By Taylor Marvin
Last week a resolution calling on the international community not to recognize the Russian Federation’s annexation of Crimea easily passed through the United Nations General Assembly. The non-binding agreement, which urged restraint and a peaceful resolution to the conflict, received a hundred votes in favor, 11 against, and 58 abstentions, in addition to a number of UN member states not present for the vote.
While the resolution was adopted, commentators immediately drew attention to the comparatively low number of “Yes” votes. It is difficult to think of a more blatant violation of international norms than Russia’s invasion of Crimea, and later annexation of the peninsula after a singularly-unconvincing referendum. While the only states to vote against the resolution were Russia and ten of its close allies such as Cuba, Venezuela, Sudan, and Armenia, the high number of abstentions is a puzzle. Why would so many states remain on the sidelines, so to speak, of such a clear-cut issue?
More importantly, why did Russia’s BRICS peers — a loose bloc of large developing economies composed of, besides Russia, Brazil, India, China, and South Africa — all abstain from the vote? The BRICS bloc, a grouping that was first proposed (minus South Africa) by Goldman Sachs economist Jim O’Neill in 2001, has always been an association stronger on paper than the real world, but this show of solidarity is striking. While China is a Russian ally that also hopes to regain territory it once lost — in China’s case, Taiwan — its government has also long presented itself as committed to ideals of territorial sovereignty and states’ freedom from foreign interference, a stance its abstention undercuts. Brazil, India, and South Africa are all democracies that presumably should strongly oppose Vladimir Putin’s ‘might makes right’ annexation of Crimea.
Brazil, India, China, and South Africa’s stance is especially puzzling because their abstention on the UN resolution reaffirming Ukraine’s territorial integrity is, for all practical purposes, a vote in favor of Russia. With its invasion and annexation already successful, Russia now seeks to defend the status quo, a reality that a refusal to condemn Russia supports. One potential answer to this puzzle is that, as Daniel Larison has written, these countries simply don’t see the Crimea issue as vital enough to their interests to take on the diplomatic risks of a firm position. Another is that Russia put great effort into urging its fellow BRICS countries to support it, though this alone is an unsatisfying explanation — it’s difficult to see Russia as having the leverage to coerce a bloc of countries that together are far more populous and economically powerful than itself.
Via Milena Rodban, in The Diplomat Zachary Keck suggests another explanation. Noting a statement by BRICS foreign ministers denouncing the push to impose costs on Russia’s Crimea annexation, Keck sees the the BRICS countries’ abstentions at the UN General Assembly as a deliberate repudiation of Western norms and the pressures by which the United States and its allies seek to enforce them. This repudiation is part of a strategy designed to united the otherwise disparate BRICS countries. “BRICS has often tried to overcome these internal challenges by unifying behind an anti-Western or at least post-Western position,” Keck writes. “In that sense, it’s no surprise that the group opposed Western attempts to isolate one of its own members.”
This is a provocative explanation for BRICS solidarity at the UN. However, there is also a simpler one. As Keck lists, the BRICS bloc has incentives to both preserve its own unity and demonstrate its relevance, but the UN vote is less a demonstration of the strength of this “post-Western” solidarity than that the costs of doing so are very small.
Yes, an abstention is an implicit voice of support for Russia, but it is far less forceful than the “No” votes on the Assembly resolution. The most obvious takeaway from the vote isn’t that Brazil, India, China, and South Africa abstained from the vote along with with 54 other countries, but that Russia was only able to draw “No” votes from a small number of its obvious allies and, more embarrassingly, clients. Moreover, while 100 “Yes” votes is hardly a ringing endorsement of the norms against territorial annexation, the vote itself was never in doubt. The non-Russian members of the BRICS bloc could afford a mild show of solidarity with Russia because there was no chance that their measured statements in opposing sanctions and abstentions would actually lead to the rejection of the Assembly resolution.
Similarly, the governments of Brazil, India, China, and South Africa are unlikely to pay any costs for their positions at home. In Brazil, in particular, a recent Christian Science Monitor piece noted that while Russia’s annexation is unpopular in the Brazilian press, the conflict is overshadowed by domestic issues, like the fast-approaching World Cup, and in the international realm events in Brazil’s immediate neighborhood. Recent pieces published in Brazilian media have, for example, argued that a referendum cannot legitimize annexation, warned of future conflict, and echoed the argument that Russia will lose influence in the rest of Ukraine. But it seems unlikely that the government of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, who is widely favored to win reelection this fall, will suffer any serious domestic pushback from abstention, along with those of its democratic BRICS counterparts in India and South Africa.
Another explanation for the vote’s cost — and thus its importance as a post-Western moment — born by the BRICS is that several of the bloc’s members face secessionist movements of their own. China has real fears of Tibetan and Uyghur separatism — in addition to the possibility of a formal Taiwanese independence declaration — and India a number of separatist movements, most notably in Jammu and Kashmir. Supporting Russia’s annexation of Crimea must be costly to states facing secessionist movements, the theory goes, because it will encourage separatists elsewhere. However, this seems not to be the case in practice. Political scientist Steve Saideman has extensively argued countries support or oppose secessionist movements “based on the context of each one, rather than to any over-arching principle.” Canada recognized Kosovo because such a move fit into the country’s wider foreign policy goals, despite its own secessionist movement in Quebec; a notably counterargument to this theory is Spain’s non-recognition of Kosovo. All this suggests that Brazil, India, China, and South Africa’s support for Russia will not bring future costs by encouraging domestic secessionists. This is particularly true for Brazil, where to the best of my knowledge a breakaway southern state has no chance of success or even much real support. (One of the movement’s website appears to now be a Japanese porn site.)
So it’s possible that Brazil, China, India, and South Africa all abstained from the Assembly resolution on Crimea to stand against — so the narrative goes — a hypocritical West. But even if this is true, this is less a bold stance than an empty one. Bland statements and abstentions do aid Russia, but do little in any practical way. It is worth remembering that a single “No” vote from a large, democratic country like Brazil, India, or South Africa would have been an immensely powerful public relations tool for Putin. The fact that Russia couldn’t manage to get even one from its BRICS counterparts substantially weakens the argument that the vote represents some new post-Western moment. The BRICS group may, in Oliver Stuenkel’s words, be driven by a narrative “that emerging powers are successful and that the rise of the Global South is set to fundamentally change the distribution of power in global affairs.” But that does not mean that the Brazil, India, China, and South Africa are willing to bear serious costs in support of Russian military adventurism.
Instead, it is more likely that BRICS leaders are only willing to offer token — and more importantly, largely costless — support for an increasingly unpopular and isolated Russia.