The geopolitics of choosing sides in the Ukraine conflict: why some countries support Russia
Updated: Mar 4, 2022
It is easy to divide the world into black and white, good and evil, based on how nations voted yesterday on the UN's resolution to condemn Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine and calling for its unconditional withdrawal of forces. But the reality of those who voted against the resolution – and by implication in favour of Moscow – and those that abstained from voting is much more complex. Their choices were ultimately shaped by history and geopolitics. Let’s look at why some countries voted the way they did and what it might mean for the future of Ukraine, Russia and themselves.
Of the UN’s 193 member states, 141 supported the resolution. Thirty-five countries abstained while a handful voted against the resolution and therefore in favour of Moscow – Belarus, North Korea, Eritrea, and Syria. An axis of evil perhaps, but they are heavily dependent on Russia for trade, aid and military assistance.
Hold your friends close ... and your enemies closer
Belarus is arguable a puppet state of Russia. Like Ukraine, it did not become an independent country until recently. Up until the 20th Century it had at various times been a colony of various neighbours including the Russian Empire, the Poland-Lithuania Commonwealth, and even Kiev Rus’. It was part of the Soviet Union until the fall of the USSR. Ruled by authoritarian Alexander Lukashenko since 1994, who has been isolated by the rest of Europe because of his human rights abuses and rigged elections, Belarus has become increasingly economically and militarily dependent on Russia. Short of regime change and uncoupling from the Russian economy, Belarus is unable to choose another path. Belarus is particularly dependent on gas imports from Russia and Moscow – or at least its crony oligarchs – have shown a willingness to turn off the country's energy (and milk, by the way) when it has suited Russian interests.
Moscow has been supporting Syria since the 1970’s when the Soviet Union started providing aid and military hardware and advice to Damascus. In that respect, Russia’s support for the Bashar al-Assad regime since 2000 is a direct outcome of the Cold War. Putin moved quickly to support the Assad regime as it became bogged down following the Arab Spring and subsequent rebellions and civil war, including against the Islamic State/ISIS/ISIL. Moscow provided weapons and military advice and training. Part of Putin’s goal is to attract other Arab states that had been dependent on Soviet military aid and support during the Cold War back into Moscow’s fold by ensuring Assad’s victory. Although the civil war has been in stalemate since 2020, Syria remains heavily dependent on Russian support to hold its ground against Western-backed rebel forces. With Syria a pariah state as far as the West is concerned, it is left with no other option but to continue its growing dependence on Russia. From a geopolitical perspective it is not able to turn its back on Moscow. Doing so would spell political suicide for the Assad regime.
North Korea shares a border with Russia, has seen part of its territory ceded to the old Russian Empire under Tsar Alexander II, and came under Soviet administration following World War II until 1948. Importantly, the USSR supported Pyongyang during the Korean War, including by sending Soviet pilots to fly sorties against the South and its allies. Since 2000 Putin has been working to rebuild the old relationship and draw Kim Jong-un back into Moscow’s fold. While Russia has been strengthening its economic ties with North Korea it has been concerned about Pyongyang’s nuclear armament program and has been working with China and the West to address it. Russian banks have even applied UN sanctions against North Korea following nuclear tests and the Russian Government has sounded its concerns about some of Kim’s more extreme statements about his willingness to deploy nuclear weapons in the past. Nonetheless, North Korea wants to keep Russia on side as the hermit kingdom has few friends in the world and needs all (any?) it can find. Russia and North Korea now have that in common as well.
Russia has been showing considerable interest in Eretria since it gained independence from Ethiopia in 2018. While the relationship is very much in its early stages, Moscow’s interest in Eretria is part of its overall ambition to expand Russia’s influence in Africa. Keen to develop economically and ensure its security, Eretria has worked hard to win powerful friends like Russia and China, as well as western countries for trade and investment. Importantly, Russia is eager to establish a naval base on or close to the Horn of Africa and has commenced negotiations with Eretria for the possible use of the ports at either Massawa or Assab. Eretria wants to keep Russia interested and likely hopes that support for Moscow will help close the deal – or force China or the US to put a better deal on the table. This is a poker game.
At the end of the day, opposing the resolution against Russia wasn’t just about a gallery of rogues getting together to support one of their own. That is a simplistic analysis. Yes – there certainly are rogues among them who have done unconscionable things to their own people. But, these countries are supporting Putin and Moscow to secure what they see as in their own interests by retaining Moscow’s support. It is no surprise that any of them supported Moscow.
Reading the poker faces
The abstainers are possibly more complex yet. I won’t go through all 35 of them – time doesn’t allow. But two are noteworthy – China and India.
