support and make or break the sanctions on Russia.

Diplomatic activity has become intense and is operating at every level. The series of UN votes has shown that the Russia enjoys plenty of support in the Global South and elsewhere, but as only a handful of countries have come out with openly supporting Russia, the fence-sitting by most of the emerging world has given diplomats plenty to work with.

For the West the main goal at the moment is to cut Russia off from importing weapons and munitions, and trying to plug the holes in a very leaky sanctions regime.

While the condemnation of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine a year ago in Europe and the US has been overwhelming, attitudes to the fight in the emerging world are more complicated as bne IntelliNews showed in a survey of Middle East and North Africa (MENA) countries just after the fighting began.

Lavrov rhetoric

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has been playing to several themes that resonate in these markets. In Africa, the veteran diplomat has repeatedly talked about the Western “neo-colonial” attitudes that are still a raw spot in many countries, and did so again while at the G20 foreign ministers summit in India last week.

Indeed, in Macron’s four-country tour of Africa this week his arrival has been greeted with demonstrators carrying Russian flags and protesting outside the French embassy thanks to France’s colonial past. The French president’s attempts to reframe France’s role in Africa as a “European” not “French” project seems to have cut little mustard.

Macron was roasted by Felix Tshisekedi, the President of the Democratic Republic of Congo, during a joint press conference.

“This must change, the way Europe and France treat us, you must begin to respect us and see Africa in a different way,” Tshisekedi said. “You have to stop treating us and talking to us in a paternalistic tone. As if you were already absolutely right and we were not.”

Lavrov is preaching to a receptive audience by playing on this theme and the point is doubly sharp, as many of those countries in the Global South point out that the West has had no compunction against using force when it wants to enforce its goals in places like Iraq, Libya Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Lavrov has just completed his own African tour, visiting Mali, Mauritania and Sudan. Last month, Lavrov was in South Africa, which is seen as the most significant of several African nations to have taken a neutral stance on the Ukraine war and to have refused to condemn Russia's invasion to the disappointment of the US and other Western partners who also view Pretoria as pivotal to their plans to build relationships in Africa. Tellingly Russia launched joint naval exercises with South Africa on February 24, the anniversary of the start of the war in Ukraine. Russia is also proposing to build a second nuclear power station (NPP) in the country.

"Unfortunately, the West has not abandoned its neo-colonial habits and ambitions," he said. "Everything that is now being done to subjugate the global economy to the interests of the West is nothing more than neo-colonial instincts and neo-colonial practice," Lavrov said.

The neo-colonial jibe is especially effective in Africa, but it will also ring a bell in Latin America, where resentment of the West’s hording of anti-coronavirus vaccines during the worst of the pandemic is still strong. After rapid producing the extremely effective Sputnik V vaccine, the Kremlin won kudos from selling it to emerging markets around the world, and especially in Latin America. At the same time, the US came in for a lot of criticism for practising “vaccine apartheid” and actively putting pressure on countries in Latin America into refusing to buy the Russian drug. Brazil and Venezuela have become particularly good friends of Moscow in the meantime.

Emerging markets are also being driven by commercial concerns. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan at the end of February, hoping to widen the gap that has appeared between Moscow and Central Asia since the war started. President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev surprised everyone when he told Russian President Vladimir Putin to his face during last summer’s St Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF) that his country does not recognise the breakaway republics in Donbas as independent that were recognised by Russia as being independent from Ukraine.

However, Blinken’s team admitted that there was little chance of breaking Russia’s hold over the Central Asian states, which remain heavily dependent on Russia’s economy and security arrangements, but he did hope to warn them off from selling sanctioned goods to Russia. Lavrov railed against Blinken’s interference.

"That we are now observing enhanced activity not only by the Americans, but also the Europeans, the British in the developing world and especially across the space of the Commonwealth of Independent States, is precisely the policy <...> they don’t hide it that they are working there so that these countries don’t continue to maintain friendly relations with the Russian Federation," he said at a news conference on March 2 following a meeting of G20 foreign ministers in New Delhi. "If you try to determine the quintessence, it's 'take the side of the winner, Russia will fail, so decide in advance.' And I'm not exaggerating," Lavrov said.

Economic power

Belonging to the poorer half of the globe, most countries are little concerned with liberal values and easily tempted by Russian offers of cheap commodities, energy and arms. Moscow already has a global trade network and has been actively building on this to tie in partners. As Christof Ruehl, Senior Research Scholar at the Centre on Global Energy Policy, Columbia University, pointed out in a recently podcast with bne IntelliNews on oil, Russia has been selling all its crude to India and China, but it could as well sell to another dozen countries in Asia too, and hasn’t. The reason says Ruehl is that Moscow is as interested in using the oil sales to cement its relations with these two populous countries as it is in making money from the deals.

The same trend can be seen in Russia’s growing use of Rosatom, the state-owned nuclear power agency, as a foreign policy tool. Russia’s nuclear exports have surged as it sells nuclear power technology that come with 60-year fuel and servicing contracts to make countries in emerging markets energy-dependent on it. Rosatom has become the new Gazprom, which used to play the same role with gas exports.

Finally, many countries have been shaken by the US weaponisation of the dollar and energy, fearing the same tools could be used on them. As they also live outside the Western values of the liberal world they see Russia and China as in important counterweight to the US dominance of geopolitics. This was most clearly on display during the G20 foreign ministers’ summit in India last week, where the delegates failed agree on common closing statement.

