By Siphamandla Zondi and Hellen Adogo
Russia, a member of the BRICS business group, has been isolated by the West for its invasion of Ukraine. This war has sent shock waves throughout the world.
The nations in the bloc, Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, are feeling the negative impact on their geopolitical unity. This is undermining their focus on enhancing the cohesiveness of their policy agenda, which is centred on inclusive robust economic growth. What should be made of this, and how should the BRICS respond to it?
On May 19, the ministers responsible for international relations within the BRICS met to discuss the bloc’s response to international developments. Key among the developments, and perhaps second only to the Covid-19 pandemic, was the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the devastating war that has ensued.
A large part of the world, including members of BRICS, has expressed concerns about Russia’s military operation. Most countries understand Moscow’s fears about the expansion of Nato’s war machinery eastwards towards the western border of Russia. However, they are overwhelmingly opposed to the use of military force to respond.
They believe that negotiations and diplomacy, might resolve Russia’s issues far more effectively. They also believe that the Ukraine situation might be resolved through diplomacy. To demonstrate this, several countries have decided to abstain from voting on resolutions that condemn Russia’s response to Nato’s expansion while ignoring the issues posed by the Nato military alliances’ expansion, which dates from the Cold Wars’ darkest days.
Of course, Russia’s military incursions into Ukraine are also part of that dark history. Even though many pro-peace developing countries voted in favour of US-sponsored resolutions at the UN, they did so while emphasising peaceful resolution and opposing the influx of weapons of war into Ukraine. Most of the BRICS countries have taken a nonaligned stance, calling for negotiated solutions in the Ukraine conflict.
Russia and Nato have expressed disappointment about the lack of support for their pro-war strategies. Major developing countries have been consistent since the 1960s when they responded to the first Cold War between two parts of greater Europe, the Soviet Union and West Europe and its diaspora in North America.
There are numerous flaws in this strategic posture, but the truth is that key BRICS countries and other developing countries seek peaceful methods in order to create the ideal atmosphere for sustainable development. Civilisational fights undermine their development aspirations, and they have little desire to defend or advance their interests in a European war.
This divergence of viewpoints on the war is reflected in the BRICS ministers’ statement, which reads: “The ministers reaffirmed their respective national stances on the situation in Ukraine, as expressed in the appropriate fora, namely the UN Security Council and the UN General Assembly.
They were in favour of a Russia-Ukraine dialogue. They also expressed their concern about the humanitarian situation in and around Ukraine, and their support for the UN secretary-general, UN agencies, and the International Committee of the Red Cross’s efforts to provide humanitarian aid in accordance with the UN General Assembly Resolution 46/182.”
There is no support for Russia’s military involvement, nor is there support for Russia’s isolation or arming of Ukraine. Instead, the BRICS countries opted to respect one another’s country’s perspective on the issue.
They all agree to support a Russia-Ukraine dialogue as well as UN-led efforts to provide humanitarian aid to Ukraine. It appears that their national economic interests take precedence over a Western objective of preserving Ukraine’s freedom. It does not help that the West did not begin by forming an alliance with all parties involved in the first place, but instead appears to have expected others to simply toe its line.
Developing countries fear being hoodwinked into Western agendas clothed in a humanitarian language as it has happened in the past. For the bigger BRICS countries, the situation is unique. The West has demonised China and Russia, yet it expects them to support Western agendas.
For more than a decade, Sinophobia and Russophobia have been central to Western geopolitical thinking. The present US Democratic administration and the Republican administration before it have increased their vigorous counterbalancing of Chinese dominance in the region.
The US began a trade war with China and escalated it during Covid19, which it blames on China. The US president has signalled a significant shift in US policy by pledging to engage China militarily if it invades Taiwan. It is unimaginable that China would join a US-led coalition in Ukraine. What effect does this have on the West’s horizontal alliances?
Because Russia justifies its operation as defending national sovereignty against Nato and pro-Nato Ukraine, BRICS countries can only reason and persuade Russia quietly, lest they be perceived as compromising their principle of advancing and protecting national sovereignty. Is this morally acceptable? Maybe not.
However, principles remain principles. This is how they have dealt with India’s problems with Pakistan and China’s conflict with countries in the South China Sea. The BRICS bloc operates based on its founding principles and consensus, which necessitates compromise.
We saw this when the US invaded Iraq, the G8 was unified by a consensus despite a few countries disagreeing with Washington. Such is the nature of multilateral diplomacy.
* Prof Zondi is the director of the Institute of Pan-African Thought and Conversation, University of Johannesburg. Adogo is a research assistant at the Institute of Pan-African Thought and Conversation, University of Johannesburg.