“Decide who you are with” Volodymyr Zelenskiy told the European Council, pointing to a choice that is becoming increasingly hard to avoid, as the sheer violence of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine crystallises the division of the world into two camps.
The camp that stands with Russians is becoming easier to define with every passing day of the war. The colour-coded scoreboard at the UN general assembly in recent weeks, recording the votes on resolutions deploring the attack and calling for a ceasefire, could not have been clearer.
Among the 193 member states represented on the board, there have only been five pinpricks of red opposing the motion: Russia, Belarus, North Korea, Syria and Eritrea – a tight club of autocracies and totalitarian regimes with appalling human rights records.
They have been surrounded by a sea of green, the at least 140 countries who have supported expressions of rebuke at the world’s parliament.
Most of them are democracies, underlining one of the themes of Joe Biden’s foreign policy outlook, that the world is approaching a decisive struggle between democracy and autocracy, whose outcome is uncertain and therefore requires the active engagement of democratic nations.
“The single most important thing we had to do in the west is be united,” Biden declared at Thursday’s EU summit, marking the first time a US president has attended a European Council meeting.
US officials have been pleased to see how the invasion of Ukraine has welded together US allies in Europe and the Pacific in a global cause, with Japan, Australia, South Korea and New Zealand all joining in with sanctions.
“There is a ubiquitous quality of the appeal of Ukraine and that cuts through barriers and it’s profound. It transcends both Europe and Asia,” a senior US official said. “This is a manifestation of an understanding that we share, a common progressive engagement.”
The official pointed to a third reason, that he argued was the most decisive. “Our Asian partners do not want Ukraine to be a model of how problems can be solved in the Indo-Pacific, particularly as it relates to some place like Taiwan.”
Amid all the green on the UN scoreboard, however, there was also a fair spattering of yellow, 38 abstentions of countries still sitting on the fence in the most recent vote on Thursday. Those include the world’s most populous countries, China and India, representing more than a third of humanity between them. And on top of those abstaining, there are many countries that have criticised Moscow, without taking the next step, the imposition of sanctions.
Ukraine’s President Zelenskiy’s question to the European Council about taking sides was directed specifically at Viktor Orbán, the prime minister of Hungary, whose government voted for a UN resolution deploring the attack on Ukraine, but has been adamantly opposed to energy sanctions, providing arms to Ukraine, or even letting arms supplies cross its territory.
“There is no time to hesitate. It’s time to decide,” Zelenskiy warned Orbán, pointing to the mounting civilian death toll. The Ukrainian president does his homework on his fellow leaders and will have been well aware that Orbán is facing a strong challenge from opposition leader Péter Márki-Zay, who is using the unpopularity of the prime minister’s ambivalent stance on Ukraine to his advantage, accusing Orbán of having brought “shame on Hungary”.
Some of the other notable abstentions were about history, like South Africa’s, driven by old ties between the African National Congress and Moscow. Others represented shifting allegiances.
On the UN security council the US and its allies have been especially annoyed at the non-committal role of the United Arab Emirates, normally seen as a reliable US ally in the Middle East. But increasingly the Emiratis’ de facto ruler, Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, has found common cause with Moscow in opposing radical Islam and democracy in the region. The crown prince of Abu Dhabi has declined calls from Biden and infuriated Washington just over a week ago by inviting the Russian-backed Syrian dictator, Bashar al-Assad, for a state visit, opening a door out of isolation.
In this looming civilisational contest, the most important swing vote is India, the one major democracy not to oppose the attack.
Not only did the government of Narendra Modi abstain at the UN, failing to even mention Russia in its bland description of the unfolding catastrophe in Ukraine, it is also working towards setting up a rouble-rupee trading mechanism that will help Moscow avoid dollar-oriented sanctions.
Mira Rapp-Hooper, the director for the Indo-Pacific on the US national security council, said on Friday that the administration expected Modi’s response, but suggested it was not sustainable.
“I think we would certainly all acknowledge and agree that when it comes to votes at the UN, India’s position on the current crisis has been unsatisfactory, to say the least. But it’s also been totally unsurprising,” Rapp-Hooper said.
The Ukraine war is a strategic nightmare for Delhi, which has long seen Russia, and before it the Soviet Union, as a security partner of last resort. But Vladimir Putin’s ill-judged military adventure has increased Russian dependence on China, casting in doubt what Moscow would do in the next outbreak in the confrontation between India and China on their border.
Delhi was now thinking “long and hard” about its military dependency on Russia, Rapp-Hopper said, adding that India should get help in weaning itself off that reliance.
“I think our perspective would be that the way forward involves keeping India close, thinking hard about how to present it with options, so that it can continue to provide for its strategic autonomy,” she said.
China’s abstention is of another kind, one that conceals support rather than reflects ambivalence. It would have been hard for Beijing to vote against a resolution upholding the national sovereignty and territorial integrity that it has made the watchwords of its foreign policy. But its official UN statements calling for peace are in contrast to all the Russian propaganda on the war echoed by the Chinese media and foreign ministry statements blaming the US and Nato for the conflict. Washington now fears Beijing will back up its economic support for Moscow with arms supplies.
The administration’s analysis is that the staunchly pro-Russia policy is driven by the personal bond between Xi Jinping and Putin, who have met nearly 40 times and in February declared there would be “no limits” to the bilateral relationship, and have a shared priority to cut the US down to size.
Economically, Beijing’s stance makes no sense at all for China, whose trade with the US and Europe dwarfs its economic relationship with an increasingly impoverished Russia. But the hardening of the lines between the opposing global camps suggests that the hopes that globalisation would spread peace through economic interdependence were ill-founded. Now that the shooting has started, the divisive influence of political ideology is proving to be much the stronger force.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has abruptly transformed the world. Millions have already fled. A new Iron Curtain is grinding into place. An economic war deepens, as the military conflict escalates and civilian casualties rise.
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