The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A global divide on the Ukraine war is deepening

Russia capitalizes on disillusionment with the United States to win sympathy in the Global South.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi greet each other before a December 2021 meeting in New Delhi. (Manish Swarup/AP)
10 min

JOHANNESBURG — Clement Manyathela, who hosts a popular and influential talk show on South Africa’s Radio 702, remembers the outrage he felt when Russian troops first surged into Ukraine. He had believed Russia’s insistence that it wasn’t planning to attack and felt cheated when war broke out.

“We were lied to,” he said.

But as the fighting continued, he, and many of those who call in to his show, began to ask questions: Why had President Vladimir Putin deemed it necessary to invade? Was NATO fueling the fire by sending so many weapons to Ukraine? How could the United States expect others around the world to support its policies when it had also invaded countries?

“When America went into Iraq, when America went into Libya, they had their own justifications that we didn’t believe, and now they’re trying to turn the world against Russia. This is unacceptable, too,” Manyathela said. “I still don’t see any justification for invading a country, but we cannot be dictated to about the Russian moves on Ukraine. I honestly feel the U.S. was trying to bully us.”

In the year since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a reinvigorated Western alliance has rallied against Russia, forging what President Biden has trumpeted as a “global coalition.” Yet a closer look beyond the West suggests the world is far from united on the issues raised by the Ukraine war.

The conflict has exposed a deep global divide, and the limits of U.S. influence over a rapidly shifting world order. Evidence abounds that the effort to isolate Putin has failed, and not just among Russian allies that could be expected to back Moscow, such as China and Iran.

India announced last week that its trade with Russia has grown by 400 percent since the invasion. In just the past six weeks, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has been welcomed in nine countries in Africa and the Middle East — including South Africa, whose foreign minister, Naledi Pandor, hailed their meeting as “wonderful” and called South Africa and Russia “friends.”

On Friday, a year after the invasion began, the South African navy will be engaged in military exercises with Russia and China in the Indian Ocean, sending a powerful signal of solidarity at a moment the United States had hoped would provide an opportunity for reinvigorated worldwide condemnations of Russia.

Russia's invasion of Ukraine sent shockwaves around the world as millions of refugees fled the country, grain shipments were delayed and Russian gas curtailed. (Video: Jason Aldag/The Washington Post)

Conversations with people in South Africa, Kenya and India suggest a deeply ambivalent view of the conflict, informed less by the question of whether Russia was wrong to invade than by current and historical grievances against the West — over colonialism, perceptions of arrogance, and the West’s failure to devote as many resources to solving conflicts and human rights abuses in other parts of the world, such as the Palestinian territories, Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The Western countries “are hypocritical,” said Bhaskar Dutta, a clerk in Kolkata, India. “These people colonized the entire world. What Russia has done cannot be condoned, but at the same time, you cannot blame them wholly.”

U.S. officials point out that 141 of 193 countries voted at the United Nations to condemn Russia after the invasion; the same number approved a nearly identical resolution on the eve of the anniversary Thursday. But only 33 countries have imposed sanctions on Russia, and a similar number are sending lethal aid to Ukraine. An Economist Intelligence Unit survey last year estimated that two-thirds of the world’s population lives in countries that have refrained from condemning Russia.

This is not a battle between freedom and dictatorship, as Biden often suggests, said William Gumede, who founded and heads the Johannesburg-based Democracy Works Foundation, which promotes democracy in Africa. He pointed to the refusal of South Africa, India and Brazil to join Biden’s global coalition.

That reluctance, he said, is the outgrowth of more than a decade of building resentment against the United States and its allies, which have increasingly lost interest in addressing the problems of the Global South, he said. The coronavirus pandemic, when Western countries locked down and locked out other countries, and President Donald Trump’s explicit disdain for Africa, further fueled the resentment.

As the West pulled back, both Russia and China stepped into the vacuum, aggressively courting developing nations and capitalizing on the disillusionment with the United States and Europe by presenting an alternative to perceived Western hegemony. The Middle East and Africa are key battlegrounds in this struggle for hearts and minds, as are Asia and, to a lesser extent, Latin America, whose fortunes are more closely bound by geography to the United States.

The Middle East is one region where Russia has succeeded in winning friends and influence, said Faysal, a retired Egyptian consultant on organized crime who asked that his full name not be used because of the sensitivity of discussing political issues in Egypt.

“Of course I support Putin,” he said in an interview in Cairo. “A long time ago, we lost faith in the West. All the Arabs on this side of the world support Putin, and we are happy to hear he is gaining lands in Ukraine.”

“There’s been a failure of the West in the past 15 years to see the anger building up around the world, and Russia has absolutely exploited this,” Gumede said. “Russia has been able to portray Ukraine as a war with NATO. It’s the West versus the rest.”

Despite Western efforts to attribute global inflation and a food crisis to the Russian invasion, most countries around the world blame the West for the imposition of sanctions, said Kanwal Sibal, a former Indian foreign secretary.

They do not subscribe to the narrative that countering Russia is a moral imperative if the principles of democracy and territorial integrity and the rules-based world order are to be upheld, Sibal said.

“That’s not an argument that serious people buy,” he said, citing the NATO bombing of Serbia, U.S. support for dictatorships during the Cold War, and the Iraq War as examples of what he sees as the United States violating those same principles.

