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Ukraine: Can the Global South Give Up on Russia?

Ukraine: Can the Global South Give Up on Russia?
 Michel Duclos
Special Advisor and Resident Senior Fellow - Geopolitics and Diplomacy

The title given to this paper is evidently provocative: there is no unequivocal Global South, nor has Russia ever benefited from total support in this region. But this title does capture an undeniable political reality.

An undeniable political reality

Russia enjoys a favorable bias in formerly non-aligned countries, accredited to its former USSR lineage for having sided with national liberation struggles. Vladimir Putin himself has so far commanded respect in many countries for having been the first - before China, for example - to stand up to the US during its phase of unshared domination. Russian diplomacy has also skilfully cultivated its connivance with the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) and accompanied the rise of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (China, India, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan). 

Therefore, framing its invasion of Ukraine as a pre-emptive war to give a blow to the thus-far Western-dominated world order seemed only logical to the Kremlin. It would trigger the anti-Western reflex of the emerging world and would lay the prospect of a "multipolar" world reflecting, at last, its aspirations. In light of this, the negative consequences of the conflict i.e., food security, disruption of the energy market, the rise of certain raw materials costs and inflation, were likely to be blamed on the West and its economic sanctions. 

Statements from the Global South were quick to highlight the responsibility of NATO and the United States for the war.

At first, such a communication strategy worked remarkably well. Russia received widespread condemnation for its aggression. Yet important partners of the West (broadly considered allies) such as India, the Gulf States, or Morocco and Senegal in Africa, chose to abstain from relevant UN resolutions. Statements from the Global South were quick to highlight the responsibility of NATO and the United States for the war. No major emerging country chose to follow the West in its policy sanctions and its political isolation of Russia.

The West struggled in the battle of "narratives" on the consequences of the war - which the South attributed more willingly to Western sanctions than to Russian aggression - all the more so given that the isolation of Russia by the West opened up significant economic opportunities (Russian oil at knock-down prices, influx of Russian capital into Turkey) for the most important leaders of the Global South such as China, India or Turkey. 

Accordingly, the risk of a deeper North-South divide grew. A risk that had been overcome during the COP21 (with the Paris Agreement adopted by 196 parties in December 2015), but which tends to reappear in the wake of the global health crisis, with Southern countries accusing Northern ones of insufficient solidarity. The stakes are high; dealing with global issues - first and foremost climate change and biodiversity - is rendered more difficult by the growing US-China rivalry and a series of crises. Solving our time's greatest global challenges would become impossible if the North-South relationship were to break down. 

President Macron's speech in New York

It was certainly keeping all of that in mind that French President Emmanuel Macron delivered his remarkably eloquent speech to the United Nations General Assembly on September 20. 

Posing as a man of peace, and as such owning up to his talks with Russia, President Macron did not hesitate to take down the false parallel drawn between Russia's struggle against the West and the national liberation struggles of the past: "What we have been witnessing since 24 February is a return to the age of imperialism and colonies... those who would like to imitate the cause of the non-aligned movement by refusing to express themselves clearly are mistaken and bear a historic responsibility". 

He instructed governments of the South to speak out clearly against Russia: "those who are silent today further the cause of a new imperialism, of a modern cynicism that breaks up our international order without which peace is not possible." Or again, after having brazenly defended the sanctions policy, often equated in the South with neo-imperialism: "Contemporary imperialism is not European or Western. It takes the form of a territorial invasion backed by a globalized hybrid war that uses energy prices, food security, nuclear safety, access to information and movements of people as weapons to divide and destroy."

President Macron did not hesitate to take down the false parallel drawn between Russia's struggle against the West and the national liberation struggles of the past.

Tirelessly, he insisted on notions of territorial integrity, respect for borders and defense of sovereignty to better emphasize that Russia "says it is ready to work in a new international order" by trampling on these essential principles which until now, despite breaches on the Western side ("we were wrong to have taken liberties with these values"), have constituted the foundation for an international order.

He then delivered his key message, namely the refusal of a "new world partition", a sham that would be disastrous for the handling of tangible problems: "Our shared responsibility is to work to help the most vulnerable, those most affected by all these challenges. As Narendra Modi, Prime Minister of India, rightly said: today’s era is not an era of war. Nor is it one of revenge on the West, or Western opposition to the rest of the world. It is an era for sovereign, equal countries to work together on today's challenges. That is why we must urgently create a new contract between North and South, an effective, respectful contract on food, climate and biodiversity, and education." Stressing his point with a pinch of controversy, the President added: "Who remained present during the pandemic? Who is proposing financing for the climate transition? Not those who are today proposing a new international order, who did not have a working vaccine, who showed little solidarity, and who are taking no climate action".

