By Angela Stent/FP
Russian President Vladimir Putin made four major miscalculations before he launched his invasion of Ukraine. He overestimated Russian military competence and effectiveness and underestimated the Ukrainians’ will to resist and determination to fight back.
He was also wrong in his assumption that a distracted West would be unable to unite politically in the face of the Russian attack and that the Europeans and the United States’ Asian allies would never support far-reaching financial, trade, and energy sanctions against Russia.
But he did get one thing right: He correctly estimated that what I call “the Rest”—the non-Western world—would not condemn Russia or impose sanctions. On the day the war broke out, U.S. President Joe Biden said the West would make sure that Putin became a “pariah on the international stage”—but for much of the world, Putin is not a pariah.
For the past decade, Russia has been cultivating ties with countries in the Middle East, Asia, Latin America, and Africa—regions from which Russia withdrew after the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991. And the Kremlin has assiduously courted China since the annexation of Crimea in 2014. When the West sought to isolate Russia, Beijing stepped in to support Moscow, including by signing the massive “Power of Siberia” gas pipeline deal.
The United Nations has voted three times since the war began: twice to condemn Russia’s invasion and once to suspend it from the Human Rights Council. These resolutions passed. But tally up the size of the populations in those countries that abstained or voted against the resolutions, and it amounts to more than half of the world’s population.
In short, the world is not united in the view that Russia’s aggression is unjustified, nor is a significant part of the world willing to punish Russia for its actions. Indeed, some countries are seeking to profit from Russia’s current situation. The reluctance of the Rest to jeopardize relations with Putin’s Russia will complicate the West’s ability to manage ties with allies and others not only now but also when the war is over.
Leading the Rest in refusing to condemn Russia is China. Without the understanding that China would support Russia in whatever it did, Putin would not have invaded Ukraine. The Russian-Chinese joint statement on Feb. 4, signed when Putin visited Beijing at the beginning of the Winter Olympics, extols their “no limits” partnership and commitment to push back against Western hegemony. According to the Chinese ambassador to the United States, Chinese President Xi Jinping was not informed of Putin’s plans to invade Ukraine when the two met in Beijing. Whatever Putin actually said to Xi—whether it was a wink or something more explicit—we will probably never know.
But however one interprets that claim, it is undeniable that China has supported Russia since the invasion began. Beijing abstained on U.N. votes condemning Russia and voted against the resolution to suspend the country from the Human Rights Council. Chinese media reiterate, with some fidelity, Russian propaganda about “denazifying” and demilitarizing Ukraine and blame the United States and NATO for the war. They have questioned whether the Bucha massacre was carried out by Russian troops and have called for an independent investigation.
But there is some equivocation in the Chinese position. They have also called for an end to hostilities and have reiterated that they believe in the territorial integrity and sovereignty of all states—including Ukraine. China has been Ukraine’s top trading partner, and Ukraine is part of the Belt and Road project, so Beijing cannot welcome the economic devastation that the country is experiencing.
Nevertheless, Xi has chosen to ally with fellow autocrat Putin, and they share deep grievances against a U.S.-dominated world order they believe has neglected their interests. They are determined to create a post-Western global order, although they differ in what this order should look like.
For China, it would be a rules-based order in which China has a much greater role in setting the agenda than it currently does. For Putin, on the other hand, it would be a disruptive world order with few rules. Both countries are allergic to Western criticisms of their domestic systems and their human rights records. China and Russia both need each other in their joint quest to make the world safe for autocracy. Xi would not like to see Putin defeated. Hence, despite China’s discomfort at the scale of violence and brutality in Ukraine and the risks of escalation to a wider war, it remains unwilling to speak out against Russia.
Major Chinese financial institutions have so far complied with Western sanctions, though. After all, China’s economic stake in relations both with Europe and the United States is far larger than with Russia. Moreover, given the extensive Western sanctions against Russia, Beijing must be wondering what the Western reaction might be were it to invade Taiwan. The Chinese are undoubtedly studying the sanctions carefully.
The other major holdout against criticizing Russia has been India, the world’s largest democracy and a U.S. partner in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or the Quad, with Japan and Australia. India abstained on the three U.N. resolutions and has refused to sanction Russia. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi called reports of atrocities against civilians in Bucha, Ukraine, “very worrying,” and India’s ambassador to the United Nations said the country “unequivocally condemn[s] these killings and support[s] the call for an independent investigation,” yet neither Modi nor the U.N. ambassador blamed Russia for them.
Indian Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar has said Russia is a “very important partner in a variety of areas,” and India continues to purchase Russian arms and oil. Indeed, India obtains two-thirds of its weapons from Russia and is Moscow’s top arms customer. U.S. Undersecretary of State Victoria Nuland has admitted that this stems partly from Washington’s reluctance to supply India—a leader in the nonaligned world during the Cold War—with more weapons. The United States is now contemplating stronger defense cooperation with India.
