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Many Voices: A Reality Check on How the World Has Actually Reacted to the Ukraine War

  • Geopolitics
  • 20 d ago
  • 12 min read
Russia War,  Ukraine War,  Russia-Ukraine

United Nations General Assembly

Pankaj Saran and Prateek Kapil
Pankaj Saran and Prateek Kapil

A War of Narratives

The Ukraine war has entered its third year. Whatever else it may or may not be, it has most definitely been a “war of narratives”. It has also been an “information war”. It is said that words matter, but the world received a crash course in diplomatic lexicon in the aftermath of the “War”.  Some called it a “Special Military Operation”. Others called it quite simply a “War of Putin’s choice”, an “unprovoked military aggression” and still others chose to use the word “conflict” to describe the events that unfolded on 24 February 2022.

In Western mass media headlines, the Russian military action in Ukraine eclipsed the catastrophe that had engulfed Afghanistan six months earlier.  There was outrage, indignation and a strong sense of the “world” being wronged on every cannon of international law. The reaction was, in a sense, a reminder to the world where power rested and what mattered. There was no space for the countless number of innocent people who were being killed in fratricidal conflicts in different parts of the world.

India woke up, late, but nevertheless fearlessly, to voice the feelings of the “rest of the world” - the Global South. India sought to press the pause button on western hysteria and the self consuming East-West conflict to say that this was not the end of history.

There were other real problems, equally existential and explosive, that were hurting the vast majority of countries. Their voices were being drowned out. The “South” was yet again becoming collateral damage of major power rivalry. India asserted that this was not the era of a weak and helpless post-colonial world. The fact that developing countries came together to emphasize the destabilizing nature of the conflict and the effect on their core development agenda has emerged as fundamental an aspect of today’s geopolitics as the invasion itself.

The nuances in global reactions to the war have been lost in the high decibel official reaction from western capitals and accompanying media coverage. These have been marked by intolerance for dissent, half-truths and vilification. Western media commentary on Ukraine has been as definitive and self-righteous in its analysis as its coverage was of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction and links with al Qaeda.

A closer look at global reactions shows that the world beyond the immediate sides has not bought into the “cancel Russia” project, or the line that US/NATO actions had no role to play in what Russia did.  

The world is not prepared to get divided once again between the West and the rest or into rival blocs.  This is evident in national positions as it is in voting patterns in the United Nations.   The Voice of the Global South Summit during India’s G20 Presidency was the high point of the South’s assertion of strategic autonomy. The most populous democracies1 in the world in addition to India – Indonesia, South Africa, Brazil, Mexico and Argentina – have refused to side with NATO. Almost all countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America have voiced discomfort, if not opposition, to unilateral sanctions against Russia. Those who have complied, in varying degrees, are close friends of the West or its allies.

Dissonance in the UN

An analysis of the main UN resolutions since February 2022 shows the complexity of world opinion and how countries have steered their way through the diplomatic labyrinth, juggling national positions, their bilateral relationships with the parties to the conflict, their values and interests. Voting patterns indicate that Russia could not be isolated, at least within the UN.

The very first Resolution condemning the Russian aggression against Ukraine on March 2, 2022, when both tempers and emotions were running high, was adopted by a vote of 141 in favor to 5 against (Belarus, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Eritrea, Russian Federation, and Syria). Yet it was the 35 abstentions that attracted global attention. These were systemically significant countries. They included India, South Africa, Mexico and China, apart from Russia’s neighbors in Central Asia. The number of votes in favor could not go beyond 141 even a year later, when a similar Resolution was introduced in February 2023 to mark the first anniversary of the war. 

Voting on the Resolution calling for Russia’s suspension from the Human Rights Council in April 2022 was even more divided. While the Resolution received a two-thirds majority of those present and voting, numbering 93, the fact also was that as many as 58 countries abstained.  The abstentions were not the “rogue gallery” of international politics. They included India, Brazil, South Africa, Mexico, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Qatar, Kuwait, Iraq, Pakistan, Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and Cambodia. 24 countries voted against the move. Thus, if 93 countries had voted to oust Russia from the Human Rights Council, 82 countries did not. 

International opinion was further divided on the November 2022 UN General Assembly calling on Russia to pay war reparations. 94 countries supported the Resolution but 73 abstained, including Brazil, India and South Africa, and 14 voted against.

As past record shows, numbers in the General Assembly do not really serve either as a barometer of international support to an issue or isolation or of a country’s international standing.  For decades, similar resolutions in which the vast membership have voted overwhelmingly against Israel have neither solved the Arab-Israeli dispute nor led to Israel’s isolation. To quote a recent example, in December 2023, 151 countries voted against Israel on a Resolution demanding “immediate humanitarian ceasefire” in Gaza but this and many earlier resolutions have not made any significant impact on how countries have conducted their bilateral relations with Israel. The world has dealt with Israel regardless of the rights and wrongs.

