Inside Story

Putin’s isolation intensifies

Non-Western powers are increasingly contributing to global pressure on Russia

Lawrence Freedman 23 August 2023 3334 words

African leaders including South African president Cyril Ramaphosa (second from right) visiting Kyiv amid renewed Russian missile attacks in June this year. Oleg Petrasyuk/EPA

… All Members shall settle their international disputes by peaceful means in such a manner that international peace and security, and justice, are not endangered…

All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.

— Article 2, Charter of the United Nations

One of the more persistent narratives surrounding the Russo-Ukraine war is that Russia has used a combination of information and diplomatic campaigns to deny Ukraine the support it might have expected from the “Global South.” The countries of the southern hemisphere have never actively supported Russia or endorsed its aggression, but many have abstained in key votes in the United Nations and refused to engage with Western sanctions.

The explanations for this attitude tend to focus on these countries’ past connections with Russia and irritation with the West more than their lack of sympathy for Ukraine. The governing African National Congress in South Africa, for example, recalls Soviet support in the long struggle against apartheid. India has found Russia a useful strategic partner in the past and a source of advanced weapons. China and Russia entered into what was described in glowing terms as friendship “without limits” prior to the full-scale invasion.

The West, meanwhile, has been criticised for its focus on Ukraine’s plight compared with its relative indifference to the humanitarian catastrophes of the ongoing wars in Africa and the Middle East. During the war’s early stages the Biden administration framed the conflict as one between democracy and autocracy, which did not impress many of the relatively autocratic governments in the Global South. Lastly, members of the Global South consider the United States and its allies, notably Britain, hypocritical about a “rules-based international order” given their actions in Iraq, Libya and elsewhere.

Yet this narrative has become more nuanced over the course of this year. Partly this is because of efforts by Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelenskyy and the Biden administration to mend fences with these countries. Partly the shift reflects irritation with Russia over its stubborn and wholly unrealistic stance on what might serve as the basis for a peace settlement. A third factor is the harmful impact of Russia’s actions on food and energy prices.

For all these reasons, countries in the Global South are starting to find an equidistant position harder to sustain and are starting to take diplomatic initiatives of their own. These may be harder for Russia to resist than those sponsored by the West.

The “Global South” is one of those convenient shorthands that can keep conversations on international relations going without the need to list lots of different countries. If taken too seriously — as if it represents a homogeneous group with a shared agenda — the label can soon become misleading. It is the latest in a sequence of attempts to group countries according to what they are not instead of who they are.

During the cold war the countries that deliberately stayed outside the main alliances became part of the Non-Aligned Movement. They eventually combined with states with a policy of neutrality (such as Sweden and Switzerland) to become Neutral and Non-Aligned. Those many developing countries outside the main blocs were lumped together as the Third World because they were part of neither the First capitalist world nor the Second communist world.

Once the cold war was over these labels appeared dated and unhelpful, doing little justice to the variety and agency of these countries. It also became apparent that several of these countries that were behind the West on many key economic indicators were nonetheless showing considerable dynamism. Not only were they catching up but they also had shared interests distinct from those of the West. The most important of these countries were identified as the BRICS, standing for Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.

As well as the group’s growing economic importance it also included the world’s most populous countries. Although it had started as a convenient shorthand, BRICS eventually became a political entity with its own summits. Each of its members tended to complain about attempted US “hegemony” and argue for more multipolarity. Their dislike of America’s regular resort to economic sanctions was reflected in proposals for the “de-dollarisation” of the world economy.

BRICS excludes countries in similar positions, however, including the populous Indonesia and the oil-rich Saudi Arabia, and is already debating whether to invite more members.

The West has its own institutions, of course, including NATO and the European Union, both of which have grown in size since the end of the cold war and provide a degree of integration that is absent from other regional institutions (such as ASEAN and South America’s Mercosur). A Group of Seven industrialised countries (the United States, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy and Japan) meets annually, always with the European Union and usually with other invited friends and relations.

