Jaipur, India – Even though Ukraine lies 6,000km (3,728 miles), two seas and half a dozen national borders away from Ali Hussein’s hometown, the raven-haired 29-year-old tour guide still feels for the war-torn ex-Soviet nation.
“India is close to Russia and we buy Russian weapons, [but] I am fully on Ukraine’s side,” he told Al Jazeera, standing next to one of the terracotta-coloured buildings that gave Jaipur, a megalopolis of 3 million people, its sobriquet of India’s “Pink City.”
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He was referencing New Delhi’s decades-old ties to Moscow dating back to India’s 1947 independence and the fact that over the past five years, India has gone on a $13bn spending spree on Russian-made weaponry.
He also has personal ties to Ukraine. His cousin attended a medical school in the northeastern city of Kharkiv, like thousands of Indian students who brave harsh winters and a new language of instruction to get a degree at a much lower cost than at home or in the West.
But Hussein is a rare exception.
Dozens of Indians asked this reporter in 10 cities from Delhi to the Pakistani border a similar question: “Is the war over?”
Their lack of knowledge seems understandable.
Europe’s bloodiest armed conflict since World War II is not top-of-the-hour or headline news any more. Since October, it has been eclipsed by the Israel-Palestine conflict.
But the Middle East war has not only changed the news agenda in the Global South, a term meaning Latin America, Africa and much of Asia. It has also confirmed the worst fears of many in the region – that Western powers are far less likely to empathise with Palestinian suffering, compared with that of Ukrainians.
“The confrontation between Israel and Hamas has not only boosted the Kremlin’s hopes of changing the mood around the war in Ukraine but also strengthened its belief that the Western-centric system of international relations is breaking down,” according to Nikita Smagin, an expert with the Russian International Affairs Council.
The war in Gaza has also “nullified all the results of rapprochement between the West and the Global South, and in this context, the war benefits [Russian President Vladimir] Putin,” Kyiv-based analyst Aleksey Kushch told Al Jazeera.
Ukraine is well aware of the trend. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s trip to Argentina last week is widely seen as an attempt to win the hearts and minds in Latin America.
Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, with widely-reported war crimes, the shelling of civilian areas and, threats to Europe’s largest nuclear station, was met with global condemnation.
While Western nations were quick to support Ukraine, a sovereign nation with its own national identity that stood up to Russia’s occupation attempts, their backing of Israel’s operation in Gaza has raised doubts and sparked cries of hypocrisy.
“The typical comparison people make between Ukrainians and Palestinians is how the West is treating the former so differently than the latter,” said Seda Demiralp, a professor of political science at Istanbul’s Isik University.
European Union Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, for example, has consistently condemned what she has called Russian “acts of pure terror” on civilians in Ukraine, but failed to criticise Israel for its brutal campaign in the Gaza Strip, which has killed more than 18,000 people in just more than two months.
The alleged double standards irk Global South nations.
“People can argue endlessly about the reasons for the war in Ukraine, or Israel’s operation in Gaza, but for many the conclusion is obvious: the United States was critical of Russia when it killed innocent civilians in Ukraine and now it is silent when its ally Israel does the same thing in Gaza,” said Smagin.
The latest episode of the Israel-Palestine conflict escalated after Hamas, which governs Gaza, attacked southern Israel, killing at least 1,200 people and taking more than 200 captive. Israel responded quickly, promising to crush Hamas with its relentless bombardment.
Malaysia was quick to accuse the West of “ignoring Palestinians” while providing “swift” support to Ukraine.
“Why are there two different approaches? For instance, in the Ukraine crisis, the Western powers swiftly provided support to Kyiv. Unfortunately, when it comes to Palestine, it is entirely disregarded,” Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi reportedly said.
Another point of tension is rooted in perception.
Western media outlets cover the killings of Israelis in more detail than those of Palestinians – a macabre “Orientalism” that pays little attention to mass deaths in places like Afghanistan or Iraq in comparison with Western nations, a United Kingdom analyst says.
“This kind of Orientalism doesn’t want to equal the deaths of Israelis and Palestinians, ignoring the fact that there are dozens of times more victims among Palestinians,” Alisher Ilkhamov of Central Asia Due Diligence, a think tank in London, told Al Jazeera. “And considering the whole history of Palestine’s occupation – thousands times more.”
The Modi-Putin ‘bromance’
Even though czarist Russia wanted to invade India, post-colonial New Delhi developed cordial ties with Communist Moscow.
India’s nationalist premier, Narendra Modi, has not joined the international choir of critics lambasting the invasion of Ukraine and New Delhi abstained from condemning the aggression in the United Nations.
These days, the Russian-Indian trade is conducted in rupees, which New Delhi sees as a chance to make its currency convertible and more useful in global trade.
This year, New Delhi saved $2.7bn between January and October by buying 70 million tonnes of discounted Russian oil, the Reuters news agency reported in November.
And the Kremlin’s narrative seems to be especially effective in India, where 46 percent of Indians believed the Ukrainian government was under the spell of neo-Nazi ideologues – a baseless claim Putin has used to justify the war – according to a poll by YouGov Cambridge, an international pollster, conducted in October 2023.
Only 27 percent of those polled said Russia was to blame for the war, while 42 percent thought Ukraine was conducting mass murders and “genocide” of ethnic Russians.
Meanwhile, some Indian observers saw Western sanctions on Russia as a new financial tool to keep controlling the global economy.
“This led to fears that the dollar was being weaponised,” analysts Ashish Pandey and Garima Bora wrote in the Economic Times, an Indian online newspaper, in June.
“Several countries were worried that the US could use the power of its currency to target them and hobble their growth,” they wrote.