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BRICS face both ways on Ukraine invasion

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As the unprovoked Russian invasion of Ukraine unfolds, Western countries such as the United States, United Kingdom, and the European Union bloc have imposed sanctions on Moscow, supplied weapons to Kyiv, and are talking tough.

The North Atlantic Treaty Alliance (NATO) has vociferously denounced Russia’s actions, and warned Moscow against attacking its 30 members.

The BRICS – the bloc of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa – has had different reactions to the flagrant flouting of international law by one of its own. These countries have all exhibited squeamishness in criticising their ally, Russia.

The New Delhi Declaration of the 13th BRICS summit in September 2021, endorsed by all five BRICS leaders, said, “We … underscore the inadmissibility of the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state … We affirm our commitment to the principles of non-interference in the internal affairs of states and reiterate that all conflicts must be resolved by peaceful means and through diplomatic and political efforts in line with the international law.”

The BRICS website says nothing about the invasion, unsurprisingly. The bloc is largely silent between summits.

South Africa is flip-flopping and out of step with its equivocating BRICS counterparts. A first department of international relations and cooperation (Dirco) statement on 23 February was headed, “South African government is concerned about the escalating tensions between Russia and Ukraine”. It urged all sides to find a diplomatic solution, and said that the United Nations should play a key role. It was widely criticised as a vague and weak effort, unwilling to finger Russia. Russian tanks were already rolling into Ukraine.

The next day, as the invasion intensified, Dirco issued a second, tougher statement. It said, “South Africa calls on Russia immediately to withdraw its forces from Ukraine in line with the United Nations Charter, which enjoins all member states to settle their international disputes by peaceful means … South Africa emphasises respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of states.” It urged diplomacy again, and gave a nod to Russia’s view of events: “… In light of the escalating conflict, we call on all parties to resume diplomatic efforts to find a solution to the concerns raised by Russia.”

But then South Africa appeared to be firmly in the Russian camp. The defence minister and military top brass attended a Russian military function at the embassy after the invasion, and drank champagne. President Cyril Ramaphosa asserted that the second Dirco statement contradicted Pretoria’s cozy relations with Moscow. Confusion reigns.

Brazil, under its right-of-centre President Jair Bolsonaro, isn’t interested in BRICS. Brazil’s ministry of foreign affairs published a tepid, fence-sitting statement. Brazil’s cabinet chief, Ciro Nogueira, said Brazil wouldn’t adopt “the position of NATO, neither that of Russia, nor that of China, our position is that of Brazil, that is why it’s not a position of neutrality, it’s a position of balance”, Bolsonaro publicly chided his vice-president for siding with Ukraine. Was this in deference to Russia or connected to Brazil’s bid to join the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development?

What China says matters. Pictures of Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin smiling together at the recent Beijing Winter Olympic Games beamed around the world. A recently concluded China-Russia summit cemented ties.

“Putin held back the invasion until after the end of the Olympics, not to embarrass China,” China expert Dr Cobus van Staden told the SA Jewish Report, “but Chinese diplomats were apparently not informed of the invasion either. So they were dismissing the possibility until right before it took place, which was embarrassing and indicates that there’s more distance there than one might assume.”

China, too, is hedging its bets. Foreign Minister Wang Yi said, “China respects each country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity … At the same time, we also see the Ukraine problem has a complex and particular historical state of affairs, and we understand Russia’s reasonable concern on security issues.” Wang stressed the need for diplomacy. China is also looking for clues to how the world might react to a possible invasion of Taiwan.

China abstained – with India and the United Arab Emirates – on a UN Security Council resolution deploring the invasion. Russia (surprise, surprise) vetoed it.

Van Staden said, “The choice by China not to veto also signals a lack of confidence in the Russian side. On the one hand, the invasion is clearly a contravention of the Chinese principle of non-interference in states’ domestic affairs. On the other, they have their own concerns about the successive waves of NATO enlargement, so they’re tying themselves into pretzels trying to occupy both positions.”

He said domestic issues are at play too. Hordes of ultra-nationalist young Chinese bloggers see the West and NATO as blocking China’s rise, and ardently support Putin. Yet Chinese censors “haven’t removed all criticism of the invasion from social media [a letter of protest from prominent academics was left up for a while, and less prominent protests are still online.] The latter fact may signal official ambivalence about the invasion.”

Following silence for days, after a conversation with Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi expressed anguish at the violence, and offered for India to “contribute in any way towards peace efforts”. India hasn’t criticised Putin in public, to the West’s chagrin.

On the UN vote, a top Indian diplomat told The Indian Express, “The resolution was dead on arrival… so votes and statements were made to display our positions, principles, and interests. India took a call to abstain in view of its interests, while the statement underlined its principles.”

India explained its decision to abstain. In spite of saying it was “deeply disturbed”, it made no mention of Russia. It called for the cessation of violence and hostilities, and was worried about a reported 16 000 Indians (mostly students) in Ukraine. India also pressed for more diplomatic solutions.

The aggression of the invasion has forced the hand of some BRICS countries and sown confusion in others. History will judge the wisdom of the decisions made in Brasilia, Beijing, New Delhi, and Pretoria.

  • Steven Gruzd heads the Russia-Africa Project at the South African Institute of International Affairs in Johannesburg. He writes in his personal capacity.

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