The ‘messy middle’
By Ian Prasad Philbrick
If you live in most any Western country, your government’s support for Ukraine, including sending weapons and imposing sanctions on Russia, can give the impression of a united global response to President Vladimir Putin’s invasion.
But that isn’t the case. Most of the world’s 195 countries have not shipped aid to Ukraine or joined in sanctions. A handful have actively supported Russia. Far more occupy the “messy middle,” as Carisa Nietsche of the Center for a New American Security calls it, taking neither Ukraine’s nor Russia’s side.
“We live in a bubble, here in the U.S. and Europe, where we think the very stark moral and geopolitical stakes, and framework of what we’re seeing unfolding, is a universal cause,” Barry Pavel, a senior vice president at the Atlantic Council, told me. “Actually, most of the governments of the world are not with us.”
India and Israel are prominent democracies that ally with the United States on many issues, particularly security. But they rely on Russia for security as well and have avoided arming Ukraine or imposing sanctions on Moscow. “In both cases, the key factor isn’t ideology but national interests,” says my New York Times colleague Max Fisher, who has written about Russia’s invasion.
India is the world’s largest buyer of Russian weapons, seeking to protect itself from Pakistan and China. India joined 34 other countries in abstaining from a United Nations vote that condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. And India appears to be rebuffing Western pleas to take a harder line.
Israel coordinates with Russia on Iran, its chief adversary, and in neighboring Syria (with which Russia has a strong relationship). Russian-speaking émigrés from the former Soviet Union also make up a sizable chunk of the Israeli electorate. Israel’s prime minister has avoided directly criticizing Putin, and although its government has mediated between Ukraine and Russia, little has come out of the effort.
Several Latin American, Southeast Asian and African countries have made similar choices. Bolivia, Vietnam and almost half of Africa’s 54 countries declined to support the U.N. resolution condemning Russia. Some rely on Russian military assistance, said Bruce Jones, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Others don’t want to risk jeopardizing trade relations with China, which has parroted Russian propaganda about the war.
Those countries “might be more accurately described as disinterested,” Fisher says, unwilling to risk their security or economies “for the sake of a struggle that they see as mostly irrelevant.”
Some countries, citing the West’s history of imperialism and past failures to respect human rights, have justified opposing its response to Ukraine. South Africa’s president blamed NATO for Russia’s invasion, and its U.N. ambassador criticized the U.S. invasion of Iraq during a debate last month about Ukraine’s humanitarian crisis.
Other countries, including some that voted to condemn Russia’s invasion, accuse the West of acting counterproductively. Brazil’s U.N. ambassador has suggested that arming Ukraine and imposing sanctions on Russia risk escalating the war.
“There’s nothing intellectually incoherent between viewing Russia’s actions as outrageous and not necessarily fully siding with the West’s reaction to it,” Jones told me.
Autocratic leaders — including in the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Nicaragua — may also feel threatened by Ukraine’s resistance and the West’s framing of the invasion as a struggle between democracy and authoritarianism, experts said. “They’re concerned that this could inspire opposition movements in their own countries,” Nietsche said.
China, with all its economic and military might, has seen the war as a chance to enhance its own geopolitical standing as a counterweight to the United States while still maintaining ties to Russia. The countries recently issued a joint statement proclaiming a friendship with “no limits.” But China has struggled with the delicate balancing act of honoring that commitment without fully endorsing Russia’s invasion: Beijing has denounced Western sanctions but has not appeared to have given Russia weapons or economic aid.
“China’s support for Russia, while very important, is also carefully hedged and measured,” Fisher says.
Four countries — North Korea, Eritrea, Syria and Belarus — outright voted with Russia against the U.N. resolution condemning the invasion of Ukraine. Belarus is a former Soviet state whose autocratic leader asked Putin to help suppress protests in 2020 and allowed Russia to launch part of its invasion from within Belarus.
Russia intervened in Syria’s civil war on behalf of the Moscow-aligned government there, and Syria is sending fighters who may aid Russian forces in Ukraine.
It’s not unusual for countries to avoid picking sides on big global issues. Several stayed neutral during World War II; dozens sought to remain free of both United States and Soviet influence during the Cold War.
But if the war in Ukraine drags on, Jones said, neutral countries could come under stronger international pressure to condemn Moscow. And for countries with close ties to Russia, even neutrality can be an act of courage.