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The World Isn’t Slipping Away From the West

The United States and Europe get a few things wrong about global attitudes toward Russia’s war in Ukraine.

By , the president and CEO of the International Crisis Group.
Russian President Vladimir Putin arrives to deliver his annual state of the nation address in Moscow on Feb. 21.
Russian President Vladimir Putin arrives to deliver his annual state of the nation address in Moscow on Feb. 21.
Russian President Vladimir Putin arrives to deliver his annual state of the nation address in Moscow on Feb. 21. SERGEI KARPUKHIN/SPUTNIK/AFP via Getty Images

Russia’s War in Ukraine

Since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine last February, commentators in Europe and the United States have lamented that few countries outside the West have offered Kyiv real backing. A common question posed to me in the last year is why so many countries have sat this one out. Indeed, politicians and diplomats in Africa, Asia, and Latin America have offered Ukraine limited support and suggested the West is in part to blame for Russia’s war.

Since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine last February, commentators in Europe and the United States have lamented that few countries outside the West have offered Kyiv real backing. A common question posed to me in the last year is why so many countries have sat this one out. Indeed, politicians and diplomats in Africa, Asia, and Latin America have offered Ukraine limited support and suggested the West is in part to blame for Russia’s war.

At first glance, it may seem that a large part of the world is slipping away from the West—at best adopting a neutral position and at worst tilting toward Russia and China. But that depiction is simplistic: It fails to understand the origins of non-Western positions toward Russia’s war in Ukraine and threatens to create the rift between the so-called West and the rest that some commentators complain about. Ukraine, the United States, and their partners will be best positioned to attract and keep non-Western countries onside if they first understand what motivates them.


Countries beyond the West have not been entirely silent on Russia’s war in Ukraine, and many have in fact indicated sympathy for Kyiv. Last March, 141 of the 193 members of the United Nations General Assembly voted to condemn Russia’s aggression; that number included majorities of all the regional groups at the U.N. A similar number rejected Russian President Vladimir Putin’s self-described annexations of Ukrainian territories last October. Yet most non-Western countries have not imposed economic sanctions on Russia.

Some of the biggest players in the global south—including China, India, and South Africa—have consistently refused to sign onto resolutions criticizing Russia in U.N. forums. When Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov visited Pretoria in January, his South African counterpart said NATO’s arms supply to Ukraine was aimed at bringing Russia “to its knees.” Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva embarrassed German Chancellor Olaf Scholz at a joint press conference by suggesting Ukraine and NATO bear some blame for blocking peace. U.S. and European officials initially lobbied these heavyweight non-Western powers to their change position, but they have grown increasingly resigned to their stances.

It is easy to see why many Ukrainian officials and their allies may feel betrayed by many non-Western states. Last year, a senior Ukrainian official told me that African states “hated” their country. And as foreign-policy pundits try to work out the future of global order in the wake of the war, it is also understandable that many view non-Western states as forming a new bloc—similar to the Non-Aligned Movement during the Cold War.

Such analysis is compelling on the surface, but it does not stand up to close analysis. To start, there is no real sign that the Non-Aligned Movement has gained new life or that African, Asian, and Latin American leaders are coordinating their positions on the war in Ukraine. Many countries have sided with Ukraine in crunch votes—such as those against Putin’s annexations—despite the risks of alienating Russia. Even states that have not backed these votes, such as China and India, have acknowledged that Ukraine’s right to territorial integrity matters and warned against nuclear weapons use.

At the annual G-20 summit in Bali, Indonesia, last November, the host officials engineered a complex joint communique involving a lengthy condemnation of Russia’s war. However, at a more recent G-20 ministerial, China refused to endorse the same language, and no joint communique was released. Still, whether at the U.N. or at the G-20, most non-Western states are not siding with Moscow. Instead, they appear to be hedging their bets over the war, offering Ukraine a degree of support without fundamentally rupturing their ties with Russia.

Some of these countries, such as India, have increased trade with Russia since it first invaded Ukraine. But even European Union members made clear last year that they could not sever economic ties with Russia overnight and have kept up energy purchases while seeking alternative sources. Furthermore, Ukraine has received help from countries that haven’t cut off all ties to Moscow. Turkey hasn’t sanctioned Russia, but it has sent arms to Ukraine and hashed out the Black Sea Grain Initiative to get Ukrainian agricultural supplies to world markets; Saudi Arabia, too, has helped facilitate prisoner exchanges.

