ZOiS Spotlight 1/2023

The Major Powers of the Global South and the War Against Ukraine

by Ewa Dąbrowska 11/01/2023

India, South Africa and other countries have maintained neutrality on Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine. It may seem obvious that this is motivated by economic interests. But resentment towards the West and the desire for a new global balance of power also play a role.

Indian prime minister Narendra Modi (center) at the G20 Summit in Indonesia in November 2022. IMAGO / ZUMA Wire

Translated from the German by Hillary Crowe.

When the United Nations General Assembly adopted its resolution on 2 March 2022 condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the associated violations of international law and human rights, not every member voted in favour. India and South Africa – Russia’s partners in the BRICS group alongside Brazil and China – abstained. These countries, like the Global South as a whole, were widely criticised for their hesitant position towards the war. However, this position also offers opportunities. On 1 December 2022, India assumed the Presidency of the G20, a global governance forum comprising the world’s leading industrialised and emerging economies and the European Union, and is making efforts to mediate between Russia and Ukraine. South Africa expressed similar intentions during the first few months of the war. However, its position, although couched in neutral terms, hinted at more understanding for Russia than for Ukraine.

Historical alliances and Russian narratives

India’s and South Africa’s efforts to maintain a neutral stance towards Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, while Ukraine receives military, financial and sanction-based support from the West, must be seen in the context of the two countries’ historical alliances. Both India and South Africa were members of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), established after the conference of Asian and African countries in Bandung, Indonesia, in 1955. These countries resolved to adopt a position of neutrality in the conflict between the US and the Soviet Union. As the war against Ukraine has revitalised both the psychology and the geopolitics of the Cold War and the conflict between Russia/the Soviet Union and NATO, India and South Africa have also invoked narratives from that period.

Due to Russia’s cleverly crafted strategic narrative, it is challenging, for many countries of the Global South, to view the attack on Ukraine in another light. Many of them endorse Russia’s criticism of NATO’s enlargement and the West’s intervention in the internal affairs of sovereign nations and view the war against Ukraine through this lens. As Ukraine is supported by the West, it is not easy for these countries to lay their anti-Western sentiments aside and recognise that Russia is acting like a colonial power and failing to respect Ukrainian sovereignty. The fact that the Soviet Union was associated with anti-colonialism in this region of the world does not make it any easier for the countries concerned to distance themselves from Russia now. A perspective which emphasises the violation of human rights by the Russian military and the Russian state is present, but tends to be represented by the opposition parties in countries such as South Africa or by NGOs working in the Global South, not necessarily by governments.

Economic ties

Material interests also play a role. India buys oil and military hardware from Russia and had no desire to put these imports at risk. South Africa has also imported arms from Russia. Both countries – India and South Africa – have more extensive economic ties to the West than to Russia, but banked on these links being unaffected, despite their stance on Russia – an assumption which proved to be correct. Like almost all the countries of the Global South, India and South Africa are not involved in Western sanctions. This is partly due to economic dependencies, but another possible factor is that they do not endorse the weaponisation of economic and financial ties, fearing that they themselves might be affected by this in future.

Global power interests

Furthermore, India and South Africa regard Russia as a rival power to the US and assume that in a multipolar world, the interests of the various power centres – which India aspires to become – will be better represented than in a crisis-ridden world under US hegemony. In addition, India is keen to maintain its relations with both the US and Russia in order to resist China’s growing influence in Asia. Ukraine is a victim of this arrangement: India and South Africa are, in all probability, fully conscious of the colonial dimension of the war but continue to act in accordance with their national interests.

Despite the two countries’ position, which does not prioritise moral condemnation of the war, Ukraine has been shown a great deal of solidarity by South African and Indian civil society. Support groups have been set up to send donation-funded aid to Ukraine. The Indian government has also supported the provision of humanitarian assistance, albeit with funding well below the level mobilised by Europe.

Neutrality may create scope for mediation

Although widely criticised, India’s and South Africa’s position – described by the two countries themselves as ‘neutral’ – towards Russia’s invasion of Ukraine must therefore be viewed as equivocal, not least because it may create scope for attempts at mediation. India in particular is making efforts to move onto this path. In doing so, it sees itself as an ambassador for the Global South, where the economic impacts of the war are particularly severe. Indian prime minister Narendra Modi has already attempted to bring influence to bear by informal means, telling Russian president Vladimir Putin during the meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation in September 2022 that now is not the time for war.

Since October, India has also sought to intensify its contact with Ukraine and has announced that further mediation efforts will be made during its G20 Presidency. At November’s G20 summit in Bali, for example, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyi was able to request support for his peace formula. Modi held individual talks with Zelenskyi and Putin during the same month. As no negotiating format currently exists – in contrast to the situation in 2014, when the Minsk peace process was initiated – this may be a reason for cautious optimism. Certainly, it is a sign of the times that the Global South is making efforts to work on a solution to a European conflict, whereas an option for negotiations within Europe itself seems largely unrealistic at present.

Dr Ewa Dąbrowska is a post-doctoral researcher in the Cluster of Excellence ‘Contestations of the Liberal Script (SCRIPTS)’ in Berlin. Her current research project explores the emerging economies’ efforts to achieve digital and technological sovereignty in the context of the geopolitical changes associated with the war against Ukraine.