The G7 was the G8 until Russia was expelled after the 2014 annexation of Crimea, with one consequence being there is one less place for diplomatic communications between Russia and the West. The obvious place for that contact, the UN Security Council, has been paralysed by Russia’s veto.

One other grouping is large enough to bring together the main international players more inclusively than either the G7 or BRICS. That is the G20, formed in 1999 in response to an economic crisis but now with a wider agenda. It is made up of Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, South Korea, Turkey, the United Kingdom, the United States and the European Union. Indonesia hosted the latest of the G20’s annual summits; India will host the next.

This is an altogether more complicated picture than simply “the West” versus “the Rest,” or one in which, other than the permanent members of the Security Council, few other states count. The complexity of this evolving international system has become more evident as countries work out their responses to the Russo-Ukraine war.

A common complaint from non-Western countries mirrors that of internal critics of Western support for Ukraine: far too much effort is going into stoking the fires of war by sending arms to Ukraine and not enough into “diplomacy” to end the war. A persistent hope is that “dialogue” might find a commonsense way out of the morass.

This line has appealed to those who wish to sound progressive even while supporting a vicious, nationalist aggressor state, or “realists” who take it for granted that at some point Ukraine will concede territory to Russia. Those taking this view also tend to assume that the United States is in the position to get a deal done because it can lever Kyiv into a compliant position.

This was always a dubious proposition. It would not be a good look for Biden, and certainly would be divisive within the alliance, to attempt to strongarm Ukraine into an unequal treaty that Russia would probably not honour anyway. Most importantly, Putin has not offered any encouragement to those urging active negotiations.

Early in the war the two sides were exploring a possible settlement, looking for language on the Donbas, Crimea and neutrality with which the two sides could live. That proved elusive, and the Ukrainian position hardened once Russian atrocities were revealed as troops abandoned their positions close to Kyiv. Now Putin demands that Ukraine agree to the permanent loss of territory unilaterally claimed for Russia, which is even more than it currently occupies. That is not going to happen.

The peace camp has thus faded in the West. The most serious proponents argue that preparations must be made for when the time is ripe, accepting that this is not yet and must await changing attitudes in Kyiv and Moscow. The agreed Western stance follows Ukraine’s: Russia’s behaviour, along with its claimed objectives, means that there is no basis for negotiations. The only development that is likely to shift Russian views is evidence that it is losing the war, and so the main effort needs to be put into helping Ukraine with its military operations.

This position has created a gap that many non-Western countries have been eager to fill, casting themselves in the role of peacemakers. The process began last February when China stepped forward with its proposals. Because of Xi Jinping’s “no limits” partnership with Putin, and his accompanying anti-NATO rhetoric, these were treated sceptically. Zelenskyy, however, appreciated at once that, taken at face value, they were more favourable to Ukraine than Russia. The core principles — staying in line with the UN Charter and respecting national sovereignty, territorial integrity and international humanitarian law — give no support to seizing the territory of a neighbouring state and bombing its cities. The plan was followed up by a discussion between Xi and Zelenskyy and closer diplomatic relations between the two.

Brazil, African countries, and most recently Saudi Arabia have since taken similar initiatives. The last of these was Brazil’s. Although it condemned the Russian invasion, it has not supported sanctions against Moscow or sending arms to Ukraine. After president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva welcomed Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov to Brasilia and objected to Western arms deliveries as prolonging the war, he came under heavy criticism. He then declined an invitation from Putin to visit Russia, but repeated “Brazil’s willingness, together with India, Indonesia, and China, to talk to both sides of the conflict in search of peace.”

Lula da Silva has not spoken directly to Zelenskyy and now seems disillusioned. His initiative made little headway, leading him to conclude that neither Putin nor Zelenskyy were ready. “Brazil’s role is to try to arrive at a peace proposal together with others for when both countries want it,” he has said.

