Amanda Hsiao / Praveen Donthi / Dina Esfandiary / Ali Vaez
On 2 March, the UN General Assembly voted by a huge margin for a resolution deploring Russia’s “special military operation” in Ukraine. Fully 141 UN member states supported the measure. Only five (Belarus, DPRK, Eritrea, Syria and Russia itself) opposed it (see map above). This vote was a signal success for Ukraine and its mostly Western allies, who have argued throughout the crisis that Russia’s actions are of global concern – challenging the principles of sovereignty and non-use of force enshrined in the UN Charter – rather than solely a challenge to European security. U.S. President Joe Biden articulated the need for worldwide solidarity with Ukraine the night before the General Assembly vote in his State of the Union address, arguing that the war will leave “Russia weaker and the rest of the world stronger”.
Yet despite overwhelming support for the resolution, there were noteworthy divisions among UN member states about how to respond to the crisis. Three of the so-called BRICS countries – China, India and South Africa – abstained from the vote. A fourth member of the group, Brazil, voted yes, even though President Jair Bolsonaro has been trying to cultivate closer ties with Moscow. The African group split, with 28 members backing the resolution, and 25 either abstaining or not voting at all. By contrast, the Gulf Arab countries, which seemed wary of offending Russia at first, voted in favour of the text after U.S. lobbying.
What explains the differences in regional and national attitudes toward the Ukraine crisis? A series of short case studies by Crisis Group experts – covering eleven individual countries and the Gulf Arab states as a group – reveals a wide array of political factors at work. These include geopolitical factors, economic pressures and security concerns but sometimes also domestic political tensions and disputes. In some cases, governments have allowed questions of sovereignty and order to trump their specific interests: Mexico, for example, appears to have put aside a desire for increased trade with Russia out of sympathy for Ukraine. But many governments have calibrated their position according to more immediate goals. The Ukraine conflict may be a matter of global concern, but states’ responses to it continue to be conditioned by internal political debates and foreign policy priorities.
This survey of national responses to the Ukraine crisis is divided by region, as follows:
Asia: China, India and Pakistan
The Middle East and Turkey: The Gulf countries, Iran, Israel and Turkey
Africa: Kenya, South Africa, other African viewpoints
Latin America: Brazil, Mexico and Venezuela
For a full size version of this map, click here.
Abstained on the UN General Assembly resolution.
China’s positioning on the Ukraine crisis is bounded primarily by three sets of interests. First, Beijing wants to live up to its “no limits” commitment of friendship to Russia, one that is underwritten by complementary economic interests and converging views of the world order. Secondly, China wants to contain the deterioration of its relationships with Europe and the U.S., ties that it still sees as important to its continued economic development. Thirdly, Beijing is tied to principles that have long been tenets of its foreign policy – namely, the importance of safeguarding all states’ territorial integrity and sovereignty – and remain in its interest to uphold. Russia’s recognition of the independence of Donetsk and Luhansk, two breakaway states in eastern Ukraine, also potentially raises uncomfortable parallels for Beijing to U.S. support for Taiwan, which Beijing claims as part of China.
Since Russia’s attack began, China has engaged in an awkward balancing act among these competing interests. Beijing’s stance is best articulated in the “five points” delivered by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi on 26 February, a position of studied neutrality that is in effect Moscow-leaning. China has hewed to a non-position on Russian aggression – neither condemning nor supporting the act, and declining to label it as an invasion – while lamenting the current situation as “something we do not want to see”. With an eye to the West, Beijing abstained on rather than vetoing a Security Council resolution calling on Russia to withdraw from Ukraine, and reports indicate that two major Chinese state banks are restricting financing for Russian commodities. Beijing now emphasises the principles of territorial integrity and sovereignty in its statements, a point that had either been absent from earlier statements or more ambiguously discussed as “principles of the UN Charter”.
Beijing’s instinct is to understand the Ukraine crisis largely through the lens of its confrontation with Washington.
At the same time, Beijing is lending considerable moral and political support to Moscow by embracing the Russian narrative that its actions were the result of legitimate security concerns provoked by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) eastward expansion. Some of the discourse emerging from Chinese officials and media goes further to legitimise Russia’s actions by drawing parallels to the U.S. imposing a naval blockade on Cuba during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis to defend its security interests and to the 1999 U.S.-led NATO intervention infringing on the sovereignty and integrity of Yugoslavia. At the root of these analogies lies the worldview that major powers can and do occasionally break the rules. Accordingly, a U.S. condemnation of Russia’s transgressions is deemed hypocritical. Beyond a show of solidarity with Moscow, these narratives align well with Beijing’s opposition to U.S. coalition building and expansion of military cooperation with Indo-Pacific countries. Overall, Beijing’s instinct is to understand the Ukraine crisis largely through the lens of its confrontation with Washington.
