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The Puzzling Silence of the Global South on Russian aggression against Ukraine

SCRIPTS Blog Post No. 62 by Yaning Zhang

№ 62/2022 from Nov 21, 2022

The silent or even supportive stance of many countries in the Global South towards Putin's Russia after its invasion of Ukraine has stunned many in the West. SCRIPTS alumnus Dr. Yaning Zhang explains this silence with calculated decisions and lingering resentment of the West’s poor records in adhering to principles of the rue-based liberal international order. An informative change of perspective for a better understanding of the different positions.

United Nations General Assembly hall in New York City

United Nations General Assembly hall in New York City
Image Credit: Patrick Gruban, edited by Pine, originally posted to Flickr.

Russia’s gross violation of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine has sparked an unprecedented solidarity across the like-minded democracies of the West. As of the end of October, the EU has adopted a total of eight packages of sanctions against Russia. NATO members have also committed military assistance worth around 38.5 billion euros towards Ukraine.

In contrast to the robust support for Ukraine from the West, the rest of world either remains slient on, or expresses sympathy towards, or even promulgates Russia’s narrative of war. The absence of unanimous support for Ukraine from the Global South has utterly baffled politicians at Washington and Brussels.

From ‘solidarity in rhetoric’ to ‘neutrality in action’

Make no mistake, Russia’s inexcusable violation of the UN Charter struck a heavy blow to the already fragile global order, which most countries, although often partially dissatisfied with it, still treasure. As a result, a consistent majority of countries has chosen to side with Ukraine in the three adopted UN resolutions concerning Russia’s war of aggression.

However, even if a clear rhetoric of solidarity with Ukraine has been maintained in the UN Generally Assembly, it is still too early to conclude that Russia has been isolated by the global community. After all, the UN resolutions are diplomatic statements without concrete political or legal obligations. For this reason, political actions that entail actual costs, such as economic sanctions, are more reliable indicators of political stances. In this regard, a totally different picture of global solidarity emerges.

Up to now, all countries that have sanctioned Russia are either members of the EU and NATO or the closest allies of the US in the Asia-Pacific region. In contrast, the vast majority of countries in Asia (except for Japan, South Korea and Singapore) and all countries in the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America (except for The Bahamas) have chosen to remain on good terms with both sides and shun sanctions against Russia. Through another lens, research by The Economist finds that the Western supporting camp represents about 70% of global GDP, but almost two thirds of the world’s population live in countries that are neutral or Russia-leaning.

In simple terms, what is beneath the apparent rhetoric of solidarity with Ukraine that was displayed in the diplomatic theater in New York is actually a divided global community. More intriguingly, the fault line of the global community again coincides perfectly with the enduring schism between the Global North and South.

China vs. the West: ‘a dialogue of the deaf’

China, as the prominent voice of the Global South and the Kremlin’s closest political ally, has been the main target of diplomatic pressure by the Western democracies since the Ukraine war. Beijing’s stance on the Ukraine war offers a glimpse of other developing nations’ take on the issue.

By the end of October, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi had conducted six rounds of exchanges with the EU’s foreign policy chief and the German and French Foreign Ministers, respectively. Unfortunately, the clashing stances across Eurasia are so irreconcilable that the top Brussels diplomat dismissed these conversations as ‘a dialogue of the deaf’.

The EU and the United States see the normative arguments towards China and other developing countries taking a clear stand against Russia’s aggression as straightforward and compelling: Russia’s military aggression is a clear-cut violation of international law, and it is the imperial impulse of Russian President Vladimir Putin that is to be blamed for the war rather than the presence of NATO.

But for Beijing, the above arguments are at best unconvincing and at worst even hypocritical. As for Russia’s violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty, Chinese President Xi, during the virtual summit with French President Macron and German Chancellor Scholz in March, made it clear that ‘China maintains that the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries must be respected’. In other words, Beijing, at least in rhetoric, has not backtracked on its adherence to the basic principles of international law per se. However, Beijing has clashed with the West on real-world cases of sovereignty debates. Beijing simply finds no reasons to take Brussels’s lecture on sovereignty seriously when the two actors have clashed constantly over this issue. For instance, US Congress Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s contentious visit to Taiwan has sparked a furious response from Beijing, which deplores the West’s stance as ‘shameless’ and a display of double standards on sovereignty.

Certainly, China’s weighty economic clout and its aspiration to be a global power makes it a distinct member among the Global South. Apart from the shared grievance towards the West-dominated global order, Beijing’s pro-Russia stance is also mixed with a strategic agenda for power primacy over the US. While other non-Western countries may not share in Beijing’s considerations of hegemonic competition with the US, much of the Global South indeed resonates with Beijing’s resentment towards the West’s preaching on liberal norms and rule-based international order.

