“This is not about Ukraine at all, but the world order,” said Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, a month after the invasion. “The unipolar world is irretrievably receding into the past… A multi-polar world is being born.” The US is no longer the world’s policeman, in other words – a message that resonates in countries that have long been suspicious of American power. The West’s core coalition may remain solid, but it has failed to win over many of the countries that refused to pick sides. Moscow’s diplomatic mission to build ties and hone a narrative over the past decade has paid dividends.
Look at Africa. In March last year, twenty-five African states out of fifty-four abstained or didn’t vote in a UN motion condemning the invasion, despite huge pressure from western powers. Their refusal to side clearly with Ukraine was testament to Russia’s ongoing diplomatic efforts in the developing world.
A year ago, Naledi Pandor, South Africa’s foreign minister, urged Russia to withdraw. After Lavrov’s visit a few weeks ago, Pandor was asked if she had repeated this sentiment to her Russian counterpart. It had been “appropriate” last year, she said, but to repeat it now “would make me appear quite simplistic and infantile.” Pandor then lauded the “growing economic bilateral relationship” between Pretoria and Moscow, and the two countries marked the war’s anniversary with joint military exercises.
Then there are the North African countries, which have helped Russia offset the economic effect of western sanctions. Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria and Egypt have all, in the past year, imported Russian diesel and other refined oils, as well as chemicals.
Vladimir Putin is quite deliberately cultivating this alliance of nations who feel victims of western imperialism, and putting Russia at its head. The West wants to see Russia “as a colony,” he said in September. “They don’t want equal cooperation, they want to rob us.”
This message goes down equally well in large parts of Asia, where more than a third of countries declined to condemn Russia in the initial UN vote, as well as in Central and South America, where waves of anti-western and anti-capitalist sentiment continue to swell.
As India’s former ambassador to Russia, Venkatesh Varma, put it last week: “We have not accepted the western framing of the conflict. In fact there are very few takers for it in the Global South.” He doesn’t speak for India’s government. But still India, along with China and South Africa, abstained from another UN resolution last week demanding Russia withdraw from Ukraine. Of 193 members, 141 voted in favor and thirty-two abstained. Seven voted against, with Russia joined by Belarus, Eritrea, Mali, North Korea, Nicaragua and Syria.
The idea that it’s America and its allies who are the sources of global disruption and instability holds sway. The setbacks in Afghanistan and the idea that the Ukrainian war happened because of NATO’s expansion have fueled a narrative, and even sympathy, for the idea that Putin is simply standing up to the West (which explains why North Korea has shipped artillery shells and Iran has provided kamikaze drones).
Putin is a master of whipping up anti-American sentiment. In his address to the Federal Assembly last week, he referenced western military interventions in Yugoslavia, Iraq, Libya and Syria. These showed the West acting “shamelessly and duplicitously… They will never be able to wash off this shame.”
Look at how Ukraine has been supported, he added, while others have been abandoned. More than $150 billion has been spent helping and arming Kyiv, he said, while the world’s poorest countries have only received $60 billion in aid. “What about all this talk of fighting poverty, sustainable development and protection of the environment?” he asked.
Putin’s Russia even audaciously claims the high ground on racial discrimination. In a speech six months ago, Putin stated: “The Russophobia articulated today across the entire world is nothing but racism.” Russia thus neatly taps into western guilt at its colonial past, while pitching itself as the leading voice for what Lavrov calls “the international majority.” “Over the long centuries of colonialism, diktat and hegemony,” Putin said last week, the West “got used to being allowed everything, got used to spitting on the whole world.”
At the same time, the Russian president appeals to the world’s social conservatism. That’s why last week he pointed to the Anglican Communion’s contortions over gay marriage and a “gender-neutral” God, calling it “a spiritual catastrophe.” Such talk goes down well among the planet’s more devout populations, which tend to regard LGBTQ debates as evidence of western depravity and decadence. There’s a reason why RT, the Kremlin’s news channel, spent years stirring up the culture wars.
Moscow thus presents itself as a bastion of stability in a world gone mad, even as it seeks to destabilize the world and make it even madder. Its cultural propaganda is backed up by realpolitik and trade, with oil, gas, metals and crops used as diplomatic enticements to play Russia’s game. Arms were another inducement, although poor battlefield performance in the past year has diminished its reputation as a weapons superpower.
Then there is China, which half-heartedly called last week for peace talks, and this week is hosting Putin’s ally the Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko. The relationship between Russia and China will always be complicated, yet the invasion of Ukraine and the West’s response have created enormous opportunities for Sino-Russian cooperation. China has been buying record amounts of cheap Russian oil and gas, for instance, while exporting far more machinery and semiconductors to Russia.
