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BRICS and the Russia-Ukraine war: A global rebalance?

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File picture: Alexey NIKOLSKY / SPUTNIK / AFP Russian President Vladimir Putin attends the XII BRICS Summit via videoconference at Novo-Ogaryovo state residence, outside Moscow.

By Jordan Mc Lean and Luanda Mpungose

The ongoing war in Ukraine has raised questions about the BRICS’ – the bloc of major emerging economies comprising Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – commitment to the principles of respect for territorial integrity and sovereignty. It is pertinent to revisit these key principles that underpin BRICS cooperation against current territorial and geopolitical tensions.

Indeed, the BRICS have come under immense scrutiny due to their response to the Russia-Ukraine conflict. BRICS is an important player in the international system, comprising some of the major global economies upon which economic, technological and environmental change depend.

However, their principles have individually and collectively been called into question by western media and EU countries specifically, following their unwillingness to condemn Russia and their decision to adopt a neutral position while calling for dialogue between the two parties. Their stance has been interpreted by analysts and critics as an implicit support for Russia.

Voting at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) and United Nations Security Council strongly suggests that the BRICS vote ‘together’ only in areas of shared interest, such as several draft resolutions on Syria and general objection to resolutions that encourage use of force or sanctions.

A close look at the BRICS’ historical voting patterns on nuclear weapons at UNGA illustrates that BRICS member votes diverge considerably. South Africa and Brazil do not have nuclear weapons and nuclear non-proliferation is an important theme of their foreign policies.

Voting on Russia’s offensive against Ukraine

While there may be a common perception that the BRICS countries, with the exception of Russia, adopted the same position on the UNGA votes, the reality is more nuanced.

In the first vote to demand an end to Russia’s offensive against Ukraine on March 2, Brazil voted to condemn Russia while the other members abstained. In the vote on March 24, China and Brazil voted in favour of the resolution to allow humanitarian access to the region while India and South Africa abstained, citing divisive language in the tabled resolution.

The April 7 vote to expel Russia from the UN Human Rights Council was also telling. China voted against expelling Russia while other BRICS members abstained, criticising the ‘blind accusations’ against Russia while investigations into the Bucha massacre (alleged abuse and killing of Ukrainians by the Russian Armed Forces) were ongoing.

This is indicative of the BRICS’ overarching objective to make the international order more equitable by calling out the hypocrisy and double standards of the West.

Relevant examples include western media’s bias in coverage of the Ukraine war compared to other ongoing conflicts in the region, the condemnation of Russia for the Bucha massacre before the verification of the satellite images, and the difference in the treatment of western and non-western refugees from Ukraine.

In the lead up to the 2022 BRICS Summit, the BRICS Foreign Ministers issued a joint statement, highlighting their support for a dialogue between Russia and Ukraine and shared concerns regarding the humanitarian crisis which continues to unfold. Key is that the BRICS took no common stance on the Russia-Ukraine conflict, choosing instead to ‘recall (their) national positions’ decided at the UNGA and UNSC.

However, while both South Africa and India have been vocal in calling out the West on their double standards, they have been less willing to outrightly condemn violations of principles of territorial integrity and sovereignty by their own BRICS counterparts.

According to Dr Naledi Pandor, South Africa’s Minister of International Relations and Co-operation, “South Africa is not indifferent to what is going on in Ukraine. We are deeply concerned about the continuing conflict, the loss of lives and the deteriorating humanitarian situation.”

India’s permanent representative to the UN, Ambassador TS Tirumurti, “unequivocally condemned” the deteriorating situation in Ukraine, calling for the “immediate cessation of violence and end to hostilities” without condemning the Kremlin directly.

Principles of the BRICS

The BRICS joint declarations have articulated the overarching principles underpinning their cooperation. They continuously emphasise respect for sovereignty, independence, territorial integrity, national unity and non-interference in their members’ internal affairs.

They are committed to promoting peace; improving the global economic governance system; ensuring a fairer international order; and promoting sustainable development and inclusive growth.

Russia faced heavy criticism in western media for its failure to abide by these principles while reaffirming them at global governance fora. It would be very difficult not to regard Russia’s invasion of a sovereign state as a violation of these principles.

For South Africa, membership of the BRICS is an important vehicle for its foreign policy. It provides an additional platform for the middle power to punch above its weight in international affairs and advance peaceful dialogue on the multilateral stage. Brazil – at least under former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva – saw the grouping in a similar way: a platform to advance Brazil’s influence abroad and build multilateral partnerships with other global powers.

For India, the BRICS mechanism amplifies its voice on development challenges in the global South but critically, enables engagement with China – a country with which it has gone to war and still has border disputes – in a more plurilateral setting on issues of common interest. And for China, BRICS is a platform for it to increase its influence as a global power on the multilateral stage.

Russia’s actions have the potential to compromise the BRICS position on territorial integrity, sovereignty and non-interference. Many countries in the West have called on South Africa, China, India and Brazil to take a more definitive stance on Ukraine as a violation of a sovereign state’s territorial integrity. However, the principles cannot be applied in isolation.

The BRICS also sees itself as an advocate for reforming the global order, which has been dominated by the West. This protracted war is already eroding other important global agenda items such as sustainable development.

Russia’s actions also create a precedent, in the same way that the US invasion of Iraq did, for powerful states to ignore the principles of territorial integrity and sovereignty, with dire consequences for smaller nations.

As the BRICS bloc continues to position itself as the protector of multilateralism, articulating consistently the aforementioned principles, while pursuing global governance reform, it is important that its members themselves are not perpetuating double standards that undermine the principles they ostensibly promote.

Mc Lean is a Konrad Adenauer Foundation Scholar at SAIIA. Luanda Mpungose is the Outreach and Partnership Manager at SAIIA.

This article was first published in the World Commerce Review.