Anti-Imperialism/Foreign Policy

Why aren’t non-Western countries joining the sanctions against Russia?

The Signal

Why aren’t non-Western countries joining the sanctions against Russia? Richard Gowan on food, guns, and global risk management.
Andy Art
Andy Art
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: A lot 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 a lot 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.
A lot 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.
Andy Art
Andy Art
More from Richard Gowan at The Signal:
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.”
Even before the war, in Africa, Asia, and elsewhere, a lot of these countries remaining non-aligned on Ukraine 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.”
We’re in a world where people 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.”

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