I am washing my face before bed while a country is on fire.
It feels dumb to wash my face, and dumb not to.
It has never been this way, and it has always been this way.
Someone has always clinked a cocktail glass in one hemisphere as someone loses a home in another while someone falls in love in the same apartment building where someone grieves.
The fact that suffering, mundanity and beauty coincide is unbearable and remarkable.
Mari Andrew, ‘Notes from the First Few Days of 2020’
The quote above poignantly encapsulates the plurality of experiences of people located in different geographies, which in turn shapes their perceptions and also the decision to make choices. My source of information on the Ukraine crisis comes from the media mostly based in the West but also from India (where I spent some weeks during the crisis). It also meant that I was in a comfortable position and had the choice to turn off the news and completely distance myself from the ongoing state of affairs at an individual level. The people in Ukraine, who have been directly impacted, do not have the choice. This is their lived experience, something which should be prioritized in any discussion on Ukraine so as not to marginalize and silence those voices which often get lost in the state, security, and sovereignty discourse prevalent in International Relations. Keeping this in mind, I examined the media discourses existing in India and Germany, the two locations where I have been during the Ukraine crisis.
While there was no disagreement that Russia is the aggressor, the way it has been reported in Germany versus in India varies significantly as will be the case of people based outside Europe. I have been often asked about the neutral stance that India and other Global South countries took (viewed as support for Russia and a rejection of the US and European stance at a general level) and if I think it is justified. India’s behaviour cannot and does not represent the entirety of the Global South, however, most of the countries have followed a similar angle, barring a few exceptions like Kenya. This piece is an effort to understand and explore the concerns and dilemmas of the Global South, in general, in aligning with the so-called ‘West’ against Russia and why the perspectives and perceptions differ.
The privilege of choice
The world is recuperating from the effects and shocks of the Covid pandemic, despite the difference in experiences and impact across the Global North and the Global South. The war in Ukraine seems to have bifurcated this ‘post-Covid’ world between Global North, which outrightly supported Ukrainian efforts against Russian aggression, and those who were more cautious about the sanction regime and the tough stance, mainly the Global South. Apart from the US, the UK, Canada, South Korea, Japan, Australia, Taiwan, and the EU among others, few nations have chosen to participate in the economic warfare and sanctions directed against the Putin government (Adler 2022). In fact, many of the world’s largest nations – including China, India, Brazil, Pakistan, Indonesia, South Africa – have refused to jump on the bandwagon of the former countries, on account of different geopolitical and domestic interests and needs. The contrast between these geographies could not have been more striking due to the lack of understanding about the privilege of choice between those who have and those who do not have this choice (primarily countries of the Global South). There is a Swahili saying that can be translated as ‘When the elephants make love, the grass gets crushed, when the elephants fight, the grass gets crushed’. The grass can metaphorically be used for the Global South, in general, and Ukraine in particular, as their choices have been limited in terms of their responses. Ukraine has been trying to defend its sovereignty and the lives of its people against imperial Russia, and the Global South has been trying to minimize the impact of the war on its people due to the food and energy shortages caused. These difficulties in positions and contexts make it difficult for the Global South to have a clear choice of supporting the West in the Ukraine crisis.
‘The West’ versus ‘the Rest’ divide
Keeping the difficult dilemma in mind, many countries (in the Global South) have taken a neutral stance or have abstained from voting against Russia in the Security Council, General Assembly, or Human Rights Council resolutions (as shown in the table below). This in no way underlines their support for Russia. These countries have largely sympathized with the plight of the Ukrainian people and view Russia as the aggressor as mentioned in their explanation of voting in various United Nations (UN) resolutions. However, the Western demands of making costly sacrifices by sanctioning and cutting off economic ties with Russia to uphold a ‘rules-based order’ have begotten an allergic reaction (Parsi 2022). The argument, on the lines of postcolonial and decolonial approaches in IR, given by most countries (who have experienced worse sides of international order) is that this ‘rules-based order’ has not been rules-based in reality; instead, it has allowed the prominent powers like the US to violate international law with impunity whether it was Iraq, Afghanistan, former Yugoslavia, or others.
Getting entangled in this discourse of ‘either/or’ does not appeal to many in the Global South – certainly not for the sake of restoring a ‘flawed’ order designed by the West, which also gets an undue advantage out of this order, which has been designed and shaped by it and at times breached too. It raises the questions about who sets the agenda, who benefits from it and who are not part of the agenda setting or excluded from it, only to face the ramifications of such norms, regimes, positions, and order?
The Global South and the Ukraine crisis: Concerns and dilemmas
The Global South is not a homogenous category and the responses to the Ukraine crisis have shown that too. However, there are certain elements which bind most of the countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America together, especially their colonial past. This has shaped their perceptions and perspectives on responding to international crisis while keeping the domestic impact and concerns in mind. India has taken a neutral stance and has not overtly criticized Russia; Kenya has been openly critical of Russia and supported the sanctions; the African Union has publicly condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine but has shied away from introducing its own sanctions regime highlighting certain concerns. So, what are these concerns that are alien to the Global North and have shaped their response to the crisis?
