In Other News – A View from Europe – 10/7/2022

October 7, 2022

A View from Europe
The first week of every month, In Other News features a short op-ed heavily informed by the European perspective. We hope that these special monthly pieces will offer our readers an enriched understanding of global events and allow for a more robust international risk calculus.

What the European Union can learn from the global response to the Russia-Ukraine war
The response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has varied widely among global leaders, and this variation serves as a powerful wake-up call for European policy makers. Discussions within the European Union (EU) often assume common core values and principles, but these values are not inherently transferrable to third countries that are operating on a different calculus and are first and foremost informed by their national interests. While the latest United Nations voting patterns indicate that Russia is increasingly isolated, with only a few rogue allies remaining, the evolution of international votes helps to elucidate the factors that shape and inform the decisions of non-European global leaders.

When Russia attacked Ukraine in 2014, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) decided not to recognize Moscow’s territorial conquests. Of 193 UNGA members, 100 voted against Russia, 11 voted with Russia, and there were 58 abstentions. 24 countries did not show up for the vote. After the February 2022 attack, however, a greater UNGA majority condemned Putin’s actions and requested full withdrawal of Russian troops. 141 countries voted against Russia, 5 sided with Russia, and there were 35 abstentions – including India, surprisingly, and unsurprisingly China. 12 countries did not show up for the vote.

A similar symbolical vote took place in September 2022 when UNGA approved Ukrainian President Zelenskyy’s request to hold a virtual address. Only six countries sided with Russia: Belarus, Cuba, Eritrea, Nicaragua, North Korea, and Syria. Notably, India supported Ukraine here for the first time, after abstaining from the two previous resolutions.

Russia’s violation of international law, including the UN Charter, the Helsinki Final Act, the Budapest Memorandum, and the NATO-Russia act, was so extreme with the latest invasion that some European observers were surprised that not all countries condemned Russia’s unprovoked military attack. But Moscow’s overtly unethical behavior is not the decisive factor. The voting pattern at the UN shows that countries base their foreign policy considerations on national self-interest first, followed by issues of international law, values and principles.

For Western nations, national self-interest is aligned with the obvious international legal considerations of the Russian invasion. The horrific war crimes committed by the Russian troops further emphasize that fundamental values and principles are at stake.

The six states aligning with Russia, however, believe they have no choice but to support Putin in view of their perceived dependency on Moscow. They are making the calculation that voting now with Putin will bring them political advantages in future.

A group of approximately 40 countries, mainly from Africa and Asia have not taken a clear position on Russia, either abstaining from voting or not turning up for the vote. There’s an adage that helps explain their lack of interference: “when elephants fight, the grass gets trampled”. Indeed, this group of nations seems to believe that ‘playing invisible’ best serves their national interest. Food security also remains an important concern in their political calculus.

The position of two influential Asian countries, China and India, is being closely watched. China is balancing its partnership with Moscow with its concerns about international stability and economic consequences- Xi has increasingly made his concerns clear to Putin. India, which abstained during the first UN votes, is trying to strike a balance between its partnerships with the West and with Russia. The fact that during the September vote it sided with Ukraine and Prime Minister Modi remarked that “this is not an era of war” has further shifted the international balance against Putin.

Finally, in every country’s policy formulation on Russia’s attack, opportunism is also relevant: which country will prevail? Indeed, Ukraine’s current performance on the battlefield will further influence international support for its brave defense. And in addition to battlefield losses, Russia’s escalatory comments on use of nuclear weapons and actions on mobilization have not helped its international support and only serve to further isolate the nation.