On The Fence

Ukraine has united the world”, declared Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in a speech on the first anniversary of the start of the war with Russia. If only that were true. The war has certainly united the West, but it has left the world divided. And that rift will only widen if Zelensky’s friends fail to address its root causes. And many political analysts in the West are struggling to understand why some major countries in the South have opted for neutrality, rather calculated neutrality, despite American pressure.

The traditional transatlantic alliance of European and North American countries has mobilised in unprecedented fashion for a protracted conflict in Ukraine. It has offered extensive humanitarian support for internally displaced people inside Ukraine and for Ukrainian refugees. And it is preparing for what will be a massive rebuilding job after the war. But outside Europe and North America, the defence of Ukraine is not that spectacular. Few governments openly endorse the Russian action, yet many remain unpersuaded by the West’s insistence that the struggle for freedom and democracy in Ukraine is also theirs. In truth America and its allies have virtually lost the trust of the major segment of the global south, thanks to Russia-Ukraine war.

The gap between the West and the rest goes beyond the rights and wrongs of the war. Instead, it is the product of deep frustration—anger about the Western-led unequal and oppressive management of globalisation since the end of the Cold War.

The Russian military action has produced remarkable unity and response from the so-called ‘liberal democratic world’. Western countries have coordinated an extensive slate of economic sanctions targeting Russia. European states have increasingly aligned their climate policies on de-carbonisation with national security-related commitments to end their dependence on Russian oil and gas. Western governments have rallied to support Ukraine with enormous shipments of military aid and they are continually doing it to energise Ukraine’s war machine for the spring offensive. True, Europe has adopted a welcoming policy toward the eight million Ukrainian refugees within its borders.

Many in the West have been surprised at the turn of events. Clearly, so was the Kremlin. The West’s unity and commitment are not matched elsewhere, however. At the beginning of the war, the UN General Assembly voted 141 to 5, with 47 absences or abstentions, to condemn the Russian military adventure. But that result flattered to deceive. “Most non-European countries that voted to deplore Russia’s aggression last March did not follow up with sanctions. Doing the right thing at the UN can be an alibi for not doing much about the war in the real world.”

In a series of UN votes since the war started, around 40 countries representing nearly 50 percent of the world’s population have regularly abstained or voted against motions against Russia. Fifty-eight countries abstained from a vote, in April 2022, to expel Russia from the UN Human Rights Council. For one thing two-thirds of the world’s populations live in countries that are officially neutral or indirectly supportive of Russia.

Much of the fence-sitting is not driven by disagreements over the conflict in Ukraine but is instead a symptom of a wider syndrome: anger at American and Western double standards and frustration at stalled reform efforts in the international system which is heavily biased against the South.

Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has described Russia’s military operation as a “mistake,” while claiming in a statement last summer that “Zelensky is as responsible as Putin for the war”. As things stand today Russia is not totally isolated as projected in the Western media day in and day out.


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Vol 55, No. 45, May 7 - 13, 2023