“The rest of the world genuinely sees this as a European war. They do not see a global conflict or the way it is presented by the West,” he said. “Yes, it has international repercussions such as inflation. But those repercussions are because of the sanctions.”

In refusing to risk its relationship with Russia, India is taking a hardheaded view of its own interests, he said, including its dependence on Russia for military supplies and the opportunity to hold inflation at bay by buying discounted Russian oil. There are tens of thousands of Chinese troops massed on India’s border with China, its geopolitical rival, and India can’t afford to alienate Russia or risk any interruption of its weapons supplies, he said.

The United States needs India to counterbalance China and, after initial attempts to pressure New Delhi to fall into line with its policies, now appears to have accepted India’s position, Sibal said. The United States decided not to impose sanctions on India for a missile deal it concluded with Russia last year and instead has been pursuing expanded ties, including its own defense deals.

South Africa’s decision to join military exercises with Russia and China has been met with less understanding. U.S. and Western diplomats have expressed alarm at both the timing and the nature of the drills, saying they suggest that South Africa is veering beyond its professed neutrality toward siding with Russia.

South African officials have noted that the country also participated in exercises with the U.S. military last year. But those drills were focused on humanitarian and disaster responses, said a U.S. official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive issue. The Russia-China exercises, which began Friday, involve offensive naval capabilities and could conceivably enhance Russia’s naval combat capacity. The Russian force includes one of Moscow’s premier warships, the Admiral Gorshkov, which Russia has said is equipped with its newly developed hypersonic Zircon missile.

The exercises are giving Russia an important public relations boost as the West’s attention is focused on the anniversary of the war, said Kobus Marais, spokesman for South Africa’s Democratic Alliance opposition party. He said South Africa had become “Russia’s useful idiot” and could become complicit in war crimes if the Admiral Gorshkov is later deployed to fire missiles into Ukraine.

The exercise follows the mysterious docking at a South African port in December of a Russian ship, the Lady R, which is under U.S. sanctions because it is known to have engaged in weapons deliveries. The cargo ship was denied permission to dock at Cape Town, its original destination, and instead sailed a few miles away to a smaller port at Simon’s Town, where it was observed unloading and then reloading containers that had apparently originated at a South African special forces ammunition-storage site, according to Marais.

The U.S. government sent a formal warning to the South African government that any entity that interacted with the vessel would risk secondary sanctions, but received no reply, the U.S. official said. The South African Defense Ministry has said it is investigating the matter.

“Their ostensible position of neutrality is, to put it charitably, harder and harder to believe,” the U.S. official said. The United States has invested heavily in post-apartheid South Africa and is South Africa’s biggest foreign investor and biggest export market, and it makes little sense for it to jeopardize its relationship with Washington, the official said.

But South Africa has its own reasons for remaining loyal to Russia despite the risks, South Africans say. The ruling African National Congress party was backed by the Soviet Union throughout the decades it spent in exile during the apartheid era, and many of its most senior figures received training in the Soviet Union, including the powerful defense minister, Thandi Modise.

On the streets of Soweto, the vast urban settlement on the edge of Johannesburg that was a center of resistance to the apartheid regime, people say they still see Russia as an ally. “Russia was with us when we were in chains,” said Elijah Ndlovu, 51, who is unemployed. “We don’t say Russia is good by destroying Ukraine, but if you ask us where we stand in that fight, we have to be honest. We can never turn our back on Russia.”

Shakes Matlhong, 33, said that his understanding of the conflict was hazy but that he has long regarded the United States as an “imperialist” power. “And now Russia is fighting back,” he said.

“Africa’s attitude to the war is that Russia is defending itself against NATO,” he said. “Russia never participated in any colonialism. It might be that Russia is wrong, but people’s attitude is determined by history.”

That Russia did not participate in the colonization of Africa and that the Soviet Union backed many of the continent’s liberation movements are points that have been exploited by Putin in his messaging, said Liubov Abravitova, Ukraine’s ambassador to South Africa. She acknowledges an uphill struggle in trying to win the sympathies of Africans for the Ukrainian cause. Russia’s “only card is that they never colonized Africa,” she said. “But this is also true of Ukraine.”

Karishma Mehrotra in New Delhi contributed to this report

One year of Russia’s war in Ukraine

Portraits of Ukraine: Every Ukrainian’s life has changed since Russia launched its full-scale invasion one year ago — in ways both big and small. They have learned to survive and support each other under extreme circumstances, in bomb shelters and hospitals, destroyed apartment complexes and ruined marketplaces. Scroll through portraits of Ukrainians reflecting on a year of loss, resilience and fear.

Battle of attrition: Over the past year, the war has morphed from a multi-front invasion that included Kyiv in the north to a conflict of attrition largely concentrated along an expanse of territory in the east and south. Follow the 600-mile front line between Ukrainian and Russian forces and take a look at where the fighting has been concentrated.

A year of living apart: Russia’s invasion, coupled with Ukraine’s martial law preventing fighting-age men from leaving the country, has forced agonizing decisions for millions of Ukrainian families about how to balance safety, duty and love, with once-intertwined lives having become unrecognizable. Here’s what a train station full of goodbyes looked like last year.

Deepening global divides: President Biden has trumpeted the reinvigorated Western alliance forged during the war as a “global coalition,” but a closer look suggests the world is far from united on issues raised by the Ukraine war. Evidence abounds that the effort to isolate Putin has failed and that sanctions haven’t stopped Russia, thanks to its oil and gas exports.