Russia ‘Recruits’ Allies and Partners in the Global South
Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 20 Issue: 68
On April 24, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, presiding over a meeting of the United Nations Security Council, delivered an important speech devoted mainly to accusations of the collective West in revising the principles and values of the UN Charter (Mid.ru, April 24). In this context, Lavrov urged the countries of the so-called “Global South”—that is, developing states in Africa, Asia and South America—to take an increasingly active stance in the international arena, actively oppose Western policies and uphold the UN Charter, including the principles of independence, sovereignty and equality of states—thus trying to present Russia as a leading voice for developing nations.
These passages are in line with Moscow’s policy that seeks to detach the Global South from solidarity with the West in condemning Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. The Kremlin has not abandoned its attempts to split the international community, both to demonstrate that it is not in isolation and to attract, if not allies, then partners who could provide assistance or support for President Vladimir Putin’s aggressive political course. Russia sorely needs to replenish its manpower, weapons and ammunition stocks on the Ukrainian battlefield. As such, some sources have reported that Russian emissaries periodically try to recruit volunteers for the war effort, particularly in Afghanistan, Syria and various African countries (Current Time TV, October 27, 2022; YouTube, November 30, 2022).
Yet, what level of success can such an approach actually achieve? Russia has a well-established foundation for deepening friendly and mutually beneficial relations with a number of countries in the Global South. This groundwork was initially prepared during the years of the Soviet Union, when Moscow actively supported anti-colonial movements materially, financially and militarily (RIA Novosti, July 26, 2022). The Soviet Union also granted significant aid to numerous states across Asia and Africa (TASS, April 25, 2016). As a result, today, these countries’ populations still retain fond memories of Russia. Quite eloquent examples of this are the positions of South Africa and Uganda on the war in Ukraine and previous Soviet/Russian aid (Al Jazeera, March 18, 2022, RBK-Ukraina, March 31).
It should not be forgotten that, in many regions, the value of human life is not yet as high as in Europe and North America—and resolving political or territorial disputes by force is considered less repulsive in these areas. Moreover, the Global South has made no secret of its discontent that conflicts in these regions, the deaths of thousands of people and enormous material damage do not generate a fraction of the attention, indignation and compassion in the West that the war in Ukraine has. For the vast majority of these developing states, the war in Ukraine remains a distant regional conflict in which one should not become involved, much less take an anti-Russian stance (Ipsos.com, April 19).
All this, with the proper diplomatic skill and resources, could indeed provide serious support for Russia, as well as weaken the West’s ability to build a broad international anti-Putin coalition. However, will Russian diplomacy be able to take advantage of such opportunities?
Several problems exist here. First, this policy remains largely at the rhetorical level. For Moscow, securing support requires not only convincing partners it is right—which is not such a simple task if you move from slogans to real action—but also dedicating substantial resources, above all financial ones, to this approach. Few emerging economies are prepared to openly stand under Russian banners and confront the West for free. Such a scenario would only be successful with a substantial injection of Russian cash. In the case of one or two countries, this looks plausible—if their elites are bought with billions of dollars. However, in the case of accommodating a few dozen states, Russia simply does not have enough resources. Therefore, support for Russia from developing countries in the Global South will most likely be limited to political declarations, which may also be important, though not to the level Moscow would prefer.
Second, the Russian leadership and the Russian Foreign Ministry, in particular, have a flawed approach in projecting soft power. They do not believe in the potential of social movements and thus deny civil society any agency. For them, only elites and specific individuals hold the true power and authority. Moscow’s approach to the former regime of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, in which Russia invested at least $15 billion, is a perfect example of this (Lenta.ru, December 17, 2013).
The events of 2014 in Kyiv demonstrated that such investments in a corrupt elite do not often witness returns in the form of increased political capital. Even so, the lessons from the Maidan have not paid off: the Russian leadership is still unable and unwilling to work within the paradigm of soft power, believing only in armed force and a hard, extremely inflexible political approach. Therefore, the enormous potential of Russia’s soft power cannot be used to its fullest potential and likely will not lead to serious progress.
While declaring a focus on multilateralism and multipolarity, Russian diplomacy, at the same time, invalidates these statements by appealing to Putin’s 2020 initiative to hold a summit with the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (Kremlin.ru, September 22, 2020). The very proposal to hold such a summit to address key international issues is a clear indication of the Kremlin’s imperial thinking. Additionally, this approach will not fully consider the views of the vast majority of states, but rather revive dreams of a new Yalta Conference where the five “major” states will divide the world as they see fit. Needless to say, such steps will cause a negative reaction among developing states.
For this reason, it seems that Russia’s policy of “over-recruiting” the countries of the Global South will likely achieve limited tactical success, and, strategically, it is doomed to fail.
That said, Putin’s attempts to play the Global South against Ukraine and Western unity should, nevertheless, not be neglected. They should still be addressed as another threat in slowing down efforts of the international community to put an end to Russia’s war against Ukraine.