The Russia–China Alliance versus the West
The Ukraine war has further entrenched and exacerbated the geopolitical rivalry between the West and the Russia–China camp. This new 'Superpower Plus' clash leaves the so-called ‘Rest’ in a difficult position, with some countries feeling pressure to choose sides, and others trying to remain neutral. Worryingly, many are leaning closer to the Russia–China position than the West.
In the 2 March vote at the UN General Assembly, 141 countries ‘deplored the aggression’ committed by Russia against Ukraine, with five votes against (not surprisingly, these were Belarus, Eritrea, North Korea, Syria and, of course, Russia).
But 35 countries abstained, indicating tacit support for Russia, and these votes came from across the globe: from El Salvador to Equatorial Guinea to Namibia to Mongolia. The abstainers also represent places that will be significantly impacted by the negative spill-over from the war, whether in terms of food scarcity, prohibitive energy prices, supply chain blockages or rising inflation, which could lead to a global recession and new refugee flows.
Many in the Global South simply do not share the sense of moral outrage and strategic threat that is felt in the Euro-Atlantic bubble. ‘It’s not our war, it’s a European problem’ and ‘what about the many conflicts on our continent that you ignored?’ sums up the prevailing mood. American and European governments preoccupied by maintaining a coalition at the same time as handling pressing domestic issues have come late to understanding the implications of this.
While they congratulate themselves on the tactical impact of weapons they are supplying to Ukraine, Western powers are only now registering the strategic impact of losing the battle between competing narratives. And this matters, because the political and intellectual isolation of the West will serve only to break apart an already fragile coalition into its parochially minded constituent parts. It will also leave the way open for naked aggression to be rewarded, and repeated. Significantly, it would mark the reversion to an international system dominated by power blocs and the inherent tensions that accompany this.
The evidence for the loss of the narrative battle is there in plain sight, especially among the 'Rest’. Ukraine no longer dominates the news agenda, and the recurring theme globally is a negotiated end to the conflict on Russian terms, rather than the defeat of Russian forces. Perversely, fighting in the south and east of Ukraine does not elicit the outrage that the failed seizure of Kyiv provoked; indeed, it is in danger of becoming normalised. At the same time, Russian accusations that the West and NATO are responsible for the growing food crisis because of Western sanctions are cutting through to audiences outside the Euro-Atlantic bubble – as is Russian leverage of the European colonial legacy, casting the war in Ukraine as a struggle against NATO neo-imperialism.
Returning to more conventional methods of exerting influence, the one country that has fully aligned with Russia – China – is also the one that has a clear opportunity to burnish its credentials as a positive actor on the international stage, by encouraging Russia in the direction of moderation. Not only is President Xi Jinping the only leader Putin might listen to, but he is also a voice guaranteed to resonate among the ‘Rest’. Doing so would also significantly improve the current frosty standoff between the US and China, and contribute to a course correction in relations.
Only the Ukrainians can decide when they will come to the negotiating table and what they might be willing to concede – a situation recognised and accepted by Western governments. Those same Western governments can, however, go some way to shaping the strategic context with more effective engagement of the ‘Rest’, a constituency they neglect at their peril.