When Russia invaded Ukraine on the 24th of February, the world awoke to one of the first large-scale land wars in Europe being waged since WWII. However, while early gestures, such as the UN vote to condemn Russia’s invasion being passed with overwhelming support, may paint a picture of a world united against Putin, this assumption would be incorrect.
Under the surface, it appears that, while NATO countries are coalescing around a consensus on Russia (with notable exceptions), Global South countries are not joining this consensus. Even countries like India, generally thought to be friendly to the US, have not adopted the same line on Russia as NATO, and continue to trade with Russia and retain relatively cordial relations with Moscow.
Even more worryingly for NATO, it is not just India. When the UN motion condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine came up for a vote, 35 nations abstained (five nations voted against it). The abstaining countries include some of the most populous countries in the world, such as China, India, Pakistan, South Africa, and Bangladesh.
In a move reminiscent of the Cold War’s ‘Non-Aligned’ Movement, the movement of countries that during the Cold War chose to align neither with NATO nor the USSR, these countries are choosing to pursue a policy of neutrality. At its best, neutrality confers the opportunity to remain friendly with both sides in a conflict. However, at its worst, neutrality can also simply mean alienating both sides, and it is thus a tricky gamble.
But why are these countries pursuing this policy in the first place?
China and India’s Balancing Act
India and China, home to about 36% of the world’s population combined, have chosen not to participate in these sanctions. These countries, unlike Eritrea and North Korea, do not necessarily approve of Russian aggression towards Ukraine, at least according to their public statements.
China’s UN representative has called the conflict “heart-wrenching”, and India’s UN ambassador has called, “for an immediate cessation of violence and an end to hostilities”.
However, in China’s case, the reasons are fairly straightforward.
China sees the US as its main geopolitical foe, and likely sees that condemnation and sanctions could be deployed in a similar way against it if it were to invade Taiwan.
There is also a recognition in China that it, as a country vying for superpower status, will inevitably have interests counter to the currently dominant superpower, the United States. For those reasons, China will not do something that is perceived as backing US interests, despite reputational risks of inaction.
India’s reasoning is more complicated. On paper, the world’s largest democracy should be in the pro-NATO camp. After all, ever since Narendra Modi, the Prime Minister of India, came to power in 2014, he has sought to strengthen relations with the US, and India is certainly viewed as a partner against China by Washington.
However, India, much like many European countries, buys a lot of oil from Russia, and Russia is also India’s biggest weapons supplier. Unlike European countries that are choosing to buy oil from countries like Saudi Arabia instead, India does not want to jeopardize its energy supply.
India could potentially also be thinking in terms of a future conflict with China. While the US is likely to back India against China, Russia could be more of a swing vote, and it is conceivable that India would want cordial relations with Moscow in the event of an escalating conflict between itself and China.
However, India and China are not alone in assuming an ambiguous position during the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Many Global South nations, including even NATO members like Turkey have chosen not to participate in the robust sanctions regime adopted by the West.
Turkey has, for example, taken the place of Western companies on the Russian market and welcomed sanction-hit Russian capital flows.
At the start of 2022, 2/3 of Russian oil was being sold to Europe. Due to the oil embargo, this share has fallen, but Russia has still been able to offload its oil. Today, 50% of Russian oil exports are going to Asia.
Trade with BRIC countries like South Africa, Brazil, India, and China has also increased and is up by 38% in the first three months of the year.
New Cold War?
The new ‘Non-Aligned’ Movement, consisting of numerous Global South countries, seems to be charting independent courses based on unique and varied interests.
While China and India are, for example, diametrically opposed when it comes to some questions, notably the boundaries of their shared border, on the question of charting a path in the post-Ukraine invasion world, they agree.
It seems that many Global South countries are reaching the same conclusion.