What unites them is a shared emphasis on the importance of stability and spreading the idea that it is the West which is disruptive, unpredictable and volatile.
“We need to work together to maintain peace and stability in the world,” said Xi Jinping in his most recent speech at the Boao Forum, “and oppose the wanton use of unilateral sanctions.” Just as Lavrov’s comments about empowering other nations are aimed at countries across Asia, Africa and Latin America — all of which have been recipients of Chinese diplomatic cultivation in the past decade — so too are these Chinese calls for “international solidarity.”
It suits Beijing to echo Russia’s narrative about uneven playing fields, victimization and pressure — not least since China has watched the war unfold in order to draw lessons that can shape its approach to Taiwan.
On his visit to Moscow last week, senior diplomat Wang Yi spoke of “new frontiers” in the relationship between China and Russia and called for joint resistance to pressure from the “international community” — an apparent rebuke to secretary of state Antony Blinken’s threat of “consequences” if China supplies military support to Russia.
The fallout from the pandemic has in some ways played into Russia and China’s hands. As a report by the Carnegie Foundation said, without the resources available in the West, in economically vulnerable countries the crisis has “reversed decades of progress on poverty, healthcare and education.”
Western countries bought up stocks of vaccines — far greater than needed — and then refused to release patent waivers for medicines, vaccines and diagnostics, pushing up prices and resulting in higher mortality levels. By contrast, energetic vaccine diplomacy by Russia and China boosted their standing, especially in Africa and Latin America. Despite the inefficacy of China’s Sinopharm and Sinovac vaccines, health officials in South Africa stopped giving the British-Swedish AstraZeneca vaccine, believing it didn’t work. Last year, a survey of ASEAN countries in southeast Asia found the EU had a positive perception score of 2.6 percent when it came to vaccine support — compared with almost 60 percent for China.
As for the war, is Russia really losing? The Ukrainians have fought astonishingly well, but have suffered huge losses. Western leaders speak of giving Kyiv the tools to “finish the job,” but what the coming weeks, months and even years have to offer looks bleak, as the setbacks in Bakhmut suggest.
Russia’s economy appears strong enough to keep the war going: the IMF predicts its economy will grow by 0.3 per cent this year. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of Russian conscripts are still being called up. As the historian Stephen Kotkin has noted, democracies fight wars differently to autocracies. Russia will keep throwing untrained recruits into the “meat grinder,” in which three-quarters of them die. What do their leaders do next, asks Kotkin: “Do they go to church on Sunday and ask forgiveness from God? They just do it again.”
That equation is different for Ukraine, regardless of what the West supplies — because Kyiv is being armed for a defensive, rather than offensive, war. Over time that tips the balance in favor of whoever can take pain for longer, in this case Russia. Wars of attrition are expensive and hard to sustain.
If procurement issues are one thing, replacing stock is another. The head of the British Army, General Sir Patrick Sanders, has said providing materials from the UK has left the army “weakened.” Unsurprisingly, the British defense secretary Ben Wallace is seeking £10 billion ($12 billion) for his department — at a time when the government is trying to fill the “fiscal black hole” in its coffers.
Commentators on Russian TV gleefully make this point. Kremlin talking heads often claim Europeans are freezing to death because of high energy prices or have been forced to eat grasshoppers because of a lack of Russian wheat imports. Behind such sensationalism lies the hope that Ukraine’s supporters are exhausting themselves and that cracks will soon appear in the West’s wall of solidarity. Will Germany’s newfound commitment to Ukraine survive a colder winter? Russian propagandists are also aware that, come 2025, a new US administration might provide fresh options for Moscow, especially if there is a Republican president who is isolationist, impatient or both.
In Europe, Russia’s weaponization of its energy resources caused widespread difficulties. Faced with shortages, European countries raced to replace capacity, above all through imports of liquefied natural gas (LNG). This caused inflation in the West, a problem that refuses to come down even as the energy markets adapt.
There have been big winners, such as shareholders in the five oil giants — BP, Shell, Exxon, Chevron and Total Energies — who reported combined profits of $200 billion last year. The fossil fuel-producing states of OPEC also had eye-watering revenues, reaching $850 billion last year. But the price rise of LNG has meant countries such as Pakistan and Bangladesh have suffered blackouts, which in turn cut productivity. This has paved the way for social unrest and political volatility — as well as increasing a global sense of resentment towards the West.
In its most blunt terms, the war has served as a moment of one of the greatest transfers of wealth in history, with energy-rich states harvesting giant cash bonuses that, in turn, have further accelerated the changing of the world order.