Why the Global South is fed up with being lectured on Russia-Ukraine

Countries held back by past superpower violence have little patience left for a faraway 'call to arms'

Houses and armoured vehicle destroyed during the fighting between Russian and Ukrainian armed forces in Klishchiivka, Donetsk region, Ukraine. AP
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Many have wondered why the Global South has not been a firmer ally of the US-led coalition backing Ukraine against Russia. Why, in general, are they advocates of a swift peace, rather than fighting as long as it takes for Ukraine to regain all its territories? Further, why do some consider it to be an American “forever war”, or an essentially European dispute that has little to do with them?

Several events during and around the week of the UN General Assembly have provided clarity, as the myths of the black and white narrative that casts Kyiv as a democratic David against Moscow’s neo-imperialist Goliath begin to evaporate.

Firstly, there are many overwhelming challenges facing developing countries, not least climate change. But as the UK Foreign Secretary James Cleverly admitted while in New York for UNGA, his counterparts in the Global South often feel that all they hear from G7 leaders is “Ukraine, Ukraine, Ukraine”.

Colombia’s president Gustav Petro made the point in a blistering speech to the assembly. “They have called us to war,” he said, referring to US president Biden’s maximalist allies in Europe and North America. “They call for men to go to battlefields. They are forgetting that our countries were invaded several times by the very same people who are now talking about fighting invasions. They forgot that to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals all wars must be brought to an end.”

Mr Petro then turned to the unfulfilled pledge made at Cop15 in 2009. “They broke their own promises to finance adaptation to climate change. They don’t have $100 billion to give to countries to defend themselves from floods, storms and hurricanes. But they do have that money, in a single day, so that Russians and Ukrainians kill each other.”

The myths of the black and white narrative that casts Kyiv as a democratic David against Moscow’s neo-imperialist Goliath begin to evaporate.

Second, the “Russia must be defeated” party has told us again and again that the invasion of Ukraine was “unprovoked” and that it had nothing to do with Nato’s expansion eastwards. But speaking to the EU parliament just before the UNGA, Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg “committed a Washington gaffe”, as Columbia professor Jeffrey Sachs put it – “meaning that he accidentally blurted out the truth”.

Russian president Vladimir Putin wanted the treaty organisation to sign a promise “never to enlarge Nato”, said Mr Stoltenberg. “That… was a pre-condition to not invade Ukraine. Of course, we didn’t sign that…. So he went to war to prevent Nato, more Nato, close to his borders.”

Ah, so it turns out that this war may have been avoidable after all. That isn’t surprising. As far back as 1997 the fabled US geo-strategist George Kennan warned that “expanding Nato would be the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-cold-war era”.

Third, the war has been described as democracy facing “a test for the ages”, as Mr Biden put it on September 15. But Republican Senator Rand Paul undermined that notion in a speech to his colleagues last week. “Ukraine is one of the most corrupt countries on the planet, maybe second only to Russia,” he said. “Some say the war in Ukraine is a fight to save democracy. But those who say that need to be honest with themselves.” The country has cancelled its next presidential election, whereas America still held one during its civil war, he pointed out. “We’re going to send $100 billion to a country that now has what, a president for life? This is not the only concerning development. He has banned the political opposition.” (Eleven parties were suspended just after the invasion for alleged links with Russia.) “How do you have a democracy if you’re not going to have elections and you ban the opposition?”

Indeed, if it really is about democracy, why isn’t Mr Biden more concerned about Georgia? Two years in a row I have seen the country’s prime minister, Irakli Garibashvili, dolefully remind delegates at Qatar Economic Forum that, just as in Ukraine, Russia occupies 20 per cent of his country. Freedom House actually rates Georgia as freer than Ukraine. But the fate of its democracy is evidently less pressing.

In fact, the more that emerges about Ukraine – from the admission that Nazi imagery is more commonplace than previously admitted, to the revelation that a force of far-right Russians is fighting on their side – the less of a paragon of liberal democracy the country appears to be.

This is in no way to condone the invasion. It was unequivocally wrong, and it seems certain that appalling war crimes have been committed. But Global South countries can see the double standards. They can also see what US defence secretary Lloyd Austin stated as far back as April 2022 – that the Biden administration’s real aim is to “weaken Russia”. To that end, conflict in Ukraine can apparently go on and on. According to the historian Niall Ferguson, the director of planning and command at the German defence ministry, General Christian Freuding, told a conference in Kyiv earlier this month, “No one expects the war to be over within six months.” His government was planning with a “time horizon of 2032”.

Calling for an early resolution to the war, by means of a ceasefire or whatever else, can lead to accusations of cynicism and amorality. Mr Putin would be rewarded for his aggression, would be the charge. But what I find far more cynical and amoral is allowing hundreds of thousands of Russians and Ukrainians to die in what everyone thinks is now going to be a long war of attrition. All for what? To bring to its knees Russia, a country that many in the Global South regard as an old friend in the anti-colonial struggle and which may be America’s enemy – but is in no way theirs.

Why should they back the US in the latest edition of what Democratic presidential candidate Robert Kennedy Jr calls the “forever wars” to which it is still addicted? No wonder they want no part in it. Colombia’s president Petro spoke for many in his speech, when he asked if it wasn’t time to end all wars, “and take advantage of this short time to build paths to save life on the planet”.

Published: September 27, 2023, 2:00 PM