As Russia continues to move towards formal annexation of the Crimean peninsula in Ukraine, the United States and its allies seem increasingly determined to isolate Moscow in retaliation — diplomatically and economically. That leaves Russian president Vladimir Putin more likely to look for allies in the coming weeks and months as pressure — in theory — builds on the Kremlin. But just who counts as Russia’s friends in this situation? And do they actually support his moves into Ukraine? Here’s a look at three of them:
Moscow and Beijing have been moving closer together after a past marked with power struggles in the Communist bloc. These days, the two are — on paper at least — the co-leaders of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which has been called a possible counterweight to NATO in Central Asia. They both have also been a united force at the United Nations over the last decade, standing together in the Security Council to veto resolutions they feel infringe too greatly on the sovereignty of their own allies. Together Russia and China have jointly vetoed three resolutions on Syria along with another on Zimbabwe and one on Myanmar.
According to Foreign Policy, however, that backing of each other may be on the ropes over Russia’s sending of troops into Crimea last week. “We respect the choice made by the Ukrainian people on the basis of national conditions,” Shen Bo, a counselor at China’s U.N. mission said in a statement on February 24, Foreign Policy reported. Chinese president Xi Jinping has also urged Putin to take a more international approach to solving the Ukraine crisis, according to a readout of a call between the two on Wednesday. “China believes that Russia can coordinate with other parties to push for the political settlement of the issue so as to safeguard regional and world peace and stability,” Xi said, per the readout. “China supports proposals and mediation efforts of the international community that are conducive to reduction of tension,” he added.
But on Friday, Xinhua — the state-run press agency of the People’s Republic — published a piece of commentary from one of its writers that calls the United States’ strategy “fundamentally flawed” and praises Russia’s genius in blocking their actions. “Now, with Russian military personnel deployed in eastern Ukraine to protect Russia’s legitimate interests and pro-Russian regions clamoring for a secession from Kiev, Ukraine is teetering on the brink of total chaos and disintegration,” the piece’s English version reads.
The West also “underestimated Russia’s will to protect its core interests in Ukraine,” Ming Jinwei, the author of the piece, continues. “Russia may no longer be interested in competing for global preeminence with the West, but when it comes to cleaning a mess the West created in the country’s backyard, Russian leaders once again proved their credibility and shrewdness in planning and executing effective counter moves.” As Xinhua is run as a ministry-level department subordinate to the State Council, its op-ed and commentary pieces are often seen as windows into the thinking of China’s leadership. But the disconnect between the Xinhua piece and other statements from China has led analysts to conclude that China has no idea where it stands on the issue of Ukraine — something that can’t be a comfort to Moscow.
Meanwhile, Russia has been one of the strongest allies of the beleaguered administration of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. Throughout the three-year long civil war, in which Assad has starved, bombed, and gassed his own people with little concern for international opinion, Putin’s Russia has continued to back Damascus. That loyalty was paid back in a recent statement from Assad on the Ukraine crisis, in which he completely supported Russia’s actions. In the statement, run on state-run channel SANA News Agency, Assad said Syria (at least the portion he controls) stands solidarity with Putin’s effort to “restore security and stability to the friendly country of Ukraine in face of the coup attempts against legitimacy and democracy, in favor of the terrorist extremists, through President Putin’s wise policy and commitment to the international legitimacy and legal rules that govern relations among countries and peoples.”
According to the Syrian president, Russia’s actions are meant to provide the “guarantee for all world peoples to create a balanced and transparent world based on respecting the sovereignty of countries and the right of peoples to decide their destiny.” These motives are “based on the international legitimacy and the objectives of the UN,” the statement says, and part of Putin’s “rational approach which favors peace and seeks to establish a global system that supports stability and combats extremism and terrorism.”
“President al-Assad considered the stances of the Russian leadership towards supporting the right and truth as contributing to making the future which is aspired for by the peoples and saving the world from dangerous turnings facing countries and their peoples,” the statement concludes.
Belarus, since the fall of the Soviet Union, has remained the closest in Moscow’s orbit of all the former Soviet states. Its President Aleksandr Lukashenko has been described as “the last dictator of Europe,” and it has joined on as part of a Customs Union — a sort of precursor to a European Union-style intrastate body — with Russia and Kazakhstan. But it appears that, as was the case in 2008 when Russia invaded Georgia, support for Russia’s incursion into Ukraine is a bridge too far for the government in Minsk to support.
According to Russian news agency ITAR-TASS, Belorussian foreign minister Uladzimir Makei last Friday after talks with his Latvian counterpart insisted that Minsk is interested in Ukraine “remaining a sovereign, independent and territorially integral country.” “We negatively assess what is currently going on in Ukraine… We consider the developments in Ukraine a tragedy,” the press service of the Belarusian Foreign Ministry quoted Makei as saying. And the pro-Western publication Belarus Digest argues that Lukashenko himself is opposed to Russia taking control of Crimea, as in a Feb. 23 speech he said, “We have a singular view of Ukraine. It should be integral, nobody should divide this great country.” And Minsk has recognized the legitimacy of the interim government in Ukraine — which Putin has declared as illegal and the result of a coup.