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NATO expansion and US gas exports illustrate Putin’s dramatic reversal of fortune

Vladimir Putin spent America’s Independence Day in 2018 with eight Republican politicians. In Moscow. Those proud patriots skipped the July 4 parades and fireworks to celebrate freedom with a Russian dictator.

Russia was hosting FIFA’s World Cup, with billions of viewers tuning in. Construction of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline had commenced. When completed it would allow Russia to send more natural gas direct to Western Europe, tightening its grip on Europe’s energy supplies. These exports would bypass existing pipelines in Ukraine and Poland, shrinking transit revenues to both nations. Two weeks later Putin met with then president Donald Trump in Helsinki for their now infamous summit.

Putin’s power was at its peak. His furtive forays into US domestic politics contributed to the defeat of his nemesis Hillary Clinton and the installation of his longtime sycophant Trump. Trump was singlehandedly disrupting American democracy, destabilising global alliances, and threatening to decapitate NATO. The table was set for Putin to realise his grandest ambitions.

It’s been all downhill since then. Four years later Russia has been banished from this year’s World Cup. Nord Stream 2 is kaput, as Europe pivots away from Russia’s energy stranglehold. Ukraine has revealed to the world that Russia’s military is as Potemkin as its villages. Meanwhile Joe Biden, a seasoned foreign policy veteran, sits in the Oval Office.

Two events last week underscore Putin’s reversal of fortune. The first, almost unnoticed, was that exports of US liquefied natural gas to Europe surpassed Russian pipeline flows for the first time. This is a stunning transition. When President Biden was sworn in 18 months ago, US gas was a negligible share of total European consumption.

Market restructuring of this magnitude and in such rapid fashion reflects the Biden administration’s efforts to redeploy global LNG supplies and help transition Europe’s energy needs away from Russia’s grasp. It required both intensive international diplomacy and strategic corporate negotiations, just one part of a multi-dimensional response to Putin’s hostility.

The next was the formal invitation extended to Finland and Sweden to join NATO. To paraphrase President Biden’s observation of a previous landmark moment, this is a BFD. First, for the geopolitical shift it confirms. Second, for the unanimous resolve it signals. Third, for the speed of their accession.

Prior to the war in Ukraine, public support for NATO membership in both countries was marginal. For multiple different reasons, Sweden and Finland remained resolutely neutral. Putin’s attack shook their complacency. It was one thing for him to launch incursions into Georgia and Crimea, or to blast Grozny and Aleppo to rubble. It was another thing altogether for him to openly invade a nearby sovereign state, with designs on reconstituting Greater Russia. Both nations share memories of disastrous conflicts with Russia.

As the horror in Ukraine unfolded, a newfound sense of vulnerability changed minds. It became apparent that, despite bluster, Putin refrained from directly targeting NATO allies. Article 5 was an effective deterrent after all. Safety in numbers suddenly seemed a prudent plan.

This mood shift also created an opportunity for the US and Europe to consolidate the alliance, both to counter Putin’s menace and to demonstrate the West’s capability and commitment to resist aggression. The world is watching the West’s response in Ukraine. The outcome will have major repercussions for future global security and order.

The alacrity of NATO’s imminent enlargement is most telling of all. Not only is it unprecedented in its urgency, but it also demonstrates deft statecraft that would have been impossible four years ago.

Put yourself in Putin’s shoes. It may appear that he is an unassailable dictator. However, that illusion is fading fast. His special military operation has bogged down, as casualties and materiel losses mount. Sanctions are chipping away at Russia’s economy. NATO is more united than it has been in decades. And his no-limits friendship pact with China turns out to be not quite so unlimited after all.

China has been hedging its bets on the war in Ukraine, wary of provoking retaliation from the US and Europe. While it has increased its purchases of Russian fossil fuels and other commodities, Russia’s pleas for military equipment, technology and spare parts transfers have gone unmet. With every passing day, Russia seems more destined to become China’s junior partner rather than equal ally.

Nonetheless, Putin is not about to throw in the towel. He may have been surprised by the resistance to date, but he still believes he can outlast his enemies. Backed into a corner, he will double down. He intends to starve millions in the developing world by blockading Ukraine food exports.

Inflicting mass starvation is a war crime. For Putin, it’s just one more charge on his rap sheet. His goals from this monstrosity are threefold. He wants to suffocate Ukraine’s economy and ability to defend itself. He wants to instigate a refugee crisis that floods Europe with starving migrants to sow discord and division within the NATO alliance. Then he wants to exploit these deliberate catastrophes to generate pressure for a negotiated surrender on his terms.

It’s all a long way from the heady heights of 2018. From strutting the world stage and having a US president lick his boots, to global pariah awaiting an appointment at the Hague. Putin is not done yet, but the walls are closing in.

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