Because the crisis does not directly affect China’s core interests, Beijing’s positioning will remain risk-averse, equivocal and reactive to unfolding events as well as the evolving postures of other countries. China sees two dynamics at play in the crisis – a higher-level conflict between Russia and the West that has to do with regional security, and a lower-level conflict between Russia and Ukraine. In both cases, Beijing’s preference is to urge parties to resolve their disputes through diplomatic negotiations. But it is unlikely to be interested in the finer details of Russia-Ukraine negotiations or the specifics of a European security arrangement; talk of Chinese mediation allows Beijing to say it is playing a constructive role in the crisis, but it will probably not wade in deeper on issues where it has little experience. Instead, Beijing will want to ensure its position is not overly exposed to Western criticism and to safeguard its moral standing in the eyes of developing countries. Adjustments to its position remain possible – for instance, if Russia significantly escalates the conflict, China may consider dialling down its moral support, privately convey to Russia its concerns and call more loudly for a political settlement. China’s top banking regulator has said Beijing would not take part in the West’s financial sanctions on Russia and would maintain normal trade and financial ties with both Moscow and Kyiv; as sanctions take a toll on the Russian economy, it is possible that Beijing will extend a helping hand.
Abstained on the UN General Assembly resolution.
When Russia invaded Ukraine, India immediately came under the spotlight as at once a consequential friend of Moscow and a country traditionally keen to portray itself as the world’s largest democracy and a champion of peace. The U.S. and European countries pressured India not to side with Moscow and the Ukrainian ambassador in New Delhi pleaded for India to halt its political support for Russia. Yet under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India has responded to the invasion with the blunt realism of a rising, aspirational power that does not want to get caught between Russia and what Modi calls the “NATO group”. India chose the well-trodden non-alignment path and hid behind diplomatic language with a not-so-subtle tilt toward Russia. That has included abstaining several times on Security Council votes on sanctions – India is an elected Council member at present – and also abstaining from the General Assembly vote to condemn Russia’s attack.
India and Russia share a Special and Privileged Strategic Partnership that goes back to the Cold War. At its heart is “military-technical cooperation”, which has resulted in more than 60 per cent of India’s arms and defence systems being of Russian origin. Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar has pointed to positive public sentiment toward Russia as well as “geopolitical understanding” between the states as underpinning the relationship. Influential Indian experts have generally supported New Delhi’s reluctance to oppose the invasion for all these reasons.
India’s worst fear is that China, Pakistan and Russia will come together.
India also depends on Russia to counterbalance China, which has become its primary security and foreign policy concern, especially given its unresolved border tensions with Beijing. With Pakistan, India’s main rival, already close to China and cosying up to Russia, India’s worst fear is that China, Pakistan and Russia will come together. In 2018, New Delhi signed a deal worth $5.43 billion with Moscow to buy the S-400 missile system, with the primary goal of deterring China and Pakistan. The deal became a litmus test for the India-U.S. relationship because the system invites sanctions under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). Eager to embrace India as a counterweight to China and pillar of its Indo-Pacific strategy, Washington seemed to accept that its divergence with New Delhi on Russia need not constrain the bilateral relationship as it did during the Cold War and has not yet decided whether to apply or waive the sanctions.
India has become adept at balancing its relationships with major powers such as the U.S., China and Russia. It is part of the Quad, comprising the U.S., Japan and Australia, but also a member of groupings such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation led by China and Russia. It also has a trilateral relationship with the U.S. and Japan and another one with Russia and China. The U.S. has expressed understanding that Moscow is part of India’s China strategy just as New Delhi is part of its China strategy. The extent to which that understanding will hold in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine remains to be seen.
India does not appear worried about the diplomatic challenges around Russia’s invasion, and has focused so far on evacuating nearly 20,000 Indian students to take care of its domestic optics. But New Delhi will not be able to ignore the strategic challenges the Ukraine war and its fallout are likely to bring. These include the adverse economic fallout of sanctions on Russia and the potential for a further deepening of the Russia-China relationship. India’s many deals and projects with Russia will now be in jeopardy, and the attention of the U.S. and the West will be now divided between Russia and China, leaving less room for consideration of India’s interests.
Abstained on the UN General Assembly resolution.
Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Pakistan has responded in a ham-handed fashion that could bear serious diplomatic and economic costs. Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government has acted in a way that suggests it does not yet fully grasp the gravity of the situation. Relations with Washington are already strained largely because of Islamabad’s seemingly unconditional support for the Afghan Taliban. To give his government diplomatic space, Khan has sought to forge closer ties with Moscow. Those efforts could not have come at a less opportune time.
Widening Western sanctions on Russia have also sunk Pakistani hopes of energy cooperation with Moscow.