China has been taking an “each-way” bet since the beginning of the Ukraine crisis. Despite some speculation that Xi Jinping offered Vladimir Putin support for the invasion when the two met in Beijing at the commencement of the Winter Olympics last month, there has been no evidence to support the claim. It is largely speculation based on their agreement for broad cooperation in a “friendship that has no limits”, including in opposing the further expansion of NATO and promoting their authoritarian governance models. But it is beginning to look like Putin played Xi, and Beijing could soon suffer “buyer’s remorse”.
Yes, China abstained from voting on the resolution against Russia, but that is not the same thing as voting against the resolution, and ipso facto in favour of Moscow. As I pointed out earlier this week, China’s default position is to oppose sanctions against countries (lest they be applied against it) and to blame America and NATO/the West for the world’s woes.
But Beijing has also been critical of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi fired a shot across the bow of Putin when he said at the Munich Security Conference last week that “All countries’ sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity must be safeguarded because these are the basic principles in international relations established through the United Nations Constitution.” Yes – he didn’t name Russia or Ukraine directly in that comment, but that is the Chinese way.
As I also pointed out earlier in the week, China has considerable trade and investment interests in the Ukraine as part of its Belt and Roads Initiative deal with Kyiv that it would be concerned about. And it has had its own history with Moscow during the Cold War where Mao felt Stalin was set on making China the minor party in their partnership, which led to their acrimonious split. China continues to share a border with Russia and is wary of Russian power and influence in Central Asia. Russia would pose a risk to China should it become too powerful in any of Central Asia’s “stans” as Moscow was during the Cold War. And Russia has interests in the Asia-Pacific region as well that would concern China, including its claims to the Kuril Islands which the USSR once controlled. While Beijing doesn’t claim them, Tokyo does; the prospect of hostilities between Russia and Japan in its region of influence will surely concern China in the future.
Finally, Beijing will be concerned about the situation in Ukraine dragging on. The longer the conflict continues and as more atrocities are committed by Russian forces, the more difficult China’s position will become. In particular, Beijing will be concerned that a protracted conflict in Ukraine will give heart to Taiwanese who favour independence. It could also encourage the US to jettison its “strategic ambiguity” on the defence of Taiwan and offer full commitment to its defence against a mainland invasion.
At some point Beijing may have to take a clear position on the Ukraine crisis.
New Delhi’s position is equally complex. India is a member of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue in the Indo-Pacific (known as “the Quad”) together with Australia, Japan and the US, a grouping that is intent on containing Chinese power and influence. India’s resolve against Beijing consolidated after it experienced clashes along its border with China in Kashmir last year. But it has a history as a non-aligned nation. Since the Cold War it has tried to stay out of the conflicts of the superpowers, playing a leadership role for other developing nations also keen to remain neutral. Yet, New Delhi managed to maintain strong relations with Moscow during the Cold War, including buying significant military equipment from it, to balance the US and China’s support for its regional rival Pakistan. In particular, Moscow has supported India’s claim to Kashmir in the Security Council of the UN including since Putin came to power. Delhi cannot risk Moscow switching sides and supporting Pakistan’s claims to the disputed territory given Russia’s veto power in the Council.
Further, India remains dependent on Russia's supply of military equipment, including fighter jets and two attack class nuclear submarines that Delhi leases from Moscow. Ironically, India gets military equipment from Russia because of its growing concerns about China and because it is unsure how reliable the US and France, two other countries who supply it with weaponry, would be. For example, would either of them ever lease or sell it a nuclear submarine.
Yet, despite its reluctance to openly criticise Moscow, India has been shipping humanitarian aid to Ukraine. Like China, it may be placing a “two-way” bet.
A major concern for both India and China is the growing support amongst their own citizens for Ukraine, as seen on social media commentary in both countries. In democratic India individuals expressing their political views on social media is neither new nor surprising. But in China, where social media is tightly controlled by the State, it has been surprising to see the growing support for the Ukrainian people and concern for their suffering. Most surprising is that Beijing has not cracked down on the commentary despite its official position that the US and NATO bear responsibility for the crisis, and its reluctance to criticise Moscow. It will be interesting to see if Beijing starts to censor the pro-Ukrainian social media commentary before it snowballs. (Update since the time of writing - information out of China suggests pro-Ukraine comments on social media have been scrubbed!)
Behind the scenes efforts
Let's hope New Delhi and Beijing place some behind the scenes pressure on Putin to withdraw from Ukraine and find a diplomatic solution. While the West has found it convenient to publicly criticise both New Delhi and Beijing for not condemning Moscow, it is possible both countries and their leaders are approaching things in an Asian way with quiet, behind the scenes conversations.
In the meantime, we should resist the temptation to assign black and white hats to all the players. Indeed, even some of those who signed onto the UN resolution might be motivated more by self-interest than altruism. Just consider how long it took to get all the European nations to sign up to real sanctions that would bite because of the impact some harsher measures on Russia would have on their own economies. It’s not personal; it’s geopolitics.