At first glance, it appears Russian President Vladimir Putin is an international pariah, devoid of any friends or partners. Russia’s war in Ukraine, the most destructive conflict on European soil in nearly 80 years, has severed Moscow’s relations with the West and forced Russian diplomats into some awkward exchanges, including at this week’s G20 summit. Even French President Emmanuel Macron, who once counseled his colleagues to not humiliate Russia, is now solidly in Ukraine’s camp.
Russia, however, isn’t totally isolated. Though many countries outside the West prefer a quick end to the war, some are undoubtedly in Russia’s corner. Iran has sold hundreds of combat drones to Moscow since August and is allegedly preparing to deliver short-range ballistic missiles to backfill the Russian arsenal. U.S. intelligence suspects North Korea is secretly shipping Soviet-era ammunition to Russia through the Middle East. And China, while shying away from providing the Kremlin military support, remains Putin’s most important diplomatic and economic shield; Beijing is now Moscow’s top trading partner and has scooped up substantial amounts of Russian crude oil, helping Putin offset a dwindling European market.
All of this has led some to suggest that Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea are on the cusp of forming a new axis of autocracies. The reality, however, is far less sensationalist. What is occurring is not the emergence of a strategic alliance among the four, but rather a temporary alignment in which three powers (China, Iran, and North Korea) are using the other (Russia) to promote their own interests.
Iran is instructive in this regard. On the face of it, Tehran has very little to gain in Ukraine. Regardless of how the war in Ukraine ends or which side prevails, the result is of little consequence to Iran’s national security interests. The Islamic Republic has higher priorities in the Middle East, from snuffing out the most sustained anti-government protests in over a decade to balancing against a Gulf Arab bloc armed by the U.S.
Why, then, is the Islamic Republic sending military equipment to Russia? Two reasons come to mind. First, sending drones to the Russians is a low-cost move to counteract what Tehran sees as yet another attempt by Washington to subjugate an adversary (in this case, Russia) for violating the U.S.-dominated order. It’s low-cost because there is little the U.S. can do to further damage the Iranian economy. After all, the Trump administration’s maximum pressure sanctions are still in effect, the nuclear talks are on death’s door and relations with the West are already frayed. Second, the Iranians are playing a longer game. Shipping drones to Moscow during a time of need isn’t about helping the Russians win a war as much as it is about using Russia’s predicament to Iran’s own advantage. None of this support is free; the Iranians are expecting Russia to return the favor with diplomatic and economic backing in the event Washington officially declares the nuclear negotiations null and void.
Similarly, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un couldn’t care less about what happens in Ukraine. What he cares about is exploiting the hole Putin has dug to the maximum extent possible. Reported ammunition sales, formal recognition of Russia’s most recent annexation of Ukrainian territory, and hints from North Korea that it could send laborers to reconstruct Russian-occupied areas isn’t for Moscow’s benefit, but rather a ploy to endear Russia to Kim Jong Un in the future. Much like Iran, North Korea is gathering chips and looking to cash them in at some point in the future. Kim’s gambit appears to be working, at least for the time being; on Nov. 4, the Russian ambassador to the U.N. blamed the U.S. and South Korea for instigating Pyongyang’s most recent barrage of missile tests.
For China, the calculus is different. While it’s true Chinese President Xi Jinping has a close personal relationship with Putin and declared a “no limits” partnership with Moscow prior to the invasion of Ukraine, it’s also true that China is a self-interested actor. Beijing understands that the more isolated Putin becomes in the West, the more he’s forced to reorient Russia’s economy, which still relies significantly on the export of natural resources, toward his large neighbor to the east.
This is precisely what has occurred over the last nine months. China’s imports of Russian oil have increased by 22 percent year-over-year, and the Russians are offering significant incentives to offload the crude. The same can be said of Russian natural gas. Russian gas exports to Europe have been cut this year by half, pushing the Russian government to accelerate plans to re-center its pipeline infrastructure toward markets in Asia. As China has in the past, Beijing will insist on preferential terms on any natural gas contracts Moscow tries to negotiate. And Putin, out of options, is in no position to refuse.
It’s tempting to assume the U.S. and its allies are now engaged in an existential struggle with a tight-knit bloc of authoritarian players. But what is really going on is something far more mundane—a select group of nations supporting Russia for their own distinct reasons, with an eye toward achieving their own political and economic objectives.
This observation has implications for the United States, which if the Biden administration’s recent National Security Strategy is any indication continues to promote a world increasingly divided between democracies and autocracies. The truth is more muddled and complex. Holding a Manichean, downright simplistic worldview risks overlooking the important nuance at the state-to-state level and contributes to the very divide the U.S. wants to eradicate.