Modi has several reasons for refusing to condemn Russia. The China factor is key. India views Russia as an important balancer against China, and Russia acted to defuse Indian-Chinese tensions after their border clashes in 2020. Moreover, India’s Cold War tradition of neutrality and skepticism toward the United States has created considerable public sympathy for Russia in India. Going forward, India will have to balance its traditional security relationship with Russia against its new strategic partnership with the United States in the Quad.
One of Putin’s major foreign-policy successes during the past decade has been Russia’s return to the Middle East, reestablishing ties with countries from which post-Soviet Russia withdrew and establishing new ones with countries that had no previous ties with the Soviet Union.
Russia is now the only major power that talks to all countries in the region—including Sunni-led countries such as Saudi Arabia, Shiite-led countries such as Iran and Syria, and Israel—and has ties with all groups on all sides of every dispute. This cultivation of Middle Eastern countries has been in evidence since the outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine war.
Although most Arab countries voted to condemn Russia’s invasion in the first U.N. vote, the 22-member Arab League subsequently did not. Many Arab countries abstained in the vote suspending Russia from the Human Rights Council. Staunch U.S. allies including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Israel have not imposed sanctions on Russia. Indeed, Putin and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman have spoken twice since the war began.
Israel’s position is largely determined by Russia’s support for Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria, where both Russian and Iranian forces are present. Israel negotiated a deconfliction agreement with Russia that enables it to strike Iranian targets in Syria. Israel fears that antagonizing Russia could endanger its ability to defend its northern border. It has sent a field hospital and other humanitarian assistance to Ukraine—but no weapons. Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett even briefly acted as a mediator between Russia and Ukraine, but his efforts proved unsuccessful.
For many Middle Eastern countries, their stance toward Russia is also shaped by their skepticism about the United States as a sometimes unreliable partner in the region and their irritation at U.S. criticisms of their human rights records. The only truly pro-Russian country is Syria, whose leader, Assad, would be long gone were it not for Russian military support.
Russia’s return to Africa in recent years and the support the mercenary Wagner Group gives to embattled leaders there have produced a continent that has largely refused to condemn or sanction Russia. Most African countries abstained in the vote condemning Russia’s invasion, and many voted against suspending Russia from the Human Rights Council. South Africa, a democratic member of the BRICS group of emerging economies, has not criticized Russia.
For many African countries, Russia is seen as the heir to the Soviet Union, which supported them during their anti-colonial struggles. The Soviet Union was a major backer of the African National Congress during the apartheid era, and the current South African leadership feels gratitude toward Russia. As in the Middle East, hostility toward the United States also plays a role in influencing African views of the invasion.
Even in the United States’ own backyard, Russia has its cheerleaders. Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua have supported Moscow—as expected—but others have also refused to condemn the invasion. Brazil, a BRICS member, declared a stance of “impartiality,” and President Jair Bolsonaro visited Putin in Moscow shortly before the invasion and declared himself “in solidarity with Russia.” Brazil remains highly dependent on imports of Russian fertilizer.
More disturbing was Mexico’s refusal to present a common North American front with the United States and Canada and condemn the invasion. President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s Morena party even launched a Mexico-Russia Friendship Caucus in the lower house of the country’s Congress in March, inviting the Russian ambassador to address the caucus. Traditional leftist 1970s-style anti-Americanism may explain a large part of this embrace of Russia, and it presents Russia with new opportunities to sow discord in the West.
The Rest may represent more than half of the world’s population, but it is the poorer half, composed of many less developed countries. The West’s combined GDP, economic power, and geopolitical heft far outweigh the influence of those countries that have refused to condemn the invasion or sanction Russia.
Nevertheless, the current divisions between the West and the Rest will shape whatever world order emerges after the war ends. The two key countries are China and India, which will ensure that Putin will not be an international pariah after the conflict ends. Indeed, Indonesia, the host of the next G-20 Summit in November, has said it will welcome Putin’s presence. However, it has also extended an invitation to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
In the aftermath of this brutal war, the United States will have enhanced its military presence in Europe and will likely permanently station troops in one or more country on NATO’s eastern flank. If one of Putin’s long-standing goals is to weaken NATO, his war against Ukraine has achieved the exact opposite, not only reviving the alliance but also giving it new purpose after Afghanistan and, with the likely accession of Sweden and Finland, expanding it. NATO will return to a policy of enhanced containment of Russia as long as Putin remains in power and possibly thereafter, depending on who the next Russian leader is.
But in this 21st-century version of the Cold War, non-Western countries will refuse to take sides the way many had to during the original Cold War. The nonaligned movement of the Cold War years will reemerge in a new incarnation. This time, the Rest will maintain their ties to Russia even as Washington and its allies treat Putin as a pariah.
Russia’s economy will be diminished, and if it succeeds in creating a “sovereign internet,” it will de-modernize and become ever more dependent on China. But it will remain a country with which a significant number of states will still be quite content to do business—and quite careful not to antagonize Moscow.
Angela Stent* is a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the author of Putin’s World: Russia Against the West and With the Rest.
Featured Photo Caption: Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres at the Kremlin in Moscow on April 26. [Photo VLADIMIR ASTAPKOVICH/SPUTNIK/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES]
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