URussia invaded Ukraine on February 20, 2022. President Vladimir Putin enjoyed the reputation of having been a successful use of force in the past. His reputation of using force with success was so impressive that the West expected that Russian troops could quickly overthrow the Ukrainians. We all know that this was not the case.
Putin not only failed to defeat Kyiv but also he was unable to retain all of his territorial gains in Eastern and Southern Ukraine. As the unfortunate flight by Russian forces to face the Ukrainian advance has shown, However, it is unclear if the Ukrainian forces can take back more territory. Or if Russia can hold on to what they have seized. Putin is no longer regarded as a militarily strong leader.
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Already, we have seen Chinese President Xi Jinping go from describing the Sino-Russian relationship as a “no limits” partnership, when he and Putin met just before the Russian invasion, to keeping aloof from the Russian war effort in Ukraine at their recent meeting at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Samarkand. China is not supplying weapons for Russia, unlike America and Western Europe, who have supplied weapons to Ukraine.
At the same summit, Indian Prime Minister Modi—who has long courted Moscow—publicly rebuked Putin over the Ukraine war. In a less noticed but perhaps even more telling case of a possible snub, the president of Kyrgyzstan—a small former Soviet republic in Central Asia where Russia maintains military forces—kept Putin waitingFor more than thirty seconds prior to their public meeting at Samarkand.
During the summit of leaders from Shanghai Cooperation Organisations (SCO), in Samarkand, September 16, 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin talks to China’s President Xi Jinping.
SERGEI BOBYLYOV/SPUTNIK/AFP via Getty Images
Russia’s declining influence
These are all important implications. 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 was going to win in Ukraine, and there was no point in needlessly incurring the wrath of a soon-to-be victorious Moscow. But now, all—except those like Iran and North Korea, which have poor or nonexistent relations with the West—are likely to take their cue from China and India by not expressing support for Putin’s war effort, even if (like Beijing and New Delhi) they take advantage of the opportunity to buy Western-sanctioned Russian oil at a steep discount.
It is not a coincidence, however that Azerbaijan’s renewed military action against Armenia occurs at a moment when Russia is unable to support Armenia in Ukraine. This is in contrast with the long-running grudge match between the two ex Soviet republics. Russia also has not been paying much attention to the latest flareup of fighting between Kyrgyzstan (ex-Soviet Central Asia) and Tajikistan.
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Moscow is less likely to be able to end the violence in Ukraine if it continues. This will be especially 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 rebellions.
Since Russian forces first intervened in Syria in 2015, Middle Eastern leaders have often noted how Putin stoutly defends his ally Bashar al-Assad, while the U.S. has failed to prevent the downfall of several of its allies (including the Shah of Iran in 1979, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak in 2011, and the Kabul government in 2021). But with Russia’s forces unable to prevail against its next-door neighbor Ukraine, Middle Eastern leaders must wonder how much Putin will be able to do for them—a question of special concern to Assad.
A Ugandan officer poses for a selfie in front of the 2S25 Sprut SD (“Kraken SD”) self propelled anti-tank gun. This was taken at the International Military Technical Forum “Army 2022”, which took place in Kubinka (near Moscow), Russia, August 15-2022.
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Many African countries have offered to allow Russian military personnel to enter their country to combat Islamist terrorist groups. This has been an easy way for African governments to show their independence from former colonial powers, especially France and the United States. Even though Wagner forces may not have been able to defeat jihadists with great success, African governments are grateful that Russia did not question them regarding their human rights records in the same way as Western governments.
They now have to worry about what Russia can do for them, especially when Moscow is requiring more and more resources in the conflict with Ukraine. Moscow seems unable to send any more Wagner mercenaries to Africa even though it has already pulled out the Wagner mercenaries.
The Ukraine war also has impacted countries ability to buy arms from Russia. Moscow not only is less inclined to export weapons in Ukraine, but its inability due to Western sanctions to import foreign semiconductors and other components makes it less likely that Russia will be able to make more advanced weapons.
All these negative impacts on Russia’s influence abroad will continue so long as the war in Ukraine continues.
Learn More Russia’s Problems Go Far Beyond Putin
Russia’s standing in the world will be less if there is turmoil around Ukraine. However, this may not lead to greater American influence. People who have sought Russian military assistance in recent times may turn to China or India for support. Notable is the fact that many African governments are turning to Rwanda as a source of military assistance in face of jihadist opposition forces.
Just as the collapse of communism and of the Soviet Union led to a sharp decline in Moscow’s influence abroad, which took decades for Putin to partially restore, Putin’s inability to prevail in Ukraine may lead to it declining yet 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 permanently hostile Ukraine, and a post-Soviet space where conflict only seems likely to increase.
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