Renewing ties that had frayed since the Cold War, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has united the West against Moscow. This bond is the foundation for the unprecedented sanctions Western countries and their allies have imposed—freezing the foreign reserves of Russia’s central bank and the foreign assets of Russian oligarchs, and cutting off Russian banks from the SWIFT payment system. Yet outside the West, few states have taken any action against Vladimir Putin’s regime. No African country has placed sanctions on it, and only three Asian countries have. America’s closest allies in the Middle East, including Israel and Saudi Arabia, have refused to punish Moscow and are still working with it. India, another nominal Western ally, is even negotiating with Putin to buy discounted oil. Why are these countries refusing to take sides?
Richard Gowan is the UN director for the international nonprofit Crisis Group. As Gowan sees it, countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America are reluctant to join the campaign against Moscow for an array of reasons. Some are ideological, driven by hostility toward Washington and NATO or sentimental affection for the former Soviet Union. Others have material reasons, depending on Russia for food, energy, or weapons supplies. Domestic politics are also influencing non-Western countries, Gowan says, as is a feeling that Western powers too often come to them only to ask favors, without ever responding to their needs in turn. But most are mainly hedging their bets as an intentional strategy for pursuing their national interests, uncertain of what Washington’s and Moscow’s relative power and influence will look when the dust of the war settles.
Michael Bluhm: What patterns are you seeing in responses to the war outside the West?
Richard Gowan: A lot of non-Western countries have condemned the invasion. At the UN General Assembly, 141 countries supported a resolution condemning it. Majorities of every regional group at the UN voted in favor of the resolution, although about half the African group supported it and half either abstained or backed Russia. Cuba and Nicaragua, which are normally surefire supporters of Russia at the UN, abstained and implied through their abstentions that they were uncomfortable with what Russia has done.
That said, we see a lot of limits to this condemnation. Countries that have rhetorically deplored the war don’t want to invest very heavily in pushing back against Russia. A hardcore group of countries—Syria, North Korea, Zimbabwe, Algeria, and Eritrea, for example—have started to get behind Moscow. That’s a group of countries that have always been critical of the West and have always banded together at the UN to oppose Western initiatives.
Bluhm: Why don’t they want to invest in pushing back against Russia?
Gowan: Many of those countries see the invasion as an enormous violation of international law. Brazil and Mexico have firmly condemned the military action—but they also have this instinctive feeling that you shouldn’t push Russia too far. If you condemn Moscow too harshly, that’ll make it harder to bring it back into the fold. Mexico and Brazil both abstained on a move to throw Russia out of the UN Human Rights Council after the awful images that came out of the suburbs around Kyiv, such as Bucha.
A number of African countries—and Mexico and Brazil—said, We will condemn the crime, but we don’t want to entirely isolate the criminal. The logic is that penalties and sanctions will drive Russia further away from diplomatic solutions to the war.
For many of these states—and this is also true for China—there’s a feeling that if you can punish Russia this way, you can punish anyone. Some countries don’t want to create any precedents for maneuvers that could be used against them in the future.
Bluhm: How are economic factors influencing decisions against penalizing or imposing sanctions on Russia?
Gowan: Another group of countries—including some in the Middle East, such as Egypt and the Gulf countries—have economic and security ties to Russia. Some, like Egypt, are highly dependent on Russian and Ukrainian food and agricultural supplies.
Many of African countries that are highly dependent on Russian food supplies have started to get quite nervous about efforts to punish the Russians. Planting season is coming up in Ukraine, and they’re concerned that they’re not going to get Ukrainian wheat. They’re also concerned that the sanctions on Russia will make it harder to get Russian food supplies.
This is an enormous issue, felt very deeply in a lot of African countries. On account of the climate, there are already concerns about famine in places like Somalia. Those countries are sitting on the fence over sanctions because they worry about food—and they don’t feel that Western countries are taking those food and agricultural concerns seriously enough. There’s quite a big push from Germany, as the president of the G7, to address these concerns, but I don’t think that’s fully filtered through to them.
For a lot of these states, there’s a feeling that if you can punish Russia this way, you can punish anyone. Some countries don’t want to create any precedents for maneuvers that could be used against them in the future.
