Volume 5, No. 3, March 2023
Editor: Rashed Rahman
The Russian invasion of Ukraine about four months ago has divided the world community amongst pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian alignments, with most nations remaining neutral or tentatively circumspect. How long these nations will hold their positions is too early to say since events are still fluid and changing facts on the ground could shape their perceptions. While President Vladimir Putin’s administration has officially termed the Ukraine war a “Special Military Operation”, it is viewed by many as an ‘invasion’ of an independent neighbouring country – the biggest military campaign launched in post-World War II Europe.
Countries follow the realpolitik paradigm and seek their immediate perceived national interests for survival and wellbeing. This is due to the semi-anarchic world system. On February 2, 2022, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) convened an emergency session, the first in a quarter of a century, to consider the Russian military adventure in Ukraine. At the end of the debate, the states in the UNGA voted to adopt a resolution condemning Russia’s conduct as an unlawful act of aggression “in violation of Article 2 (4) of the (UN) Charter” and demanded Russia to “immediately, completely and unconditionally withdraw all military forces from the territory of Ukraine within its internationally recognised borders.” Almost 141 countries voted in favour of the resolution, while five voted against and another 35 abstained.
After the event the US and the European Community (EC) have grouped together in condemning the military adventure. Some East European countries are apprehensive about either condemning Russia or remaining taciturn. The Arab world, including Syria, Libya and Iraq, internally torn after years of civil strife, are generally sympathetic to the Russian onslaught as they have links with and support from the latter; on the contrary, the US has greatly forfeited its goodwill in the Arab world through repeated military interventions. Even Saudi Arabia, the UAE and other Gulf states, although traditionally pro-west, are waiting and watching and being circumspect about the Ukraine war. Iran and Turkey are strongly pro-Russia though Turkey’s is the largest army amongst the NATO forces.
The Baltic states bordering Russia, i.e. Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia, are NATO members and perceive a real threat emanating from Russia. Sweden and Finland, till now non-aligned, are mulling joining NATO.
As for South Asia, Pakistan, India, Nepal and Sri Lanka are posing as neutrals despite a tilt towards the west. Then Prime Minister (PM) Imran Khan visited Russia on the eve of the start of the war, raising eyebrows in some policy circles in Pakistan and the US. The visit was a bid to diversify Pakistan’s foreign relations, though its timing was debatable. Since then, the new coalition government of PM Shahbaz Sharif is trying to swing back in repairing relations with the US.
Pakistan has taken the position that it previously adopted in the 1990s during the crises in Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen. It stood for respecting the sovereignty and territorial integrity of fellow Muslim nation states. Perhaps this is what the army chief meant when he asserted at the Islamabad Security Dialogue in March 2022 that “aggression against a smaller country cannot be condoned”. Would countries like India not be encouraged to adopt such unilateral kinetic actions against smaller neighbours in establishing hegemony, he implicitly suggested.
Afghanistan, another South Asian state, came under the Taliban control in August 2021 but the Taliban government has still not been recognised by any government so far due to its regressive policies against women and education, though it is trying hard to seek recognition from Russia, China and immediate neighbours. Its tilt remains towards Russia and China. This is contrary to the situation when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in December 1979 and there was a wellspring of sympathy in the west for Afghanistan. The sudden exit of US forces in 2021 has drastically lowered the US global image after pursuing decades of military involvement in a fruitless war.
China’s stance is noteworthy. It had expressed before the Chinese Winter Olympics in Beijing in early 2021 that Sino-Russia relations had “no limits”. It has accordingly not condemned the Russian invasion as relations with Russia are strategically and economically quite robust. China is a ‘developed developing’ country and has a strong voice as a global power. While it has refrained from condemning Russia, neither has it blamed Ukraine. As per their leaders, China respects every country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and urged both Ukraine and Russia to solve the crisis through negotiations. Also, Beijing reaffirmed in late June 2022 China’s robust strategic relations with Russia by giving it diplomatic support. Albeit desiring that the war ends soon, it is closely monitoring developments on the ground.
As a trading Asian nation with sizeable investments sprawling across the globe, China’s interest abides in an early termination of the war, yet desires a more balanced world in containing the US. At the same time, US involvement in Europe provides an opportunity to pursue geo-political ambitions in Southeast Asia. On June 22-23, 2022, BRICS (Russia, India, China and South Africa), comprising over 40 percent of the world population, held a meeting in Beijing addressed by President Xi Jin Ping where he warned “against expanding military alliances” and issued a “wake-up call” to the US for being on the “wrong side of history in Ukraine”. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi during his phone talks in mid-June 2022 with British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, the European Union’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Joseph Borrell, as well as Emmanuel Bonne, diplomatic counsellor to French President Emmanuel Macron, elaborated on China’s latest stance. (For details see Appendix below.)
