Anti-Imperialism/Foreign Policy

Why are most countries not taking sides in the Ukraine war?

Why are most countries not taking sides in the Ukraine war? Richard Gowan on history, geography, and non-Western strategies for a changing global order.
Bacila Vlad
As news organizations around the world followed the Wagner Group’s mutiny in Russia on June 24, the United States and Ukraine held a meeting on the war in Copenhagen with a group of regional powers—including Brazil, India, South Africa, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. Before the meeting, U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said he’d push for greater support for Kyiv. The other states in attendance had yet to impose sanctions on Moscow or provide military aid to Ukraine—apart from Turkey, which had sold it some drones.

Yet the neutrality of these countries is actually the most common approach to the war outside the West, despite 141 UN member states voting last year to reprimand Russia for its invasion. The list of capitals sanctioning Russia or arming Ukraine includes none from Africa, one from the Middle East, one from Central and South America, and three from Asia. Altogether, these countries represent two-thirds of the global population. Why are they staying non-aligned?

Richard Gowan is the UN director for the international nonprofit Crisis Group. For Gowan, it’s a question with a lot of different answers, depending on where you look. The incentives of non-Western states vary by country and region, and they’ve changed over the course of the war. Some non-Western leaders maintain a historical resentment of Western colonialism, for example, or a more contemporary opposition to sanctions as a tool of diplomacy. But more broadly, as Gowan sees it, these countries are hedging for strategic reasons—to pursue specific foreign-policy goals or to manage critical uncertainties, like where U.S.-China competition is going or who’ll win next year’s American presidential election. More broadly still, they’re hedging against the uncertainty of a changing international order—which could end up either distributing power widely around the world or dividing it in a new Cold War between Washington and Beijing.

Michael Bluhm: How do you interpret the non-alignment of the majority of the world’s countries?

Richard Gowan: There’s a consensus now that this is hedging behavior—but despite how widespread it is, it’s striking that there isn’t a single set of explanations for it.

For example, even China, which seems very close to Russia, is walking a fine line—solidifying its relationship with Moscow without throwing in its lot with Russia altogether. China’s interest here is in gaining leverage over Russia.

India is also hedging, deepening economic ties with Russia by buying far more Russian oil than it used to—but mainly to keep Moscow from aligning against New Delhi in its conflicts with Beijing. China is getting closer to Russia, so that means strategic reasons for India having to stay close to Russia, too. As you can imagine, the geopolitical incentives here are very complicated.

Bluhm: When we spoke in April of 2022, most non-Western countries were already hedging. Do you see their incentives having changed since then?

Gowan: I see two things having changed. First, the conflict in Ukraine is turning into a long war. In 2022, a lot of countries were hedging on the assumption that the conflict would end fairly quickly. These countries were torn: On a moral level, they sympathized with Ukraine, and they were convinced that Moscow had breached the UN Charter by invading a sovereign state. But they also figured Moscow was going to win the war.

It’s a different situation now. Many non-Western countries are worried today about a potential Russian defeat. Brazil has articulated a fear that a peace deal could humiliate Russia and cause long-term, destabilizing effects.

So non-Western countries are now trying to adapt to a long war—that Russia could lose. One symptom of that adaptation is that many non-Western countries are launching peace initiatives, which they weren’t seriously doing last year.

The West’s attitude toward non-Western hedging behavior has changed, as well. Especially in the first months of the war, Western countries took a very moralistic line, condemning countries that weren’t fully backing Ukraine. European governments even hinted that they could cut off development aid to countries that sat on the fence.

But, having tried and failed several times to get the fence-sitters on Ukraine’s side, Western countries see this quite differently today. The U.S. and the Europeans are now sending out the message that they can live with other countries hedging. It was evident in the incredibly positive welcome that U.S. President Joe Biden recently gave Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Washington—there was a clear message that the U.S. was going to ignore India not supporting the West on Ukraine, because the U.S. needs India to balance China.

The Biden administration has also been warm toward Brazilian President Luis InácioLula da Silva since he took office, even though Lula has irritated the U.S. by moving Brazil closer to Russia in some ways. But from a U.S. perspective, it’s better to have Lula hedging on a European war from afar than to have former President Jair Bolsonaro threatening to bring an end to democracy in Brazil.

Western countries have sent out signals to major non-Western players that there’ll be no real cost for hedging—and that’s now going to be part of what’s shaping their behavior.

Sander Crombach
More from Richard Gowan at The Signal:

A lot of non-Western countries have a deep-seated suspicion about the U.S. and EU sanctions. The U.S. has been using sanctions as a foreign-policy tool more, as it uses its military power less. That worries a lot of countries. Fewer than 4 percent of the states in the world were subjected to sanctions imposed by the U.S., the EU, or the UN in the early 1960s. Today, that number’s risen to 27 percent. Nearly a third of the world is under sanctions now. So they aren’t just a concern for Russia; it’s a much broader thing. A lot of people outside the West thought that the Americans and Europeans were being weaselly about the issue. Western countries were creating exemptions to the sanctions for their own economic advantage while demanding others join the sanctions in full. The ones on Russian diamond exports, for example, were limited because Belgium has a huge diamond trade and didn’t want to see it strangled.”

Last year, officials around the world were hedging by both condemning Russia’s aggression and preparing for a world where Russia wins the war. They saw it as necessary to balance those demands. But now, as the war draws out, states see other reasons to hedge—and other things to hedge on. One important condition is the very rapid deterioration in relations between the U.S. and China, despite the Biden administration’s recent efforts to slow that slide. Policy makers around the world aren’t only hedging over how far to go in supporting the U.S. or Russia; they’re also trying to maintain some flexibility and independence in the context of a possible conflict in the Pacific between Washington and Beijing. The other strategic phenomenon behind the global hedging pattern is the potential re-election of Donald Trump. Many countries want to work with the Biden administration but worry about what would happen if Trump, or a Trump-like alternative, were to win in 2024—and start ripping up the international rulebook. So they’re hedging over Ukraine, the Asia-Pacific, and U.S. domestic politics. There are lots of good strategic reasons for them to keep their options open right now.”

The governments of non-Western countries tend overwhelmingly to see the war as a period of risk but also of opportunity. Western diplomats have been working to get non-Western support for Kyiv, which has given non-Western countries a chance to lay out more clearly their own concerns about the state of the international system and what they want out of it. As a result, Western countries are indicating they’re willing to consider changes to the way international institutions work, in order to recognize the interests of the non-Western world. Biden has been talking about the need for UN Security Council reform, to give states like India and Brazil a greater say over international peace and security. The Europeans are talking about rewriting the rules that govern how the International Monetary Fund and World Bank lend money to poor countries, to make it easier for poor countries to get financing. That’s partially a response to many poor countries being trapped in a very serious debt crisis. But it’s also because policy makers in Western capitals realize they need to revise the rules of international cooperation if they’re going to maintain some goodwill with non-Western powers.”

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