Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during a meeting with his election campaign confidants at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia March 20, 2024. / Photo: Reuters

By Hannan Hussain

Now that Vladimir Putin has won re-election as Russia's president, it is clear that tensions between the country and Western nations are here to stay - and may even get worse.

This week, Moscow joined China in vetoing a United Nations Security Council resolution that called for - but didn't demand - "the imperative" of an "immediate and sustained cease-fire" in Gaza.

Russia’s UN Ambassador Vassily Nebenz blamed the US, which had sponsored the resolution, for politicising ceasefire efforts, and for "deliberately misleading the international community."

In a recent interview, Putin also warned that Russia is ready to use nuclear weapons if its sovereignty was threatened, claiming its nuclear capabilities were always in a state of combat readiness.

These are just the latest examples of growing friction between Western countries and Moscow.

In addition to Gaza, there is the war in Ukraine, one of the biggest sticking points. This week, French President Emmanuel Macron doubled down on comments about sending troops to support Ukraine. But a direct confrontation between Russia and NATO would "be one step away from a full-scale World War III," Putin warned.

Meanwhile, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz recently told the country's lower house that Berlin won't accept Putin's "dictated peace" on Ukraine.

The European Union has agreed to impose a new set of sanctions on Russian officials and organisations for the death of Putin’s staunchest critic, Alexei Navalny. And Ukraine’s chief military backers in the West are vowing to step up arms supplies.

This photograph taken on March 22, 2024, shows a fire at an electrical substation after a missile attack in Kharkiv, amid the Russian invasion in Ukraine (SERGEY BOBOK / AFP).

But Putin said he is determined to achieve total victory in Ukraine, and has promised to strengthen Russia's military capabilities. He has also instructed the Federal Security Service (FSB) to support Russian companies in busting Western sanctions.

A historic fifth term in power could hand Putin enough economic and political space to carry through with his core policy objectives, principally the war in Ukraine.

Putin hopes to extend Russia’s territorial control over Ukraine, and is preparing to set up a buffer zone to prevent cross-border attacks. All this is a sign that Putin will not relent in the war or bow down to Western pressure anytime soon.

The West is faced with limited options on Russia. After all, Western military support to Kiev is steadily waning, and appears increasingly unpopular on the domestic front.

Ukrainian servicemen, crew members of a German-made self-propelled anti-aircraft (SPAAG), better known as the Flakpanzer Gepard, drive to a combat duty in Kyiv region, on March 21, 2024, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine (Genya SAVILOV / AFP).

According to Ukraine's Defence Minister Rustem Umerov, Western promises to provide arms "do not constitute delivery," and about half of military aid has failed to reach the country on time.

Even if Western assistance was to pick up drastically, it is unclear how long this could be sustained. Consistent arms supplies have not bolstered Ukrainian defences in the past, and prospects of a long-sought counteroffensive appear more bleak than ever.

In contrast, a rising Russian military initiative in Ukraine poses a tough dilemma for the West: either continue with an unpopular war, or compel Kiev to strike a compromise through peace talks.

The latter option is worth paying attention to. Western countries have balked at prospects of peace negotiations for months, and construe it as a sign of capitulating to Moscow. But this could change as Putin retains his grip on power through at least 2030.

Then-President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin shake hands as they hold a joint news conference after their meeting in Helsinki, Finland, July 16, 2018 (REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger).

Look to Washington: it is headed for a decisive election that features contrasting priorities on Ukraine. Though US President Joe Biden favours supporting Ukraine, his main challenger in November is former President Donald Trump, who is a chief opponent of the war.

Trump claims he can settle the war in 24 hours, and has played an important role in stalling billions of dollars in military aid to Kiev. With Trump's popularity rising, Putin may feel compelled to play a waiting game on Ukraine.

Meanwhile, Germany, the United Kingdom and France have grown increasingly frustrated at Moscow’s military advances in Ukraine, but cannot afford escalation either.

Any appearance of NATO troops on the ground would risk a wider conflict, and Putin has warned the West against breaching this red line. Washington’s allies in Europe are also under pressure to keep the spectre of a broader NATO-Russia confrontation at bay.

According to a new report from the Institute for the Study of War, Moscow is already preparing for large-scale conflict scenarios with NATO. At the heart of those preparations is a dramatic increase in Russia’s military capabilities and strength.

Putin is set to oversee key modernisation efforts, including the formation of two combined armies and over a dozen divisions and brigades by the end of this year. A change in tack is thus critical for the West to limit horrific battlefield losses, de-escalate future tensions with Russia, and prevent the war in Ukraine from spiralling out of control.

But strategic options remain limited.

Western leverage over the Russian economy has its limits. Putin is keen to build on Moscow’s economic growth momentum from last year, which came in defiance of thousands of Western sanctions.

Putin’s historic fifth term will test long-term Western support for Ukraine, press NATO to walk a tightrope on Russia, and make it difficult for the West to sideline an economy that is actively courting allies elsewhere.

The EU also faces an uphill task seizing and transferring some 90 percent of revenues from billions of dollars in frozen Russian assets. It views this plan as critical to funding arms for Ukraine. But the move could prompt Putin to respond with a slate of lawsuits, effectively keeping the West from exercising control.

Meanwhile, rising frictions with the West will only tighten Moscow’s embrace of China, a key ally that has helped Russia withstand Western sanctions. Putin is set to visit Beijing in his first post-election trip, and both countries are keen to make more energy and economic inroads into regions where traditional Western influence is on the decline, such as the Middle East.

Thus, continued attempts to "isolate" Russia may end up furthering its integration with other high-growth economies. These include Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, China, and staunch US ally, India. The latter three are also part of BRICS, a group of emerging economies that seeks to limit US dominance in the world economy.

In sum, Putin’s historic fifth term will test long-term Western support for Ukraine, press NATO to walk a tightrope on Russia, and make it difficult for the West to sideline an economy that is actively courting allies elsewhere.

The author, Hannan Hussain, is an international affairs specialist and author. He was a Fulbright Scholar of international security at the University of Maryland, and has consulted for the New Lines Institute for Strategy and Policy in Washington. Hussain's work has been published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, and the Express Tribune (partner of the International New York Times).

Disclaimer: The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of TRT Afrika.

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