24.03.23 Review

The Divided South: there is not necessarily a correlation between lack of support for sanctions and support for Russia

It is commonly believed that Ukraine's allies are primarily located in the ‘Global North’ (or as Russian propaganda calls it, the ‘collective West’), while countries in the ‘Global South’, which includes those in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, sympathise with Russia or remain neutral. On closer inspection, however, it becomes evident that this is not actually the case. Two-thirds of countries located in the Global South, or a third of its overall population, are willing to demonstrate political support for Ukraine, but remain hesitant when it comes to joining Western sanctions. Generally speaking, there is a correlation between a country’s willingness to join the sanctions regime and its level of material wealth. It is important to note, however, that this pragmatic approach does not indicate actual support for Russia in the war. As a result, the Kremlin's hopes of gaining the sympathies of the Global South appear somewhat unrealistic, and the arrest warrant recently issued for Vladimir Putin by the International Criminal Court in The Hague further undermines Russia’s aspirations in this area.

According to Nicolas Véron, a senior fellow at the Bruegel think tank and the Peterson Institute for International Economics (USA), the commonly held belief (shared by experts from Ukraine, the West, and the Global South itself) that Ukraine is supported primarily by wealthy Western nations in the Global North, while the rest of the world (the Global South) either sympathises with Russia or remains neutral, is incorrect. 

Véron has proposed a classification system that positions countries with a per capita GDP of over $15,000 per year in the Global North, as well as EU member states Bulgaria and Romania, despite their lower level of prosperity. By this definition, Russia and Ukraine belong to the Global South, whereas Chile and Uruguay, which are located in the Southern Hemisphere, would be classified as part of the Global North. Such an approach reveals that approximately 85% of the world’s population and just under 40% of global GDP are located in the Global South.

According to Véron’s system, the position of each country is determined based on their stance in the voting held by the UN General Assembly on February 23, 2023, which largely aligned with the results of similar votes held in 2022. Those who voted in support of the call for Russia to ‘immediately, completely and unconditionally withdraw its armed forces from Ukraine within its internationally recognised borders’ are regarded as supporters of Ukraine, while those who opposed this statement are considered to be supporters of Russia. Countries that abstained from voting or did not send representatives to vote are deemed neutral.

According to the votes cast at the UN, Ukraine received support from all 53 countries of the Global North, as well as from two-thirds of the 136 countries of the Global South, where approximately one-third of the world's population lives. Although almost half of the GDP of the Global South comes from formally neutral China, nearly half of the remaining GDP is contributed by major countries that support Ukraine, including Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico, Nigeria, and the Philippines.

Voting by countries of the Global South at the UN General Assembly, February 23, 2023

Véron goes on to argue that it is not entirely justifiable to attribute certain attitudes to Global South countries based simply on the fact that they failed to support the sanctions imposed on Russia by the Global North. He notes that a country's stance towards sanctions generally aligns with its level of economic prosperity. Among countries with the highest GDP per capita (or, put simply, the richest countries), Ukraine received 100% support, while in the third quartile it received 77%, in the next group 65%, and among the poorest countries, the level of support stood at 51%. This trend is also evident among the G20 countries: the ten wealthiest countries have implemented sanctions against Russia, while the ten poorest have not.

This means that it is crucial to differentiate between political support for Ukraine and the willingness to pay economically for this support, as there is a significant divide between poorer and wealthier countries on this issue. While the population and elites of poorer countries may express political support for Ukraine, the situation changes when they are asked to contribute financially. Once this issue comes into the picture, support for any pro-Ukrainian parties within the country may be quashed, and the support itself may be perceived as something imposed from above by the ‘rich North’. Further, a popular anti-colonial narrative may start working against Western and pro-Ukrainian parties as well.

According to various reports (Meduza has written about this here, citing government sources), the Kremlin had hoped to win the support of the Global South in 2023 by promoting Vladimir Putin as a ‘fighter against the West,’ ‘a defender of Latin American and African countries from colonial oppression’, and ‘one of the leaders of a multipolar world’. This strategy was reportedly one of the key factors behind Russia's acceptance of the ‘grain deal’ last year, as well as its subsequent accusations that the West was not complying with the deal.

However, the recent decision by the International Criminal Court in The Hague to issue an arrest warrant for Vladimir Putin has made it more challenging for Russia to implement its strategy of winning sympathy from the Global South. While Russia’s most significant economic partners — China, India, and Turkey — do not recognise the court's decision, most countries in South America and Africa do. The upcoming BRICS summit in South Africa in August 2023 is likely to be affected if Putin attends. The country’s authorities have reported that they have ‘taken note’ of the arrest warrant. However, even if they were to ignore it, Putin’s participation in the summit would no doubt cause a scandal and detract from the summit's focus on international cooperation, as well as harming the host country's image. ‘Dictators often seek legitimacy through international recognition, which is why they place great emphasis on establishing ties with foreign governments,’ notes Alexander Baunov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Center. ‘Lacking legitimacy inside the country, an authoritarian regime makes up for it through international relations: look, everyone recognises us! People visit us and are glad to see us.’