On 23 February, a day before Russia’s full-scale assault, Khan arrived at the Moscow airport to what his supporters touted as a red-carpet welcome. In a video clip circulated widely on social media, a beaming Khan said, “What a time to come. … So much excitement!” Just hours after the invasion began, President Vladimir Putin gave Khan a three-hour audience, which Islamabad projected as a major diplomatic success. Yet Khan returned home with little to show from the trip, the first by a Pakistani prime minister in over two decades. He signed no agreements or memoranda of understanding with his Russian counterpart. Widening Western sanctions on Russia have also sunk Pakistani hopes of energy cooperation with Moscow, casting particular doubt on the fate of a proposed multi-billion-dollar gas pipeline project.
Briefing the press on Khan’s Moscow trip on 25 February, Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi insisted that the prime minister strongly opposed siding with any global bloc. Yet three days later, in his first public pronouncement on the Ukraine crisis, Khan resorted to the anti-U.S. rhetoric that has become a hallmark of his foreign policy approach. Refusing to condemn the invasion, Pakistan abstained from voting on the resolution demanding Russia’s withdrawal from Ukraine in the UN General Assembly’s emergency session.
Unlike richer and more powerful countries that are sitting on the sidelines, Pakistan does not have the luxury of testing the West’s patience too far, particularly that of Washington. Its GSP+ plus status with the European Union (EU) has given Pakistan’s faltering economy some breathing room, but Islamabad is heavily dependent on loans from U.S.-dominated international financial institutions. In contrast to Russia, with which Pakistan’s commerce is miniscule, the U.S. and EU states are its main trading partners. The war in Ukraine could further undermine Pakistan’s economy. The rise in global fuel prices is already fuelling record-high inflation and putting food security at risk, since before the invasion Ukraine provided Pakistan with more than 39 per cent of its wheat imports. With a trade deficit estimated by one analyst at around $40 billion, Islamabad’s reliance on external sources of funding will inevitably grow. A Russia under heavy sanctions will be in no position to assist. In such a scenario, Pakistan’s powerful military, which Khan depends on for his own political survival, could question his foreign posture.
The Middle East and Turkey
The Gulf countries
All members of the Gulf Cooperation Council voted for the UN General Assembly resolution.
The Gulf Arab countries have so far adopted an ambiguous position on the Russian aggression in Ukraine. As close U.S. partners that also have increasing ties to Russia, they sit between a rock and a hard place, unwilling to openly antagonise either side. They have landed in this conundrum because of what they perceive as a growing U.S. withdrawal from the Middle East. In response, they embarked on an effort to diversify their security relations, moving away from sole reliance on Washington. Russia is one of these new partners.
The UAE feels the dilemma acutely. Abu Dhabi has long relied on the U.S. security umbrella and is keen to present itself as an indispensable, trustworthy and competent ally for Washington in a region in turmoil. After 2011, it cultivated improved ties with Russia. On 23 February, a day before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Emirati Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan spoke with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, and emphasised the growing strategic partnership between their two countries. Then, on 25 February, the UAE joined China and India in abstaining from voting for a UN Security Council resolution condemning the Russian attack.
Anwar Gargash, a senior adviser to the UAE’s ruler, explained Abu Dhabi’s position by arguing that “taking sides [in the Ukraine conflict] would only lead to more violence”, and encouraged all parties to negotiate. Diplomats in New York, however, perceive this position as transactional dealmaking between Abu Dhabi and Moscow rather than a stand on principle. Three days after the Ukraine vote, Russia voted in favour of a resolution that included language introduced by the UAE branding the Huthis, the movement that Abu Dhabi and Riyadh, alongside the internationally recognised government, are battling in Yemen, as a “terrorist group”. This vote marked a shift from Russia’s previous stance that the label might chill UN-led peacemaking efforts, as well as its more general resistance to overtly punitive language and measures directed toward the Huthis.
The other Gulf Arab states were equally cautious, merely urging both sides to show restraint. This position is a statement in itself, given that these countries are close U.S. partners. Riyadh went further by snubbing a U.S. request for assistance to pump more crude out of the ground in order to prevent a rise in oil prices during the crisis. Instead, it said it was committed to the OPEC+ agreement with Russia, which limits monthly production increases to 400,000 barrels a day. But Qatar, in an apparent rejection of the Russian invasion, called for a diplomatic settlement that would recognise Ukraine’s territorial integrity. Kuwait, too, denounced the use of violence and called on Russia to respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity, likely due to its own experience with invasion by Iraq in 1990. Yet Kuwait, though behind its Gulf neighbours, has also been building ties with Russia.
The U.S. appears to have worked hard to get the Gulf Arab states behind the General Assembly resolution on Ukraine.
The U.S. appears to have worked hard to get the Gulf Arab states behind the General Assembly resolution on Ukraine – with President Biden reportedly calling at least one government in the region to learn how its delegation would vote – and all backed the text. No Gulf power wants to give the impression of siding with the Kremlin, for fear of aggravating the U.S. – their primary security guarantor. But as international support for Ukraine and anger at those seen to support (or at least not publicly oppose) Russia grows, the damage may already have been done: the U.S. and its European allies were appalled at the Gulf states’ reticence to get in line with immediate condemnations of the Russian invasion.
