Russia-Africa 2019 Summit: President Cyril Ramaphosa during plenary session at the Russia-Africa Summit held in Sochi, RussianImage: Flickr/GovernmentZA
In the last year of conflict between Russia and Ukraine, the constant refrain from America and its NATO allies has been unity. This coalition has claimed that the fight for Ukraine is, in fact, a test for “the whole world,” which has left the rest of the global community to pick a side or attempt to stay neutral. The western block has aimed to make Russia a pariah with sanctions, international condemnations, and military aid to Ukraine.
However, these claims fail to account for the weight of geopolitical factors like China’s growlingly closer ties with Russia. It also ignores a growing divide between the Global North and the Global South. Where the United States might have assumed it would meet agreeable allies, it has had to reckon with the rest of the world, which has its own problems and resents the implication that it should take the back seat to Eastern Europe. In NATO’s diplomatic overtures, it has failed to acknowledge how indifferent other parts of the world are towards Russia’s conflict with Ukraine.
When countries like the United States refer to Russia becoming a “pariah state,” they are referring to Europe and its allies ranging from North America to the Indo-Pacific isolating Russia from the international community. This exclusion is not always the same case in the Global South. This strategy of isolating Russia has merely given the Russian state a different selection of nations to do business with. Consider that a year into the conflict, more countries are either neutral to or supportive of Russia than in opposition (See Figure 1). The biggest changes have occurred in Africa, Asia, and South America.
Figure 1: Economist Intelligence Unit
Under the Trump administration, India was perceived as a key partner in Indo-Pacific security. However, Washington has realized the limits of this cooperation. One such limitation is cheap and reliable energy access. The Indian government has thus far refused to condemn the Russian government despite increased calls for India to break ties. The United States and its allies are simply no longer in a position to make demands on Indian foreign policy. As explained by Indian Junior Foreign Minister Meenakashi Lekhi, “India has close and friendly relations with both the U.S. and Russia…They stand on their own merit.”
Beyond diplomacy, Indian trade is becoming independent of American institutions. Since the start of the conflict, India removed the petrodollar system in favor of trading gas in rubles. Russia has conversely begun adopting the use of the Chinese Yuan, further undercutting the U.S. dollar. This abandonment of the U.S. dollar as a system of reserve currency warns that U.S. foreign policy is due for a radical reshaping in the coming century.
Sanctions threats have long been a staple tool for American foreign policy, but they are losing their diplomatic weight as they garner a new rallying point for communities in the Global South. In a recent visit to the Democratic Republic of Congo by French President Emmanuel Macron, he laid out a case for supporting Ukraine, based on language of unity. At this meeting, the Congolese Foreign Minister angrily demanded why Macron wasn’t putting sanctions on the Rwandan government in light of the ongoing conflict in Central Africa.
While Macron’s appeals to unity were rejected, there were Congolese protesters outside waving Russian flags. Rather than sympathizing with the West, some view support for Russia as a jab against the West. Historically, African countries have been the victims of Western proxy wars. In the words of Chris Ogunmodede, an associate editor of World Politics Review, “When we have a problem, we’re on our own; when there’s an ‘international problem’, as defined by the West, then it’s a global problem…Everybody treats us like pawns.”
While the majority of the global population feels exploited, the rising superpower has its own perspective. China has been working closely with Russia, defining a separate group that is not just unaligned but sympathetic to Russia. Given the binary great power language offered by the Biden administration, China is proving that it is not beholden to NATO’s appeals to global unity.
Far from staying out, the second-largest economy in the world has discussed shipping lethal aid to Russia. China is sending clear signals that it won’t simply do whatever America tells it to, an attitude hardly unique to it. The fact is that China has its own interests, and sometimes these interests don’t align well with the United States. In this way, China represents much of the rest of the world.
The countries that support Ukraine are overwhelmingly European, and of those supporting Ukraine, the United States contributes over 75 percent of the aid (see figure 2). Regarding aid to Russia, there is a similar trend involving nations like Iran and China.
China isn’t exactly supporting Russia, despite rejecting American leadership. Consider that China is both providing aid to Ukraine but also facilitating peace talks. This is because China has common enemies with Russia but not common interests. For example, both China and Russia view the United States as a hegemonic power set on preventing them from achieving their own ends.
During China’s National People’s Congress, President Xi Jinping said pointedly, “The United States has implemented all-round containment on our country, bringing unprecedented severe challenges to our development.” This antagonism towards America is similar to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s claims this year that Ukraine “has become hostage of the Kyiv regime and its Western masters, which have effectively occupied the country.”
The Global South isn’t composed of pro-democracy idealists but understandably self-interested states. NATO clearly reflects its own self-interest but fails to accommodate the realities of Indian or Congolese interests when it trumpets its success in isolating Russia. The poverty of the Global South means that pragmatic leaders there must pursue whatever ends materially benefit their citizens, regardless of who their trade partner might be in conflict with.
In the face of China’s support for Russia, Africa’s indifference to the conflict in Ukraine, and other examples, it is apparent that the NATO narrative of unanimous condemnation of Russia is hardly reflective of reality. The picture on the ground is one of great nuance and is ever-changing from the present moment.
What can be said for certain is that the old assumptions about power relations are starting to change. Whether this change is permanent or temporary is yet to be seen. Russia’s new partnership with China implies a new Eastern Bloc to challenge American hegemony. The main takeaway is that the constant attempts to make the Global North’s problems the world’s problems seemingly have forgotten that the world is much bigger than Europe. In an age of multipolarity, the United States must accommodate diverse perspectives, it can no longer righteously dictate events.
Garrett Ehinger is an undergraduate student at Brigham Young University in Idaho, majoring in Biomedical Science. He was the Director of the China Lab at his university, a recipient of the EA UGAP stipend award, and has studied Chinese culture and history for over a decade.
Matthew Bryant graduated with a BA in Global affairs from George Mason University. He is currently a joint Graduate student at the University of Trento & the Higher School of Economics. His research focuses on ethnic conflict in Ukraine and Post-Soviet area studies.