Why does so much of the Global South support Russia, not Ukraine?
Not everyone is against Putin.
While the West has largely rallied behind Ukraine, pledging to do whatever it takes to help fend off Russian troops, many in the Global South hold a rather different view.
Of course, the Global South is a big place. Attitudes towards the devastating war – now in its 14th month – vary considerably across Latin America, Africa, Asia and Oceania.
However, opinion polls in places like China, India and Turkey show a clear preference for the war to end now – even if that means Ukraine having to give up territory.
“If you take the global picture, then support for Ukraine’s and the West’s fight against Russia is not completely solid – by a long shot,” said Paul Rogers, Professor of International Security at the University of Bradford.
In the Middle East especially, he claims past military interventions by the US and its allies have created a cynical mood towards the West’s actions in Ukraine.
Yet, rather than translate into support for Russia, which “few countries have at the leadership or public level”, Rogers says the fighting is seen more as a “plague on both houses”.
“It’s not simply seen as good guys in the West versus bad guys in Russia,” he told Euronews. “There are questions that [Moscow’s invasion] is not dissimilar from what Western countries have done”.
More than 929,000 people have been killed in post-9/11 war zones across Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and others, places where western militaries have played a significant role in catastrophic violence.
Experts estimate that many more times that number likely died because of the reverberating effects of war.
‘Memories of colonialism’
Deeper, historical issues also impact how the Ukraine war is perceived elsewhere.
“Across much of the Global South, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa, Russia is not seen as one of the great colonial powers that controlled them for centuries” unlike other European powers, explained Rogers.
Still, he continued: “Much of the world just simply isn’t aware of the extent of the arms trade, power and, frankly, corruption you get in Russia.”
Although the colonial legacy does not create pro-Russian sentiment – with most people acutely aware of how “grievous” the war has been for Ukrainians – Rogers suggested it meant there was “less sympathy for the Western position”.
The legacy of colonialism is highly controversial.
Critics point to the untold atrocities, racism and exploitation committed by Europeans around the world, while defenders claim it brought economic and political development.
Many claim Russia’s control over parts of Central Asia and Eastern Europe, including Ukraine, under the USSR amounted to colonialism.
‘Russia has a good geopolitical footing’
But the Global South is not only thinking with the heart, it’s using the head as well.
Though not as much as countries like China, Moscow has forged strong economic links and strategic partnerships across much of the world in recent decades.
“Trading ties are important,” said Ivan Kłyszcz, an analyst of Russian foreign policy. “Countries like Brazil and India are investing in good relations with Russia because they believe it will help their own international agendas.”
Global opinion is very divided when it comes to slapping sanctions on Russia. On average, 45% support the idea that their country should apply the most stringent economic sanctions against Russia while 25% are opposed to it, as per an IPSOS poll.
Many states have abstained from UN resolutions condemning Moscow, instead calling for negotiations.
In October, North Korea, Belarus, Syria and Nicaragua voted against a motion urging Russia to immediately reverse its illegal annexation of four Ukrainian regions, while 19 African countries abstained – including South Africa – along with China, India, Pakistan and Cuba.
“The Global South is driven by a sense of urgency for hostilities to end… so at least there’s no fighting and trade can resume as it was a year ago,” Kłyszcz told Euronews. “It’s an unfortunate reality, but the war is against these country’s interests.”
“They are looking after their own security.”
Ordinary people in Africa and the Middle East have been hammered by surging food prices, which hit record highs in 2022 due to the Ukraine war and climate-change induced drought.
Though felt around the world, this triggered a global food security crisis, pushing millions to the brink of famine.
According to Kłyszcz, Russia’s influence is aided by a “very sophisticated communications apparatus that helps convey wartime propaganda,” while “a lot of countries just don’t know Ukraine all that much.”
At the same time, narratives supporting Ukraine’s struggle against Russia – be they “democracy versus autocracy”, “human rights” or “anti-imperialism” – haven’t been “able to move the needle [of public opinion] that much” outside the West, he added.
“Something like food or energy security is very hard to change your opinion on because the safety of your society depends on them.”
Despite representing the bulk of humanity, Rogers suggests the views of the Global South towards Ukraine have been largely marginalised in the “mainstream media”.
“Westerners are very much concentrated on the western world. You don’t see a major concern with different views,” he continued.
“These are wider issues at hand.”