Abstained on the UN General Assembly resolution.
Iran’s response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine can be summed up in four words: no poking the bear. Barely a month after meeting President Vladimir Putin and hailing what he described as a “turning point” in bilateral relations, President Ebrahim Raisi spoke with his Russian counterpart again on 24 February and decried NATO expansion as “a serious threat”. Iran’s foreign minister likewise blamed “NATO’s provocations” for the crisis, while urging a ceasefire. Put simply, and despite Iran’s own experience of losing large swaths of territory to Czarist Russia in the nineteenth century and facing Soviet occupation during and immediately after World War II, the Islamic Republic today can claim few major allies beyond Russia. Tehran sees few upsides in breaking ranks with Moscow. In comparison to the possible results of provoking the Kremlin with anything less than fulsome support, the diplomatic opprobrium it may receive from the U.S. and Europe is of little consequence.
The key question is whether the … rupture between Russia and the West will scupper cooperation among the world powers negotiating with Iran in Vienna over the fate of the JCPOA.
In the short term, the key question is whether the profound and deepening rupture between Russia and the West will scupper cooperation among the world powers negotiating with Iran in Vienna over the fate of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Through the eight rounds of talks that began in April 2021, and which are approaching a decision point that will either revive the nuclear deal or herald its final demise, the U.S. and P4+1 (the UK, France, Russia, China and Germany) have worked reasonably well together. It would not serve Moscow’s interests to see talks fall apart, as a non-proliferation crisis would follow. Washington has ringfenced the JCPOA talks from its disengagement with Russian diplomats in other forums. Russian cooperation would be important, not just in concluding the talks, but also in fulfilling its non-proliferation requirements: in 2015, Russia took in eleven tonnes of enriched uranium to bring Iran’s stockpile into compliance with JCPOA limits, a process which may be replicated with Tehran’s present stockpiles. But if the negotiations break down, a shift toward more coercive diplomacy by the U.S. and European states, likely to begin at the International Atomic Energy Agency and then shift to the UN Security Council, could well see the Iran file emerge as another area of bitter, dangerous contestation between the West and Russia.
Voted in favour of the General Assembly resolution
Since Russia invaded Ukraine, Israel has been engaged in a delicate balancing act – one prescribed by its geopolitics. Israel has substantive relations with both Russia and Ukraine: Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has spoken to both Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy since the war began, and has offered to act as mediator; Israel sees itself as, in effect, sharing a border with Russia to its north east in Syria, relying on Putin’s continued tacit approval of its airstrikes on Iranian targets there; large Jewish and Israeli populations reside in both Russia and Ukraine and over 1.5 million Russian and Ukrainian expatriates live in Israel; and Israel is a major U.S. ally and beneficiary that identifies with the Western “liberal democratic order”.
What the Israeli media is calling “Israel’s dilemma” has been on display in the government’s calculated effort to walk a fine line, showing sympathy for Ukraine but without alienating Russia. While Prime Minister Bennett has shied away from criticising Russian aggression or even mentioning Russia in his messages of solidarity with the citizens of Ukraine and support for its territorial integrity, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid issued a statement on the invasion’s first day condemning the Russian attack as a “serious violation of the international order” (though conspicuously avoiding the term “international law”) and has since tried to keep a low profile. Israel has offered humanitarian aid to Ukraine but has refused to sell it arms or provide it with military assistance.
Israel’s security and policy elite have made it clear there is too much at stake on the national security front for Israel to jeopardise its relationship with Russia over the invasion. They are concerned that the fallout from the war could lead Putin to increase arms sales to anti-Western proxies along its borders, chiefly Syria and Hizbollah in Lebanon, or step up electronic measures to disrupt NATO operations in the Mediterranean Sea, affecting Israel’s own navigation systems. Thus far, Russia has assured Israel that it will continue coordination on Syria, though reiterating that it does not recognise Israeli sovereignty in the Golan Heights, which Israel occupied in 1967 and later annexed. Another Israeli concern is the Iran nuclear deal. While Israel may have hoped the war would derail or slow down the JCPOA talks in Vienna, thus far and despite intensifying sanctions against Moscow, the U.S. and European states continue to share a table with Russia in an effort to restore the agreement.
As the Russian offensive in Ukraine intensifies, however, Israel is finding it increasingly hard to play both sides.
Israel declined to comply with a U.S. request on 25 February to support a Security Council resolution condemning Russia, just as it did in 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea. The U.S. expressed consternation over the decision, but it is also showing some tolerance for Israel’s need for Russian cooperation in Syria. As the Russian offensive in Ukraine intensifies, however, Israel is finding it increasingly hard to play both sides. Lapid announced on 27 February that Israel would vote in favour of the UN General Assembly vote to condemn Russia, which it duly did. He also warned Israeli ministers against trying to assist Russian Jewish oligarchs slapped with sanctions, but Israel has notably refused thus far to apply penalties of its own.
