Ukraine and its Western allies would love to say the world is united in its condemnation of Russia’s invasion. But of course, this is not true.
A majority in the 93-nation UN General Assembly is expected on Thursday night to condemn the war and demand Russia’s withdrawal.
Not much will have changed since last year, however. On 2 March, a week after Russia sent in the tanks, 141 out of 193 nations voted along these lines – but a significant minority, mainly in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East, refused to take sides. A similar outcome was expected in New York last night.
A year ago there were 35 abstentions, among them three Commonwealth states – South Africa, Pakistan, and India. In Asia, only a few governments stood strongly with Ukraine – Singapore, South Korea, and Japan. The region’s largest rising powers – China, India, and Indonesia – sat on the fence.
China has, with its ostentatious displays of friendship towards the Kremlin, seemed more like Russia’s ally than a neutral player (although its Western-baiting rhetoric has not been matched by deeds – it’s taken advantage of Russia by demanding oil at knock-down prices, while curbing any trade that would invoke secondary sanctions from the US Treasury).
Nonetheless, “Asia has largely rejected Western framings of the conflict as a battle between might and right,” says Ben Bland, Chatham House’s Asia-Pacific programme director. “Although they might find Russia an increasingly awkward partner, most Asian nations pragmatically choose to maintain their relationships for a combination of economic, military, and diplomatic reasons.”
Most abstentions (51 per cent) on last year’s UN motion condemning Russia’s invasion came from African countries.
“Non-alignment is much more comfortable than being pigeonholed as part of a Western position – or indeed an Eastern position,” according to Chatham House Africa programme director Dr Alex Vines.
For many nations in Africa, their own huge, social and economic problems – often sidelined or ignored by the western nations – seem more pressing than those of a conflict in Europe.
Old, Cold War loyalties might play a part, as underlined by the willingness of South Africa’s ANC government to engage in naval exercises on Thursday with Russia and China.
William Alberque, the Berlin-based director of strategy, technology, and arms control at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, thinks the supposed considered and neutral stance of countries like South Africa and India is really “an ideological smokescreen covering for pure pragmaticism – cynical economic considerations, access to technologies, trade, and resources, political power”.
He believes some may come to regret not taking a more moral stance on Russia’s brutal invasion. “I think the Western states will have a truly terrible example of hypocrisy next time one of those states complains about imperialism,” he says. “Their failure to understand the nature of Russia’s aggression is a stain that may linger.”
However, evidence of a divide between the West and the rest is emerging. A study just released by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), looking at global public opinion on the Ukraine conflict, suggests the war actually deepened differences between the West and the rest of the world.
Overall, the report suggests that although the war in Ukraine may have unified the West, this is “taking place in an increasingly divided post-Western world”. Emerging powers such as India and Turkey will “resist being caught in a battle” between superpowers the US and China.