The latest in Putin’s quest to (re)establish the Soviet sphere of influence

The reality of war

The 24th February 2022 saw Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine. The world was stunned. News headlines were monopolized with related updates. Mediation became top of mind. The ICJ ruled against the invasion, demanding Russia to retreat. South Africa, Turkey, and Israel were called on to mediate. What, however, are the current state of affairs?

On 21st April 2022, Russia took Mariupol, with the last Ukrainian stronghold in the Azovstal steelworks getting smoked out on 20 May 2022. This has essentially allowed the Putin administration to establish a land corridor between the already annexed Crimea and the Donbas region in the east. And so, this city links pre-existing Russian strongholds. This therefore means that Russia is now able to join up its troops stationed in both the south and the east. More than that, Moscow now controls 80% of the Black Sea coastline. This coast is the site of most of Ukraine’s international trade. Mariupol, specifically, is an important port city. It is a major grain and steel exporter. Mariupol is therefore an economically strategic point, control of which allows the Kremlin to cut off the Ukraine’s access to the sea and, subsequently, its ability to trade. 

Notably, this city, much like Crimea, has strong historical ties to Russia. In the 8th	century, the Russian Empire fought off the Ottomans to claim the entire Black Sea	region. It was given the name Novorossiya, or New Russia. More than that, the region	formed part of Russia until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. As a result,	many citizens in this region consider themselves to be ethnic Russians. Putin has	therefore positioned himself to be rescuing the former Russian territory.   

Russia did not hold back in this endeavour. Civilian shelters and hospitals were bombed indiscriminately. Chemical weaponry was even adopted at these sites. The city’s infrastructure has been decimated, with 90% of its buildings now rubble. Three quarters of the city’s population have fled so far. The 100 000 civilians that remain are left without food, water, heat and electricity. Additionally, over 20 000 civilians have died. Ultimately, Zelensky has now set his eyes on evacuating those Ukrainians that remain- this includes soldiers. Prospects are grim. Given this context, the question is then, How is the rest of the world responding?

Davos: Russia now absent

The first in-person World Economic Forum summit at Davos began on the 22 May 2022. For the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia will not be present. Neither Russian officials, nor Russian businessman will be taking part. Typically, Russian oligarch’s monopolized the festivities- with a reputation for caviar and vodka filled parties. Prior to the invasion, the 2020 meeting saw extensive Russian representation. In fact, of the billionaires represented, Russian tycoons were the third-best represented. Notably, this was not the case in the wake of Putin’s 2014 invasion. 

However, this year, the event has done a complete 180. In fact, Zelensky found himself calling for “maximum sanctions”against Moscow. More specifically, he asked for a full oil embargo, the barring of all Russian banks from global systems, the cutting of ties with Russia’s IT sector, as well as cancelling all trade with Russia. He has further suggested that the rebuilding of the Ukraine be funded using hidden overseas Russian assets. 

War crimes

It is not only Russia’s economy that is under fire, but also its soldiers. In the first war crimes trial since the now-three month long invasion, Russian soldier Vadim Shishimarin was sentenced to life in prison on 23 May 2022. This was in connection to the murder of an unarmed Ukrainian civilian. As a member of a Russian tank unit, the soldier admitted to shooting an unarmed man in the head. The 21-year-old pleaded guilty to violating the laws and customs of war after being captured by Ukrainian forces. His testimony on the 19 May 2022 was riddled with pleas for forgiveness from the now-deceased 62-year-old’s wife. Shishimarin described disobeying the officers’ command to shoot the unarmed civilian at first, but, ultimately, after sustained pressure, gave in. However, the judge, Serhiy Agafonov, maintained that Shishimarin was aware of the man’s civilian status and could have refused to carry out the “criminal order” to shoot.

This is said to be the first of many prosecutions. In fact, a number of international human rights organisations have documented similar incidents, with the International Criminal Court and the United Nations both setting up inquiries. 

The Russian who defected

Outrage at the Russians’ conduct is not restricted to outside its borders. On 23 May 2022, Boris Bondarev, a Senior Diplomat to Russia, defected over the war with the Ukraine. Up until this point, he worked as Counsellor of the Russian Mission to the UN Office at Geneva. After 20 years of service, his letter of resignation cites shame at how Russia has in fact completely undermined the very concept of diplomacy. Many in the West are calling to other Russian diplomats to follow suite.

What does this all mean?

Ultimately, this is all rather reminiscent of the Soviet era. Again, we are seeing the terms ‘defect’, ‘sanctions’, and ‘sphere of influence’ in the news. Russian soldiers are being tried for war crimes. Russian officials are absent from world events. These are all symptoms of Moscow’s modern imperialism. Putin appears to be on a mission: A mission to re-establish Russia’s territorial influence and control. His expansionist operations seem to be emulating the narrative of the authoritarian-dictator archetype of old. The question is therefore Where will Putin’s expansionist foreign policy take Russian troops next?