Africa’s initiative was announced by South Africa’s president Cyril Ramaphosa on 16 May. In June, representatives from South Africa, Egypt, Senegal, Congo-Brazzaville, Comoros, Zambia and Uganda visited both Ukraine and Russia. The mission was not a great success. As the delegation arrived in Kyiv it was struck by Russian missiles. Then, when they met with Putin on 17 June, the Russian president showed no interest in a plan that required accepting Ukraine’s internationally recognised borders. One South African academic, Professor William Gumede, observed that the African leaders were humiliated: “Putin didn’t even bother to listen to the delegation, basically interrupting them before they’d even finished speaking, implying there was no point in discussing anything as the war would continue.”

This visit was followed in late July by the Second Russo-Africa Summit in St Petersburg, which had been postponed from October 2022 when it would have taken place in Ethiopia. At one level, Russia might have counted the summit a success, with forty-nine delegations attending, although this only included seventeen heads of state (compared with forty-three at the first summit in 2019). But some of the continent’s most important leaders were present, including Ramaphosa and Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt.

One of the odder features of the event was that Yevgeny Prigozhin was also in St Petersburg, also meeting with African leaders, apparently not in disgrace after his recent mutiny against the Russian defence ministry. Prigozhin’s Wagner group has a significant presence in the Central African Republic, Libya, Mali and Sudan (and now potentially Niger).

The summit came not long after Russia had decided to abandon the deal that had allowed Ukraine to export grain (some 32.8 million tonnes last year) from its Black Sea ports, on the grounds that Western sanctions restricting the export of Russian grain and fertiliser had not been lifted (though these are actually exempt from sanctions). The end of the deal means that shortages will grow and prices rise.

At the summit Ramaphosa and other African leaders pleaded with Putin to restore the initiative, the lack of which was already causing hardship on the continent, but to no avail. When Putin offered to donate some grain free to the neediest countries, the South African leader thanked him politely and then added that he and his fellow leaders “are not coming here to plead for donations for the African continent… our main input here is not so much focused on giving and donating grain to the African continent.”

Nor did the summit see any progress on peace negotiations. Putin had no objections to the African mission continuing, but he offered no hope that he was changing his position or withdrawing his transparently false claim that the West had really started the war.

Adding further to the chill, Putin acknowledged after the summit that he would not be travelling to Johannesburg for the BRICS summit, which started on 22 August, as this was less “important than me staying in Russia.” The real reason was that the South African government could not guarantee Putin would not be arrested and sent to The Hague.

The International Criminal Court’s arrest warrant for Putin, issued in March, for the war crime of deporting Ukrainian children, is restricting his ability to travel. South Africa, along with 122 other states, has ratified the Rome Statute and is obliged to arrest Putin if he shows up in their jurisdiction.

The South African government did try to find a way out of this predicament, arguing to the ICC that arresting Putin would be tantamount to a declaration of war and would undermine peace efforts. In the end it had to abandon this effort. Without a guarantee of immunity, Putin clearly decided it was too risky to travel. Instead he will join the summit by video while foreign minister Sergey Lavrov will represent Russia in person.

The developing frustration with Russia was reflected in the most important peace initiative thus far — a two-day summit in Jeddah on 6–8 August, hosted by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (normally referred to as “MBS”). Saudi Arabia is another country with which Russia has been trying to improve relations. In particular, the Saudis have cooperated on oil production cuts to raise prices. Although Western nations encourage countries to buy Russian oil only below a US$60 ceiling price, for now it is selling oil at closer to US$65, helping push up revenues.

The Biden administration has also been making moves to improve relations with the Saudis, despite starting in a critical mode because of the kingdom’s human rights records (and especially the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018). It is actively engaged in an effort to get Israel and the Saudis to establish diplomatic relations. MBS’s sympathetic view of Ukraine was evident when Zelenskyy was hosted in May at an Arab summit, also in Jeddah. There the Ukrainian president urged Arab leaders not to turn “a blind eye” to Russian aggression.

Following that summit the Crown Prince called a large international conference and invited Ukraine but not Russia. Even more notable was that the other invitees (some forty states) didn’t appear to find this a turn-off. It was no surprise that the United States and the European Union turned up, but the presence of China, India and South Africa was significant. Had it been the other way round, and Russia had been invited and not Ukraine, this would have been considered an enormous diplomatic defeat for Kyiv and its supporters.