Communist states Cuba, Vietnam and North Korea have been generally supportive of Russia. In South America, Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela and Nicaragua are sympathetic to Russia despite the Organisation of American States’ proximity to the US, viewing relations with the US as a ‘love-hate relationship’.
In East Asia, most of the states are still pro-US and remain concerned about the rising Chinese influence. Australia, Japan, South Korea and New Zealand are also pro-US.
In the African continent, nearly 27 countries voted in favour of the resolution, including Gabon, Ghana, Kenya and Nigeria, while 17 out of the 35 abstained, i.e. nearly one-third of the African Union (AU). They included Algeria, Angola, Burundi, Central African Republic, Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Madagascar, Mali, Mozambique, Namibia, Senegal, South Africa, South Sudan, Sudan, Tanzania and Zimbabwe. Four countries joined Russia in voting against the resolution while their publics generally remained critical of their leaders.
Addressing the UN Security Council one week earlier on the conflict, Kenya’s Permanent Representative to the UN, Martin Kimani, hewed a philosophical path on colonialism and its aftermath in Africa but failed to define African interest in the war. During the vote at the UNGA, Chairperson of the Assembly of Heads of State and Government of the AU and Senegal’s President Macky Sall issued a joint statement with the Chairperson of the AU Commission, Moussa Faki Mahamat, in which they confessed to being “particularly disturbed by reports that African citizens on the Ukrainian side of the border are being refused the right to cross the border to safety.” Ukraine had set a policy of first allowing Ukrainian women and children on trains and transport to flee the Russian invasion.
In 2020, nearly 76.000 foreign students from Asia, the Middle East and other parts of the globe were in Russia, and in Ukraine nearly a quarter were from Africa. The Irish Times explained that “roughly 20 percent of Ukraine’s foreign students are African, including 4,000 Nigerians.”
From 1953 to 1982, the foundation for African educational exchange was laid with the former Soviet bloc, including Russia and Ukraine. The deterioration of educational standards in Africa by the continent’s own rulers turned what should have been an ‘educational exchange’ into impressive ‘educational export’. From the African perspective, Russian advantages are manifest. Pointedly, it is stated that Russia has not invaded or colonised any African country nor indulged in slavery nor used Africans to develop industries and cities in which they are treated as ‘lesser human beings’. On the other hand, exploitation of the continent by leading nations of NATO and the EC in the past is a historical fact. Russia, for instance, has not been warehousing stolen billions from Africa, nor is it home to shell companies. Also, it is not associated with sponsoring coups to remove nationalist African leaders. On a positive note, it has supported anti-apartheid forces in South Africa and collaborated with Cuba in fighting for liberation in Angola and Ethiopia. The Cubans as partners rendered civil economic assistance that is still gratefully acknowledged by many African and Third World nations.
Initially, French President Macron had been trying to douse the fire of the Ukraine war during shuttle diplomacy between the Kremlin and Kiev, before the Russians fired the first shot. But France continues to exploit the resources of Francophone Africa in which most monies belonging to the former colonies are warehoused in France. It also takes key decisions regarding expenditure, contracts and other matters concerning those countries. Moreover, it has instigated many coups in Africa and funded armed groups in doing its bidding all over the continent.
The general African stance of neutrality with underlying sympathy for Russia has largely typified most African countries’ response to the Russian-Ukrainian war. In fact many African nations appear hesitant to risk their security, foreign investment and trade by openly backing one side or the other in the conflict. Notwithstanding condemnation of Ukrainian civilians being forced to flee the war zone by countries such as Ghana, Nigeria and Kenya, there is a muted response from key African nations. In fact, most countries find themselves in a delicate position, reluctant to get drawn into proxy battles of the major powers a la the Cold War.
The adage ‘When elephants fight it is the grass that suffers’ is a stark lesson guiding many African nations. But as the war drags on with no end in sight, the economic toll caused by US-induced sanctions will affect many developing economies in Africa, Latin America and Asia. Already, shortages of oil, gas, wheat grain, fertilizers and machinery are having an adverse effect. Perceptions about Russia may then turn more positive than ever before.
The Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi during his extensive phone talks with British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, the European Union’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell, as well as Emmanuel Bonne, diplomatic counsellor to French President Emmanuel Macron stressed the following points (as reported in China Daily, June 2022).
The writer is former Adviser, Centre for Policy Studies, COMSATS, Islamabad, former President of Islamabad Policy Research Institute, and ex-Head Department of International Relations, NUML University, Islamabad