There has been no shortage of reports and commentaries on the crisis in Ukraine and Russia’s role in it, especially the role of information war and propaganda by Russia that has even influenced many Western media. Yet one of the less discussed issues is the reaction of the BRICS group countries, namely Brazil, India, China and South Africa both on the state and the societal levels.
It is a matter of strange coincidence that before the Ukraine crisis began, Brazil’s and India’s relations with the US suffered setbacks. In early autumn 2013, Brazil’s President Dilma Rouseff canceled her US visit after she learned about being a surveillance target from Snowden’s revelations. Since then, a thaw in US-Brazil relations is yet to emerge. Months later, Devyani Khobragade, an Indian diplomat in New York, was charged with fraud, giving false information about maid’s salary and violating US immigration rules. Following her arrest, Delhi was furious over the breach of diplomatic immunity and went so far as to lift up security barriers near the US Embassy premises. India-US relations came to an all-time low after 2006 George W. Bush visit and warming up. Interestingly, Devyani was back in Delhi but her husband and children, US citizens, continued their stay.
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Compare these extreme reactions with the way in which these same countries reacted to the Ukraine crisis, mass killing of demonstrators, Russia’s Crimea occupation and support to separatists in the East of Ukraine, when lives of 12 Brazilian footballers in the Donetsk Shakhtar club and above a thousand Indian students were at terrible risk in these parts of Ukraine. Although most of these people were safely evacuated, official responses were cautious.
Avoiding taking sides in public statements, Brazil's representative at the IMF, Paulo Nogueira Batista warned on March 7 against easing the fund's standards to enable a large loan to Ukraine. The Indian Foreign Ministry said on March 6 that the dispute should be solved through "free and fair" elections that "meet the aspirations of all sections of Ukraine's population". With Russia as one of India's largest arms suppliers, National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon’s comments on the same day that Russia has "legitimate" interests in Ukraine was a faux-pas. South Africa was more wary of the economic implications of the Ukraine crisis.
To utter dismay of many, public comments by observers, analysts, even ex-diplomats from India who served in Russia or Ukraine paid almost no regard to the root cause of the crisis and demands of the people of Ukraine. Rather, the EuroMaidan movement was interpreted solely as a West-sponsored event, and Ukraine a mere object of tug of war between Russia and the West, emphasizing visits of Western leaders to the Maidan. It is a good question whether the leaders and opinion makers or at least the Kyiv Embassy officials of these states ever noted that portraits of Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and other leaders of the Global South were among the role models and sources of inspirations for Kyiv protesters!
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The same is true for sanctions against Russia. A BRICS foreign minister meeting on the sidelines of the Nuclear Security Summit in The Hague, criticized Australia’s proposal to ban Russia’s participation in the G20 Brisbane summit in November 2014.
Was this indirect support for Russia from BRICS countries anticipated? Who could have imagined when former Goldman Sachs economist Jim O'Neill popularized the term "BRICs" referring to emerging-market economies that Russia would build a political set-up to benefit its unilateral foreign policy, subduing the multilateral aspirations of BRICS? Constrained by the lack of shared purpose, these different nations constituting BRICS are unifying behind an anti-Western or at least post-Western position. In that sense, this neutral, “on the fence” stance was no surprise, but a hang-over from the non-aligned movement.
At the same time, this anti-Western stance has usually shaped BRICS position on many issues. They were critical of NATO’s role in overthrowing the Libyan government in 2011, and now are equally critical of attempts to remove Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria.
Despite cries that the West will not be able to mobilize the entire international community in its attempt to isolate Russia, it was successful. A hundred and one states backed the UN General Assembly resolution condemning the Crimea referendum. However, abstention of 58 countries, BRICS members included, was a wake-up call.
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A silver lining in this cloud is that the BRICS countries neutrality might be very costly, given that they all face secessionist movements within their own borders, threatening their sovereignty and territorial integrity. India struggles with cross-border terrorism, potential secessionist movements and a perennial security threat from Maoist insurgents. China suffers from Tibetans and Uighurs aspiring to break away as well as regional divisions challenging central control. Calls for secession from the Cape region in South Africa have grown in recent years. Brazil has long faced a secessionist movement in its southern sub-region, which is dominated demographically by European immigrants. Russia faces secessionist groups that may lead Moscow to regret its occupation of Crimea one day.
Another factor is that India, Brazil and South Africa are democracies, where leaders have to face elections to be in power. This test of democracy and massive anti-corruption movements that have emerged in these nations are deterrents to full alignment with Russia; instead they kept doors open and carefully avoided belligerent Russian rhetoric. Today things have normalized with full recognition of the presidential elections in Ukraine by all these states. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party of India opening offices in Latvia, Poland and Lithuania and expanding its links to the Indian diaspora also signal possible shifts in Indian foreign policy. Brazilian President Dilma Rouseff has to face the elections in 2015.
On the other hand, Ukraine has a lot to offer and get from these states. For decades Ukraine’s policy towards these states lacked dynamism and was focused on defense and space technology cooperation in the post-Soviet manner, jointly or closely aligned with Russia. Only a serious shift and review of this policy towards a more independent one and also massive enlargement of people-to-people diplomacy will turn the page.
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Ukraine considers Brazil its key trade partner in Latin America and supports Brazilian bid for a permanent seat at the UN Security Council. Brazil has the third largest Ukrainian diaspora outside of the former Soviet Union, approximately 500,000 Ukrainian descendants, concentrated mainly in Parana state and in Santa Catharina, Rio Grande do Sul and Sao Paulo. The majority of them are in the cities of Prudentopolis, Irate and Curitiba. 75% of the population is Prudentopolis is Ukrainian. More importantly, crucial parts for defense hardware supplied to Indian defense sector by Russia are manufactured in Ukraine. Trade between India and Ukraine, currently worth over USD 3bn, has the potential of manifold rise. Potential of cooperation with South Africa is immense, 80% of its grain imports being from Ukraine.
Most of all, these three states represent the group IBSA, set up in 2003, long before BRICS appeared, as an alliance of three highly diverse societies, models for post-colonial, multi-ethnic, multicultural democracies in the global south. Together they encompass an area three times bigger than the EU, a population of approximately 1.5 billion people, an enormous market. Their defense forces are active in three different regions of the globe. Although still facing poverty and inequality, these countries are industrialized and developed in various areas of science, technology and education. Furthermore, their geostrategic position, each in a different continent, enables them to be global players. But, Russia’s occupation of Crimea, its role in the Ukraine crisis, China’s ambitions and recent closer links with Russia are factors that may challenge or inhibit the aspirations of IBSA. The West and the US approach to building new qualitative relations with these three will matter a lot for global and regional security and containing Russia in the short and medium term.
It remains to be seen, therefore, whether at the July 15-17 Sixth BRICS summit in the Brazilian city of Fortaleza the planned agenda to include new members like Argentina, setting up of a USD 100bn development bank for infrastructural projects, and other issues materialize. One thing is clear – the post-Cold War era is over. There is much going on, but as of yet, no new order exists to replace it. And any new order may not necessarily have to be opposed to the West. In this sense, Ukraine’s post-crisis foreign policy has a lot of homework to do.
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Mridula Ghosh is an Indian journalist, expert in international development and foreign policy. She worked at the UN office in Ukraine and Editor-in-Chief for the East European Monitor. Currently, she is Board Chair at the East European Development Institute