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Why doesn’t the Global South support Ukraine’s anti-colonial struggle?

A distinguished Singaporean diplomat recently asked a good question: “Why hasn’t 85 percent of the world imposed sanctions on Russia after its illegal invasion of Ukraine?”

His answer is revealing, less about the reality in Russia and Ukraine, and more about perceptions in what he calls the Global South: “The honest answer is that in their heart of hearts, many leaders of these countries do not buy the ‘black-and-white’ story that the West is selling on the conflict: Ukraine and the West are completely virtuous; Russia is completely evil.”

Kishore Mahbubani, Singapore’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations in 1984-1989 and 1998-2004, explains his answer by claiming, “Having studied geopolitics for more than five decades, I have never come across a single geopolitical issue where right is on one side and wrong is on the other.”

Ambassador Mahbubani exaggerates. Surely Japan was completely wrong to invade China in the 1930s and kill millions of Chinese. Nazi Germany was completely wrong to launch World War II in Europe and exterminate Jews, as was the Soviet Union when it committed genocide in Ukraine in 1932-1933 and invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968.

To put the question differently, were the Tibetans partly wrong for having been invaded and annexed by China? Was Mohandas Gandhi partly wrong to have resisted British imperialism? Was Nelson Mandela partly wrong to have resisted apartheid? Were the Cambodians partly wrong to have succumbed to slaughter by the Khmer Rouge?

While it’s true that many geopolitical issues are characterized by shades of gray, it is also true that some, perhaps even many, are black and white. The Russian invasion of Ukraine is one such case. Ukraine posed no imaginable threat to Vladimir Putin’s imperially minded, nuclear-armed, and fascist Russia: Ukraine’s army, economy and population were all significantly smaller than Russia’s and Kyiv harbored no aggressive designs.

Moreover, everyone — including the Russians — knew full well that Ukraine stood no chance of joining NATO for at least two decades. Everyone also knew that the United States and Ukraine had no plans to deploy missiles on Ukraine’ eastern border. It’s certainly possible that the Russian elite was delusional and paranoid and perceived a threat where none existed. But the psychological maladies of criminals surely cannot be blamed on the victims of their violence.

Ambassador Mahbubani quotes President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa as saying, “The war could have been avoided if NATO had heeded the warnings from amongst its own leaders and officials over the years that its eastward expansion would lead to greater, not less, instability in the region.”

But what Messrs. Ramaphosa and Mahbubani fail to see is the huge difference between instability, which NATO enlargement indeed may have caused, and a full-scale invasion of a non-NATO country and the subsequent pursuit of a genocidal war against its population. In just what way does such an action have anything to do with the instability that NATO may have caused? If instability sufficed to cause the Kremlin to invade, then Russia would be constantly at war — which it’s not.

Ambassador Mahbubani provides a far more convincing answer to his question about the Global South’s neutral stance by quoting Brazil’s President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva: “I think the reason for the war between Russia and Ukraine also needs to be clearer. Is it because of NATO? Is it because of territorial claims? Is it because of entry into Europe? The world has little information about that.”

Actually, the world has mounds of information about Russia, Ukraine, NATO, the United States, Europe, and Russia’s war against Ukraine. Thousands of serious articles and books have been written about these actors, and scores of excellent articles and books deal with the war. All one needs to do to acquire more than a little information about the issues is to read. I’d be happy to provide Messrs. Mahbubani and Lula da Silva with bibliographies.

More importantly, Brazil’s president identifies the real reason for the Global South’s attitude toward the war, Ukraine and Russia: ignorance. And since policymakers in the Global South know too little about Russia and Ukraine to make informed judgments, they appear to rely on Cold War-era ways of thinking — according to which the West is still an overbearing imperialist and will always remain so, while Russia is the champion of the Third World.

In reality, the Russian Federation, like the Soviet Union, is an empire and Ukraine, like many other non-Russian states, was a Russian colony. The West has an imperialistic past, but in this case it is unquestionably on the side of anti-colonialism. The Global South should be on that side as well.

Ambassador Mahbubani finally gets down to geopolitical business in the second half of his article: “The West would get more support for its cause in Ukraine if it was seen to be pushing for either a peace proposal or a fair compromise on Ukraine. Instead, it seems to be pursuing a strategy of complete victory and humiliation for Russia.” But, cautions Mahbubani, “This outcome would not be in the interests of the Global South. They prefer a multipolar world, with Russia as an independent pole to give them geostrategic options.”

Fair enough, but just what would a fair compromise look like? Ambassador Mahbubani sees two components: “The immediate wish is for a ceasefire and cessation of the conflict. … The second wish would be for a fair and balanced compromise. Ukraine would become a free and independent sovereign country, free to join the European Union if it so wished. Yet, out of respect to Russia’s sensitivities, it would not join NATO.”

At this point it becomes amply clear just how divorced from reality — and knowledge about Russia — Ambassador Mahbubani is. He completely elides any discussion of the root problem: Russia’s illegal annexation of four Ukrainian provinces and Crimea. Just how do these territories figure in Ambassador Mahbubani’s peace plan? They don’t, even though no peace is possible until this issue is resolved. And this issue will never be resolved as long as Russia remains an imperialist power and Vladimir Putin remains at its helm. 

“Compromise will be difficult and messy,” says the ambassador. “It always is.” True, but how does one reach a compromise with a country that desires to colonize you? Like Ukrainians, Africans and Asians opted for resistance.

In ignoring the nature of Putin’s regime, Ambassador Mahbubani has maneuvered the Global South into a dead end. He wants both peace and a strong Russia, without appreciating that the two goals are incompatible and, indeed, contradictory given Putin Russia’s fascist essence, imperialist goals, revisionist aspirations, militarist history, and anti-Ukrainian ideology.

The age of Western imperialism is largely over. The age of Russian imperialism soon may be over. The Global South needs to recognize these facts if it wants to be on the right side of history by helping Ukraine to decolonize, resisting Russian empire-building, and thereby constructing a more just world order.

Alexander J. Motyl is a professor of political science at Rutgers University-Newark. A specialist on Ukraine, Russia and the USSR, and on nationalism, revolutions, empires and theory, he is the author of 10 books of nonfiction, as well as “Imperial Ends: The Decay, Collapse, and Revival of Empires” and “Why Empires Reemerge: Imperial Collapse and Imperial Revival in Comparative Perspective.”

Tags Russia under Vladimir Putin Russian invasion of Ukraine Singapore Ukraine-NATO

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