The Isolation of Russia: Competing Narratives

On March 18, US President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping spoke for nearly two hours. According to the White House, "The conversation focused on Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. President Biden outlined the views of the United States and our Allies and partners on this crisis." During that call, Biden "really laid out in a lot of detail the unified response from . . . governments around the world."

XI rejected Biden’s claim that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was unprovoked. He blamed the US and NATO’s "Cold War mentality" and reminded Biden that "the crux of the Ukraine crisis" included addressing "the security concerns of both Russia and Ukraine." He told Biden that, since US provocation had caused the problem, the US had to correct the problem.

That rejection reflected the competing narratives on the war in Ukraine. There is not competing narrative on whether the Russian invasion is illegal. But there is a competing narrative, not only on the causes and provocations of the war, but on the international response to it. The US, Europe and the English speaking world have represented the world’s response to the war as a "unified response from . . . governments around the world." But there is a competing narrative with a, perhaps, wider understanding of what makes up the world.

China has not yielded to American demands to condemn and abandon Russia. On the contrary, China consistently laid the blame for the war on the US and twice abstained from siding with the US over Russia: first in the Security Council vote and then in the non legally binding General Assembly vote. China then spurned US efforts at isolating Russia and clearly restated that "The friendship between the two peoples is iron clad.”

There are also reports that China is not only refusing to sanction Russia, but may be rebuffing US demands by helping them to evade the sanctions. As the West cut Russia off from VISA and Mastercard, China may be allowing Russian banks to issue cards on China’s UnionPay financial system.

India also twice abstained at the UN. It has also defended its purchase of Russian military equipment even in the face of threatened US sanctions. Against a tide of US demands to "take a clear position" and that "It’s now time to further distance itself from Russia," India has defiantly increased oil purchases from Russia. While the US angrily warned India about being on the wrong side of history, India quadrupled its Russian oil imports, and Russian deputy prime minister Alexander Novak told Indian oil minister Hardeep Singh Puri that "We are interested in further attracting Indian investment to the Russian oil and gas sector and expanding Russian companies’ sales networks in India." India has continued the dialogue by saying that they "are looking at establishing a rupee-rouble trading mechanism, which would facilitate trade after western restrictions on international payments to and from Russia."

India has continued to strongly signal to the US that, while it is prepared to align with them in confronting China on local issues, it will not join them in containing China globally, and that that alignment does not extend to Russia, with whom they have a growing strategic partnership.

In the competing narrative to the unified response from governments around the world narrative, China and India are not part of that unified response, and they make up 37% of the world’s population. But it is not just these two population and economic giants that are outside the unified response. It is also much of the Muslim world. The four largest Muslim populations in the world, Indonesia, Pakistan, India and Bangladesh, all contradict the unified response narrative.

Pakistan 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.

Though Indonesia voted with the US in the General Assembly, Indonesian President Joko Widodo has declined to condemn Russia and has called for diplomacy over sanctions.

Russia, China, India and Pakistan represent four of the world’s nuclear powers. Together, China, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh make up 45% of the world’s population. But the number is bigger because several Middle Eastern Muslim countries are also not glued to the unified response. Saudi Arabia has seemingly stayed neutral. It has refused US requests to increase oil production. It has also refused its calls. "Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and the U.A.E.’s Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al Nahyan both declined U.S. requests to speak to Mr. Biden in recent weeks," according to reporting in the Wall Street Journal. Both did take phone calls from Putin.

The United Arab Emirate did vote with the US bloc in the legally non-binding General Assembly vote condemning Russia, but they abstained in the legally binding Security Council vote. The day before the Russian invasion, 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.”

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.

And, less surprisingly, Syria, Iraq and Iran have all remained outside of the unified response.

Much of Africa and Latin America have declined the invitation to the sanction regime. Noam Chomsky has pointed out "that most of the world is keeping apart" from the sanctions. Chomsky cites a map of sanctions against Russia by political analyst John Whitbeck that places "the US and the rest of the Anglosphere, Europe and some of East Asia" in the unified bloc but "[n]one in the global south."

The late American scholar of Russia, Stephen Cohen, once pointed out that in 2014, when the Ukrainian crisis began, President Obama vowed that the US would "isolate Putin’s Russia." It didn’t, he says, calling Putin "perhaps the busiest national leader of any major power on the world stage, from China and India to the Middle East and even Europe." Today, that is not true of Europe. But the rest is not far off. The US is correct that the world is unified on the illegality of Russia’s invasion. But there is a competing narrative to the unified response from governments around the world narrative offered by the US. And that competing narrative seems to include most of the world’s counties and much of its population.

Ted Snider has a graduate degree in philosophy and writes on analyzing patterns in US foreign policy and history.