The West Is With Ukraine. The Rest, Not So Much.

Africa and Asia’s long-standing ties to Russia and resentments against Washington keep them on the fence—for now.

Peace activists pose with mock nuclear missiles in Berlin.
Peace activists pose with mock nuclear missiles in Berlin.
Peace activists wearing masks of Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) and U.S. President Joe Biden pose with mock nuclear missiles in front of Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate on Jan. 29, 2021. John Macdougall/AFP via Getty Images

Russia’s War in Ukraine

This month, South Africa’s ambassador to the United Nations, Mathu Joyini, took a moment from a debate in the U.N. General Assembly about the humanitarian fallout from the Russian invasion of Ukraine to scold the United States for its past military follies, including in Iraq.

This month, South Africa’s ambassador to the United Nations, Mathu Joyini, took a moment from a debate in the U.N. General Assembly about the humanitarian fallout from the Russian invasion of Ukraine to scold the United States for its past military follies, including in Iraq.

The United States and its Western allies, she suggested, had committed their own violations of the U.N. Charter and were simply pursuing their own geopolitical advantage over Russia by championing U.N. resolutions denouncing Moscow as an aggressor. “Making this point today in our discussion on the humanitarian situation in Ukraine is not a form of whataboutery, underscoring the point that many countries and their peoples suffer the consequences of wars that are not of their own doing,” she said.

The statement reflects the challenges the United States faces as it seeks to show Russia a unified diplomatic front in support of Ukraine. Besides the United States’ closest friends and military allies in the West and East Asia, most of the world is not interested in joining the U.S.-led campaign to isolate Russia. As outraged as they may be about Russia’s land grab in Ukraine, many countries have historical ties to Russia that they are not prepared to abandon, and they fear an economic blockade against Moscow will inflict severe pain on their own countries, fueling higher food and fuel costs and planting the seed for greater hunger and instability within their own borders.

In the days following Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine, the world seemed to rally around Ukraine. The 193-member U.N. General Assembly voted overwhelmingly, 141-5, to denounce Russia’s military intervention. Only Belarus, Eritrea, Syria, and North Korea joined Russia in opposing the resolution. U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres, who has generally sought to avoid confronting the U.N.’s big powers, bluntly condemned Russia’s “morally unacceptable, politically indefensible, and militarily nonsensical” war in Ukraine as a flagrant violation of the U.N. Charter.

Washington, meanwhile, has mustered surprisingly strong support among key Western and East Asian allies—from Canada and Germany to Japan and South Korea—to impose ruinous sanctions against Russia, effectively cutting much of the country’s businesses off from the global financial system and driving the value of the Russian ruble into the ground. U.S. and European law enforcement are pursuing the possessions of rich Russian business magnates.

Behind this show of unity is a world that is largely adjusting to a new multipolar era, where the United States is no longer the lone superpower. Responses to Russian aggression from Africa and South Asia have been relatively muted while concerns over the potential impact of Western sanctions on food and fuel prices have been growing.

Many still harbor deep resentment toward the United States, whose military interventions from Afghanistan to Iraq and Libya have left a path of death and destruction. Key countries in Africa and Asia, including South Africa and India, have trod carefully, seeking to maintain good relations with Russia and the United States while underscoring the need to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty. Some 35 countries, including many from Africa, abstained on a U.N. General Assembly resolution denouncing Russia’s aggression. No African countries have imposed sanctions on Russia, which has emerged in recent years as the world’s largest exporter of arms to Africa.

Many diplomats and foreign-policy observers view the conflict in Ukraine as a major historical inflection point but are unsure of how it will end, complicating their own calculations over how they will position themselves in the face of a worsening big-power clash or political settlement.

“It is obvious we are not going back to the same world that we were in before this war,” said Munir Akram, Pakistan’s U.N. ambassador, but he noted that the contours of a new world order will be defined by the final outcome of the war and the shape of a final peace deal between Russia and Ukraine.

“If a negotiated solution is going to happen, the Western sanctions will have to be lifted because I don’t think the Russians will accept a solution without lifting of sanctions,” Akram added. “From the perspective of noninvolved countries, if I may say so, we have to see the realistic prospects. We think a deal will be done; and therefore, we are not going to buy into a complete anti-Russian stance, which the West is finally going to find some way of accommodating.”

The response from Africa has been complicated.

Kenya’s U.N. ambassador, Martin Kimani, likened Russia’s assault on Ukraine to the legacy of colonialism, characterizing it as a brutal affront to the territorial integrity of a sovereign nation. “Multilateralism lies on its deathbed tonight,” Kimani told the U.N. Security Council on Feb. 21, after Russia announced its decision to recognize the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of eastern Ukraine as independent states. “The charter of the United Nations continues to wilt under the relentless assault of the powerful.”

But Kimani offered a veiled swipe at the United States and its Western allies, who have used military force to crush their rivals in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. Some African leaders maintain they want to avoid getting drawn into what they see as a big-power competition in Europe.

Asked why his country had abstained from a U.N. General Assembly vote denouncing Russian aggression in Ukraine, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni told the Asian news organization Nikkei Asia: “We do not want to be involved in this and stayed out. Don’t threaten me, and I will not threaten you.”

Museveni also criticized the United States and Europe for exercising a double standard, citing their military intervention in Libya, which resulted in the overthrow of Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi. “They destroyed the country while spreading terrorism beyond its border,” he added. “This is a criminal and unacceptable act.”

Ukraine’s case has not been helped by reports that its border guards mistreated African nationals seeking to flee the war into neighboring Poland, preventing them from joining Ukrainians seeking refuge abroad. Ebenezer Obadare, an Africa expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the Americans and Africans are speaking past one another.