President Zelenskyy is the only elected Jewish head of state outside Israel. He lost family in the Holocaust. As such, Israel’s silence on Putin’s antisemitic rhetoric, such as his claim to be “denazifying” Ukraine with the invasion, is noteworthy. That said, Israel has some track record – vis-à-vis Hungary and Poland, for example – of placing what its leaders view as national security or foreign relations concerns above taking a strong stand against antisemitism.
Voted in favour of the General Assembly resolution.
The Ukraine conflict is a major problem for Turkey. It threatens not only to damage Ankara’s relations with Moscow, but also to hurt the Turkish economy, pushing up energy costs and stopping Russian and Ukrainian tourists from visiting Turkey. Some analysts estimate that a decline in tourism could mean up to $6 billion in lost revenue. Turkey has voiced strong support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, but also tried to minimise tensions with Russia and abstained from a vote to suspend Russia from the Council of Europe on 25 February. On 1 March, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s spokesperson declared that Turkey would not impose sanctions on Russia, citing both “national interests” and a belief that “there should be an actor who can talk to Russia”.
Ankara has also been a staunch advocate of more multilateral support for Ukraine, and President Erdoğan criticised NATO and the EU for merely condemning Russia’s actions and taking no concrete steps to aid Ukraine. Since 2014, Turkish defence companies have been increasingly engaged in Ukraine, and in 2019 they sold the country drones that Ukrainians see as significant in slowing the Russian advance. On 27 February, Ankara announced that it would block warships from Russia and other littoral states from entering the Black Sea via the Bosporus and Dardanelles Straits as long as the war continues, in line with the Montreux Convention (though Russian vessels normally based in Black Sea ports are exempt from the restriction, under the convention’s terms). But it also requested other states, implicitly including NATO members, to avoid sending their ships through the straits, in an apparent effort to limit the risks of escalation and maintain a balanced approach to the conflict.
The war validates Erdoğan’s longstanding view that international security institutions … are out of date and ripe for reform.
While describing Russia’s behaviour as “unacceptable”, President Erdoğan has also used the opportunity to criticise the EU and NATO for failing to take a “decisive and serious” approach to support Ukraine in the run-up to the war. The Turkish media has largely backed Kyiv, but also accused the U.S. and NATO of arming Ukraine insufficiently prior to the conflict (in contrast to Turkey’s drone sales). Turkish analysts have also noted that the war validates Erdoğan’s longstanding view that international security institutions, such as the UN Security Council, are out of date and ripe for reform.
Turkish commentators have also raised concerns about the war’s consequences for other conflicts involving Ankara. They point in particular to what Moscow might do to punish Ankara and European capitals for their stance against the invasion. Some fear, for instance, that Russia and its Syrian regime ally will ratchet up pressure on Idlib, the rebel-held enclave in Syria’s north west, forcing large numbers of refugees into Turkey, from where they might try to proceed to Europe. This worry persists though it is unclear that Russia would want to heat up the Syrian front while facing resilient Ukrainian resistance. Conversely, some have picked up on a fleeting hint in a speech by Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov that Russia might be willing to recognise the statehood of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus if Ankara becomes more cooperative vis-à-vis the war in Ukraine.
While offering Ukraine strong rhetorical support, Turkey will continue to back a negotiated solution to the conflict, and in late February the Ukrainian authorities briefly floated the idea of meeting Russian officials on Turkish soil. A prolonged war will only exacerbate Turkey’s security and economic concerns, and if Russia consolidates control of Ukraine’s coastline, it will also deal a significant blow to Turkey in terms of the naval balance of power in the Black Sea. It is likely that Turkey will draw closer to NATO as a result of this war, and less likely that Turkey will buy a second batch of S-400 surface-to-air missiles from Russia – particularly since it infuriated the U.S. with its first purchase in 2017 – or activate those it already has.
Voted in favour of the General Assembly resolution.
Kenya, currently a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council, has taken a more strident stance in opposition to Russia’s invasion than most non-NATO members of the Council. This position springs in part from the country’s history. Nairobi was one of the strongest supporters of a founding principle of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) prescribing respect for territorial integrity and the inviolability of member states’ colonial-era borders. In defiance of the OAU tenets, Somalia’s Siad Barre launched bloody irredentist campaigns against both Kenya and Ethiopia in the 1960s and 1970s. These wars’ effects continue to reverberate today: Barre’s failure paved the way for his government’s downfall and Somalia’s eventual collapse; it sowed deep discord between the state and population in the affected areas; and led to a surge in weapons in civilian hands that pose a lingering challenge to East African security. Barre’s campaigns also entrenched a tendency among policymakers in Nairobi and elsewhere to stand against violent efforts to change borders anywhere.
A deep current of public opinion is critical of Western behaviour in the post-Cold War era.
