Of course, few countries explicitly support Putin: Syria, Belarus, North Korea, and Eritrea. But many people in Africa, Asia or Latin America distance themselves from the conflict.
Nearly 40 countries abstained in two UN votes to condemn the Russian attack. And above all, apart from Western countries and their allies like Japan or South Korea, no one has adopted sanctions against Moscow. Multiple factors explain this caution, which also demonstrates to what extent the notion of “international community” is an empty shell.
First, there are the countries whose geographic proximity to Russia explains the caution. Belarus, situated to the north of Ukraine and west of Russia, is a cartoonish example: the Lukashenko regime would not last without Putin’s support, and therefore it is geographically the ideal rear base for the invasion from Ukraine. The countries of the Caucasus, to the south of Russia, and neighboring Ukraine by the Sea of Azov, are cautious. They are wary, Armenia in particular, of the wrath of Moscow. Georgia already paid to watch in 2014.
On the contrary, there are all the countries that are very far from the conflict zone. Seen from the 54 African countries, from the 24 Latin American countries, from the 11 countries of Southeast Asia, Ukraine is far away. Kyiv is 12,000 km from Buenos Aires or Johannesburg, more than 9,000 km from Jakarta. What’s the point of taking a stand in a war so far away? The game is not worth it.
First of all, there are the countries of the former Soviet Union. They have often maintained political, economic and military ties with Moscow. This is the case of Belarus and the countries of the Caucasus already mentioned. Add the five Central Asian countries, notably Kazakhstan, whose disputed regime of President Tokajev received military support from Russia earlier this year.
We can also place a European country in this category, one of the few in Europe that does not sanction Moscow: Aleksandar Vucic’s Serbia, which sees itself as the repository of the inheritance of Marshal Tito’s former Yugoslavia.
In Africa, the image of Russia often remains positive, as a consequence of the support that the Soviet regime previously gave to decolonization movements: in Nelson Mandela’s ANC in South Africa and in several southern African countries (Angola, Namibia, Mozambique).
And then, in the more recent past, there are the regimes that Vladimir Putin came to help, even save. The typical example is obviously Bashar al-Assad’s Syria. The Syrian dictator would not have held out in recent years without Moscow’s massive military air support. So stepping back: Syria officially supports Moscow in its war with Ukraine.
First category – countries that are economically dependent on Russia and can hardly do without Russian exports. In particular agricultural exports: wheat, corn, barley, sunflower. This is the case for several African countries, Sudan, Mauritania, Egypt: 90% of their wheat imports come from Russia. Doing without it means running the risk of enormous social tensions, even famines.
This is also the case for Central Asian countries: for example, Russia is the main supplier of Kazakhstan, 35% of imports.
Second form of economic interest, at the other end of the financial scale: countries that want to maintain a high price of a barrel of oil, in agreement with the Russians: this is the case of Saudi Arabia. Or the countries that welcome the Russian oligarchs and their fortunes with open arms. This is especially true in the Persian Gulf. We think of the United Arab Emirates.
Third scenario: all countries dependent on Russian military aid, often with large arms contracts. The typical case is India. And this is one of the main reasons that explain the neutrality adopted so far by the Narendra Modi regime. Russia is New Delhi’s main supplier of weapons: missiles, air defense systems, aircraft maintenance.
Moscow is also by far the largest supplier of arms to the African continent, far ahead of the United States and France. Not to mention indirect military aid, through Wagner group mercenaries, for example in Mali or the Central African Republic. In 2019, Vladimir Putin organized a Russian-African summit in Sochi with the presence of 43 African leaders.
Finally, there are the indirect economic pressures exerted by China, often now the main trading partner and main investor in developing countries and also in the Persian Gulf countries. Beijing is pressuring certain countries to remain neutral in the conflict. It is a way for China to help Moscow indirectly.
Several countries are bound by agreements with Moscow, whether formal or informal.
In the formal category, there are several countries in the Caucasus and Central Asia. They are bound by the Collective Security Treaty Organization. This political-military mutual aid treaty dates back to 2002. It brings together, in addition to Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. In particular, it provides for joint military exercises.
Moscow is also associated with Beijing by a friendship treaty since 2001. And within the framework of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which aims above all to frustrate the influence of the United States. The two countries are also linked by a series of trade agreements, including several new ones signed at the last Winter Olympics in Beijing, and held joint military exercises in 2021.
For two years, Moscow has also developed military cooperation agreements with several African countries, in particular the most populous, Nigeria and Ethiopia or, more recently, Madagascar or Mali.
Russia also has a strategic cooperation agreement with the Emirates since 2018.
In the informal category, the best example is Israel. The Israeli power does not want to be angry with Moscow, mainly because the Russians, masters of the skies in Syria, allow the Israelis to regularly attack Iranian positions on Syrian soil. And for Israel, fighting the threat from Tehran is the top priority.
psychology and sociology
Two parameters explain the support of certain countries for Russia, or in any case the absence of support for Western countries.
The first is the ideological proximity of certain leaders to Vladimir Putin. The same fascination with authoritarian, centralized and nationalist power. The very belief that this system is the most effective. In this category we will find all the authoritarian powers, the most powerful being Xi Jinping in China, who refuses to condemn Russian aggression. And that takes up Moscow’s speech about NATO’s responsibility in the outbreak of the war.
The same sensitivity, the same ideological proximity between many African leaders and also between the so-called “illiberal” leaders, who are rolling back the rule of law in democracies: the best example is the Hungarian Viktor Orban who never stops forgiving Putin.
We could add Turkey’s Erdogan, even though his country is part of NATO and provides drones to Ukraine.
The second parameter is the rejection inspired by the West, in several African or Latin American countries. Westerners, led by the United States, are perceived as imperialist and neo-colonial powers. And conversely, China wants to assert itself as the mouthpiece of the so-called “emerging” countries.
This is one of the reasons why several major African countries abstained in at least one of the two UN votes, or even both: Senegal, South Africa, Ethiopia.
In Latin America, US support for past dictatorships has left its mark. Particularly in the most marked leftist countries: in Argentina, in Chile, in Venezuela (Chavez’s legacy), in Mexico, in Nicaragua. Here too, the Russian argument that NATO expansionism is the cause of the conflict in Ukraine hits the nail on the head.
In the same way, the populations of the Middle East denounce the “double standards” of the West regarding refugees: rejection of Syrian or Afghan refugees described as “migrants”, welcoming Ukrainians with open arms.
In short, there are many reasons to explain the caution, even mistrust, that non-Western countries have of the conflict. They will continue to watch you from afar, trying to interfere as little as possible and not disturb anyone. It is also the reflection of a world that has become multipolar, which cannot be reduced to an East-West confrontation, a simple repetition of the Cold War.
With the collaboration of Fiona Moghaddam