Why South Africa, India, other BRICS are ‘neutral’ about Russia

Russian Invasion

A view of an apartment building heavily damaged after a Russian rocket exploded just outside it in Ukraine's second city Kharkiv. BRIC countries have been reluctant to criticise Russia directly over its invasion of Ukraine.

Photo credit: File | AFP

Just where do India, South Africa and other BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) members Brazil and China stand on the conflict between Russia and Ukraine? The basic answer may be that they want a peaceful solution to the conflict.

But these countries, whose collective association is called BRICS and are thought to be influential for the world economy in the coming decades, have been reluctant to criticise Russia directly.

At a session of the UN Security Council on Ukraine on March 4, India raised safety concerns for civilians and asked that adequate measures be taken to ensure no nuclear disasters happen.

“Differences must be resolved through sustained dialogue and diplomacy,” said TS Tirumurti, India’s permanent representative to the UN.

“Commitment to the principles of the UN Charter, to international law and respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all states are key principles in this regard.”

India, which has a simmering border row with China, has taken a stance that avoids a direct reprimand of Moscow. It abstained when the UN Security Council sought to condemn the Russian invasion and did the same when Russia was condemned in the UN General Assembly.

Pradeep Mehta, an India trade expert and secretary-general of the Consumer Unity & Trust Society (CUTS), a non-profit focused on access to development opportunities, says none of the BRICS countries wants to depart from the already stated positions in the UN.

“It is a complex situation and therefore countries would rather stay quiet,” he told the Nation on Thursday, referring to inner relations between the BRICS countries.

“But as they say, no comment is a comment.”

When Russia’s invasion of Ukraine went to a vote at the United Nations General Assembly emergency session last week, India, South Africa and China abstained. Brazil voted for the resolution to urge Russia to immediately halt its aggression against Ukraine but has criticised the “indiscriminate application of sanctions” on Moscow.

That paved the way for overwhelming condemnation of Russia’s military action in Ukraine by 141 of the 193 UN member states.

Thirty-five abstained, while five – Russia, Belarus, North Korea, Eritrea and Syria – voted against.

On March 7, in a telephone call with Russian President Vladmir Putin, India PM Narendra Modi expressed “readiness to render any assistance possible to achieve an early resolution of the conflict”.

On March 10, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa spoke with Putin and the two “underscored the importance of continuing interaction within the BRICS framework and at other international venues”.

“The President of South Africa supported the ongoing political and diplomatic efforts,” said a statement from the Kremlin.

In South Africa, there has been confusion from the start about the country’s diplomatic stance on the Russia-Ukraine conflict. In the first week of Russia’s military campaign, South Africa’s International Relations Minister Naledi Pandor called “on Russia to immediately withdraw its forces from Ukraine”.

Immediately after, reports emerged that she had jumped the gun and had made her remarks without consulting President Ramaphosa, meaning her utterances did not reflect Pretoria’s official position.

President Ramaphosa was reportedly angry at the minister.

He said “it is not even necessary for people to go to war” while telling the warring parties that the conflict “should be subjected to mediation, negotiation and engagement”.

When it came to the UN vote, South Africa abstained.

On Monday, President Ramaphosa defended Pretoria’s position, saying it abstained “because the resolution did not foreground the call for meaningful engagement”.

“Even prior to the resolution being passed at the UN last week, talks between Russian and Ukrainian officials had already started,” Mr Ramaphosa said.

“South Africa expected that the UN resolution would foremost welcome the commencement of dialogue between the parties and seek to create the conditions for these talks to succeed.

“Instead, the call for peaceful resolution through political dialogue is relegated to a single sentence close to the conclusion of the final text.

“This does not provide the encouragement and international backing that the parties need to continue with their efforts.”

Pretoria’s insistence on dialogue while also not condemning Russia’s aggression towards Ukraine is seen as a cautious approach meant to protect relations with Russia.

South Africa’s stance is also viewed as an effort to keep its Western allies happy.

While BRICS members adopted different positions at the UN vote, they are all still seen as sympathetic towards Russia. China is viewed as trying to play a balancing act while Brazil, despite voting for a ceasefire, called out sanctions on Moscow.

On February 25, Chinese President Xi Jinping said he “respected the actions of the Russian leadership in the current crisis” in a telephone call with Russian counterpart Putin.

“They reaffirmed a mutual readiness to closely cooperate and support each other further at the UN and in other multilateral platforms. They noted that illegitimate sanctions used to achieve selfish goals of individual countries were unacceptable. In this context, the two leaders emphasised the importance of stepping up practical bilateral cooperation.”

The New Development Bank (NDB) established by the BRICS group of nations has been treading carefully when dealing with Russia’s financial systems that are already under siege by the West.

The bank simply “put new transactions in Russia on hold” in some concerted efforts not to hurt their ally, which has been cut out of Swift banking system and barred from capital markets in the US and Europe.

Russia is still guaranteed its stake in the NDB kitty, of which $1.6 billion was contributed by South Africa, according to the bank's last financial statements of September 2021.

That means BRICS members have a lot to protect and membership is still a worthy price for Pretoria.

“We are particularly concerned that the UN Security Council was unable to discharge its responsibility to maintain peace and security,” Mr Ramaphosa said.

“This gives impetus to the long-standing calls for the Security Council’s reform to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

“The UN Charter enjoins member states to settle their disputes by peaceful means in the first instance, stating explicitly that parties to any dispute should first seek a solution by negotiation, enquiry, mediation, conciliation, arbitration and similar mechanisms.

“Since the outbreak of the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, South Africa’s position has been to affirm this call.

“There have been some who have said that in abstaining from the vote condemning Russia’s military operation in Ukraine, South Africa has placed itself on the wrong side of history.

“Yet, South Africa is firmly on the side of peace at a time when another war is something the world does not need nor … afford. The results of these hostilities will be felt globally and for many years to come.”

While Pretoria has been diplomatic and trying not to anger anyone, former South Africa President Jacob Zuma has been telling off the West about their “bullying tendencies and their insatiable appetite to dominate others while clandestinely furthering their own agendas and interests”.

Mr Zuma was president when South Africa joined BRICS in 2010 after being formally invited by China to join what was known as BRIC.


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