The Rest vs. the West: self-interests and deep-seated scepticism

Without doubt, most developing countries are choosing to sit on the fence with their immediate self-interests in mind, for reasons ranging from their historical ties with Russia (or the former Soviet Union) to concerns over skyrocketing food and fuel prices.

For instance, African countries, although they unhappily bore the brunt of food crisis caused by the Russian aggression, carefully choose their words towards Moscow so as to avoid displeasing their biggest supplier of grain. For this reason, Macky Sall, Senegal’s president and the head of the African Union, aligned himself with the Kremlin’s narrative and blamed the Western sanctions for the food crisis.

Then there is Brazil—the largest economy in Latin American. Although Brazil voted in favour of the two UN resolutions that condemned the Russian invasion, the South American agricultural powerhouse has refused to be a party to the economic warfare against its biggest fertilizer supplier. After claiming Ukrainian President Zelensky to be equally blameable for the war, Brazil’s President-elect brings little hope of changing check of Brasília.

When it comes to Asia, India—a close partner of the United States’ Indo-Pacific strategy—has surprisingly shunned sanctions against Russia and even has stepped up imports of discounted Russian crude, a move that runs contrary to the Western allies’ efforts to cut off the military funds of the Kremlin. For Delhi, Moscow is still a key supplier of sophisticated arms, which the Modi government considers too critical to lose amid the worsening border stand-off with Beijing along the Himalaya. And for Southeast Asian countries, they are also not persuaded at all that Russian should be isolated from the global community, despite of Kyiv’s intensive campaign on the sidelines of the ASEAN Summit and the G20 Summit in November.

As for the oil-rich Gulf monarchs, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were reported to have declined phone calls from President Biden but talked to President Putin instead at the beginning of the Ukraine war. They also refused President Biden’s request to significantly ramp up oil production to ease the surging energy prices that benefits Moscow. Behind the cold reception received by Washington is both monarchs’ deep frustration over the United States’ waning support concerning regional security issues including Iranian-backed Houthis militants in Yemen and the revived Iran nuclear deal.

That being said, considerations of self-interests by no means imply that the neutrality of the Global South is simply a political makeshift. Actually, the silence of non-Western countries could find its root in the long tradition of non-alignment, and, as with the case of China, the deep-rooted mistrust of the United States and its lead in the global order.

In parallel to the sheer excitement of a revived democratic alliance in the West, the Global South quietly raises the possibility of a re-navigated ‘non-alignment movement’ (NAM). As a political block forged by small and developing countries during the Cold War, NAM strives to find a middle ground between the two rival superpowers. India, Egypt, Indonesia and South African, each that hold neutral positions on the Ukraine war today, are also active members of NAM. For these non-European countries, the Ukraine war is not a global crisis but a regional crisis. Even more, they perceive it as a proxy war between Russia and NATO. Naturally, the history of the Cold War has taught them that becoming embroiled in great power conflicts in which they have no say generates few benefits yet enormous risks. As a result, even if countries of NAM frowned at Russia’s outright imperialism, they still do not accept the unilateral sanctions by the West as legitimate.

Furthermore, for many developing countries, the decade-long war on terror, the controversial invasion of Iraq, the lasting turmoil after the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime, and the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan repeatedly demonstrate the long history of the United States and its allies jettisoning international rules when convenient, and that the ‘rule based international order’ is not only without credibility but is also in irreversible decline. As a result, these countries are anything but convinced by President Biden’s framing of the Ukraine war as ‘a battle between democracy and autocracy’. Rather, they perceive the Western sanctions against Russia as an American ploy, through which Washington aims to crush any potential challengers of its global dominance.

Ultimately, the sharp contrast between the West’s loud support of Ukraine and the Global South’s silent boycott of economic sanctions on Russia is not a titanic distinction between good and evil. Rather, the silence of the Global south is a calculated decision based on concrete self-interests and lingering resentment of the West’s poor records in adhering to basic principles of the UN Charter that the West sponsored and rhetorically defended. Therefore, the anti-Putin democracy crusade attempted by the United States with an aim of forcing the Global South to pick a side in the Ukraine war will do little help to uphold the rule-based international order. Even worse, it will only reinforce the existing grievance towards this order. As a perfect expression of this sentiment, India’s External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar, when rejecting suggestions that India is a ‘fence-sitter’, satirized that ‘Europe has to grow out of the mindset that Europe’s problems are the world’s problems’.

Dr. Yaning Zhang is an alumnus of the Berlin Graduate School of Transnational Studies at the Cluster of Excellence SCRIPTS and assistant professor of international politics of Fudan University, Shanghai. He studied international politics at Fudan University, Shanghai, SciencesPo, Paris and College of Europe, Bruges. His research interests include collective tolerations of treaty breach, flexibility of international organization, and crisis management of the EU.