a regional conflict

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By DANIEL R. DEPETRIS & RAJAN MENON*

The liberal West must have no illusions about the extent to which the rest of the world would support Ukraine.

The United States and its allies see the moral and strategic stakes involved in Ukraine's war as simple: Ukraine is the victim of aggression, and Russia is the aggressor. What is at issue for them is not only Ukraine's independence, but also the willingness of the "democratic" world to defend Russian President Vladimir Putin - presumed to be an unapologetic authoritarian - the "rules-based international order", designed by the Americans.

However, in much of the rest of the world, the moral fervor evident in the liberal West's response to Russia's attack on Ukraine has been conspicuously absent. Instead, countries such as India, Brazil, Mexico, South Africa, Turkey and Indonesia have remained largely uncommitted, acting primarily to protect their economic and strategic interests. Their particular policies towards war vary.

Some, like India, have abstained from all UN resolutions designed to punish Russia; others voted for some of them; but all refrained from public chastisement of Russia, and some, most notably India, drew criticism from the United States as a result. Even Saudi Arabia, which has long had close military ties with the United States, rejected Washington's call to pump more oil to ease price rises after the imposition of Western sanctions on Russia, whose production has fallen by a million barrels a day. since the February 24 invasion of Ukraine, and it continues to fall.

What these countries have in common is that they tend to view the war in Ukraine as a regional conflict, not, as the liberal West does, a serious threat to global stability and the laws and norms that should underpin the global order. Indeed, the president of South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa, even though he does not support the invasion of Russia, stated that Washington's stubborn pursuit of NATO expansion contributed to accelerate a crisis with Russia in Europe, which ended up turning into war .

Other countries have placed their national interests above the United States' requests to isolate and sanction Russia. Israel and Turkey have not publicly condemned Russia, and are trying to safeguard substantial tangible benefits, such as the possibility of serving as mediators between Kiev and Moscow. India, for its part, continues to value its economic ties with Russia and, since the start of the Russian operation, has taken advantage of discounted prices to buy more than double the amount of Russian oil compared to what it bought in 2021.

These countries believe that international efforts should focus on promoting a negotiated settlement in Ukraine, rather than using the war as an occasion to isolate Russia, much less weaken it. The divergence of views ensures that US efforts to relegate Russia to pariah status will fail. Not because many countries support Russia's invasion of Ukraine, but because they want to protect the private benefits accruing from their relationship with Moscow. They also believe that publicly condemning Russia will do nothing to end the war in Ukraine.

To the liberal West, these countries' reluctance to choose sides – chastise Russia, support Ukraine and impose sanctions – has largely been seen as morally bankrupt and strategically naive. To make its unhappiness known, the United States resorts from time to time to not very subtle threats. During a visit to India, Daleep Singh, President Joe Biden's deputy national security adviser for the international economy, warned that countries that undermine the US sanctions regime against Moscow could end up paying an economic price.

At a press conference on March 18, US Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield was similarly outspoken. “You cannot” – she said – “stand on the sidelines and watch the aggression that we see happening in Ukraine and say you are going to be neutral about it”. Some senior US lawmakers have even suggested that Washington consider imposing sanctions on India.

Threats and rhetoric, however, fell on deaf ears in many countries of the Global South – an umbrella term for a collection of Asian, African and South American countries – some of which even reacted angrily to the ear-pulling. An especially dramatic example was that of Imran Khan, until recently Pakistan's prime minister, who chafed at the European Union for demanding that Pakistan vote in favor of the UN General Assembly resolution to punish Russia. “Are we their slaves and should we do whatever they say?” asked Khan.

Even though India and Pakistan have fought several wars with each other, their positions on the conflict in Ukraine are similar – reflecting a reluctance to be willing to antagonize Russia. India has had a close relationship with Moscow since the mid-1950s. Even though it is now much less dependent on Russian weaponry and has extensive economic and security ties with the United States, Russia remains its largest military supplier, accounting for nearly half of India's defense imports. Russia has also begun to move closer to Pakistan. In sharp contrast to its India-centric policy during the Cold War, Moscow has supplied Pakistan with a number of weapons and, since 2016, has also held joint exercises with the Pakistani military. Little wonder that Khan refused to be urged to take sides in the Ukraine war and that his successor, Shehbaz Sharif, did not change course either.

Then comes Brazil, whose $1,4 trillion economy – the largest in Latin America – is heavily dependent on agricultural sales, which Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has prioritized. Soy, Brazil's main agricultural export, yields almost US$ 29 billion. Growing this product requires fertilizers, and Brazil imports 85% of what it needs. Russia accounts for 23% of these imports. Would Russia end its fertilizer exports if Brazil started to support Western sanctions against Moscow? Bolsonaro doesn't even want to know the answer. Brazil voted in favor of a March 2 UN General Assembly resolution condemning Russia, but its ambassador's justification for voting pointedly criticized both "the indiscriminate application of sanctions" and denounced Russia's resort to war.

