In times of trouble, a person or country discovers who their true friends are. Such insights can be disillusioning. The war in Ukraine has produced a number of such disturbing moments, for the government in Kyiv but also for the western democracies that are its most ardent supporters. “Whose side are you on?” is a crude but necessary question when international law is flouted and innocent people begin to die in large numbers.
The UN general assembly’s non-binding resolution last week condemning Russia’s invasion, demanding its immediate, unconditional withdrawal and calling for a “just and lasting peace”, was backed by 141 countries. But 32 abstained and seven voted against. That North Korea, Syria, Eritrea, Mali, Nicaragua and Belarus sided with Russia is unsurprising. It says much about the benighted condition of all these ill-led pariah regimes.
Yet supposed friends are a different matter entirely. Worrying, even dismaying, is the realisation that important regional powers such as India, South Africa, Ethiopia and Algeria continue to sit on the fence. Foremost among them is China. Beijing is becoming, or already is, a global economic and military superpower. But with power must come responsibility – and its refusal to condemn, sanction or publicly criticise Russia is inexcusably irresponsible.
China is not yet deemed an enemy by the west. But its so-called peace plan for Ukraine, published last week, is not a balanced or workable undertaking. Rather, it is a thinly veiled critique of western policy. Its proposed ceasefire would favour its ally, Russia, by freezing in place its illegal occupation. If Kyiv’s allies were to stop supplying arms, which China says “fuel the fire”, Ukraine might quickly be overrun.
Beijing’s claim to act as an honest broker is an excuse, previously adopted by others such as Turkey and Israel, for not taking a firmer position on Russia’s trashing of the founding UN charter. If not reversed, Moscow’s behaviour threatens every country’s sovereign existence. Abstainers have trotted out other dubious excuses for inaction: they are neutral, they won’t be “bullied” by the west, it’s not their war, taking sides would make matters worse. Many are meanwhile cynically and profitably circumventing sanctions.
Political calculation, national self-interest and moral confusion, not principled concerns, lie behind much of this sophistry and pusillanimity. India’s increasingly authoritarian leader, Narendra Modi, wants to be seen to be standing up to the Americans. Delhi is buying greatly increased quantities of cheap Russian oil – and Russian arms. Considering its hard-won post-colonial democratic tradition, India’s stance is deeply disappointing.
The hypocrisy of South Africa’s leaders is similarly shocking. While the Soviet Union supported the ANC’s freedom fight, western sanctions were critical in ending apartheid. Nelson Mandela understood the importance of a free, open democratic society such as Ukraine’s. The EU is now South Africa’s largest trade partner. Yet even as Pretoria hides behind its “non-aligned” status, it expands military ties with Moscow.
Ethiopia is another fence-sitter that should know better. It is the recipient of generous western assistance. Its own borders have been previously violated by Eritrea and Sudan. It is rare for the US and other donors to ask for something back. Now that they do, they are spurned. Does prime minister Abiy Ahmed really believe it is acceptable to invade another country on a whim? Given his recent bellicose actions in Tigray, perhaps he does.
The US has launched a fresh push at the UN to win over the waverers, wafflers and dissimulators. The inglorious 32 should think again. The principle is clear. Unprovoked armed aggression by one state against another cannot stand.