Russia made clear that it was unhappy with its exclusion. Deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov grumbled that without his country the talks had not “the slightest added value.” He described the meeting as “a reflection of the West’s attempt to continue futile, doomed efforts” to mobilise the Global South behind Kyiv. At the same time he insisted that Russia remained open to a diplomatic solution to end the war, and would respond to any sincere proposals.

Around the same time, a New York Times journalist asked Putin’s spokesman Dmitri Peskov whether Russia wants to occupy new Ukrainian territories. “No,” he answered. “We just want to control all the land we have now written into our constitution as ours.” Yet that land includes not only Crimea but also the territories of the Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia oblasts, not all of which are currently occupied by Russia. “There are currently no grounds for an agreement,” added Peskov. “We will continue the operation for the foreseeable future.”

By contrast, the Ukrainian delegation was pleased with the event. Zelenskyy’s head of staff, Andriy Yermak, spoke of “very productive consultations on the key principles on which a just and lasting peace should be built.” No consensus position had emerged, but the conversation between the different viewpoints was honest and open.

Zelenskyy has said that he hopes that the Jeddah gathering will be a step on the road towards a global peace summit, possibly to be held later in the year. He has framed the talks as following the ten-point peace plan that he presented to the G20 last November. Saudi Arabia’s media ministry emphasised the importance of continuing consultations to pave the way for peace. Working groups are being established to consider some of the specific problems raised by the war.

China’s representative at the Jeddah meeting, Li Hui, was described by an EU source as having “participated actively” in the sessions. He had not attended another informal meeting in Denmark in June.

Also present was India’s national security adviser, who shared the consensus view: “Dialogue and diplomacy is the way forward for a peaceful resolution of the Ukraine conflict. There is a need to uphold territorial integrity and sovereignty without exception by all states… India has regularly engaged both Russia and Ukraine at the highest levels since the beginning of the conflict and New Delhi supports a global order based on principles enshrined in UN Charter and international law.”

India will be hosting the next G20 meeting in Delhi on 9–10 September. Unlike South Africa, it has not signed up to the ICC, so Putin would not be at risk of arrest should be decide to attend. He cannot, however, expect a warm reception, and should it come to talk of peace he will find little sympathy for his insistence on annexing a large chunk of Ukrainian territory. None of the leaders, other than Xi and perhaps Indian prime minister Narendra Modi, the host, will be keen on bilateral meetings with the Russian president.

Russian aggression was condemned at the last G20 meeting in Bali, which Zelenskyy attended. Putin is already seeking to prevent a similar communiqué emerging out of the Delhi summit. A preliminary meeting of G20 finance ministers in July failed to agree to a communiqué because Russia and China objected to a reference to “immense human suffering” and Western states would not sign one that did not condemn the aggression.

Should Putin decide to attend the G20, the event may serve to underline Russia’s isolation as much as its power. He has annoyed countries that now have significant clout in international affairs — countries that make a point of not following an American lead — by insisting on terms for ending the war that contradict the principles of the UN Charter and pursuing strategies that push up energy and food costs for all countries at a time when most are struggling economically. This behaviour has created an opportunity for Zelenskyy to improve relations with these countries and ensure that future peace initiatives are more likely to fit in with his vision than Putin’s.

For that reason we should not expect any early breakthroughs. Much still depends on what happens militarily. But it would be too cynical to dismiss the current diplomatic initiatives as being irrelevant. They reflect the changing character of international relations as Brazil, India, Saudi Arabia and other countries demonstrate their political muscle, and also the continuing importance of the UN Charter as one of the few fixed normative points.

We are moving from the idea of a mediated peace, in which a country able to talk to both Moscow and Kyiv, such as Turkey or Israel, tries to broker an agreement that leaves both sides with honour satisfied, to a process that involves developing global pressure on Putin to back away from his stubborn insistence on Russia’s right to annex Ukrainian territory. •

This article first appeared in Sam and Lawrence Freedman’s Substack newsletter, Comment Is Freed.