Kenya’s rejection of Russian aggression in Ukraine does not mean authorities will uncritically support the West’s punitive actions against Moscow, however. As in many African countries, a deep current of public opinion is critical of Western behaviour in the post-Cold War era, emphasising the disastrous interventions in Iraq and Libya, as well as the double standards that many Kenyans perceive in Washington’s democracy promotion on the continent. Many view the West has generally having pushed less powerful countries to adopt more open governance while giving a pass to allies of convenience, including security-dominated regimes in the post-9/11 war on terrorism. What Nairobi saw as Washington’s endorsement of the 2013 coup in Egypt particularly rankled Kenyan authorities, who took an especially vocal public position against that putsch. Moreover, prominent Kenyan foreign policy commentators have expressed sympathy for Russia’s security concerns in the face of what they cast as an overbearing West.
In an environment of rising big power competition, Kenya is likely to strive to occupy the middle ground, notwithstanding its sympathy with Ukraine’s plight. Just as it has balanced its relations with the U.S. and China for years, Nairobi will likely continue to call for talks and an end to the Russian military campaign, but not to support sanctions. Kenya will also push for the strengthening of multilateralism in Africa to confront what many expect to be difficult days ahead in the international arena. “We are entering an age of global disorder”, Peter Kagwanja, a political scientist and adviser to successive Kenyan presidents, told Crisis Group. “The African Union must band together or we will all hang separately”.
Abstained on the General Assembly resolution.
South Africa has followed a more ambivalent line than Kenya’s in response to the Ukraine crisis. Just as in 2014, when it championed dialogue between the parties and opposed the imposition of sanctions following Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Pretoria has called for urgent UN-led negotiations to end the fighting and has offered its services as a mediator.
Authorities have veered between condemning the Russian invasion outright and adopting a more neutral stance to preserve ties with a historical ally. Before the war, the Department of International Relations and Cooperation issued a brief statement calling on the parties to pursue a “negotiated outcome”. A day later, on 24 February, it urged Russia to “immediately withdraw its forces from Ukraine”. Officials claim that this call for withdrawal stands, but subsequent statements suggest they now are soft-pedalling this latter demand, reflecting not just internal debates on the best way forward, but also the myriad ways in which the weight of history bears on South African foreign policy. The withdrawal call was seen in some quarters, reportedly including President Cyril Ramaphosa, as “too strong” given the longstanding solidarity between South Africa and Russia. In the Soviet era, Moscow offered South Africans support in the anti-apartheid struggle and actively backed liberation movements across southern Africa.
On 27 February, the ruling African National Congress (ANC) issued its own statement that criticised “openly biased” Western leaders, and spoke of “brazen propaganda” and “unprecedented disinformation” – presumably on the part of Western media – and referenced unjust Western military interventions in other places. The party statement reflects a stance from the ANC, supported by its alliance partner, the South African Communist Party, that has for many years been critical of the West and ostensibly seeks a more balanced, multipolar global order.
South Africa … is likely to continue advocating for talks, and will minimise public condemnation of Moscow.
South Africa, which likes to describe itself as a country “birthed through negotiations”, is likely to continue advocating for talks, and will minimise public condemnation of Moscow, believing that, at this juncture, a censorious approach is counterproductive. Its future decisions will also be guided by what the rest of the continent does, as well as the G77 plus China. To a degree, it will also take its cue from the BRICS (the bloc bringing it together with Brazil, Russia, India and China). A BRICS declaration at a summit in New Delhi in September 2021 enjoined its members and all states to ensure that all disputes are resolved peacefully, describing “the use of force against the territorial integrity and political independence of any country” as unacceptable. That statement notwithstanding, neither Brazil nor India have fallen in with the U.S. and EU opposition to Russia’s aggression. In essence, South Africa’s approach is to promote urgent diplomatic endeavours mainly through the UN with the immediate priority of reaching a ceasefire. Whether that strategy is realistic in the circumstances is another matter.
Other African viewpoints
28 African states supported the General Assembly resolution. One, Eritrea, voted against it, fifteen abstained and eight did not vote.
For a full size version of this map, click here.
Although just over half of African states backed the UN General Assembly resolution on Ukraine, many governments in the region have responded to the war with caution. Few have voiced open support for Russia, with the exception of Eritrea. But many have avoided taking strong public positions on the crisis, and some have explicitly declared themselves neutral. Uganda’s ambassador to the UN, for example, explained on Twitter that he was abstaining on the 2 March resolution because, as the next chair of the Non-Aligned Movement, his country feels that “neutrality is key”. Reflecting internal debates in various countries, his more outspoken countryman Muhoozi Kainerugaba, head of an elite military force and President Yoweri Museveni’s son, took a more openly pro-Russia stance.