For many in the United States, he said, the case for condemning Russia seems self-evident. Russia has invaded its neighbors, it has targeted civilians in the most brutal and indiscriminate manner, and it has shown utter contempt for the U.N. Charter. “But the Africans are saying, ‘Wait a minute. It is not so straightforward,’” he said.

For one, Russia, or the former Soviet Union, has long-standing ties to African countries, having provided military and diplomatic support to anti-Western forces there during the Cold War. Today, the quasi-private mercenary outfit, the Wagner Group, provides security to several African nations and armed groups, including the governments of the Central African Republic and Mali as well as Libya’s rebel leader, Khalifa Haftar.

But although African governments may feel some residual loyalty to Russia, he said he doesn’t see the continent embracing Russia’s resort to force. “This does not mean there is a profound realignment of Africa” into the Russian camp, Obadare said. In fact, he said, “young people in Africa still want to go to the U.S. and to Europe.”

Nowhere has the ambivalence been starker than in the Middle East, where the United States’ key strategic allies—Israel, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia—have bucked U.S. entreaties to isolate Russia and join Washington in imposing sanctions on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government.

U.S. President Joe Biden has inherited a U.S. relationship with the Persian Gulf that has grown increasingly strained over the past decade, particularly among Democrats, who have become increasingly frustrated by what they see as the autocratic excesses of Gulf monarchs who have prosecuted a disastrous war against Houthi rebels in Yemen. During his presidential campaign, Biden dismissed Saudi Arabia as a “pariah,” saying there is “very little social redeeming value in the present government.” Shortly after his election, Biden rebuffed the country’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is suspected of ordering the execution of the Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, and had his first phone conversation with Saudi Arabia’s ailing King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud.

Relations with the United Arab Emirates have grown tense in the weeks following a missile and drone attack against the airport in Abu Dhabi by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels. “I think there is a deep sense of frustration on both sides,” said Gregory Johnsen, an expert on Yemen at the Brookings Institution. “The U.S. didn’t respond quickly enough.”

The tensions have tempered the Gulf states’ willingness to back the United States in its ongoing effort to rally the world to punish Russia for its invasion of Ukraine. The UAE abstained on a critical U.N. Security Council vote to denounce Russia’s invasion. The leaders of the two countries also refused to take calls from Biden, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal, or to ramp up oil production to offset the loss of Russian natural gas and oil. Israel, meanwhile, initially declined to co-sponsor a U.N. Security Council resolution.

Israel has chosen to strike an increasingly delicate balance between maintaining good relations with its most important benefactor, the United States, and an influential regional actor, Russia—which maintains a military presence in Syria, where Israel has carried out multiple airstrikes against Iranian proxies.

Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates have all, “in their own way, hedged, revealing the extent to which Washington has lost their trust and revealing the extent to which they are willing to risk some damage, or erosion, to the special real relations in order to protect what they have developed in terms of strategic diversification, including outreach to Russia and China,” said Hussein Ibish, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. Ibish said these governments have gradually come to the conclusion over the last decade that “the U.S. era is over, the rapid transition to a multipolar world is underway, and its irreversible.”

That assumption, however, is being tested by “a certain degree of revival in the Western alliance that is remarkable,” he said.

Initial assumptions by Middle East leaders that Ukraine was a European, not a global, crisis; that Putin had the power to end the conflict swiftly; and that they could withstand the heat of American displeasure proved wrong. The crisis, in many ways, has become an “inflection point” in the region’s relationship with the United States, he said.

The Ukraine conflict has also tested the U.S. relationship with India, a member of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, an informal alliance with Australia, Japan, India, and the United States committed to a free and open Indo-Pacific region. India has broken with the United States in the U.N. Security Council, abstaining in February on a resolution denouncing Russian aggression in Ukraine and demanding it withdraw its military forces from the country.

Although Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has urged the Russian leader to negotiate an “immediate cessation of violence” in Ukraine, he has stopped short of criticizing Moscow. Indian officials, meanwhile, have also been in talks about purchasing discounted Russian oil, a move that runs contrary to U.S. efforts to block Russian oil exports. India has long-standing diplomatic and military ties to Russia, which is India’s largest arms supplier. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union repeatedly vetoed U.N. Security Council resolutions seeking international involvement in resolving the crisis over Kashmir.

Biden—the latest U.S. leader to seek to strengthen ties with India as a counterweight to China—recently signaled U.S. displeasure with India’s failure to back the United States’ effort to isolate Russia over Ukraine, saying India is being “somewhat shaky” on this.

Despite the setbacks, Richard Gowan, an expert on the U.N. with the International Crisis Group, said the Ukraine crisis has provided an opportunity for the United States and Europe to emerge “looking more coherent and purposeful than in recent years, but they are also going to be more self-absorbed in terms of building their militaries and rebuilding Ukraine.”

“I do not think we are seeing a complete global realignment yet,” he added. “So who will win in a global battle for influence over Ukraine? Not Russia, for sure. Its diplomacy over the crisis has been almost as messy as some of its military operations.”

Pakistan’s Akram said he believes “Russia is going to come out of it weaker because it has not been able to establish the kind of credibility that was presumed that it could impose on Ukraine.”

But Russia, Akram noted, is one of the world’s two biggest nuclear powers, which gives it dark leverage as the Ukraine endgame approaches.

“The capacity of Russia to wreak havoc on the rest of the world is not going to be taken away, so we will have to accommodate a weakened Russia, perhaps a resentful Russia, if it is not integrated back into the international order,” he said.

Colum Lynch was a staff writer at Foreign Policy between 2010 and 2022. Twitter: @columlynch

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