Here too, Lavrov played on the US diplomatic tour as evidence of US bullying in the name of “freedom.” The Russian equivalent is Putin’s oft repeated trope of a “multipolar” world, in contrast to the US “unipolar” hegemony. Lavrov emphasised in his speeches that Russia does not impose its wishes on its partners, which are free to pursue their own interests – a somewhat disingenuous line, given Russia invaded Ukraine with the express intent of preventing it joining Nato for its own protection.


The diplomatic globetrotting has become a new battleground as both sides attempt to appropriate the multinational institutions for their own ends.

In another sore point, Lavrov played on the Western dominance of these institutions and has been pushing for inviting more countries to join the G20 while at the same time promoting new emerging market institutions like the BRICS organisation as an emerging markets equivalent of the G7, the Russian-sponsored New Development Bank as a mirror of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and of course the Russian dominated Eurasia Economic Union (EAEU) is a carbon copy of the EU.

Russia is in favour of the "elimination of the Western monopoly" in international organisations and of “increasing the role of developing countries in the World Bank, the World Trade Organization and the IMF,” Lavrov said at the G20. It is keen break away from the dollar as the universal foreign exchange of trade and instead expand trade in national currencies. Lavrov also pushed for new independent payment systems within the framework of the BRICS, the EAEU and the China-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization, he said during the G20 meeting.

Lavrov even tried to turn the tables on the West, appealing to the Global South to ally with Russia, by saying that Russia has not been shut out of the global economy by the West’s sanctions, but the West has shut itself into a sanctions bubble that will drive up its prices and cut it off from the raw materials and energy it needs.

Only "Western partners" have been talking about Russia's isolation, Lavrov said. "We do not feel isolated at all. The way I see it, the West is isolating itself, and this awareness will dawn upon it soon," Lavrov said at the G20 meeting.

The Western countries demand that the developing countries condemn Moscow and in doing so they use a "blow-below-the-belt" tactic. When asked what they may promise in return, the answer is: "We will not punish you."

This dig at the West is not entirely unjustified. Serbia is one of Russia’s few friends on the Continent, but has found itself under pressure to join the sanctions regime against Russia but has refused.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said in an interview on national television station RTS: “I was told: “We have a war going on in Europe, we are participating, even though we don’t say it.” And they say that [Belgrade] will lose a lot or everything if we do not behave as we should,” Vucic said, Vedomosti reports.

According to Vucic, representatives of Western countries did not rule out the possible termination of investments in Serbia, the withdrawal of funds already invested, as well as the closure of enterprises and the suspension of the country's European integration process, if Belgrade continued to stay out of the sanction’s regime.

"The methods [of the West] remain the same: political pressure, military blackmail, financial enslavement, economic sanctions and, of course, false propaganda,” Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolay Patrushev said on March 1, during Russian-Venezuelan security consultations, where he was to shore up relations in South America. “We can clearly see how this toolkit is used from the example of our partners around the globe: they are facing an unprecedented pressure from the US, which seeks to force them to sever all ties with Russia, no matter how close and profitable they may be."

The US is struggling to undermine many of these ties. During his visit to Central Asia ahead of the G20 summit, Blinken said that the US is closely monitoring Russia's attempts to circumvent sanctions through Central Asia and expressed concern that Russia is obtaining microchips and other technology through imports from its neighbours – which it is. Exports of electronics and semiconductors from Kyrgyzstan in particular have soared in the last year.

Blinken said that the Biden administration will allocate an additional $25mn to help Central Asian countries diversify trade relations and export routes. In addition, the US has granted licences that can help companies in the region to conclude these activities and sever ties with Russia.

Kazakhstan’s Foreign Minister, Mukhtar Tileuberdi, offered platitudes, saying that the country does not want its territory to be used to circumvent sanctions during a joint briefing with Blinken. However, the majority of Kazakhstan’s oil is exported via a pipeline that runs through Russia to the Black Sea port of Novorossiysk, and more recently it did a deal to send its oil through Russia’s Druzhba oil pipelines to replace Russian oil being sold to Germany.

In Uzbekistan, Russia is offering to tie its gas pipelines into its network and set up a gas hub in the country, amongst many other large economic projects.

To emphasise Russia’s economic power in the region, Russia went to war with Georgia in 2008 after which it was hailed as a bastion of democratic liberalism after Mikheil Saakashvili took over as president during the Rose Revolution. But since then the country has backtracked after it was captured by oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili and pointedly wasn’t included in the offer made to Moldova and Ukraine to join the EU last year.

Economically, instead of moving closer to the West Georgia has instead moved closer to Russia. As bne IntelliNews reported, in 2022 Georgia was more economically dependent on Russia than at any time in its post-independence history. In 2022, Georgia received $3.6bn in income from Russia through money transfers, tourism and the export of goods, a twofold increase compared to pre-pandemic levels in 2019.

There is a similar story in Armenia, which underwent a similar coloured revolution, the Velvet Revolution, that installed the nominally liberal journalist Nikol Pashinyan as Armenian president. However, again, instead of turning to the West Pashinyan has gone out of his way to cosy up to Russia as it not only remains the country’s largest trade partner, but also its security guarantor. Pashinyan has met Putin several times to do gas and trade deals and needs Russia’s help to end the conflict it has been fighting against Azerbaijan in the Nagorno-Karabakh region.

The political-economic realities drive much of the regions with Eurasia and while most countries have distanced themselves from Moscow following its act of aggression they remain tightly bound to Russia’s sphere of influence.

The same considerations are true for the Global South, which in addition to the trade in commodities, energy and arms, are keen to see a powerful geopolitical alternative to balance against the US dominance of the international order.