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Putin sees Israel-Hamas war as opportunity for geopolitical power shift

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Much of the world sees the Israel-Hamas war as a catastrophe. What about Russia's President Vladimir Putin? Putin has expressed condolences for the civilians killed on both sides and has offered to mediate. But his opponents believe he also sees the conflict as an opportunity. NPR's Philip Reeves reports from the city of Riga in Latvia.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: It's a calm autumn day on the ancient streets of Riga. In the National Library, by a river that flows into the nearby Baltic Sea, discussions will soon begin about the future of the world.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I welcome you all to Riga and to the Riga Conference.

REEVES: This is a gathering of politicians and diplomats, soldiers and security experts. They hold this international conference here every year. This year is different.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT EDGARS RINKEVICS: The world is a mess. Europe is a mess. The Middle East is a mess. Everything is a mess.

REEVES: Edgars Rinkevics is president of Latvia. This former Soviet republic of some 2 million people is now on NATO's front line. Latvia's government strongly supports Ukraine. The Russian border is only 140 miles away from here.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KRISJANIS KARINS: We cannot let down our guard.

REEVES: Krisjanis Karins, Latvia's foreign minister, worries that the international spotlight has swiveled away from the war in Europe.

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KARINS: Of course, Israel needs our support, but also so does Ukraine.

REEVES: Karins says Putin is an opportunist who will exploit the Middle East crisis to distract attention from his war.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KARINS: And our response must be that the political support and also public support for Ukraine does not and cannot diminish.

REEVES: Putin blames the Israel-Hamas war on a fundamental failure of U.S. world leadership, saying that Washington ignored the Palestinian issue for too long. He's trying to win support, particularly among Global South nations, by arguing it's time for geopolitical power to shift to the East.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Non-English language spoken).

REEVES: Change is already underway. When Putin met China's President Xi in Beijing this week, he called for them to closely coordinate foreign policy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SLAWOMIR DEBSKI: What Russia and China are publicly saying is that they are not satisfied with the world order that Europe and United states, want to defend.

REEVES: Slawomir Debski is director of Poland's Institute of International Affairs. Is Europe doing enough to prepare itself for this new geopolitical challenge? he asks. And adds...

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DEBSKI: My answer is no.

REEVES: In Europe, this huge issue is now a matter of serious debate.

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KARINS: If Russia is allowed to win in Ukraine, that would mean that the world order created after World War II starts to crumble.

REEVES: That's Karins, Latvia's foreign minister again. Russia's opponents in Europe worry the U.S. is losing interest in resolving distant conflicts. President Joe Biden seeking to calm these fears. U.S. leadership holds the world together, he said Thursday. Julian Lindley-French hopes Biden is right.

JULIAN LINDLEY-FRENCH: It comes down to American leadership, and it's America's choice.

REEVES: Lindley-French chairs the Alphen Group, an informal network of foreign policy and defense experts.

LINDLEY-FRENCH: If America decides it can't be bothered anymore, then the price America will pay will be very profound indeed.

REEVES: So far, the White House is showing that it can be bothered. Biden's asking for an extra $61 billion for Ukraine and $14 billion for Israel, though getting approval from Congress will be tough. On Europe's front line, there's still hope.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KARINS: Currently, we are succeeding. We simply cannot give up.

REEVES: Karins, Latvia's foreign minister, hopes in the end, Putin's dream of a new world order will prove to be a fantasy. Philip Reeves, NPR News, Riga, Latvia.

(SOUNDBITE OF BADBADNOTGOOD'S "TIMID, INTIMIDATING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.