Non-Western countries have good reason to maintain a certain distance from the West as well as Russia. Admittedly, some leaders in the global south are motivated by a rosy—and sometimes wrong-headed—view of Moscow as a former backer of Cold War liberation struggles against colonial powers, especially in Africa. But recent history may better explain their actions and perceived turn toward Russia.

For many leaders, the coronavirus pandemic and the West’s decision to hoard vaccines rather than waive intellectual property rights raised questions about the value of international cooperation. Although Washington had its own strategic logic for pulling the plug on Western troop presence in Afghanistan, that move created a crisis on India’s doorstep. And frustration that France had not succeeded in repelling jihadi insurgents led authorities in Mali and Burkina Faso to turn to Russia while asking for the withdrawal of French troops.

In the first months of the war in Ukraine, Western officials seemed so focused on Moscow’s aggression that they did not initially acknowledge the gravity of the conflict’s global ripple effects as food and energy prices spiked, compounding the economic aftershocks of the pandemic. This economic crisis had an especially acute impact on already fragile countries, such as Lebanon and Somalia. In the meantime, conflicts beyond Europe—from Ethiopia to Myanmar—have claimed thousands of lives but received only a fraction of the attention devoted to Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Non-Western countries’ suggestions for ending Russia’s war in Ukraine look at best naive to policymakers in Kyiv and Western capitals. Last September, Mexico suggested that U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres, Pope Francis, and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi could mediate an end to the war. U.S. and European officials ignored this, and even the U.N. said it sounded impractical. China has rolled out a peace proposal that includes coded criticism of NATO and a nod to Ukraine’s sovereignty without explaining how to reconcile Russian and Ukrainian security concerns.

Although it’s easy to brush aside such initiatives, it is worth noting that the United States and Europe have advised those involved in wars in Africa and the Middle East that there is “no military solution” to their disputes. Now, those countries look on as Western powers invest more and more military resources into a war in their own neighborhood.

My colleagues at International Crisis Group and I have argued that the West is right to offer Ukraine military backing, whereas Russia is not yet ready for serious peace talks. But we should be humble enough to understand why this approach creates a sense of cognitive dissonance outside the West. It’s no wonder that many officials from countries in the global south feel that the West is demanding their loyalty over Ukraine—after not showing them much solidarity in their own hours of need.


One year into the war, even critical non-Western diplomats admit that Ukraine and its friends have begun to show greater empathy for their concerns. The Biden administration recognized relatively quickly that it needed to step up aid efforts to resolve food price crises last year, contrasting with the Trump administration’s public dismissal of global cooperation. This set the stage for the U.N. and Turkey to hammer out the Black Sea Grain Initiative. Meanwhile, Putin has undercut his own claims to lead an anti-imperialist drive against the United States and its partners through his own colonialism in Ukraine.

In my conversations with officials from around the world about Russia’s war in Ukraine, I have encountered a few recurrent themes.

First, most officials have great sympathy for Ukraine’s plight and little for Russia, even if some do mistrust NATO. Second, whatever their views of the war, all of the officials I spoke with feel a responsibility to protect the interests of their citizens in an era of global turbulence. (Admittedly, some leaders see Russia as offering a compelling value proposition with quick access to arms, military technology, and mercenaries.) Third, many leaders recoil at Western leaders moralizing about the rules-based order when they have flouted those rules themselves. Conversations about Russian aggression and conquest in Ukraine tend to evoke questions about the United States in Iraq and Israel in the Golan Heights.

Finally, nearly all the officials I’ve spoken with seek to define their national policies on their own terms—reflecting their own sovereign interests—rather than framing them as part of a West-Russia contest. U.S. President Joe Biden clearly heard this, centering his recent meeting with Lula around areas of common interest, such as preserving democracy and tackling climate change, rather than focusing on differences over Ukraine. This is the kind of nuanced approach that has at times been missing since the war began. It is greatly needed as economic storm clouds threaten to fuel poverty and instability in many parts of the world.

Policymakers around the world want to protect the sovereign freedoms in the diplomatic arena that Ukrainians are fighting for. Ukraine and its allies have every right to ask other countries for their support in what looks like an open-ended war against Russia. But they will find it easier to win and maintain that support if they show respect for other countries’ fears and interests.

Comfort Ero is the president and CEO of the International Crisis Group. Twitter: @EroComfort

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