Some African commentators and social media users have criticised Western governments and the media for their reactions to the crisis. Many have contrasted the U.S. and European drive to support Ukraine with their less intense focus on crises in Africa, seeing bias in the discrepancy. Reports that Ukrainian and Polish officials have discriminated against African residents of Ukraine attempting to flee the country have also caused anger. The African Union released a statement deploring this prejudice on 27 February.
Some African states have been more clearly supportive of Ukraine. Ghana, which joined the UN Security Council in January, has consistently backed the government in Kyiv. The West African bloc, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), released a statement condemning Russia’s actions. Nonetheless, not all ECOWAS members voted for the General Assembly resolution. Mali, which has drawn closer to Russia as France pulled its military forces out of the country, abstained. Burkina Faso did not vote, perhaps reflecting the fact that Russia watered down a Security Council statement condemning the January coup in Ouagadougou.
Many African countries are more economically intertwined with Europe and the U.S. than with Russia.
More countries backed the resolution than opposed it, however, for a number of reasons: Like other policy-makers around the world, many African leaders were surprised and shocked by the Russian invasion, viewing it as a stunning repudiation of global norms. With lingering memories of colonial conquest in many parts of the continent, they worry that powerful players on the global stage could engage in the same militarism closer to home in the future, explaining the opposition to Moscow’s belligerence. A successful Russian irredentist campaign would also inevitably stir anxiety about inspiring other efforts to violently redraw borders on a continent where historical and cultural bonds stretching across colonial borders are the norm rather than the exception. More practically, many African countries are more economically intertwined with Europe and the U.S. than with Russia and leaders will therefore have calculated that it is best to hew closer to the Western line to avoid blowback.
Still, Russia has many friends in Africa due in part to the Soviet Union’s support for liberation movements during the anti-colonial and anti-apartheid struggles. Many also appreciated Moscow’s strident opposition to the more recent disastrous Western interventions in Iraq and Libya. Furthermore, a number of African leaders studied in the Soviet Union or Eastern Bloc countries and Moscow has done a good job of maintaining these ties over the years. Numerous African security figures also received their training in Russia.
The West’s rapid resort to sweeping non-UN sanctions against Moscow may also have cost them support in Africa. African leaders and elites generally oppose sanctions, seeing them as blunt tools that tend to punish the general population more than national leaders. In the meantime, African officials are concerned that the war will have a deleterious impact on the continent’s economies and food security, both by driving up energy prices and by restricting grain supplies from Russia and Ukraine (a particular concern after a period of poor rainfall and weak harvests in parts of the continent). These shocks are liable to be severe in African countries that are still only beginning to recover from the downturn prompted by COVID-19, although oil producers such as Nigeria, Congo and Equatorial Guinea may benefit from a hike in energy prices.
Security concerns also play a part in many African policymakers’ calculations. Some, such as in the Central African Republic (which abstained at the General Assembly), have employed Russian Wagner Group private military contractors and will not want to hurt ties with Moscow. Others may worry that Russia will back rebel movements if they support Ukraine too strongly. Conversely, Chad voted for the UN resolution, most probably to avoid offending France but also because it worries about Russia’s influence in neighbouring Sudan and Libya.
In private, many African leaders and officials are more disturbed by Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine than they are willing to let on in public. But in this moment of crisis, they have numerous reasons to hedge their bets.
Voted in favour of the General Assembly resolution.
President Jair Bolsonaro visited Moscow eight days before Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine. Although he mainly sought to burnish his credentials as a statesman with the trip, and to boost trade ties, with Russia massing 150,000 troops near Ukrainian borders at the time, the meeting wound up looking like a serious error of judgment in the eyes of both the U.S. and some officials at Brazil’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Standing beside President Vladimir Putin, Bolsonaro, a loyal ally of former U.S. President Donald Trump, said he was “in solidarity with Russia”. Since the invasion began, Bolsonaro’s affinities with Moscow have exposed the divisions within his hard-right government. From the outset, Brazil’s foreign ministry has vowed to maintain a position of neutrality, urging a diplomatic solution. But a day after the invasion, Hamilton Mourão, the vice president and a retired army general, said “there must be a real use of force to support Ukraine”, arguing that “if the Western countries let Ukraine fall, then it will be Bulgaria, then the Baltic states and so on”, drawing an analogy to the conquests of Nazi Germany. Hours later, Bolsonaro said only he could speak about the crisis, declaring that Mourão had no authority to comment on the issue. The president asserted that he would wait before giving an opinion as to whether Putin’s actions deserved international condemnation.
Deepening diplomatic estrangement between Brazil and the U.S. since President Joe Biden took offfice, as well as confusion arising from the Brazilian government’s contradictory statements, prompted the U.S. secretary of state to call his counterpart Carlos Alberto França before the 25 February session on Ukraine at the UN Security Council. In the end, Brazil sided with Western criticism of Russia, supporting the draft resolution denouncing the invasion that Russia vetoed. Brazil’s ambassador to the UN said the Council had to “react swiftly to the use of force against the territorial integrity of a member state”. Following this logic, Brazil also voted for the 2 March General Assembly resolution on the crisis.