Bluhm: What other explanations do you see for reluctance to take action against Russia?
Gowan: Some countries, like Uganda, are starting to talk about the old Cold War idea of the non-alignment of the Global South with Washington or Moscow—an idea originally embodied in the Non-Aligned Movement, developed as a third force at the UN—as a guiding principle. It’s an idea we’re hearing again from diplomats now.
Then there are big countries—China and India fall into this camp—that have very complex economic and security relationships with Russia, and aren’t going to sacrifice them to score a few points with the West.
India is a fascinating example. India’s primary strategic interest is maintaining pressure on China. The Indians are working ever more closely with the U.S. in the Asia-Pacific region. You’d think India would back U.S. positions over Ukraine—but India buys a vast amount of military equipment from Russia. India doesn’t want the formation of a massive, tightly knit Chinese-Russian bloc that China could exploit to weaken it, so the Indians are playing things very carefully.
From a geostrategic perspective, India just can’t let the Russians go. The Indians also feel confident that the Americans need Indian support in the Asia-Pacific, so much that they won’t break up the relationship over Ukraine.
Bluhm: You say India has strategic reasons not to break off relations with Russia. Beyond material interests such as food, what other national interests are keeping countries from joining with the West against Russia?
Gowan: There aren’t sanctions by many non-Western countries. A lot of them feel they’re taking significant risks in their economic and diplomatic relations with Russia by criticizing it at all.
A fundamental reason, which cuts across everything, is a desire to stay out of European wars or wars involving Moscow and Washington. There’s a strong intuition that nothing good can come from getting involved in those conflicts. And that’s linked to a second intuition: a disinclination to associate yourself with NATO or U.S. positions—even though we hear most global leaders say they’re appalled by Russia’s behavior.
People in the U.S. tend to think that history gets erased every four years—and that people beyond the U.S. have forgotten about Iraq or America’s involvement in coups against leftist leaders in the Cold War era. They haven’t. Putin’s rhetoric about NATO being a dangerous force in the world resonates. Even if people outside the West don’t buy his whole theory of Russian history, those anti-NATO feelings run deep.
We hear Western diplomats often say that NATO is solely a defensive alliance. To African and Arab diplomats, NATO didn’t look like a defensive alliance when it drove Muammar Gaddafi from power in 2011 and left him for dead. That’s how people think of NATO at the UN and in a lot of African capitals.
Bluhm: How much ideological identification with Russia is there among non-Western countries?
Gowan: There are still a lot of elites in the Global South who may be fairly old now but did their university education or training in the U.S.S.R. Even though Putin is in no way furthering the Soviet liberation agenda, many of these people have fond memories of Moscow, and its historical support for liberation movements in the developing world seems to affect their thinking.
There are big countries—China and India fall into this camp—that have very complex economic and security relationships with Russia, and aren’t going to sacrifice them to score a few points with the West.
That converges with the fear of a food-price shock and an energy-price shock—and a sense that European and U.S. diplomats ignored that stuff, at least in the first month of the war. Every phone call from Washington or another Western capital would be, What are you doing to pressure Russia? and not, What can we do to help you to handle the fallout from this war?
Bluhm: Are Western countries doing anything to help with the fallout?
Gowan: There’s an initiative now in the UN General Assembly for a resolution calling for a globally coordinated response to food-price shocks. Germany is going to use G7 meetings of foreign ministers and agriculture ministers in May to talk about them. The European Union and others have already pledged large amounts of money for food aid to the neediest countries, but we don’t have a coherent, global plan to manage this crisis.
Bluhm: Are you seeing domestic politics influencing countries’ positions on Russia?
Gowan: We’ve got to recognize that this is an information war, as both the Ukrainians and Russians recognized from the get-go. If you’re in the West, you’re getting an almost unsullied flow of pro-Ukrainian information. But if you’re in Africa or parts of Asia, you’re getting much more mixed information.
The information that affected African diplomacy included credible reports in the first weeks of the war of Ukrainian and other European border officials discriminating against African nationals trying to get out of Ukraine. There were real examples, though the scale of the problem is arguable. Kyiv has made quite an effort now to say, This is not official policy. But the discrimination resonated in African civil society.
