Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and South African President Cyril Ramaphosa during a meeting in Pretoria, South Africa, on Jan. 23. (Russian Foreign Ministry Press Service/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
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Russia has launched a broad diplomatic blitz to counter its image as a pariah state in the run-up to the anniversary of its invasion of Ukraine, which severed Moscow’s ties with the West and even alarmed some of the Kremlin’s traditional allies.

In the past week, President Vladimir Putin phoned Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to coordinate goals for Wednesday’s OPEC Plus meeting of oil producers, showing it’s still a player in oil markets. The government also said it was expecting a visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping this year, and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met with counterparts from Egypt and Pakistan after returning from a diplomatic trip crisscrossing Africa.

Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, which was driven in part by Russia’s desire to assert regional dominance in the old Soviet sphere and to counter what it considers America’s global dominance, has backfired on multiple levels, prompting even long-standing allies in Central Asia to rethink their dependence on Moscow. Russian officials, however, continuously brush off the suggestion that Moscow is isolated because of the unprecedented Western sanctions, export control and boycotts.

How isolated is Russia, really?

In announcing the expected visit of the Chinese president, which Beijing has yet to confirm, the Foreign Ministry said this week that Russia and China were working together to counter U.S. attempts at global domination by protecting the authority of the United Nations and promoting the Group of 20, the Tass news agency reported.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov’s prediction last year that the world was “too big for Europe and America to isolate any country, especially one as big as Russia,” have largely been borne out as much of the world still talks to Russia — and buys its oil and gas — even if Moscow is now generally shunned by the world’s wealthiest democracies.

Russia had no presence, for instance, at this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. But for Putin, the lack of invitations to international events matters little as long as the Kremlin can create a perception of international support that he can sell domestically, said Fedor Krasheninnikov, an independent Russian political analyst living in Lithuania.

“For Putin, it is very important to show to his electorate that he is a global leader,” he said. “We may laugh when we see Lavrov roaming around Africa, but what’s important for Putin is that the part of Russian society that believes everything they say on TV watches the news and says, ‘What a great Putin we have. There is no isolation.’”

Lavrov, Russia’s top diplomat, on his recent trip to Angola, Botswana, Eswatini, Eritrea and South Africa, met African leaders to shore up support with a consistent mantra. He claimed that while America imposes bans and sanctions, Russia offers an alternative type of partnership, without preconditions of democracy or demands to take sides.

Most of Lavrov’s opening remarks in meetings with leaders lamented Washington’s attempts “to draw African countries into a hybrid war” against Russia and praised Moscow’s commitment to Africa despite “illegal pressures” from the United States to steer clear.

Echoing Putin’s recent fervently anti-Western speeches, Lavrov accused the West of “acting with the same colonial methods that it used to exploit the developing continents.”

This was Lavrov’s second tour of Africa in six months (he visited Egypt, Republic of Congo, Uganda and Ethiopia last year), and, according to the Russian Foreign Ministry, he plans to visit four countries in North Africa in February. Moscow is also preparing to host the second Russia-Africa summit in the summer.

The trips appear to have achieved a measure of success. Regional heavy hitter South Africa warmly welcomed Lavrov last month as a “valued partner” and said the “wonderful meeting” helped “strengthen already good relations.” Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor also defended military exercises with Russia as normal “with friends.”

The son of Uganda’s president and his likely successor, Lt. Gen. Muhoozi Kainerugaba, has been outspoken in his support for Russia in the Ukraine war, tweeting last year: “The majority of mankind (that are non-white) support Russia’s stand in Ukraine.” Uganda has traditionally been a stalwart Western ally in areas such as security cooperation.

Rather than compete in the economic sphere with the United States and China offering trade and investment, Russia has gone the military route, targeting states ravaged by insurgency and offering guns-for-hire in return for exploration contracts — a strategy that, analysts note, is similar to the old-school colonialism it claims to be fighting.

“You can always find some dissatisfied regimes, corrupt, poor, offended, and promise them money and support,” Krasheninnikov said. “This is also Putin’s strategy — to create a club of international outcasts: countries that have been expelled everything from everywhere, North Korea, Iran, Syria. They may not even like each other that much, but they have a common problem. They are all outcasts.”

In East Asia, Russia has worked assiduously to strengthen its relationship with China, which has been increasingly concerned over the prolonged war in Ukraine and Moscow’s lack of a clear exit strategy.

Just before New Year’s, Putin publicly encouraged Xi to visit Moscow in the spring of 2023 after a videoconference call. “This will demonstrate to the whole world the strength of Russian-Chinese ties on key issues,” Putin said in televised remarks.

China has not officially accepted the invitation — or commented on it — but Russian officials made clear this week that expectations for the visit are high in Moscow.

“This year, through joint efforts, Russia and China will be able to strengthen further and advance bilateral ties. … We proceed from the understanding that [the visit] will become the central event in bilateral relations in 2023,” the Foreign Ministry said in its yearly overview of the country’s foreign policy.

Moscow and Beijing have become more closely aligned in recent years, with both leaders declaring a “no limits” partnership and denouncing NATO expansion just weeks before the Russian invasion of Ukraine in late February 2022.

On China-Russia border, new bonds are forged against U.S. over Ukraine

China has avoided labeling Russia as the aggressor, echoing the Kremlin’s talking points that shifted blame for the conflict on NATO and the United States, and has continued to be one of Russia’s few backers amid global international outrage. But it has not offered its full support and, as the war dragged on, the two countries hit a rough patch in their relationship.

Xi had shown signs of frustration during a meeting with Putin in September at a conference in Uzbekistan. During talks, Putin conceded that Beijing had “questions and concerns” regarding the invasion, which seemed to be a thinly veiled recognition of the countries’ differing perspectives.

Still, just last month Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said the two countries had “blazed a new path of harmonious coexistence and win-win cooperation” and promised deeper cooperation in 2023.

If granted, the Chinese visit would be the second in-person encounter between Xi and Putin since the start of the war and could serve as a way to defy the impression of cracks in the alliance.

Russia’s diplomatic efforts over the past year reaped some benefits that have helped keep its war in Ukraine going. Procuring microchips and drones from China and striking oil deals with Saudi Arabia and other customers, have softened the blow of the Western measures.

While Russia can make a case that it is not totally isolated, analyst Maxim Oreshkin, based in Latvia, points out that there’s a dramatic difference from when it was part of the elite Group of Eight wealthiest nations, from which it was expelled in 2014 for the Crimea invasion.

“Russia will continue to descend into isolation even though it is trying to break out of it in some single cases and in not the most promising directions,” he said. “Territorial expansion, corruption, violation of international rules. … This all pushes Russia towards alliances with not the most advanced countries in the world.”

Katharine Houreld in Nairobi; Lily Kuo in Taipei, Taiwan; and Paul Schemm in London contributed to this report.