Calls for neutrality nevertheless enjoy traction in Brazil. Within the government, there is concern that Western sanctions against Moscow will harm the economy, in particular its agricultural sector, which relies heavily on imports of Russian-made fertilisers. Brazil’s soya production, one of the country’s main sources of income, would suffer considerably from a sanctioned Russia. In light of the October presidential election, in which former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is expected to run, continued economic recovery is particularly dear to Bolsonaro. Both Bolsanaro and da Silva agree on the need for neutrality and both have avoided direct condemnation of Putin’s government. But Lula was faster to criticise the invasion, stating that “no one can agree with war” and that “military attacks by one country on another” lead only to “destruction, despair and hunger”.
Voted in favour of the General Assembly resolution.
Before the Russian invasion, the government of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador had intended to strengthen ties with Russia and the Kremlin had seemed to reciprocate the interest. While visiting Moscow in April 2021, Mexico’s foreign secretary, Marcelo Ebrard, said the two countries were “embarking on a stage of a very close relationship. … The pandemic has opened the door for us”. The Mexican government was particularly appreciative of Russia’s vaccine diplomacy, which has enabled it to secure access to over 20 million doses of Sputnik V.
Mexico has come out as a critic of the invasion.
Even so, Mexico has come out as a critic of the invasion, albeit with slight differences of opinion emerging among top government officials and the foreign policy bureaucracy. López Obrador has avoided direct condemnation of President Vladimir Putin, observing the traditional Mexican foreign policy principle of non-interference in other nations’ affairs (the so-called Estrada Doctrine). Mexico has nevertheless adopted a clear critical position at the UN Security Council, where it now has a seat as a non-permanent member. At the Council, it has chosen to condemn “the invasion of which Ukraine has been a victim”. Part of the Mexican government’s rationale has been its “historical experience”, with López Obrador keen to highlight that his country was not only conquered by Spain but also “suffered two invasions from France and two from the United States. We lost half of our territory”. The foreign ministry has adopted similar arguments, though it continues to insist as well on the importance of the principle of non-intervention and the peaceful settlement of disputes.
As in many Latin American countries, attention in Mexico has also focused on the war’s potential economic fallout. Mexico depends on the U.S for its natural gas supply, and the prospect of rising prices is spurring the government to consider other means of generating electricity
Could not vote in General Assembly as its voting rights are suspended over non-payment of its UN dues.
For President Nicolás Maduro, Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine came at a particularly inconvenient moment. Most of the political forces in Venezuela, on both the government and opposition sides, have their sights set on the presidential election scheduled for 2024, with the Maduro government under mounting pressure to deliver tangible economic improvements. His government has been exploring the possibility of securing relief from the U.S., mainly via the lifting of sanctions. But Washington is tying any concessions to progress in negotiations that the government launched with the opposition in August 2021. The government suspended these talks in October in reaction to the extradition of a key businessman who had been assisting the government in circumventing sanctions and deepening economic ties with non-Western governments such as Iran.
Relations between Russia and Venezuela flourished under the late president, Hugo Chávez.
Relations between Russia and Venezuela flourished under the late president, Hugo Chávez, who set the relationship with Washington on an antagonistic course. Under Maduro, Venezuela’s links to Russia have intensified, especially through the provision of technical military assistance as well as diplomatic backing from Moscow after Maduro faced a major challenge from the U.S.-linked opposition in early 2019. Following the Russian invasion, Maduro expressed his “full support for President Vladimir Putin in his efforts to protect peace”. But Caracas has not followed up on this rhetoric with any gesture that might imperil a possible rapprochement with Washington. In fact, despite Putin’s request that other countries emulate Russia in recognising the independence of Donetsk and Luhansk, the separatist-controlled areas of eastern Ukraine, Maduro has avoided doing so. In 2009, Chávez recognised the Georgian breakaway territories Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states, winning praise from Putin, who said the decision “clearly underlined the independent nature of Venezuelan foreign policy”. In late February, the National Assembly controlled by Maduro proposed approving a document that supported Russia’s recognition of independence for Donetsk and Luhansk. Hours later, however, the motion in question was removed from the legislature’s agenda.
It is likely that government rhetoric and diplomacy will remain firmly in support of Russia, but officials may well try to avoid steps that could derail the slender possibility of future U.S. concessions. It may be a difficult balance to maintain, particularly if the conflict drags on and Moscow requests more explicit backing from Caracas. Meanwhile, the mainstream opposition has stood with Ukraine and the West, including by endorsing a resolution condemning Russia at the Organization of American States, where it controls Venezuela’s seat. It also organised a small protest outside the Russian embassy in Caracas. With top officials in Washington already highlighting that sanctions against Russia will hurt Venezuela, the invasion is likely to complicate the prospects for ending the standoff between the Maduro government and its adversaries.