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?