The Ukrainian government and its supporters are saying that we’re witnessing the start of the Third World War. This is partly just an attempt to talk the West into an even more dangerous confrontation with Russia. But it also ignores the fact that much of the world is sitting out the confrontation between Russia and Ukraine with its backers in Nato, the United States and the European Union.
The most important example is China. President Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin signed a partnership “without limits” just before the Russian invasion of Ukraine. But, although Chinese media outlets have been very critical of the US and NATO, Beijing is clearly nervous about attracting against itself the formidable economic sanctions the West has imposed on Russia.
This attitude is a symptom of the complexities of the three-way competition between the biggest imperialist powers, the US, China, and Russia. But it’s noteworthy that much of the global South is refusing to take sides.
Take the United Nations General Assembly debate on the invasion at the end of last month. Some 141 member states voted for the resolution condemning Russia. Only four—Belarus, Eritrea, Syria and North Korea—joined Russia in voting against.
But another 35 abstained in the vote. They included China, Cuba, India, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, and South Africa. A host of other African countries either abstained or didn’t vote at all. Moreover, David Adler suggests in the Guardian that we should compare the map of the states voting to condemn Russia with “a very different map of the world—a map of global participation in the sanctions set against Russia by the United States and its allies.
“The contrast between these maps could not be more striking. The US, the UK, Canada, South Korea, Switzerland, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Taiwan, Singapore, the EU: beyond this fortified coalition, very few nations have chosen to take part in the economic warfare set against the Putin government.
“On the contrary, many of the world’s largest nations—including China, India, Brazil, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Indonesia, and even Nato ally Turkey—have refused to join in.”
Adler thinks this could mark the beginning of a new Non-Aligned Movement like the one that developed in the 1950s among postcolonial states refusing to take sides in the Cold War. I think that’s unlikely, given that individual states’ motives for not taking sides are very variable. But what’s happening illustrates the decline of US hegemony.
Thus India is manoeuvring in relation to the three-way global struggle. It’s closely aligned with the US against China, but New Delhi and Moscow have been allies since the 1950s, and Russia remains India’s main arms supplier.
The Financial Times reports, “India’s central bank is in initial consultations on a rupee-rouble trade arrangement with Moscow that would enable exports to Russia to continue after Western sanctions restricted international payment mechanisms.”
The Gulf is another interesting example. Historically states the likes of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have depended on the Pentagon for their security. But the situation is changing.
First of all, the Gulf autocracies feel aggrieved with Washington. They haven’t received the support they wanted against the Arab risings and Iran. Secondly, Russia has become an important power in the Middle East since—taking advantage of the partial US retreat in the region—it intervened in the Syrian civil war. This has made even Israel wary of offending Moscow. Thirdly, Russia is an important partner in the OPEC+ bloc of energy producers.
So the Gulf states have ignored Joe Biden’s appeals to increase oil output to bring the price down. And, according to Bloomberg, Saudi Arabia is considering accepting the Chinese renminbi for some of the oil it exports to China.
This highlights one reason for many governments’ wariness about siding with the West.
The US, alongside its European allies, has used their domination of the global financial system to hit Russia hard. This certainly scares many states. But it’s also encouraging them to look to alternatives to the dollar to finance trade. So the lack of real unanimity behind the West is simultaneously a consequence of both US economic decline and US financial supremacy.