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24 May 2023updated 12 Oct 2023 11:43am

Ukraine reveals the rise of the non-aligned state

Zelensky left the G7 to a chorus of renewed Western support, but failed to convince the other leaders to choose his side.

By Katie Stallard

Volodymyr Zelensky was in a rush. When the Ukrainian president arrived at the G7 summit in Hiroshima, Japan, on 20 May, he hurried down the stairs of the plane he had been loaned by the French government and into a waiting car, which whisked him to the first of his meetings over the next two days. Greeting Zelensky in a conference room at the venue, Rishi Sunak slapped him on the back and exclaimed, “You made it!”

What followed was a showcase of Western unity. The leaders of the G7 nations – Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States – stood alongside Zelensky, literally shoulder to shoulder, in the family photograph as they pledged even greater support for Kyiv. “Together with the entire G7, we have Ukraine’s back and I promise we’re not going anywhere,” said Joe Biden, the US president, as he announced a $375m package of security assistance and a plan that will facilitate the transfer of F-16 fighter jets.

Travelling back to Kyiv on 21 May, Zelensky recorded a message from the plane outlining his “very difficult yet very important week” of diplomacy, which had included an unannounced visit to the Arab League summit in Saudi Arabia en route to the G7 in Japan. “We have an understanding with the world majority on every important point for Ukraine,” he said.

But this is not true. The days when the G7 represented a “world majority” in any sense, if that is what Zelensky meant, are long gone. Whereas the G7 member states accounted for 68 per cent of the global economy in 1988, as measured by GDP, they now comprise 44 per cent. (This does not include the European Union, which attends the G7 as a “non-enumerated” member.) The rise of China and the dynamism of the emerging economies in the Global South have ended any illusions that the future global order will be decided solely by the leaders of the wealthiest democracies. A new era of great-power competition is under way, and with it the resurgence of a non-aligned movement of countries determined to chart their own path between the rival superpowers, just as they did during the Cold War. The war in Ukraine has made clear where they stand, and that is not with Kyiv.

While the Russian invasion triggered a remarkably resolute response from Western leaders, this was only ever part of the story. The response to the war beyond the West has demonstrated the fragmentary nature of the global order and many countries, including major democracies such as India and Brazil, have declined to rally to Ukraine’s defence.

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It is tempting to attribute this behaviour to cynical economic calculations. Russia is a major supplier of weaponry and oil to India, with imports of the latter reaching a record high since the start of the conflict as demand for Russian energy exports has fallen elsewhere. Likewise, Brazil has long depended on imports of fertiliser from Russia for its large agricultural industry. But this is too simplistic. There is also an important ideological component to both nations’ approach to the war, which includes their long-held commitment to maintaining a degree of independence in foreign policy and balancing between the great powers of the day. And they are not alone.

[See also: When will F-16 fighters reach Ukraine?]

“Across the globe, from India to Indonesia, Brazil to Turkey, Nigeria to South Africa, developing countries are increasingly seeking to avoid costly entanglements with the major powers,” wrote Matias Spektor, a professor at the Getulio Vargas Foundation in São Paulo, in a recent essay. These countries are pursuing a “strategy of hedging”, he explained, “because they see the future distribution of global power as uncertain and wish to avoid commitments that will be hard to discharge”.

They also chafe at perceived Western hypocrisy, noting the selective application of the rules of the “international rules-based order” – the willingness to ignore them altogether to invade Iraq in 2003, and the selective outrage that seems to apply only to certain dictators. While the US has led the condemnation of Vladimir Putin, for instance, it has continued to sell weapons to Saudi Arabia despite the gruesome murder of the US-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, and Riyadh’s eight-year-long proxy war in Yemen, which has caused a humanitarian catastrophe.

The non-aligned movement first took shape in the early Cold War, driven by decolonisation after the Second World War. After a first meeting at the Bandung Conference of Asian and African nations in Indonesia in 1955, the movement was formally established in Yugoslavia in 1961 with the mission to “create an independent path in world politics that would not result in member states becoming pawns in the struggles between the major powers”. With competition between the US and China intensifying, that imperative has taken on renewed urgency. Once again, many countries with a history of non-alignment are determined to avoid being forced to choose between the opposing powers, but this time they hold much greater economic clout, and membership of an array of multinational groups.

So while the G7 leaders in Hiroshima condemned Putin, it is entirely possible he will be welcomed to New Delhi in September for the G20 summit of the world’s largest economies, which includes China, India and Brazil. He could also travel to Durban in August for a meeting of the Brics group of emerging economies (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) despite the outstanding warrant for his arrest from the International Criminal Court, to which South Africa is a party. Instead of telling Putin not to come, Cyril Ramaphosa, the South African president, is said to have tasked his administration with examining the legal options to avoid complying with the warrant. Isolating the Russian president and cutting off his economy has not proved as straightforward as Western leaders initially hoped.

Non-aligned does not necessarily mean neutral. South Africa has been accused of supplying weapons to Moscow and took part in military exercises with China and Russia this year, as did India in September 2022. But Ukraine will struggle to halt Putin’s war machine without more backing from non-Western nations. Zelensky knows this. In late 2022 he identified the Global South as a priority for Ukraine’s foreign relations over the next year. Perhaps that was why he was in such a hurry to get to the summit in Hiroshima – where the leaders of India and Brazil, among others, were participating as partner countries – to press his case in person.

Despite Zelensky’s best efforts, however, the results were mixed. Narendra Modi, the Indian prime minister, promised to do “everything we can” to help end the war, but he stopped short of condemning the Russian invasion outright. Zelensky did not hold a meeting with Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the Brazilian president, at all. Both leaders blamed scheduling conflicts, but Lula said afterwards that he didn’t see much point in rescheduling a meeting with the Ukrainian president since neither he nor Putin seemed interested in peace talks. Zelensky left Japan to a chorus of renewed Western support, but not discernibly closer to convincing the leaders of the new non-aligned movement to choose his side. The movement pre-dates the war in Ukraine, and may well outlast it.

[See also: Putin on trial]

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This article appears in the 24 May 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory Crack-Up