There’s been no shortage of reports and commentaries on the crisis in Ukraine and Crimea, and Russia’s role in it. Yet one of the more notable recent developments in the crisis has received surprisingly little attention.
Namely, the BRICS grouping (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) has unanimously and, in many ways, forcefully backed Russia’s position on Crimea. The Diplomat has reported on China’s cautious and India’s more enthusiastic backing of Russia before. However, the BRICS grouping as a whole has also stood by the Kremlin.
Indeed, they made this quite clear during a BRICS foreign minister meeting that took place on the sidelines of the Nuclear Security Summit in The Hague last week. Just prior to the meeting, Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop suggested that Australia might ban Russia’s participation in the G20 summit it will be hosting later this year as a means of pressuring Vladimir Putin on Ukraine.
The BRICS foreign ministers warned Australia against this course of action in the statement they released following their meeting last week. “The Ministers noted with concern the recent media statement on the forthcoming G20 Summit to be held in Brisbane in November 2014,” the statement said. “The custodianship of the G20 belongs to all Member States equally and no one Member State can unilaterally determine its nature and character.”
The statement went on to say, “The escalation of hostile language, sanctions and counter-sanctions, and force does not contribute to a sustainable and peaceful solution, according to international law, including the principles and purposes of the United Nations Charter.” As Oliver Stuenkel at Post Western World noted, the statement as a whole, and in particular the G20 aspect of it, was a “clear sign that [the] West will not succeed in bringing the entire international community into line in its attempt to isolate Russia.”
This was further reinforced later in the week when China, Brazil, India and South Africa (along with 54 other nations) all abstained from the UN General Assembly resolution criticizing the Crimea referendum. Another ten states joined Russia in voting against the non-binding resolution.
In some ways, the other BRICS countries’ support for Russia is entirely predictable. The group has always been somewhat constrained by the animosities that exist between certain members, as well as the general lack of shared purpose among such different and geographically dispersed nations. BRICS has often tried to overcome these internal challenges by unifying behind an anti-Western or at least post-Western position. In that sense, it’s no surprise that the group opposed Western attempts to isolate one of its own members.
At the same time, this anti-Western stance has usually taken the form of BRICS opposition to Western attempts to place new limits on sovereignty. Since many of its members are former Western colonies or quasi-colonies, the BRICS are highly suspicious of Western claims that sovereignty can be trumped by so-called universal principles of the humanitarian and anti-proliferation variety. Thus, they have been highly critical of NATO’s decision to serve as the air wing of the anti-Qaddafi opposition that overthrew the Libyan government in 2011, as well as what they perceive as attempts by the West to now overthrow Bashar al-Assad in Syria.
However, in the case of Ukraine, it was Russia that was violating the sanctity of another state’s sovereignty. Still, the BRICS grouping has backed Russia. It’s worth noting that the BRICS countries are supporting Russia at potentially great cost to themselves, given that they all face at least one potential secessionist movement within their own territories.
India, for example, has a long history of fluid borders and today struggles with potential secessionist movements from Muslim populations as well as a potent security threat from the Maoist insurgency. China suffers most notably from Tibetans and Uyghurs aspiring to break away from the Han-dominated Chinese state. Even among Han China, however, regional divisions have long challenged central control in the vast country. Calls for secession from the Cape region in South Africa have grown in recent years, and Brazil has long faced a secessionist movement in its southern sub-region, which is dominated demographically by European immigrants. Russia, of course, faces a host of internal secessionist groups that may someday lead Moscow to regret its annexation of Crimea.
The fact that BRICS supported Russia despite these concerns suggests that its anti-Western leanings may be more strongly held than most previously believed. Indeed, besides backing Russia in the foreign ministers’ statement, the rising powers also took time to harshly criticize the U.S. (not by name) for the cyber surveillance programs that were revealed by Edward Snowden.
The BRICS and other non-Western powers’ support for Russia also suggests that forging anything like an international order will be extremely difficult, given the lack of shared principles to act as a foundation. Although the West generally celebrated the fact that the UN General Assembly approved the resolution condemning the Crimea referendum, the fact that 69 countries either abstained or voted against it should be a wake-up call. It increasingly appears that the Western dominated post-Cold War era is over. But as of yet, no new order exists to replace it.