Why are some nations neutral on the Russia-Ukraine war?

Countries in Asia, Africa and the Middle East have refused to isolate Moscow, despite the EU’s lobbying efforts.

Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with Senegal's President and Chairperson of the African Union (AU) Macky Sall in Sochi, Russia
Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with Senegal's President and Chairperson of the African Union (AU) Macky Sall in Sochi on June 3, 2022 [Mikhail Klimentyev/Sputnik/ AFP]

Brussels, Belgium – European Union officials are meeting in Brussels on Thursday, where they are soon expected to grant EU candidacy status to Ukraine in a gesture of solidarity amid the conflict with Russia.

At the same time, the bloc has been carrying out a global lobbying campaign to boost support for Kyiv, with EU chief Ursula von der Leyen, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Finnish President Sanna Marin and other European leaders travelling to South Asia – namely India, Africa, the Asia Pacific and Middle East.

New trade deals have been signed and more humanitarian and financial support has been pledged, in an attempt to support some of these nations to ease off their dependency on Russia.

But speaking at the GLOBSEC forum in Bratislava earlier this month, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, the Indian foreign minister, said that Europe should grow out of the mindset that its problems are the world’s problems.

“The world cannot be that Eurocentric that it used to be in the past,” he said.

“If I were to take Europe collectively, which has been singularly silent on many things which were happening, for example in Asia, you could ask why would anybody in Asia trust Europe on anything at all,” he added.


According to Vivek Mishra, fellow at the Observer Research Foundation (ORF) in New Delhi, “Eurocentrism has been challenged in academia on multiple occasions but perhaps for the first time by a leading Indian policy maker on Europe’s turf.”

He told Al Jazeera that Jaishankar’s comments were “consistent with the EU’s shift to the Indo-Pacific from the transatlantic and underscore the idea that Asian problems are as important as anywhere in the world”.

He added: “There cannot be a comparative advantage to Europe or the West over Asia or Asian affairs. There is a colonial tinge there, which needed to be called out.”

India’s balancing act of appeasing both Russia and the West has caught the EU off guard but in New Delhi April in April, von der Leyen reiterated the dangers of the war in Ukraine at a press conference.

“The outcome of [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s war will not only determine the future of Europe but also deeply affect the Indo-Pacific region and the rest of the world. For the Indo-Pacific, it is as important as for Europe that borders are respected. And that spheres of influence are rejected. We want a positive vision for a peaceful and prosperous Indo-Pacific,” she told reporters.

At the time, the EU had established a joint trade and technology council with India with an aim to bolster economic and strategic ties with the country.

But India has continued to maintain its neutral stance towards Russia.

The African Union has also not bought into the EU’s lobbying efforts to isolate Russia.

Concerned about the global food crisis, at a recent meeting with EU leaders, Macky Sall, the president of Senegal and chairperson of the African Union (AU), said that the bloc’s sanctions on Russia threatened the import of grains and fertilisers to Africa.

In an interview with the French weekly newspaper Le Journal du Dimanche, Sall said that the AU wants to pay (for imports of grains and fertilisers) but it was now “becoming impossible”.

“So we ask the Europeans for the same mechanism as for gas and oil,” he said.

The AU leader also met Putin in early June and they agreed that sanctions would not solve the food crisis.

“I understand the sentiment of these regions, because when countries in Africa and Asia have had wars, Europe has sometimes played a one-sided game,” Jacob F Kirkegaard, senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund, told Al Jazeera.

“The EU has certainly underestimated the fact that the sheer outrage felt within the continent about this war and enmity towards Russia isn’t shared by the rest of the world,” he added.

But Harry Nedelcu, head of policy at Rasmussen Global and in charge of its Free Ukraine Task Force, told Al Jazeera that the onus is also on Russia.

“The response of the Indian foreign minister and also the statements from the African Union illustrate Russia’s narrative and its ability to turn reality on its head and make the victim look like it is the problem,” he said.

“Russia’s basically saying that the food crisis is Ukraine’s fault. But in reality, the food is not going out because Russia is invading Ukraine. Russia attacked Ukraine and has blocked Ukrainian grain from reaching the rest of the world,” he added.

Path ahead

Speaking to reporters in Brussels on Monday, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell acknowledged the African leader’s concerns. But he stressed that the problem should not be blamed on EU sanctions.

“I have sent a letter to all African foreign affairs ministers, explaining how our sanctions are being tailored – how they work, whom they affect, what can be allowed under the sanctions or not,” he said.

He also added that the EU has pledged $1.06bn to address food insecurity in the Sahel, $633m for urgent support to strengthen food systems’ resilience in the Horn of Africa and $237m to mitigate the effects of potential emerging food crises in North Africa and the Middle East.

“This is part of the action plan on geopolitical consequences of the Russian aggression,” Borrell said.

But according to ORF’s Mishra, ultimately the West, including the EU, has perhaps been more successful in solidifying an intra-West network rather than an inter-regional network with other areas of the world.

“With the war still raging on, most countries outside the transatlantic have harked back to the classic notion of realism which is ‘self-help’. They have been selective on which issues they can afford going with the West, and the ones on which they can’t,” he said.

“Whether it is Russian energy trade, bilateral currency channels with Moscow or travel and connectivity with Russia, countries have acted to suit their individual interests more than upholding morality, human rights or even expectations,” he added.

But Nedelcu stressed that for now, the EU’s priority while lobbying globally, should be to tackle the Russian narrative.

“The EU has to be more proactive in explaining who the victim is and who the aggressor is. That’s the only way to tackle Russia’s ability to twist the reality of situations and divide the world,” he said.

Source: Al Jazeera