The primary common concern of the majority is food security amidst the bombing of the bread basket of the world, threatening the world to a ‘hurricane of hunger’ as stated by UN Secretary-General António Guterres as early as mid-March. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN global food prices could still rise by as much as 22 per cent, reaching their highest level ever. In countries of the Global North, food prices do not impact as heavily as in countries of the Global South, where the largest portion of people’s income is spent on daily meals. Ukraine and the Russian Federation provide 30 per cent of the world’s wheat and barley, one-fifth of its maize, and over half of its sunflower oil. Together, their grain feeds the poorest and most vulnerable people, providing more than one-third of the wheat imported by 45 African and least-developed countries and 18 countries among them import more than 50 per cent. These include Egypt, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen, which are already dependent on humanitarian aid and food supplies because millions of people are currently suffering from massive hunger (Fox 2022). As UN Assistant-Secretary General Ahunna Eziakonwa accords, ‘Disruptions to supply chains in Russia and Ukraine will have pushed imported food prices beyond the reach of many, while the exorbitant price of fertiliser will limit the supply of homegrown foods’. This in turn also affects inflation and economic activity, pushing many countries even further into the debt trap.
The rising inflation and the increased debt mean that most low-income African households are now in energy poverty, or have no access to electricity. As the world’s second largest producer of gas and third largest of oil, Russia is adept at manipulating its energy leverage and it blames the West for the rising fuel and energy costs at the moment. In addition to the immediate impact on energy needs and costs, the shortage due to the sanctions imposed on Russia has implications for global energy security as well as climate change (which has been completely sidelined in the past few months following the Ukraine War). Moreover, high energy costs could derail efforts towards long-term decarbonization, with the short-term agenda dominated by domestic energy security concerns for countries dependent on fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and gas. Most Least Developed Countries are net importers of energy, and they face balance of payment problems that challenge the imperative of climate-resilient adaptation and energy transitions.
Dilemmas over energy security induced by the Russia-Ukraine standoff have to be linked to broader questions about climate change. The progress made by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has been put on hold since countries have started exploring alternative sources of energy at the cost of green energy. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has said the Kremlin’s assault on Ukraine will likely have major implications for global heating targets, particularly as many countries turn to coal or imports of liquefied natural gas.
Apart from the global humanitarian concerns discussed above, the media discourses have not considered the geopolitical contexts of different regions. For example, many countries from the Global South, unlike Europe and the US, do not see Russia as a threat. India and other countries in Asia (like Philippines, Vietnam) consider China as a cause of concern and often a more dangerous aggressor. Some of them want to maintain their relations with Russia to be able to balance the rising threat from China. This has led to more discussion about the defence expenditure and less on humanitarian efforts required and the human cost of war, and this is a dangerous precedent not boding well for international peace and security. Ukraine’s struggle against Russia’s aggression reminds us again that war is not an abstract board game – as has been conceived traditionally in much of the classical International Relations theorizing (Mälksoo 2022). Instead, it is an intensely existential experience for those dragged into this reality (Sylvester 2013) without having the privilege of choice.
The war and the resultant rift expose the fault lines that exist in the international system between the countries in terms of who gets impacted and how. It has led us to rethink foundational questions in international politics about security, national sovereignty, interventionism, democracy versus autocracy, human rights, and the global world order. This also includes re-examining the magnitude of the cost of war in terms of humanitarian crisis, cyber-attacks, economic hardships as well as disinformation and propaganda campaigns, refugee crisis, and geopolitical tensions about supply chains impacting on the human cost of war. Despite the difference in contexts, perceptions, and responses to the crisis, it has to be understood that in the current globalized world, it is not possible to limit a war like this or in other parts of the world, to one region or geography. We cannot keep radiation in one country’s geographical borders, or eliminate one country from the fragility of supply chains (Kaster-Buchkovsa 2022). This means that irrespective of the results, this war will redefine the global peace and security infrastructure. My biggest fear is that few years down the line, Ukraine crisis will be relegated to the pages of the same history book that contains Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, and Mali. My biggest hope is that I am proven wrong and peace will prevail over war.
 The term Global South is not a homogenous category; however, it is used here as a shorthand for formerly colonized entities.
 The term Global North is used here as a shorthand for industrialized countries.
Fox, Benjamin (2022). ‘Ukraine War Risks Causing African Food and Energy Crisis, Says UN Official’, Euractiv, available at: https://www.euractiv.com/section/africa/news/ukraine-war-risks-causing-african-food-and-energy-crisis-says-un-official (accessed 6 June 2022).
Sylvester, Christine (2013). War as Experience: Contributions from International Relations and Feminist Analysis, New York, NY: Routledge.
Adler, David (2022). ‘The West v Russia: Why the Global South isn’t Taking Sides’, The Guardian, available at: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2022/mar/10/russia-ukraine-west-global-south-sanctions-war (accessed 30 May 2022).
Mälksoo, Maria (2022): ‘The Postcolonial Moment in Russia’s War Against Ukraine’, Journal of Genocide Research (online first), available at: https://doi.org/10.1080/14623528.2022.2074947
Katser-Buchkovska, Nataliya (2022). ‘The Consequences of the War in Ukraine Will be Far-Reaching’, World Economic Forum, available at: https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2022/04/an-unfair-war-economic-social-and-security-consequences-of-the-russian-invasion-into-ukraine (accessed 5 June 2022).
Parsi, Trita (2022). ‘Why Non-Western Countries Tend to see Russia’s War Very, Very Differently’, MSNBC Daily, available at: https://www.msnbc.com/opinion/msnbc-opinion/ukraine-russia-war-looks-very-different-outside-west-n1294280?mc_cid=7713fd6c97&mc_eid=e8a39ed370 (accessed 6 June 2022).
About the Author
Dr Siddharth Tripathi is the Project Leader and Senior Research Fellow at the University of Erfurt, as part of the network on Postcolonial Hierarchies in Peace and Conflict. He was a Senior Research Fellow at the Käte Hamburger Kolleg, the University of Duisburg-Essen where he worked on the politics of knowledge production in IR. He completed his PhD at the School of International Relations, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi on civilian crisis management operations in post-conflict societies. His research and teaching interests include ‘non-western’ perspectives in IR and peace and conflict studies.