The Price of Neutrality

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5 mins read

By Isak Bokstad

AT THE END of January, the German chancellor Olaf Scholz met his Brazilian counterpart Lula da Silva to deepen ties between the two states. Discussions regarding economic cooperation and climate change went well, but palpable tensions emerged regarding Russia’s war against Ukraine. During a press conference, Lula rejected Scholz’s appeal to support Kyiv with weaponry, instead proposing a Chinese-led peace initiative for the war. He went on to blame the war on both Putin and Zelensky, along with reckless NATO expansion. Brazil, to Lula, is “a country committed to peace,” and sending weapons to either side would therefore be unthinkable. This interaction in Brazil is indicative of a wider trend in international politics. Several countries have adopted a neutral stance towards Russia’s war against Ukraine, including the major Gulf states and other nations in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

However, out of all the neutral states, Brazil, India, and South Africa may initially have caused the most confusion in the West. These countries, together with Russia and China, are all members of BRICS, a geopolitical block meant to foster political and economic cooperation between its members. BRICS has sometimes been described as a rival to G7, a group of the seven most significant economies in the West. This picture is complicated by the fact that Brazil, India, and South Africa are democracies that cooperate with the West in a variety of fields. Western politicians had hoped to rally support for Ukraine in these countries, but these efforts have largely failed. Before Lula was sworn in as president at the beginning of 2023, his predecessor Jair Bolsonaro held a similar position regarding the war. Brazil was the only BRICS country to vote against Russia in the UN General Assembly, after the invasion on March 2 and the supposed annexation of four regions of Ukraine on October 12. Nevertheless, Bolsonaro mostly adopted a neutral position in response to the invasion, and in July, he even said that he knew how the war in Ukraine should end, alluding to the Falkland war, although he did not elaborate on what exactly this meant.

India, for its part, expressed its regret at the failure of diplomacy in Ukraine on February 25, but the country has declined to vote against Russia in any of the UN votes undertaken since the invasion. In a longform interview last year, India’s Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar elaborated on this position. In general, his argument revolves around the idea that foreign policy always revolves around self-interest. To illustrate his point further, Jaishankar brought up the example of US cooperation with Pakistan, which has been a long-standing problem for Indian national security. He also argued that India’s history with Russia differs from that of the West, as India had significant security cooperation with the Soviet Union during the Cold War when the country was engaged in a bloody conflict with Pakistan. Nevertheless, the country’s leader Narendra Modi has also urged Putin to reach a diplomatic solution to the war as late as September.

South Africa’s president Cyril Ramaphosa echoed many of the talking points of India during a speech in the South African parliament on March 17, arguing for the need for a diplomatic settlement. He went on to say that the war could have been avoided if warnings of NATO’s eastward expansion had been heeded. Regarding arguments that South Africa should take an adversarial stance on Russia, Ramaphosa stated that his country prefers and insists on diplomacy as the solution for the war. Ramaphosa’s foreign minister, Naledi Pandor, has repeated many of the president’s arguments. She also evoked the fact that the ANC, South Africa’s ruling party, received significant assistance from the Soviet Union in their fight against Apartheid.

However, if the goal is a peace treaty between Ukraine and Russia, one should first consider the political possibilities for such a solution. Even though countries outside of Europe may be interested in a negotiated solution to the conflict, the same is not true for Ukraine, where a recent poll showed that 93 percent of respondents were confident that they would win the war. Any current peace treaty would also likely involve territorial concessions by Ukraine, an extremely unpopular idea to the Ukrainian public. EU citizens are similarly opposed to giving up support for Ukraine, despite the economic difficulties that have followed sanctions. Lastly, Putin’s spokesperson recently stated that Russia does not see any prospects for a peaceful resolution and that the “special military operation” will continue moving towards its goals.

A striking aspect of the calls for peace by Brazilian, Indian, and South African politicians is the idealism underlining them. The war, in these views, is first and foremost a humanitarian catastrophe, which has potentially devastating effects for the rest of the world. Therefore, the warring parties must reach a compromise, even if that entails major concessions for both sides. While these arguments hold some truth, they also strip the war of its complex historical background and political context, reducing it to immoral geopolitical competition between the US and Russia. With this in mind, it is not surprising that Lula, Modi, and Ramaphosa have ignored the reason so many European states have sided with Ukraine. That reason is the long history of imperialistic wars which have plagued Europe for most of its history, and which most of its nations have sought to put an end to through integration and reconciliation. Today, Russia stands as the last holdout of that era, and Putin has shown himself to pay almost any price to restore his country’s hegemony over Eastern and Central Europe.

I must admit that I was surprised to see these countries adopt a neutral stance to the war, given their own history of European imperialism. While Eastern and Central Europe’s experience with imperialism is not entirely analogous to that of the rest of the world, politicians in South Africa, India and Brazil have often made a point of opposing unjust use of military force, such as in Palestine or the US invasion of Iraq. However, if one takes a more cynical view of the war, it is possible to see why these countries have taken the stance they have. Since the beginning of EU sanctions, Indian refiners have made massive profits by buying cheap Russian oil and selling diesel and other hydrocarbon fuels to European markets and other parts of the world. In Brazil, meanwhile, Bolsonaro’s foreign minister Carlos Alberto França said that his country was reliant on Russian and Belarussian fertilizer and that they were going to buy as much diesel as possible from Russia. Russia is also an important partner for South Africa and India in security politics, providing state-of-the-art weaponry to India while cooperating with South Africa and China in naval drills.

This picture of self-interest somewhat overshadows these countries’ calls for reasoned diplomacy. It seems like their politicians are happy to ignore any similarities between Russia’s actions and their own histories of foreign oppression if they happen far away and are not a threat to their respective bottom lines. As India’s foreign minister hinted, none of these countries would be the first to choose its national interest over what is ethically just. However, all these countries, and other neutral states, might do well to consider what the result of these policies might be. That is to say, a world where the sovereignty and freedom of smaller nations will always be at risk from their stronger neighbours, who continually find new justifications for invasions and political repression. It is possible that many of these states see themselves coming out on top in such a world. But if not, would they be willing to pay the price they currently ask of Ukraine?

By: Isak Bokstad

Photography: Wired

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