The Russian invasion of Ukraine met with immediate, and justified, condemnation from countries in Western Europe and North America. Russia has since been frozen out of much of the global financial system and been faced with unprecedented sanctions and economic warfare, even as its war effort in Ukraine has been met with stiff and unexpected resistance from the Ukrainian military.
Western pundits express bewilderment and anger at the reluctance of many countries in the Global South, most noticeably India, to join the sanctions regime and condemnatory votes at the United Nations. U.S. media ask: Why does a fellow democracy like India not side with us in halting the march of Russian autocracy?
Ukraine has every right to resist Russia and take control of its own fate. Even as we condemn NATO’s Manichean and increasingly dangerous rhetoric, we must acknowledge that right. But while in the West it’s all too easy to see Russia’s actions as being unprecedented in modern international history, that is not how many people in the Global South see the conflict. Understanding their reluctance to fall in line with Western foreign policy priorities means shedding simple interpretations of the conflict in Ukraine.
Part of the problem is one of perception. The Western powers see the Russian invasion of Ukraine as a fundamentally global issue, and that characterization is not entirely wrong. The conflict is indeed one of global importance, but not for the reasons that the West often gives. Whereas the Global North sees it as a crisis of the entire international system, throwing into question the norms that have supposedly safeguarded peace and sovereignty throughout the globe, the Global South has largely seen the war as a regional one with global consequences. The issues at hand are more concrete than the largely symbolic and indeed very contested ideals of liberal democracy: namely food, fuel, and armaments.
In regard to the first, consider the Russian blockade on Ukraine’s ports that prevents crucial grains and foodstuffs from being delivered around the world. Providing about a tenth of the world’s wheat, Ukraine has been aptly called the world’s breadbasket, and with Ukraine unable to export any of that supply, the ensuing rise in prices and restrictions of supply will only add to the woes of the world’s most vulnerable.
The actual war may be physically preventing cargo ships full of grain from arriving where the grain is most needed, but other factors are in play. Namely, Russia itself is a significant international supplier of wheat, accounting for nearly 17% of global wheat exports. While not directly targeting Russian grain exports, the freezing out of Russia from most major financial markets has had a chilling effect on the international grain market. The few international corporations that manage the transport and sale of grains have been largely reluctant to do business with a country newly deemed a pariah state. Though the United Nations hopes to reverse this course, much of the damage has been done. In Egypt, where the state’s subsidization of bread prices has largely relied on Ukrainian and Russian supplies, bread prices rose by more than 25% within the first few weeks of the conflict. This shortage has led to much international panic. Under extreme weather conditions and the prospects of a worse harvest than usual, India has likewise limited its wheat exports, causing already exorbitant prices to soar ever higher. The Indian government has promised that neighbors and trade partners in the Global South will still get much-needed wheat. But as global yields continue to fall, the situation will likely remain critical for much of the foreseeable future.
This shortage has upended the political economy of vulnerable countries in the Global South while inflicting death and hunger on the poorest sections of society throughout the world. It is made worse by the fact that Russia is likewise a very crucial exporter of fuel and fertilizers. Although much attention has been paid to the fact that Russian gas and oil forms a crucial part of European energy infrastructure, Russian and Belarusian fertilizers are also a very crucial part of the agricultural sectors of economies in North Africa and South Asia. Fertilizers remain necessary for countries in the Global South to boost agricultural production and meet demand at home, let alone abroad. While fertilizers were purposefully left out of restrictions in a recognition of Russia’s importance as the world’s largest exporter, as with wheat, many shippers and financial institutions have stayed away out of an abundance of caution. The United States has sought to reverse this by assuring the buyers and shippers of fertilizers that they will not face any penalties for the trade, but progress has been slow.
Although countries such as India purchase significantly less Russian energy than their European equivalents, attempts to pressure these countries to cease these purchases have largely failed. With energy prices booming across the world, countries like India have taken advantage of cheaper Russian prices. This may be a pragmatic and cynical move, but simply berating India and Pakistan for not “falling in line” with Western strategic demands has only reinforced accusations that the Western powers never outgrew their colonialist mindsets. As the Indian external affairs minister recently said in Bratislava, “Europe has to grow out of the mindset that Europe’s problems are the world’s problems but the world’s problems are not Europe’s problems.”
