The governments and media of the US, Canada and Europe have painted the map in one color that is all on the US side of condemning and isolating Russia. But condemning and isolating are not the same thing. Though the world has rightly condemned Russia for its illegal invasion of Ukraine and the suffering it has caused, it is less clear that the map can be painted in one color when it comes to isolation.
Though the sanctioning of Russia has been massive in scale, it is hard to call Russia isolated when neither China nor India has joined the sanction regime. The two largest countries in the world make up nearly a third of the world’s population and are two of the world’s fastest growing economies. Both giants refused to join the US by abstaining from both the UN Security Council vote and the General Assembly vote condemning the Russian invasion.
Despite intense pressure from the US for India to take a clear position and abandon Russia, India abstained in the Security Council and then again in the General Assembly. China also abstained both times, implicitly denouncing NATO encroachment on Russia, calling for Ukrainian neutrality and for addressing the legitimate security concerns of Russia. On March 7, China reiterated that Russia is its "most important strategic partner" and added for emphasis that "The friendship between the two peoples is iron clad." Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told US Secretary of State Antony Blinken that China is against any actions that "add fuel to the flames." In a news conference, Wang called for dialogue and said "Washington is to blame for the conflict for failing to take Russia’s security concerns into consideration." He reminded the US of the effect of NATO’s expanding east to Russia’s borders.
But it is not only China and India that resisting US pressure and taking a more nuanced stance. Though the 143 yes votes out of 193 at the General Assembly is a powerful rebuke of Russia, it is informative to break that number down and see where it came from. While the 44 countries of Europe were united with the US, other parts of the world were more divided. There was a big difference between the nations that have benefited from the US led unipolar world and those who have been the victims of that benefit.
While the wealthy Western nations joined Europe and the US in voting as a unified bloc, Africa was far more divided. Nearly half of African nations – 26 out of 54 – abstained from the vote or didn’t vote. Eritrea was one of five countries to vote no.
Unlike the US-European subscription to the history ex nihilo approach to understanding world events in which each crisis starts the day the current crisis starts, perhaps Africa is less convinced by the Hollywood style hero and villain narrative offered by the US. Perhaps Africa has a longer memory and remembers US neocolonialism and coups on its continent. Perhaps Africa remembers the US violating international law and not respecting national sovereignty from the coup in Congo in which Patrice Lumumba was assassinated to the coup in Ghana that took out Kwame Nkrumah, a force in his criticism of American neocolonialism in Africa. Their memories need to be less long to remember the recent rash of coups in West Africa led by leaders trained by the US military. According to Nick Turse, since 2008, US-trained officers have attempted at least nine coups in West Africa. Perhaps as Africa deepens its economic and infrastructure ties with China and Russia it feels safer than with their memories of US economic and infrastructure aid that was described by one IMF senior economist who designed structural adjustment programs in Latin America and Africa as “everything we did from 1983 onward was based on our new sense of mission to have the south ‘privatize’ or die; towards this end we ignominiously created economic bedlam in Latin America and Africa. . . .”
And it is not just Africa that is skeptical of the US narrative and reluctant to trust the US. As Graham Fuller has argued, "It is striking that most of the Muslim world has not signed up to Washington’s posture." Several traditional US allies in the Middle East have been hedging their monogamous relationships with the US by balancing them with relationships with Russia and China.
In a General Assembly vote that is not legally binding, most Middle East nations didn’t risk not voting with the US. But for some of them, their actions are more nuanced and balanced that their vote. Yes or no votes don’t allow for the expression of nuance.
Syria voted no; Iran and Iraq abstained. Those votes may not be entirely surprising. More surprising are, not the votes, but the actions of US allies in the region. Israel voted yes in the General Assembly but declined the US request to cosponsor the more important, legally binding Security Council resolution condemning the Russian invasion. 87 countries backed the US resolution compared to the 143 that voted yes in the General Assembly. Israel has been reluctant to criticize Russia or to name Putin. It has sent generous humanitarian aid but declined requests for military equipment. Israeli Prime Minister Bennett met with Putin for three hours and expressed a willingness to help negotiate a settlement.
