Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with China's President Xi Jinping at the Kremlin in Moscow on March 21, 2023. (Photo by Pavel Byrkin / SPUTNIK / AFP) (Photo by PAVEL BYRKIN/SPUTNIK/AFP via Getty Images)

Why Russia is still in business

Poor countries are focused on food and fuel, not black-listing Moscow over the Ukraine war


This article is taken from the May 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Here’s what was meant to happen. After Russia fell upon Ukraine in February 2022, the international community — other than designated rogue and pariah states — would rally to condemn and resist the atrocity. The largest act of predation against a sovereign state in living memory was a great wrong that must be righted. Vladimir Putin’s attempted annexation was a security threat to all. It violated a precious, postwar global norm, the norm against conquest. This threatened the “Global South”, a condescending term of art for poor, postcolonial countries that lumps together everyone from Burundi, the poorest state on earth, to India, which has a space programme. 

Under the “global leadership” of the United States with its NATO and treaty allies in Asia, the peoples of South America, Africa, the Middle East and Oceania would come together to repudiate not only the invasion of Ukraine, but the old order of imperial aggression, sphere-of-influence prerogatives, genocidal expansionism and great power presumption. It was not just a collective effort to help Ukraine against an aggressor. It was a noble undertaking to rescue the world from the nineteenth century.

For a time, it looked as though this might come true. As Russia recognised secessionist republics in Ukraine and mobilised on the border, Kenyan ambassador Martin Kimani made a celebrated speech at the United Nations Security Council. With moral clarity dialled up to 11, he linked Putin’s despoilation of his neighbour with a past that should be left behind, warning against stirring the “embers of dead empires”. 

Then, as Russia’s initial assault met unexpected resistance, Joe Biden, in his State of the Union address in March 2022 spoke of a world response. Putin “thought he could roll into Ukraine and the world would roll over. Instead, he met a wall of strength he never imagined.” Large majorities of the UN General Assembly condemned the invasion and called for Russia’s unconditional and immediate withdrawal. Russia, observers enthused, was ever more “isolated”. Was the moment of Western unity also one of international solidarity?

It was not. Outside the Western orbit, the US and its treaty allies, countries have not put their money where their mouths are. Indeed, they are frequently cautious with their mouths. Kenya, whose envoy denounced empire, has since hedged on the question. Its UN vote aside, it did not condemn the invasion. 

President William Ruto purchases Russian oil to steady local fuel prices, and fertilisers to help farmers against drought, just as Malawi accepts Moscow’s fertiliser donation as the Russian flag fluttered alongside Kenya’s in Lilongwe. A similar pattern of accommodation holds in many other places, as Russia launches its own scramble for Africa with exports of grain too. 

Larger, richer nations also stand aloof from the exhortations of US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken. India abstains in UN votes and raises its crude oil imports from Russia significantly, as does China, which purchases raw materials and energy at a discount. NATO member Turkey has played both sides, dealing as it must also with inflation, an earthquake and dependence on Russian energy. 

Those eager to play up Russia’s “isolation” point to votes at the UN, but this is weak tea. Talk, and gestures that promise no further commitment, are cheap. Such votes are largely ceremonial and low-cost. Raising an arm to condemn an invasion without backing it up with hard coercion may look significant. But judge states, rather, by what they materially do. For “global norms” to be real, they must be non-expendable, going beyond in-principle abstractions. Countries must be willing to bleed for them. To be meaningful and effective, isolating Russia would not stop where a nation’s trade and arms begin. 

Satellite signals

Let us face facts. Russia is not isolated. Global norms are disposable. Most of the world does not crave any one state’s “leadership”. This past year has featured one large non-event, the worldwide rallying that wasn’t. So why are these countries hedging? And why can’t some informed observers in the West see this simple truth?

One answer on offer is a cultural-historical one. Allegedly, countries are hedging out of anti-Western sentiments, such as grievances over European imperial legacies. Professor Paul Rogers, for instance, cited the East Africa journalist Khatondi Soita Wepukhulu to suggest that the West’s oppressive behaviour in the past and present accounted for African countries’ reluctance to join the coalition behind the “good fight”. Similarly, Elizabeth Sidiropoulos of the Brookings Institute claims that South Africa’s hedging flows from its historical non-alignment and fidelity to Russia’s friendship with the anti-apartheid movement. 

Likewise, the former US Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa, Jeffrey Feltman, contends that the refusal to harken is a “protest” vote against Western misbehaviour, from vaccine hoarding to under-funding of climate mitigation measures. It flows from a general suspicion that Western moral talk is part of the old game of the strong pressuring and patronising the weak. 

But who is being patronising, exactly? These explanations, benign and well-intended, are also naïve and Western-centric. In a kind of reverse narcissism, they make the issue almost exclusively about “us” and our historical failures and crimes. The world in these litanies is little more than a morality play about Western error and redemption. Power politics in the “Global South” is missing in action. Those countries, in this account, exist and think almost entirely in the past.

This is profoundly mistaken. While the past haunts everyone, those in charge of countries that aren’t Western client states must live aggressively in the present. These regimes care more about their own survival, and/or their peoples’ hunger and basic needs, than sacrificing for international principles. Against the grain of so much discussion, they do not act primarily as former colonial subjects. They are not enslaved to a resentful memory of empire or displeasure at the more recent hypocrisies of Washington or London. They act as ruthless nation-states, with all the traditional double standards and slipperiness that entails.