This is not an Era of War

No comment sums up the global reaction better than the comment made by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to President Vladimir Putin at the SCO summit in Samarkand in September 2022. The comment was welcomed on both sides of the aisle.

India has abstained on resolutions in the UN Security Council and UN General Assembly against Russia except the one which argued against targeting civilians. In South Asia, countries were evenly divided, with four supporting the Resolution of 23rd February 2023 upholding the principles of the UN charter underlying a just and lasting peace in Ukraine (Afghanistan, Bhutan, the Maldives, and Nepal) and four abstaining (Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka).

Indian media coverage of the war was based primarily on western news agencies and western media coverage. They were only isolated cases of Indian media reporting either from the battleground or reporting all points of view, including the Russian. The Athens Journal felt it worthwhile enough to conduct a review2 of Indian media coverage. 

The battle between democracy and autocracy

Comments by President Biden within a month of the outbreak of the conflict in March 2022 in Poland framing the Ukraine War as the battle between democracy and autocracy were short lived in their currency. The world refused to see the conflict in binary terms. The characterization had to be tempered and then withdrawn in the light of global pushback and even opposition from within the US political system. Mainstream Republican Presidential candidates have questioned the US Administration’s Ukraine strategy. Today, the US Administration is faced with a moral crisis in dealing with Israel's retribution in Gaza after the October 7 terror attacks by Hamas.

Europe

Beneath the expansion of NATO and veneer of European unity lie intensive negotiations on the approach to Russia. There are different views originating from different subregions of Europe and governments of different political complexions. The streak of realism runs strong which will not allow Ukraine to become a NATO member and bind NATO allies to Article 5 of the Treaty. Even Ukraine’s EU membership is going to be a long haul. Hungary and Turkey have their own irons in the fire. European unity is fraying as the conflict drags on and the economic, military and social costs of supporting Ukraine to the last Ukrainian become more visible. Europe may be liberating itself from Russian energy but the winds of recession are blowing across Europe. Europe's dependence on China is growing as fast as it is losing its competitiveness to China. President Macron has received less than lip service to his suggestion about the possibility of European boots on the ground. Europe does not want a Russia-NATO war nor a Third World War.

The trans-Atlantic alliance is much more complex than headlines suggest, and for good reason, and could get into more trouble under a Trump White House. Instead, the idea of a peace summit is slowly gaining traction.

Central Asia

Russia’s “near abroad” was, not unexpectedly, the first to feel the heat of the “Special Military Operation”. The balancing act it has had to engage in so as not to offend Russia either during the voting on various UN Resolutions or in bilateral statements or in national media coverage while being upset over the Russian military action has been taxing. Russia has managed to hold its periphery with it. Central Asia did not mount a “revolt” against Russia. This would be a matter of satisfaction for Russia, but Russia could pay a price in the longer term. Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan abstained on the UN resolutions condemning Russia while Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan did not vote at all.

Latin America

While the majority of Latin American countries responded to the war in keeping with their customary and strongly held commitment to international law, there were notable exceptions. Even those who condemned Russia within and outside the UN chose not to join the sanctions against Russia, nor join in the supply of weapons to Ukraine. Some leaders3 have also taken actions that contrasted with their UN votes—such as Brazil’s Lula da Silva, who has ascribed blame to Ukraine for Russia’s aggression, or Mexico’s Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who raised eyebrows by inviting Russian troops to march in the country’s Independence Day parade. President Lula da Silva has been pushing to form a “peace club” for Ukraine comprising “neutral” countries of the Global South. 

Africa

Africa’s position has been nuanced and varied. Despite being an immediate victim of food, fertilizer and energy shortages due to the conflict, and being far more vulnerable to Western pressures, African countries have not participated in the “cancel Russia'' campaign or in the sanctions against Russia. They have made their reluctance known to get sucked into another Cold War while also raising the demand for a grain deal and food security. African leaders went ahead with their second Leaders' summit with President Putin in 2023, although the turnout was much lower than in the past. Yet, Egypt and a few other large countries made it a point to show up. An African Peace Mission consisting of leaders and representatives from seven countries met President Zelensky and President Putin in June 2023.4 Working with all major powers of the world, the African Union has brought the focus to global governance reform. Africa has forcefully argued that Ukraine and Gaza are symptoms of global power imbalances and historical injustices. While Kenya has been critical of Russia, South Africa has taken an equally aggressive stand of support to Russia, including abstaining, like many other African countries, in the UNGA vote. It has recently linked western double standards on Gaza with the Ukraine conflict. 