The most automatically pro-Russian governments – Belarus and Syria, for example – have their own reasons for supporting the war against Ukraine, including its near-total economic and military dependence on Moscow. But others have avoided publicly condemning Russia for a different reason. They believe that the denunciation will not change Russia's behavior, but will increase the polarization produced by the war, reducing the chances of a political settlement. Even if such an agreement is not in sight, these countries do not wish to undermine the prospects of an end-of-war negotiation at some later date. Thus, even though it voted in favor of the March 2 resolution, Mexico opposes sanctions, claiming that these punitive measures will make the resumption of diplomacy even more difficult.

This logic also explains the refusal of Indonesia, the current president of the G-20 economic group, to disinvite Vladimir Putin to the summit of the conclave in November, in Bali, despite Washington's insistence, even though President Joko Widodo understands that the participation of Putin could trigger a Western boycott. Like Mexico, Indonesia voted in favor of the March 2 resolution, but believes that a strategy of isolating Russia would be counterproductive. Next year, India will chair the G-20 and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose country abstained from the resolution, is unlikely to close the door on Vladimir Putin for the same reasons.

Likewise, despite the United States' desire for a tough speech condemning Russia's invasion of Ukraine at this month's US-ASEAN summit in Washington, the closing joint declaration contained no more than a bland plea to end the fighting, providing humanitarian assistance to Ukraine, and upholding the principles of “sovereignty, political independence and territorial integrity”. Russia was not mentioned, let alone punished. The United States also fared no better at the ensuing 21-nation Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) conclave in Bangkok. Just as Russia's economic development minister was preparing to address the meeting, US Trade Representative Katherine Tai – accompanied by delegates from Australia, Canada, Japan and New Zealand – withdrew. The other participants simply stood still.

The core countries of the Global South have refused to toe Washington's line for another reason: apprehension, even resentment, over the United States' use of dollar dominance to sanction other countries with increasing frequency. Some of these countries – including India and Pakistan after their 1998 nuclear tests, as well as Turkey after its purchase of Russia's S-400 missile defense system – have faced US sanctions.

It doesn't help that Washington justifies sanctions by claiming they are necessary to punish countries that threaten its "rules-based global order." To much of the Global South, this line of argument is hypocritical, given Washington's history of discarding these very principles whenever it suits it. Consider here NATO's unilateral intervention in Kosovo in 1999, carried out without a UN Security Council resolution, as well as the Iraq war in 2003 - a preventive war of regime change launched on the false claim that Saddam Hussein was developing weapons of mass destruction. Add to that the 2011 intervention in Libya, which went beyond the terms of the 1973 UN Security Council Resolution, turned into a regime change war against Muammar al-Qaddafi, and left anarchy behind. policy, contributing to the rise of terrorism in North Africa.

There is an important lesson to be learned here: for many countries outside of North America and Europe, picking sides in a confrontation between Russia and the West is a losing strategy, the costs of which significantly outweigh the benefits. Furthermore, the United States cannot reasonably be expected to sacrifice important interests to uphold global norms that Washington itself sets aside when it sees fit to do so. To reduce countries that have not followed the liberal West's lead vis-à-vis Russia to the status of “Putin sympathizers” is to lose sight of this broader context.

Summarily speaking, Russia's attack on Ukraine could be argued to be illegal. It is debatable whether the Kremlin attacked a country that, in fact, did not present a clear and evident danger to Russian national security. It could also be argued that Russia indiscriminately hit civilian targets and that its soldiers committed war crimes. The corollary of these assumptions would be that Ukraine would have the right to defend its independence and should have the means to do so. But all this is mere supposition constructed by the Atlanticist war propaganda.

So the liberal West should have no illusions about the extent to which the rest of the world would support Ukraine. Washington has a bad habit of assuming that, with the right amount of pressure or encouragement, other states will eventually fall in line with the United States as it tries to solve a problem, manage a crisis, or punish an aggressor.

International politics, however, is a much more complicated matter. How the world looks depends largely on where a particular country is located, what its interests are, and how much of those interests it can reasonably sacrifice. This is true even in scenarios allegedly swept by Western media propaganda, as is the case with Russia's alleged unilateral attack on Ukraine, where any error in that propaganda can become immediately discernible.

The United States would be better served if it lived in a world of reality – as frustrating as that can be – rather than a make-believe world in which countries would confidently follow the lead of US policymakers. If not, America is setting itself up for disappointment, frustration, and potential failure.

*Daniel R. DePetris is a member of Defense Priorities, a think tank that advocates restraint in foreign interventions; He is also a foreign affairs columnist for the British weekly The Spectator.

*Rajan Menon is a research fellow at the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University. Author, with Eugene B. Rumer, of Conflict in Ukraine: The Unwinding of the Post-Cold War Order.

Translation: Ricardo Cavalcanti-Schiel.

Originally published on the portal Political Magazine.

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