The war unleashed by the Russian invasion of Ukraine is the armed conflict with the greatest geostrategic repercussions in decades. The hostilities are fought in a limited territory, but their consequences are global and are already altering the landscape of international relations, even in places far from the front lines. Among the symptoms of change, the first meeting in years between high-level representatives of the White House and the Venezuelan regime stands out, as well as the redoubled interest of Western powers in crowning the negotiation of a new nuclear pact with Iran.
These two diplomatic moves denote the West’s willingness to hit the Russian oil sector and the consequent interest in propping up that market through other producers. US President Joe Biden signed an executive order on Tuesday to prevent imports of Russian oil and gas; The United Kingdom also announced that it will eliminate Russian oil imports by the end of the year and will study reducing gas imports. The European Union, much more dependent on Russia in this section than the US, has not joined these latest actions. But in this context, countries with large reserves such as Venezuela and Iran, whose exports are currently subject to sanctioning regimes, take on renewed importance.
This is all part of a much larger reconfiguration. “The invasion of Ukraine is a systemic event. It will not transform the world in an integral way as the fall of the USSR did, but it does have structural importance”, comments Riccardo Alcaro, research coordinator and head of the Global Actors program at the Institute of International Affairs in Rome.
In this context, multiple forces drive change. The West’s decision to shore up the energy market, from which other major producers could try to take political advantage, is the most immediate, and raises sensitive questions, as Cathryn Klüwer Ashbrook, an expert on international relations and director of the German Council on Foreign Relations, points out. . “On the battlefield of Ukraine, a struggle is being waged between two systems, between different values. Can those who defend democratic and human rights values allow themselves, while waging that struggle, to be seen approaching dictators for the need for oil? In my opinion it is a very problematic issue, and the Venezuelan case is especially sensitive, ”she points out.
But there are other factors that spur a reconfiguration. Among them, Alcaro highlights “the reconsideration, by Moscow’s allies, of their dependence on the Kremlin at this time when Russia is moving towards a political-economic catastrophe.” Those countries may be tempted to change their pillars of support, and this would result in a retreat from Russia’s prominence, which would be rebalanced with advances from either the West or China.
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Venezuela is precisely one of the countries that, in recent years, has received support from Moscow while US sanctions suffocated its economy. The meeting held in Caracas last weekend – which the Venezuelan leader, Nicolás Maduro, described as “respectful and cordial” – represents a striking twist in the diplomatic script after years of total rupture of relations and confrontation. The difficulties for this rapprochement to lead to tangible progress are enormous. The discrepancies and mistrust are so deep that it is hard to imagine a substantial approximation.
But the release, on Tuesday, of two US citizens imprisoned in Venezuela shows that there is a will to embark on a path based on converging interests: economic relief for Caracas, and more oil for the West. Venezuelan production capacity is greatly reduced, but the country has enormous reserves.
In the case of Iran, there is not such a clear political shift as the one that the meeting in Venezuela has entailed, but there is a reinforced sense of urgency in the negotiation, which has been going on for almost a year, to reactivate the nuclear pact broken by the Trump Administration. “Undoubtedly, the West is more interested in closing the pact, perhaps even willing to make some more concessions, but not at any price,” says Alcaro.
The deal with Iran is coming
The signals given by the parties involved in the negotiation suggest that an agreement is not far off. The technical work is substantially complete, but everything is awaiting the latest political decisions on the pending obstacles. If the pact is closed, this would mean —in synthetic terms— that Iran will again assume strict commitments to limit its atomic program, in exchange for the lifting of the sanctions that currently hit, among other sectors, the oil sector.
Russia has introduced an element of complication into these talks last weekend. The Kremlin demands guarantees that the West does not try to affect its trade, investments and military-technical cooperation with Iran as part of the retaliation for the invasion of Ukraine. Moscow is part of the negotiating framework, and its request seems aimed at hindering a pact that is now gaining new utility for the West. But it is not logical to think that it can completely boycott the negotiation. “The presence of China, Russia and the Europeans is important; but essentially this depends on the US and Iran. If they want, there is an agreement”, observes Alcaro.
The fruition of diplomatic initiatives, both with Iran and with Venezuela, would not be equivalent to their strategic realignment. But they would represent an important change that would open a new scenario.
The repercussions of the tsunami of the invasion of Ukraine reach many territories with striking effects. Among those closest to the conflict zone, it is worth mentioning the signing on Monday by the Prime Minister of Hungary, Víctor Orbán, of a decree that allows the deployment of NATO troops in the western part of his country, a gesture that marks a turn with respect to their rhetoric and positions of only days before. The dislocation of Putin’s friends in Europe is clamorous, as evidenced by the devastating role of Matteo Salvini, leader of the Italian League, on the Polish-Ukrainian border, where a local mayor blamed his sympathy for Putin.
Later, it will be interesting to see the impact at multiple other points. On the one hand, countries such as Cuba, Nicaragua, Bolivia or Armenia – which supported Russia in the UN vote on the annexation of Crimea in 2014 – have this time avoided giving their explicit support in last week’s vote on the invasion. , and this therefore shows his distance from Moscow. On the other hand, several African countries have abstained or have given up voting, something that is a clear reflection of the validity of the Russian projection in that area of the world. It remains to be seen to what extent these nations will want to maintain that bet in the future. And it remains to be seen to what extent the West will be interested in filling certain gaps.
“I think the world is moving towards a bipolar structure. On the one hand, the US, the EU and other liberal democracies; on the other, China, a weakened Russia that will have no choice but to stick with Beijing, and its partners,” says Ben Schreer, executive director of the European branch of the International Institute for Strategic Studies and co-author of the study. The changing structures of alliances published in December. “In that scenario, areas of influence will be reconfigured, and the West will face the dilemma of to what extent to cooperate with governments that do not fit with the values that it champions. It already happened in the Cold War.”
Schreer believes that “minilateralism”, that is, small alliances of countries with specific objectives, which have gained momentum in recent years, will continue to prosper within this great bipolar scheme. Its small size guarantees agility and cohesion in the pursuit of the same goals. Among them, the AUKUS (Australia, United States, United Kingdom) and the QUAD (USA, India, Japan, Australia) stand out. “Large multilateral structures such as NATO and the EU have gained renewed currency. But this does not exclude that complementary initiatives of minilateralism continue to be developed. In Europe, for example, I would not be surprised if cooperation between the Nordic countries was strengthened. And in Southeast Asia, without a doubt, that same dynamic will continue”, says the expert.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine hits hard on the great background dynamics marked by the rise of China, reinforcing the union of liberal democracies, making the EU a geopolitical actor and shaking old balances. Time will tell how the different pieces will fit on the board.
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