Is Russia making a global comeback in spite of Western sanctions and political pressure from the United States and Europe? On the surface, it certainly seems like it.
Earlier this month, Russian president Vladimir Putin paid a very public two-day visit to Egypt, cementing the burgeoning strategic partnership he has diligently cultivated with the regime of Abdel Fatah al-Sisi. The lavish reception he received—complete with street placards bearing his likeness and wall-to-wall coverage in the Egyptian press—left no questions about Cairo's attitudes toward the Kremlin. New political forces on the Old Continent, like Greece's recently elected left-wing Syriza government, have likewise embraced an increasingly pro-Russian outlook. And the Russian leader apparently enjoys massive popularity in China, where his biography is a bestseller and his authoritarian political style is the subject of serious study. All of which led Foreign Policy magazine to dub Putin the "new model dictator," and the gold standard for autocrats everywhere.
Perhaps he is. But look a bit closer, and you're liable to find that Russia's recent geopolitical advances are very much the exception rather than the norm. A year into the Kremlin's asymmetric campaign in Ukraine, its global image—and its alliances—is much the worse for wear.
The problems begin close to home. Last month's summit of the Eurasian Economic Union—a bloc that ranks as Putin's premier regional initiative—was a decidedly lackluster affair. Against the backdrop of the Ukraine crisis, the Union's constituent members (Belarus, Armenia and Kazakhstan) are increasingly wary of Moscow's regional policies and of the possibility that they, too, could become the targets of the Kremlin's territorial acquisition. Additionally, Western sanctions and a plunge in global oil prices have hit Russia's economy hard, making Moscow increasingly unable to bankroll its political and economic vision for the region.
As a result, there's growing dissension in the ranks. "Those who think that the Belarusian land is part as what they call the Russian world, almost part of Russia, forget about it!" Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko recently told reporters in Minsk. "Belarus is a modern and independent state." That Belarus—once Russia's staunchest ally in the region—feels empowered to take such a stance speaks volumes about the Kremlin's plummeting regional cachet.
Belarus, moreover, isn't the only one. Neighboring Kazakhstan has also begun distancing itself from Moscow—albeit more quietly. Last year, the Moscow Times notes, Kazakhstan's imports to the Russia-led Eurasian Customs Union fell to just 6.1 percent, roughly half of what they were in 2010. That's as telling a sign as any that Kazakhstan's leaders no longer have much confidence in Russia's political and economic projects.
But the now-likely demise of the Eurasian Union could end up being the least of Putin's problems. Increasingly, Russia is losing ground globally.
Just how much can be seen in a mid-2014 poll of global attitudes toward Russia carried out by the Pew Research Center. That study found that anti-Russian attitudes had skyrocketed among the majority of the forty-four countries surveyed. More than half of Middle Eastern countries polled now see Russia negatively, anti-Russian sentiment is on the rise across Latin America, and Europe is unified in its anti-Russian position as a result of the Ukraine crisis.
Indeed, of all the nations polled by Pew, Russia's global image had improved in just nine. And only in two—China and the Palestinian Territories—did it grow by double digits.
In other words, countries like Egypt and Greece—which are now making common cause with the Kremlin—are political outliers, rather than representatives of an emerging global consensus. And Russia's increasingly frenetic global activism isn't a sign of strength or defiance. Rather, it should be seen for what it truly is: a desperate attempt to stave off deepening international isolation.