May 5, 2022 - World

The world isn't lining up behind the West against Russia

Illustration of the NATO, US and EU flags against a distressed background.
Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

Brazilian presidential front-runner Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva offered a stark reminder this week that the world is not united over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine when he told Time magazine that the U.S., EU and Ukraine itself bear as much responsibility for the war as Vladimir Putin.

The big picture: Sanctions on Russia are still limited largely to NATO, EU countries and America’s allies in the Pacific. Not only did countries representing more than half of the world’s population decline to condemn Russia’s invasion at the UN, the momentum toward Moscow’s international isolation seems to have slowed even as evidence of Russian war atrocities has mounted.

  • As Angela Stent of Brookings notes, Putin was wrong in betting that the West would be unable to unite against him. But he was largely right that the rest of the world would decline to sanction or condemn Russia.
  • Beijing has stood behind Moscow economically and rhetorically through state media and official statements blaming NATO for the war.
  • Meanwhile, big oil producers including Saudi Arabia have stood by a production pact with Russia despite Western objections.

It's not just authoritarians sitting on the fence.

What he's saying: "Putin shouldn’t have invaded Ukraine. But it’s not just Putin who is guilty. The U.S. and the E.U. are also guilty," Lula said, later adding that Western leaders were "encouraging" the war by backing Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky rather than negotiating with Putin.

  • South African President Cyril Ramaphosa also blamed NATO for the war. India has taken a neutral stance on the invasion while buying up more Russian oil at a discount.
  • Lula’s opponent in October’s election, President Jair Bolsonaro, has expressed neutrality over the war and solidarity with Putin, whom some right-wing nationalists see as an ideological ally.
  • But Lula (who was previously Brazil's president from 2003 to 2010) is not the only leader on the Latin American left — where suspicion of the U.S. runs high — to decline to blame Russia. While Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has preached “non-intervention,” his party launched a Mexico-Russia "friendship caucus" in March.

“It would be convenient if the division were between democracies and autocracies, but it’s not,” David Miliband, CEO of the International Rescue Committee and a former U.K. foreign secretary, told Axios.

  • Customers of Russian arms, oil and agricultural products have clear incentives to avoid Putin’s ire, but that's only part of the story.
  • Many in the global south see the Western response as hypocritical, Miliband says. While European countries have been sending billions in aid to Ukraine and welcoming Ukrainian refugees with open arms, the response to other conflicts and other refugees has been starkly different.
  • Meanwhile, at a time when the world seems to be breaking into geopolitical blocs — with the U.S. on one side and China and Russia on the other — many leaders would rather be on the sidelines than “stuck in the middle," Miliband says. Historical "baggage" linked to Western imperialism doesn't help either.
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