After over a year of the Ukraine war, efforts at building a global consensus against Russia seem to have stalled, with many countries opting for neutrality.
The number of countries condemning Russia has declined, according to some sources. Botswana has edged towards Russia from its original pro-Ukraine stance, South Africa is moving from neutral to Russia-leaning and Colombia from condemning Russia to a neutral stance. At the same time, a large number of countries have been reluctant to support Ukraine.
In Africa, for example, despite the African Union’s call on Moscow for an “immediate ceasefire” most countries remain neutral. Some observers argue that this is the result of a tradition of left-leaning regimes that goes back to the cold war period. Others, indicate that the current unwillingness of African countries originates in the history of western intervention, sometimes covert and others overt, in their internal affairs.
The reluctance to condemn Russia, however, goes beyond Africa. In February 2023, most Latin American countries supported a UN resolution to call for an immediate and unconditional Russian withdrawal. And yet, despite Brazil’s support for several UN resolutions in Ukraine’s favour, it has not condemned Russia outright. Within the UN, the stance of Bolivia, Cuba, El Salvador and Venezuela has allowed Russia to evade western sanctions. Furthermore, Brazil, Argentina and Chile, rejected calls to send military material to Ukraine, and Mexico questioned Germany’s decision to provide tanks to Ukraine.
The same divisions are evident in Asia. While Japan and South Korea have openly denounced Russia, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations has not collectively done so. China approaches the conflict through a balancing act through its strategic partnership with Russia and its increasing influence in the UN. During its time as a member of the UN Security Council, India abstained on votes related to the conflict.
The politics of neutrality
Such a cautious and neutral position has been influenced by the cold war’s non-alignment movement which was perceived as a way for developing countries to fight the conflict “on their terms” and thus acquire a degree of foreign policy autonomy, outside the Soviet Union and the west’s sphere of influence. Studies of EU sanctions have argued that an unwillingness of other countries to back the EU position can relate to both a desire for foreign policy independence and an unwillingness to antagonise a neighbour.
Non-alignment allows countries to avoid becoming entangled in the rising geopolitical tensions between the west and Russia. It is perhaps for this reason that many democratic countries maintain a stance of neutrality, preferring, as South African president Cyril Ramaphosa put it, to “talk to both sides”.
There are, however, particular economic and political incentives that are influential when countries decide against condemning Russia.
Since the earlier stages of the Ukraine conflict, Brazil has maintained a pragmatic but ambivalent stance. This position connects to Brazil’s agricultural and energy needs. As one of the world’s top agricultural producers and exporter, Brazil requires a high rate of fertiliser usage. In 2021, the value of imports from Russia was of US$5.58 billion (£4.48 billion) of which 64% was from fertilisers. Imports of fertilisers from Russia are 23% of the total 40 million tonnes imported.
In February 2023, it was announced that the Russian gas company Gazprom will invest in Brazil’s energy sector as part of the expanding energy relations between the two countries. This could lead to close collaboration in oil and gas production and processing, and in the development of nuclear power. Such a collaboration can benefit Brazil’s oil sector, expected to be among the world’s top exporters. By March 2023, Russian exports of diesel to Brazil reached new records, at the same time as a total EU embargo on Russian oil products. Higher level of diesel supplies may alleviate any potential shortages that can affect Brazil’s agricultural sector.
Observers point out that in the post-cold-war era, Russia and India continue to share similar strategic and political views. In the early 2000s, in the context of their strategic partnership, Russia’s purpose was to build a multipolar global system which appealed to India’s wariness of the United States as a partner. Russia has also provided India with support for its nuclear weapons programme and its efforts to become a permanent member of the UN Security Council. Russia continues to be a key player in India’s arms trade, supplying 65% of India’s weapons imports between 1992 and 2021. Since the start of the war it has become an important supplier of oil at discount prices. This has meant an increase in purchases from about 50,000 barrels per day in 2021 to about 1 million barrels per day by June 2022.
On the eve of the war’s anniversary, South Africa held a joint naval drill with Russia and China. For South Africa the benefits from the exercise relate to security through capacity building for its underfunded and overstretched navy. More broadly, there are trade incentives for South Africa’s neutral stance. Russia is the largest exporter of arms to the African continent. It also supplies nuclear power and, importantly, 30% of the continent’s grain supplies such as wheat, with 70% of Russia’s overall exports to the continent concentrated in four countries including South Africa.
In January 2023, Russia was one of the largest providers of nitrogenous fertilisers to South Africa, a critical element for pasture and crop growth. In addition, among the main imports from Russia are coal briquettes used for fuel in several industries including food processing. Considering the level of food insecurity in the country both imports are fundamental for its socio-political and economic stability.
The Ukraine war has shown that non-alignment continues to be a popular choice, despite appeals to support another democracy in trouble. This policy has long been an important element of the political identity of countries such as India. In other cases, such as Brazil, despite apparent shifts under President Jair Bolsonaro, non-interventionism remains a fundamental element of its policy tradition.
Nevertheless, neutrality is likely to become a “tricky balancing act” as conflicting interests become more acute, particularly in the context of the west’s provision of direct investment plus development and humanitarian aid to many of the non-aligned states.
Jose Caballero, Senior Economist, IMD World Competitiveness Center, International Institute for Management Development (IMD)