What Europe Thinks ...

Jun 29, 2023

What Europe Thinks … About the Global South and Vice Versa

Polling reveals a divide between Europe and the Global South over Russia’s war against Ukraine. Europeans should do more to shore up support for a global coalition against Russian President Vladimir Putin.

A graph showing diverging attitudes to supporting Ukraine's efforts to defend itself in selected countries in the Global South and Europe
Attribution CC BY

In May, Fiona Hill, a top Russia expert and former US government official, gave a counterintuitive view of how the Global South views the war in Ukraine. She did not share the Russian framing of the war as one pitting the United States and its European allies against Russia. Rather, she said the war had turned into a proxy for a rebellion of Russia and middle powers against the global hegemony of the United States. “Other countries that have traditionally been considered ‘middle powers’ or ‘swing states’—the so-called ‘rest’ of the world—seek to cut the US down to a different size in their neighborhoods and exert more influence in global affairs,” the Brookings Institution scholar said at the Lennart Meri conference in Tallinn, Estonia.

Many countries of the Global South—such as India, South Africa, and Brazil—have not embraced Ukraine in the way most European leaders have. In many parts of Africa and Latin America, Moscow is still viewed as a bulwark against American and European colonial influence. For instance, in South Africa, Moscow funded the African National Congress to end Apartheid, while the white-minority government was backed for decades by the United States and the United Kingdom.

Many countries in the Global South have refrained from criticizing Russia, while mostly not overtly backing its full-scale invasion. Immediately after the invasion, South Africa for example called on the Kremlin to withdraw its forces, but then abstained from UN votes condemning Russia’s annexation of parts of Ukraine and welcomed the Russian navy for exercises in February. Last month, the US accused South Africa of arming Russia. Many African nations rely on Moscow for weapons exports to supply their militaries, and some of them are autocracies like Russia.

Recent polling data illustrates a divide between Europe and the Global South over Ukraine. Generally, countries in the Global South are more concerned with the economic costs of the war in Ukraine than European ones. A January Ipsos poll asked respondents around the world: Because of the economic crisis in their country, could they not afford aid to Ukraine? 79 percent of South Africans agreed, whereas 52 percent of British respondents did. Middle powers like Argentina, Chile, and Turkey also had similar public sentiment to South Africa, whereas 56 percent of Germans agreed and 43 percent of Swedes did. Ipsos pollsters also asked whether respondents agreed with paying more for fuel because of sanctions against Russia and to defend another country against aggression. Once again, 45 percent of South Africans and 41 percent of Brazilians agreed, whereas 67 percent of British respondents, 69 percent of Swedes, 65 percent of Poles, and 54 percent of Germans agreed.

Ukraine Is Facing Headwinds

Kyiv is well aware that it faces headwinds to win the support of the Global South amid Moscow's historical advantages. In May, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba embarked on his second African tour since the outbreak of full-scale war on February 24, 2022, visiting countries including Morocco, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Mozambique, and Nigeria. Also in May, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky traveled to the Arab League of Nations summit and attended a G7 summit, meeting with leaders from Indonesia, India, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia.

In June, a group of African leaders, including South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, visited Kyiv and St. Petersburg to promote their own peace plan. However, both Russian President Vladimir Putin and Zelensky rejected it. Going forward, Ukraine hopes that countries from the Global South will attend its own planned peace summit in July.

This August, tensions between Ukraine and the Global South are coming to a head: South Africa is scheduled to host the annual BRICS summit, having extended an invite to Putin. In March, the International Criminal Court issued a warrant for Putin's arrest, and South Africa's government is obligated by the treaty establishing the ICC to arrest him. In response, South Africa's foreign ministry issued a statement saying that attendees—presumably including Putin—will be granted diplomatic immunity, ostensibly indicating that he wouldn’t be detained. However, it is not clear yet whether the summit will take place in South Africa with or without Putin's participation, or be moved to a non-ICC member state like China or India.

An Opening

Given these tensions, Western countries have an opening to shore up a global coalition to isolate Putin once and for all by deepening ties with the Global South. Germans are eager for closer ties with the Global South: According to a June poll conducted by Internationale Politik and Forsa, 76 percent of Germans wanted closer political and economic relations and 21 percent said they did not. While Europe and the United States have sought to close ranks against Russia, the West should try to do the same with the Global South. It will not be easy: countries like India have bought cut-rate Russian oil amid Western energy sanctions. But the West could try to harmonize some of the 13,000 sanctions against Russia with the Global South and encourage more investment and development in African and Latin American economies, as Russia and China are doing.  

In the meantime, some Ukrainians are doing what they can to help citizens from the Global South understand Ukraine. In May, a group of Ukrainian journalists invited their counterparts from Mexico, Central America, and South America to visit Ukraine, as Russian propaganda remains omnipresent in these countries and the media coverage of the war has been scant. The Ukrainians facilitated a meeting with Zelensky; it was his first interview with Latin American media. Natalya Guymenyuk, the journalist who spearheaded the trip, wrote on Facebook: "The door to a distant world can be opened, but if you don't do it quickly, someone else will come in." The West should heed her words.

Luke Johnson is a freelance reporter living in Berlin, frequently writing about Eastern Europe. 

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