African security analysts also point to a bigger picture: Why is this war getting so much airtime when the majority of conflicts today—if many on a smaller scale—are in Africa? Why is this getting so much more attention than last year’s war in Ethiopia? That does hurt Ukraine’s case abroad. Politicians outside the West aren’t answering to a public that’s, like the public in the U.K. and the U.S., instinctively supportive of Ukraine; they’re answering to a public that has more mixed feelings about the war. Domestic politics matter.
Bluhm: How much potential do you see for these countries to work together as a bloc, to shape either the international response to the war or circumstances after the war?
Gowan: Fundamentally, countries are going to act on their interests—on their military interests, their economic interests, and their food-supply interests. There are some intriguing kinks here, because a lot of countries that have been happily buying Russian weapons systems are now seeing those weapons systems in action and discovering that they might not work quite as well as advertised. That may have a negative effect on Russia’s global standing, because it’s pinned a lot of that standing on its military prowess.
That said, I’m not convinced we’re seeing the emergence of a new non-aligned movement that’s equivalent to what we saw during the Cold War. The non-aligned movement back then didn’t just abstain; it took tremendously strong positions on fighting apartheid, attacking Israel over the Palestinians, and nuclear disarmament. It was a movement with an agenda. It wasn’t just about keeping your head down when there was a vote at the UN.
Many of these people have fond memories of Moscow, and its historical support for liberation movements in the developing world seems to affect their thinking.
The leaderships of many non-Western countries are talking about non-alignment now because it provides good philosophical cover for trying to avoid being in this fight. If you enter into a new Cold War—which is a credible scenario—then you might see something more like the old non-aligned movement.
Even before the war, in Africa, Asia, and elsewhere, a lot of these countries remaining non-aligned on Ukraine, in Africa, Asia, and elsewhere, were articulating very strong criticisms of the West on climate financing and Covid-vaccine distribution. These countries are saying, Great, thanks for telling us about sovereignty and human rights, but we’re still waiting for the money you’ve promised for climate adaptation and the vaccines. That feeds into calculations on whether to back the West.
Bluhm: How is this non-alignment affecting the course of the war?
Gowan: It will affect the postwar settlement at the international level. Assuming we come out of the war with Putin still in power, a lot of Western sanctions still in place, and Western governments aiming for energy independence from Russia, then Russia will have to look elsewhere for economic relationships and diplomatic support. You may see the politics of bloc formation, which Russia could exploit to its advantage in economic and diplomatic terms.
Bluhm: What does this reluctance to sanction Russia among non-Western countries say to you about the global political dynamic today?
Gowan: Before the war, we were in a deeply uncertain geopolitical environment. President Biden was trying to explain the world as divided between democracies and autocracies. It’s not that simple.
You definitely do have an autocratic wave globally. But any given region’s policies are characterized by risk management. Countries are hedging their bets. No one knows what the future of U.S. foreign policy is, because they know that Trump or a Trump-like leader could return to power in Washington. Then, the effective international leadership that Biden has shown over Ukraine will fragment again.
In the meantime, you have China on the rise, but no one’s quite sure what its ambitions are beyond its own immediate area. Most countries want to maintain economic and diplomatic ties with both Washington and Beijing—and don’t want to be solely dependent on either.
Russia has always been a slightly strange player, because it’s a significant military power—though maybe not as significant as we thought—and a significant energy power, but not as important in other ways. Economically, it’s a minnow compared with the U.S. or China. But it’s still a country that can send you mercenaries if you’re in Mali or the Central African Republic, and you need help defending your government. And it can protect you in the Security Council. Last year, Russia protected Ethiopia from Western criticism at the UN during the Tigray war. Ethiopia has been curiously silent over Ukraine, and there are even some stories of Ethiopians volunteering to fight for Russia.
As the West, we look at Ukraine, and we think, There is good, there is bad, and surely everyone should be rallying to the forces of good—just as Biden said everyone should rally to the forces of democracy. Actually, most countries want to maintain room to maneuver, manage risk, and not do anything to fundamentally burn their relations with Washington, Beijing, or Moscow. We’re living in a world where, as a matter of strategy, people are sitting on the fence for as long as possible.