Fact Checking Zelensky on Non-Alignment

In his annual message to the parliament of Ukraine at the end of 2022, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said that Ukraine has changed the world by uniting the West and making non-alignment unpalatable.

He said that Ukraine has "helped the West find itself again," that it has "united the European Union." He said that Ukraine has "helped Europe and most of the world feel that being neutral now is, pardon me, immoral."

There is some truth to Zelensky’s first claim. The war in Ukraine has given renewed unity, agreement and purpose to NATO. Although, even here, there are outliers.

Turkey has not been united with NATO. It has sought to mediate a negotiated settlement to the war, it has held out on approval of Swedish and Finnish accession to NATO, it has spurned the sanctions regime against Russia and drastically increased trade. Hungary has not been united with NATO. On January 15, Croatian President Zoran Milanovic opposed sanctions on Russia and accused "Washington and NATO" of "waging a proxy war against Russia with the help of Ukraine." Italy has been hesitant to send further aid in part because of domestic political tension.

Even France and Germany have not been fully united with the West. Both German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron have continued to talk with Russian President Vladimir Putin. And both Macron and Scholz have defied the US in suggesting that negotiations with Russia include addressing Russia’s security concerns.

But if the first claim is largely true, the second is less so. The war has not made being neutral "immoral." Rather, it has given life to the rebirth of the non-aligned movement.

Much of what in Russia is now being called "the world majority" has not aligned with the US in sanctioning Russia. Many of them have either stayed out of another great power war that only hurts them, and some have defiantly moved closer to Russia. Neutrality has not become immoral: it has become the majority.

BRICS is an international organization that includes Russia, China, India, Brazil, and South Africa, that seeks to balance US hegemony and create a new multipolar world. All of its members, accounting for a combined 40% of the world’s population, have refused to join the US in sanctioning Russia.

China and India have increased their oil imports from Russia. Russia is now the largest supplier of oil to China and the second largest to India. Both have also maintained their strong diplomatic partnerships with Russia. China and Russia have only strengthened their partnership that "has no limits." At the end of 2022, China’s Xi Jinping and Russia’s Vladimir Putin met. XIstressed that the two have stayed in constant touch, the abiding nature of the countries’ relationship, and their continuing growing trade, which he said exceeded $170 billion. In addition to economic cooperation, XI stressed the strengthening friendship in terms of cultural and humanitarian exchanges. Most importantly, he said that China is "ready to build up strategic cooperation with Russia."

Militarily, China and Russia have carried out military exercises that have employed a joint command and control system that gave each other levels of access that are unprecedented for either country, indicating a very high level of strategic and military coordination. In December, China and Russia carried out joint naval exercises that "further deepen the China-Russia comprehensive new-era strategic partnership of coordination."

Russia’s relations with India, according to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, have also "significantly improved," and India has reminded the US that, though they are a strategic partner of the US, they are also a strategic partner of Russia.

Brazil has refused to join the sanctions regime against Russia. President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has said that the Russian invasion of Ukraine was wrong. But he has also blamed NATO and said the US and EU were also wrong. Lula has criticized Biden, accusing him of failing to avoid the war diplomatically. Brazil has promised to remain neutral and has suggested that Lula could help negotiate an end to the war. Since being re-elected, Lula has met with delegations from both Ukraine and Russia.

The fifth BRICS partner, South Africa has also refused to join the US led sanctions against Russia and has abstained from voting against Russia at the UN. On January 23, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov arrived in South Africa for talks aimed at strengthening their relationship. On January 19, South Africa, ignoring US criticism, announced that its navy would hold joint training exercises with Russia and China of its coast in February. The South African National Defense Force said that the drills are a "means to strengthen the already flourishing relations between South Africa, Russia and China."

Countries outside of BRICS have also asserted their neutrality. Saudi Arabia has rejected sanctions and sided with Russia in the OPEC+ decision to cut oil production in defiance of US requests. They have also more than doubled their imports of Russian oil. Saudi Arabia is also seeking membership in BRICS and has been admitted to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), another multipolar organization led by China and Russia, as a dialogue partner. Indonesia, another nation that has asserted its neutrality, was welcomed as a guest to a BRICS Foreign Ministers’ Meeting for the first time. Pakistan, a member of the SCO, has abstained at the UN and has continued talking to Russia. Bangladesh also abstained from the General Assembly vote and has said it will continue economic relations with Russia. Together, China, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh make up 45% of the world’s population. Much of the Middle East has also stayed neutral, and much of Africa and Latin America have turned down their invitation to the sanctions regime.

The re-energized nonaligned movement has also given rise to interest in trade between nations that would escape the US dollar. Most international trade is conducted in US dollars, and most foreign exchange reserves are held in US dollars. A change to other currencies would weaken both the US dollar and US influence.

On December 9, Chinese President XI Jinping visited Saudi Arabia. In another move toward neutrality, the two countries promised “to firmly support each other’s core interests” and signed what their joint declaration called a “comprehensive strategic partnership . . . between the kingdom and China”. Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud noted that Saudi Arabia has strategic partnerships with the US and China and insisted that "We do not believe in in polarization or selecting between one partner and another." But, at a summit with Arab league countries, Xi suggested something much more. He suggested using the yuan to pay for oil and gas transactions.

The idea came up again at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January when Saudi finance minister Mohammed Al-Jadaan said that Saudi Arabia sees “no issues” in trading oil in currencies other than the US dollar “whether it is the euro, whether it is the Saudi riyal.” He also repeated that “We enjoy a very strategic relationship with China and we enjoy that same strategic relationship with other nations including the US.”

The movement is showing life in multiple regions. In May, campaigning ahead of his election as President of Brazil, Lula stressed Latin American integration, promising that “We are going to restore our relationship with Latin America. . . .[W]e will create a Latin American currency," before adding that "[w]e don’t have to depend on the dollar."

The larger BRICS community is also considering an alternate currency based on the currencies of the five BRICS countries. The five countries are "actively studying mechanisms" for developing an alternative for international payments. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which also includes Russia, China and India and accounts for 43% of the world’s population, is also considering gradually moving toward paying for trade in their national currencies.

In March 2022, the Eurasian Economic Union agreed on "a phased transition" from settling trade in "foreign currency" to "settlements in rubles." The Eurasian Economic Union includes Russia, Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Since August 2022, Iran and Russia have been settling trade in rials and rubles and no longer in dollars.

And Saudi Arabia is not alone in the Middle East. According to Robert Rabil, Professor of political science at Florida Atlantic University, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Israel have all made some movement away from the US dollar.

On January 30, Russia and Iran announced that they had circumvented the US financial system by linking their banking systems as an alternative to SWIFT for trading with each other.

Together, these countries make up approximately half of the world’s population. Their move away from the dollar coupled with oil being traded in the yuan, would weaken the power of the US dollar and of US influence. This is not the realization of the immorality of neutrality: it is the reawakening of the non-aligned movement and the gaining strength of the multipolar movement. While there is some truth to Zelensky’s claim that the war in Ukraine has reunified the West, there seems to be less reason to believe it has deflated neutrality.

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