The importance of Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus to the Global South’s food supply and agricultural infrastructures alone should raise concerns about the conflict’s wider repercussions. Another area in which Russia has historically played an important role has been its status as the world’s second-largest supplier of arms after the United States. We would be hard-pressed to shed a tear for Russian armament manufacturers. At the same time, it is precisely this strategic importance to countries like India, Algeria, Vietnam, and Egypt that can help to explain why, despite friendly relations with the United States, these countries have been reluctant to truly globalize the sanctions regime against Russia. Even as U.S. and European arms have become more important to the many formally neutral countries of the Global South, and even though Russia has not been able to replicate the relative success the Soviet Union once had in cultivating strategic ties throughout Africa, Asia, and Latin America, Russian influence has remained important.
India in particular has been singled out for refusing to condemn Russia in explicit terms, either bilaterally or at larger international forums. India’s status as the largest purchaser of Russian arms has also not gone unnoticed, especially in light of India’s status as one of the members of the so-called Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad, designed to stem Chinese influence in Asia and promote the values of “liberal democracy,” whatever they might be.
Historic solidarity with the Soviet Union helps provide one answer for this seeming contradiction. According to this narrative, India sought to intervene in the ongoing civil war in East Pakistan in 1971 on the side of the Bangladeshi nationalist movement to prevent the Pakistani Armed Forces from continuing their genocidal actions. The United States, aligned with the Pakistani government and not eager to see the strategic balance in South Asia tilt toward India, threatened the Indian government with military retaliation and stationed nuclear-armed warships in the Bay of Bengal. It was only the Soviet Union’s assurances of a nuclear umbrella and deployment of its own ships against the U.S. Seventh Fleet that safeguarded Indian sovereignty in 1971. There are a few caveats with this narrative; India’s intervention in East Pakistan to aid the Bangladeshi struggle was not out of altruism alone, and in fact Soviet ties with India go back much earlier, in the form of extensive economic and military aid. Regardless, the Soviet Union and India became significantly closer following their formal Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation in 1971. From then until the Soviet Union fell 20 years later, the USSR remained India’s most important strategic and economic partner.
As one acquaintance told me, India’s refusal to simply acquiesce to Western demands was owed to these memories, particularly U.S. threats “to wipe our country off the map.” He was thus happy to see Indian diplomats asserting their country’s interests to their European and U.S. counterparts and “remembering our history.” The logic behind this is flawed, of course. Russia is not the Soviet Union, despite both Indian and indeed Western commentary to the contrary; this is no longer the country that supplied India with aid in its most dire hours.
At the same time, ignoring this history and similar stories throughout the Global South means that the West will continue to fail at forming a truly global coalition against Russia. As another acquaintance told me, many Indians, colonial rule still in their living memory, are particularly sensitive to the notion that their foreign policy must be in line with the whims of outside powers. “It is a bit rich that we are lectured on defending democracy abroad by a country that destroyed Vietnam and Iraq,” she commented. U.S. hypocrisy does not excuse Russian aggression in Ukraine. But it does affect the narrative that the Biden administration represents the side of international rule of law. In reality, on the ground, there is – as the citizens of Vietnam, Cambodia, Haiti, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Iraq, Palestine, Afghanistan, Sudan, Libya, and many more victims of international interventions in the last 70 years can attest to – no such thing as the international rule of law, except when it serves the interests of the powerful.
Ultimately what is lost in these stories of the Global South “failing” to support the struggle in Ukraine – a gross simplification, as many of these countries have sent humanitarian aid to Ukraine or contributed in other ways short of completely freezing out Russia – is the human toll of unintended consequences. In Delhi, I heard only one thing from people in the streets: Food, fuel, and all everyday necessities are getting more expensive, and life is getting worse. Unbearable heat beats down on all of us. And, as crop shortages increase and the risk of famine looms, any attempt to help Ukraine in its just defense against Russian aggression must also include freeing up grain, providing fuel and food to the Global South, and committing to programs of international aid and redistribution that are necessary to at least soften the cruelties of our current economic structures. Without such initiatives, haughty calls for the Global South to get in line and fight for democracy will fall flat, and the West will be rightfully condemned as talking a good talk but nothing more.