West Asia

The reaction in the West Asian region has been among the most interesting and revealing of current geopolitical fault lines. Contrary to their established pro-West positions, the Gulf Kingdoms while maintaining their voting stance with the West in the UN have maintained open lines with Russia. Gulf Arab officials5 do not share Western understanding of Russia’s rogue conduct in Ukraine as the greatest threat to the international rules-based order in the contemporary period. GCC leaders perceive the Ukraine war as one of many armed conflicts. Qatar and Kuwait have been slightly more aligned with the West in terms of outright condemning Russia’s invasion. The United Arab Emirates6 (UAE), Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Oman have not referred to the Russian aggression against Ukraine as an “invasion” and they have called on all actors involved in the war to negotiate a settlement.

President Putin paid visits to the United Arab Emirate and Saudi Arabia in December 2023, marking his first trip to the Arab world since the Ukraine War. UAE has emerged as the new entrepot for Russian trade and investment activities, bypassing sanctions and offering its currency and financial system for settlement of transactions involving Russian entities, and even hosting them.On the energy market, the energy exporting Gulf economies have not sabotaged the global market to hurt Russia, which they could have done.

Traditional Russian friends such as Iran, Syria and even Iraq have of course sided with Russia, which has not been a surprise. The role of Turkey, a NATO ally, is a case study in balancing and multi-alignment. It played a key role in the Black Sea grain deal and almost succeeded in brokering a peace deal in 2022. It has since maintained channels of communication with both Russia and Ukraine and has again offered to mediate.

But more profound than Turkey is the case of Israel. President Putin and PM Netanhayu have enjoyed good relations. Israel and Russia worked together in the Syria operations. Russia kept Iran and Israel at bay from each other. In November 2022, Israel did the unimaginable by abstaining from a UNGA Resolution demanding reparations from Russia for invading Ukraine. Before that Ukraine had voted in favor of an anti-Israeli Resolution.

South East Asia

A common ASEAN position on the war has come under similar strain. Russia is not an influential player in this region, unlike China and the US. It does not have the image of an evil empire and does not arouse strong sentiments.

Positions of ASEAN countries have ranged from those of Singapore, which backed some of the sanctions, to Myanmar, which has supported the Russian position. In Indonesia and Malaysia, media narratives have accused the West of hypocrisy because of the US-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq in the early 2000s.

Vietnam and Laos have had historically close ties with Russia, and this was evident in their abstentions in the UN. There were cases where Myanmar voted with Russia and there were others where anti-Russia Resolutions were co-sponsored by Cambodia and Singapore.  In the first year of the war, Indonesian President Joko Widodo visited Russia and met President Putin to build consensus during the G20 Presidency. Despite intense Western pressure, Indonesia did all it could, with the help of India, to prevent the breakdown of the Bali G20 Summit.

China

China has abstained on majority of the UN resolutions and has blamed the US and the West for dismissing Russian security concerns in Ukraine. It has repeatedly refuted claims of supplying military aid to Russia. The Chinese “Peace Plan” released on the first anniversary of the war has been a non-starter because it was seen as a mask to secure Russian interests.

Conclusion

The world’s reaction to the Ukraine conflict has been more nuanced and less monochromatic than what has been portrayed by mainstream media. Absolutist interpretations of the principles of international law have coexisted with regional and national reactions that have been specific to circumstances of individual countries.

The West has been able to weaponize normal inter-state activities, but it has not been able to demonize Russia in the eyes of the world. The “global street” has not bought into the “you are with us or against us” framework that it was subjected to during the Cold War. In addition, the Afghanistan crisis, and many others, were pushed out of the headlines and double standards in western media coverage to Israel’s response to the October 7 terrorist attack by Hamas are all evident. 

The position India took on the Ukraine conflict is today gaining support. The conflict has to wind down with a return to diplomacy and dialogue. 

(Exclusive to NatStrat)

Endnotes:

  1. Heine Jorge, 16th June 2023, The Global South is forging a new foreign policy after Ukraine, https://theconversation.com/the-global-south-is-forging-a-new-foreign-policy-in-the-face-of-war-in-ukraine-china-us-tensions-active-nonalignment-207078
  2. How the Indian Media looks at the Ukraine War, Athens Journal https://www.athensjournals.gr/reviews/2022-AJMMC-PP-09.pdf
  3. Zimmerman Antonia, Anne Sarah , 18th July 2023 , Why Latin America still won’t condemn Putin’s War in Ukraine https://www.politico.eu/article/colonial-past-invades-eus-latin-american-summit/
  4. Jones, Mayeni, 19th Jube 2023, Africa’s Ukraine-Russia peace mission – What was achieved? https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-65951350
  5. Georgio Cafiero, Where has the Ukraine Conflict Left the Gulf States? 22nd Feb 2023 https://www.ispionline.it/en/publication/where-has-the-ukraine-conflict-left-gulf-states-116712
  6. Ibid.

     

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