Trouble in paradise for G20, Russia’s Kherson confusion, and Putin’s anti-colonial pose
Bali may be a tropical paradise, but the mood was tense as the world’s leaders descended on the Indonesian island for the annual G-20 summit. The conference begins today and from global warming to food security, there is a lot on the agenda but much of it has already been overtaken by the war in Ukraine. Vladimir Putin didn’t turn up, sending his Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov instead. Volodymyr Zelensky zoomed in with a plea to extend the grain export deal. Addressing the leaders of the “G-19,” deliberately ignoring Russia, Zelensky said believes that “now is the time that Russia’s war must and can be stopped.”
Meanwhile the G-20 hosts seem eager to appease the Kremlin. According to this Politico exclusive, the Indonesian authorities have softened their stance towards Russia and have tried to persuade Western countries to tone down theirs to give the summit at least the appearance of global cooperation. The prickly atmosphere of this year’s G-20 is emphasized by the abandonment of the traditional family photo of the leaders together. Instead fake bonhomie is being extended in individual greetings, so that the watching world will not have to wonder how much distance Western leaders will be able to put between themselves and Lavrov.
Lavrov is unlikely to want to meet Western leaders in any case, with the war going so badly wrong. In Kherson, the billboards still read “Russia is here for good” as crowds of exhausted and jubilant Ukrainians took to the streets to celebrate their liberation. It is a major victory for Ukraine but Russian generals say the withdrawal will help them stabilize their defensive positions. Russian state media is working hard to package the retreat of troops as a change of strategy. The main condition for Russia’s eventual victory, according to one article (in Russian), is for the nation “to unite in its trust in the leadership.” But trust must be hard when the messaging is so confusing. Putin annexed Kherson less than two months ago. And according to the current Russian criminal code, both supporting the retreat from Kherson and not supporting the retreat from Kherson is a punishable criminal offense.
THE KREMLIN’S NEW SOFT POWER PLANS
With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine going badly, the Kremlin has a new plan to resurrect Russia’s global reputation.
For the past few months, we have reported on Vladimir Putin’s increasing focus on blaming the “collective West” rather than “Ukrainian Nazis” for the war. During this year’s speech at Valdai, Russia’s answer to Davos, Putin spoke at length and with passion about multipolarism and the need to end Western hegemony. Now an article published by Meduza, an independent Russian newsroom that operates out of Latvia, adds some useful context to Putin’s speech.
Sources close to the Kremlin told Meduza that in late spring this year, the Kremlin began to review its global soft power strategy, which until recently included support for opposition parties in the West and the creation of media conglomerates like RT (Russia Today). The result of the review, according to Meduza’s sources, is that Russia will abandon its investment in “Old Europe” and will focus instead on becoming “the leader of the oppressed” nations of the world.
In other words, Russia will deal with the reputational fallout and consequences of its ultimately colonial war in Ukraine by setting up a new, global “anti-colonial movement.” Meduza’s sources say the plan is for the Kremlin to focus its message on countries in southern Europe, South America, Africa and Asia.
Rossotrudnichestvo, a Russian federal agency that is tasked with promoting “humanitarian operations and a better understanding of Russia abroad,” is reported to be in charge of overseeing and implementing this new anti-colonial movement.
The agency already runs a series of Russia Houses across the world and will now be given funds to open up more. Unlike the British Council or Institut Français, Russia Houses pride themselves on being flexible and adapting to the local dynamic and culture.
“We work like a franchise,” said Evgeny Primakov, the head of Rossotrudnichestvo in an interview to the Izvestia newspaper. “We sign agreements with local non-governmental organizations and provide them with resources.”
In September new Russia Houses were inaugurated in Sudan and Mali, and in November Russia signed an agreement to open another one in Algeria. Primakov told Izvestiya that while looking for local partners to open the Houses, his agency also plans to open more representative offices across the African continent. In 2023 the Kremlin also plans to double the quota for African students studying in Russia.
Tens of millions of dollars have also been allocated to the development of the anti-colonial movement in South America, according to Meduza’s sources.
Only time will tell whether any of this will help the Kremlin to offset the disastrous consequences of its war, but the way the strategy was described to Meduza is strikingly reminiscent of the Soviet approach: “The other side needs to see that we have allies, that we are not alone and that we are also able to influence the global agenda.”
WHAT WE ARE READING:
- This not very surprising but still depressing new report shows that “women of color running for office in the U.S. are four times more likely than white candidates to be the targets of violent online abuse.”
- This story from Syria in New Lines magazine explains how a “bizarre alliance of anti-vaxxers, 9/11 truthers, creationists and atrocity deniers spans — and blurs — left-right boundaries.”