How robust is the global opposition to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine?

By Daniel W. Drezner, Professor of International Politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University

Does the global south secretly support Russia?

As the war in Ukraine rages on, the Biden administration has earned praise for building a multilateral coalition to push back on Russia’s re-invasion of its sovereign neighbor. That said, not every country is on board with this coalition. U.S. allies in the Middle East have been reluctant to sanction Russia. India, a key member of the Quad alliance, has refused to sanction Russia and stepped up its purchases of Russian oil. China, of course, has blasted the sanctions. Chinese firms have signaled they will continue to buy Russian commodities.

This has led some commentators to argue that, contrary to what the Pentagon thinks, the situation reveals the hollowness of U.S. leadership. This month, Bloomberg’s Pankaj Mishra wrote that “a large group of nations look ready to sit out of the new Cold War between a hastily reunited West and Russia.” He concluded: “The following trends are only set to intensify: opportunistic non-alignment, de-democratization, de-dollarization of the international financial system and de-Americanization of the globe.”

It would be tempting to infer that Mishra’s analysis is rooted in his hostility to U.S. foreign policy. The Financial Times’ Ed Luce, however, made a similar argument last week: “Most of the world is on the sidelines waiting to see which way [the conflict] goes.” Luce further warns: “Not for the first time, the west is mistaking its own unity for a global consensus. … Much of the world resents western sanctions.”

Finally, I have seen a lot of graybeards reference this tweet knowingly as a signal that support for the U.S. position on Ukraine is much less global than U.S.-based analysts might believe.

This is a good conversation to have because it is fair to wonder whether U.S. policy analysts are interpreting greater unity among traditional U.S. allies and greater support for U.S. leadership overall.

Mishra and Luce are correct to note that the global south’s opposition to Russia’s actions might not be quite as vigorous as in the global north. Any small country caught in the middle of great-power tensions has a powerful incentive to sit on the sideline when perceived heavyweights duke it out.

The thing is, the global south had its chance to stay on the fence, or even side with Russia, when the U.N. General Assembly voted on this issue in March. And most decidedly chose not to do that:

Russia mustered the support of Belarus, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Eritrea and Syria. Thirty-five countries (including China and India) abstained; 141 countries voted in favor. A more recent General Assembly vote broke down along similar lines, so it is not like the global south changed its collective mind over the past month. Indeed, last week, U.N. Secretary General António Guterres called on Russia to end its “absurd war” in Ukraine.

It could be argued that U.N. General Assembly votes are one thing, but sanctions are a more potent signal. It is true that not a lot of countries are applying them. For sanctions, however, what matters is whether these countries are complying with those imposed by the United States and other financial centers.

Consistent with the logic of weaponized interdependence, the global south is adhering to the U.S.-led sanctions regime because its leaders have no desire to be excluded from these networks. This is why India is not using rupees to buy Russian oil. This is also why, according to Reuters, even China’s Sinopec companies have curbed their investments into Russia: “The move by Asia’s biggest oil refiner to hit the brakes on a potentially half-billion-dollar investment in a gas chemical plant and a venture to market Russian gas in China highlights the risks, even to Russia’s most important diplomatic partner, of unexpectedly heavy Western-led sanctions.”

Mishra’s predictions about the continued decline of the United States might be proved true in time. But if Russia finds itself stymied in its invasion of Ukraine, U.S. statecraft will have played an important supporting role. The global south might conclude that U.S. support counts for more than they had previously believed.

This piece is republished from The Washington Post.

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