This speech was remarkable for it was "tailored" to an audience and a message, it appealed to both the principles and the true interests of the South, and it offered a prospect: ad hoc coalitions to advance solutions regarding the main defining challenges to the future of humanity. In that respect, the President mentioned the Paris Peace Forum (of which the Institut Montaigne is a founding member and whose session this year should be of particular importance). This speech is also the product of a new line of thinking on the part of Emmanuel Macron initiated when, for example, he denounced Russia's fraud with regard to Southern countries when he visited Cameroon, Benin, and Guinea-Bissau at the end of July. The French President is truly committed to efficiently managing global issues, and probably sensed better than others the danger of East-South conjunction (although he had apparently not measured the impact his dialogue with Russia would have on his standing in Europe). One might wonder if his address came at a most opportune moment. 

A change in the air?

Winds of change might be shifting Russia's relations with the Global South. The July 22 deal between Russia and Ukraine, signed under UN auspices and allowing exports of Ukrainian grain through the Black Sea, until then blocked by Russia, hints at that. Such a concession is not natural to Russian diplomacy. Vladimir Putin may have sensed that his blackmail on wheat was beginning to backfire. More recently, just before the General Assembly, a near-unanimous vote allowed Mr. Zelensky to give a virtual speech at the United Nations, despite Russia's opposition.

Russian influence in Central Asia is waning - Kazakh and Uzbek governments are adopting increasingly distant views from Moscow, mainly to the benefit of China.

That change in tone transpired most during the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Summit in Samarkand, on September 15-16, which Turkish President Erdoğan attended as a guest. Among those he considers his peers, the Russian President admitted that China had questions - and concerns - about the war in Ukraine. He had to listen to the Indian Prime Minister, Mr. Modi, utter the phrase that Mr. Macron quoted a few days later in New York: "the time is not for war". More generally, Russian influence in Central Asia is waning - Kazakh and Uzbek governments are adopting increasingly distant views from Moscow, mainly to the benefit of China.

Although what was said during the summit remains off the record, it is clear that Vladimir Putin did not get any additional support.

All observers would concur that the feeling that emerged from the meeting was that of a certain perplexity with regard to the Russian adventure in Ukraine; this is not insignificant among leaders who are both Vladimir Putin's most important neutral allies as well as the main "heavyweights" of the Global South. Beijing's stance is particularly striking. As François Godement brilliantly analyzed, the art of China's foreign policy is to tirelessly repeat the same mantras (calls for ceasefire and dialogue, respect for intangibility of borders) whose meaning subtly varies depending on a given context. When, within an hour of Putin's announcement of a partial mobilization on September 21, a Beijing spokesman once again called for a cease-fire, it could hardly be taken as an endorsement of the Kremlin's decision. The same can be said of Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who, in a speech that was admittedly peppered with cutting remarks aimed at the West, told the United Nations General Assembly that "the solution is to address the legitimate security concerns of all parties concerned".

However, the fact remains that as soon as Vladimir Putin returned from Samarkand than he took steps towards conflict escalation: so-called partial mobilization, referendums on Russian annexation in the Donbass republics, and Zaporizhia and Kherson regions, and new nuclear threats. One hypothesis could be that the silent disapproval (or at least the skepticism) of those considered his peers only came second to his urgency to save the day - in Ukraine, obviously, but probably too in the power struggles taking place in Moscow. Another - noncontradictory - possibility, is that he sensed the obligation from the Samarkand discussions to achieve a result, and undoubtedly, a rapid one. By doubling down on Ukraine, Putin is probably hoping that he can "break" Western opinions' resilience and get the US and EU governments to abandon Ukraine. And this, before he himself is disregarded by the South.

Which course of action for France and the West? 

The war on the Old Continent compels the West to reappraise its policy towards the South. We can certainly expect Russia's aura in the eyes of emerging countries to be tarnished as Russian forces are exhausted in Ukraine. This process probably already began. But we would be mistaken to limit ourselves to this remark. 

  • In the short term, Western governments need to think about the next dead-ends Vladimir Putin might find himself in - and the risk that he may one day come to consider more radical escalation options. It is worth noting that, in New York, Wang Yi warned against the conflict "spilling over". In the coming months, there is space for the entire international community to create at least an informal front to deter the Russian leadership from considering the use of weapons of mass destruction.

  • In the longer term, the risk of widening the North-South divide will persist, even if Russia loses, as is likely, or in any case, emerges very weakened from its adventures in Ukraine. The offer made by Emmanuel Macron in New York, that of a new North-South contract, will still be relevant. Giving this prospect some substance remains to be done. In this field, both France and the European Union have assets. 

  • In this perspective, the war in Ukraine highlights a difficulty: the detestation of the Global South - all categories of countries combined and beyond historical resentments - for the Western policy of sanctions and at its core, the hegemony of the dollar and Western domination of financial circuits. Yet, this mechanism remains crucial to overcoming Russian aggression by discouraging China from bypassing US sanctions and thus helping Moscow further.



Copyright: Sergei BOBYLYOV / SPUTNIK / AFP

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