Saudi Arabia has carefully stayed neutral. It also refused a public US request to increase oil production. Some have interpreted this refusal as noncooperation with the US as it helped keep oil prices high, increasing Russian diplomatic leverage and increasing its coffers against sanctions.
Though the United Arab Emirate (UAE) votes with the US in the General Assembly vote, they abstained from supporting the US in the earlier, legally binding Security Council vote. Like Saudi Arabia, UAE reached out to Russia and China. The very day before the invasion, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the UAE Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation had a phone call with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. He called the relationship between UAE and Russia not only a deep friendship but a "strategic partnership" and "highlighted the keenness to enhance the prospects of UAE-Russian cooperation across various fields." UAE has, so far, refused to call Russia the aggressor or to call Russia’s actions a war.
Qatar has refused to take a side and has refrained from criticizing Russia. It has stressed its "respect for Ukraine’s sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity," but it has also called for "constructive dialogue within diplomatic means to resolve this crisis" and has not joined the US in sanctions against Russia.
The Muslim world’s hesitancy to join the US is not confined to the Middle East. It is, perhaps, not surprising that Iran abstained at the General Assembly nor that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei blamed the US for the conflict and sympathized with Ukraine as another victim of trusting the US.
But giant Pakistan also abstained in the General Assembly vote, and Pakistani prime minister Imran Khan met with Putin on the day Russia began the invasion and defied the US by refusing to cancel the meeting.
Bangladesh also abstained from the General Assembly vote and has said it will continue economic relations with Russia.
Importantly, Turkey has been very critical of Russia’s aggression but has opposed sanctions. Turkey is a NATO member that also enjoys relations with Russia and has even purchased Russian missiles. Turkey sees itself as a leader that does not need to follow any power. Graham Fuller says that, although Turkey has criticized Russia and called the crisis a war, it will "resist being drawn into any deeper or permanent anti-Russian NATO posture." Signifying its position in the middle, as a country with good relations with the US, Russia and Ukraine, Turkey has succeeded in arranging to host Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dimytro Kuleba in the highest level diplomatic talks between the two countries yet. Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu will also attend the meeting.
Like the countries of the Middle East, history and recent experience make it impossible for Latin America to subscribe to the US history ex nihilo school of thought or to trust the narrative of the US as a country that defends vulnerable victims from aggression from large powers who violate international law and interfere in other countries.
Perhaps that is why Cuba, Venezuela and Bolivia, all countries that have recently felt the hypocrisy of the US narrative and suffered under US embargoes, coups and interference, all abstained from supporting the US. Cuba and Bolivia abstained from the General Assembly vote. Venezuela didn’t participate in the vote because it has unpaid UN membership dues. By abstaining, Cuba balanced its disapproval of Russia’s violation of international law and intervention in a small country by a great power with its recognition that NATO expansion to Russia’s borders and the US dismissing Russia’s legitimate security concerns are the events that led to the problem.
But Brazil, a member of the Russian-Chinese led BRICS that seeks to balance US hegemony and create a multipolar world, though it voted yes at the General Assembly, has also said that it refuses to take sides in the conflict and that it will remain "impartial." Brazil’s president Bolsonaro met with Putin just before the invasion. He has said that he is "in solidarity with Russia." And Mexico has also refused to join in the imposition of sanctions on Russia.
El Salvador and Nicaragua, two countries who also find it hard to believe the American narrative and who have experienced America’s other side, both also abstained in the General Assembly vote.
The world has rightly united in condemnation of Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine. But it is less obvious that the map can be painted in one color, as Western governments and media have insisted, in isolating Russia. The two largest nations on the map cannot be painted that color. Neither can much of Africa, the Muslim world or Latin America. While Europe and the nations that have benefited from US hegemony are united in isolating Russia, the nations who have been the victims of that benefit seem far less united.
Ted Snider has a graduate degree in philosophy and writes on analyzing patterns in US foreign policy and history.