If this patronising Western conceit were true, if such countries were primarily driven by historical allegiances and grievances, and not the reality of their situations, they would hardly pick and choose their commitments so adroitly. Yet in fact they willingly accept or seek out Western patronage as it suits. They buy Western weapons, accept Western development aid or undertake military exercises with NATO or the United States as it suits them. The West’s image in their eyes shifts between historical oppressor and contemporary partner as circumstances shift. 

Middling boys’ rules

South Africa, for instance, has recently granted permits to export arms to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, US client states in the Gulf who have been waging a brutal war in Yemen. There is reflexive anti-colonialism, and then there is pursuing business interests in the wake of a shattering pandemic. 

Those who conduct these policies cannot spend most of their time agonising about the legacy of Cecil Rhodes, or America’s historical complicity in apartheid. Not when the near-implosion of the country’s energy infrastructure inflicts regular power cuts, or when the railway lines crumble. If the six inches in front of your face present dire adversity, what Washington speaks of as a pivotal struggle for freedom looks more peripheral and negotiable. 

The arms trade, indeed, is a straight rebuttal of all this talk of colonial legacies dictating policy. Navigating between interests and powers, Egypt, despite being one of the greatest recipients of US military and economic assistance, was covertly planning to export artillery, rockets and gunpowder to Russia. As Fouad Ajami once noted in his rebuke of another piece of cultural determinism, “states will consort with any civilization, however alien, as long as the price is right and the goods are ready”.

“Global South” heavyweights play a similar game. India will raise and drop talk of Western imperial legacies as the weather shifts, calling for apologies for the 1919 Amritsar massacre on Monday, taking part in Quad naval exercises on Tuesday, and finessing Moscow, its major arms supplier, on Wednesday .

Saudi Arabia, never shy of bringing up and then overlooking the suffering in Gaza or the West Bank, explained the geography of the Gulf’s conciliatory stance with Russia, stressing not global norms but “regional security”. As for Beijing, its historical memory and propagandist centrepiece, the “Century of Humiliation” that it suffered at the hands of European empires does not prevent it aligning increasingly with Russia even as Moscow speaks in nakedly imperial terms about Ukraine.

As Tim Sahay argues, this à la carte behaviour is all part of a larger pattern of energy diplomacy, whereby determined states pursue both resources and leverage, making sure their diplomatic stances are valuable bargaining chips. “Countries like China, India, Indonesia, Brazil, South Africa, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates have refused to sacrifice their national interests to punish Russia. Most importantly, they believe their bargaining power in the new Cold War will result in sweeter trade, technology, and weapons deals from the West.” 

Theirs is “a stance of non-alignment to secure the same key technologies — fighter jets, green technology, chips, submarines, nuclear, advanced pharmaceuticals, 5G mobile networks — that could power their catch-up growth. The map of countries that remained neutral on Russia sanctions is a hard-nosed security play.”

There is indeed a general problem with the whole suggestion of a “Global South”. It implies, increasingly inaccurately, that our world is still a tale of Western-driven globalisation that makes others passive consumers of events.

This is not to deny that anti-Western and post-colonial sentiment exists. It does, undeniably. It is to suggest that such sentiments vary in their political salience depending on whether they suit narrower, more immediate interests of policy. 

If a state does not wish to harm itself economically or cut off an arms supply by joining a coalition to wage economic warfare on Russia, how much more attractive it becomes to ramp up rhetoric about Western hypocrisy and double standards. How useful to obfuscate the question of supporting Ukraine’s defence by exercising whataboutery. 

The plight of Palestine, or innocent victims of signature drone strikes, may genuinely move rulers, holding all else constant. 

But all else is not constant. Grievances over these and other causes function as a costume, to haul out and wear at convenience, in this case to help adopt a pragmatic policy over an expensive one. To take their rhetoric at face value is to be politically innocent. 

Wanting and deserving

To expect a great global rallying against evil in which countries outside the Euro-Atlantic orbit join in and isolate Russia, is to try to sing a world into existence, rather than observe the world as it is. As this episode has demonstrated, we do not live in a world that revolves around cosmopolitan solidarity or global norms. We live in a world of ultimate solitude. Countries tend to put the pursuit of harder interests closer to home first, and other things second. Those that don’t suffer penalties.

This is not just because the species is wicked, though it retains a great capacity for wickedness pure and simple. It is because hunger and scarcity are real and motivate both us and our rulers. The first duty of any government is to look after its own citizens, a morally serious business, before committing to internationalist self-sacrifice.

This state of things encourages callousness 

This state of things encourages callousness. It is the world view of the ship in Auden’s poem, which witnesses Icarus falling out of the sky in the distance, but “had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on”. For countries at the sharp end, it is not their nations that are “imagined communities”, that favourite line trotted out by midwits. It is the “international community” that is the flawed construct. Offended? Try going without food and electricity for three days.

That other countries might value preserving a relationship with Moscow as they try to keep the lights on and the energy and food supply alive, or as they fear potential aggressors nearby, should not be surprising. That we need reminding of this point is an indictment not of humanity, but of the Western foreign policy commentariat. Far too many of us are blinkered by not knowing true hunger. We have never known it, grazing on baguettes and cappuccinos as we hop from symposium to airport. 

A large fraction of us thinks the world is a shrunken place, where there are few trade-offs between pressing interests “over here” and more distant and less urgent ones “over there.” Too many spend too much time gathering to hymn ahistorical abstractions like the “rules-based order” and declaring their transnational allegiances online, rather than studying more prosaic things like raw materials, industrial capacity and supply chains. 

Bluntly, we are an overfed class of supposed global citizens who, when it comes down to it, are at times parochial. A small world, indeed.

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