I was running from my home in Kyiv as the Russian army occupied Bucha, Gostomel and Irpin in the early stages of its invasion of Ukraine in 2022.
By accident, I was leaving in a bus that a nearby international school was using to evacuate its students and staff. We drove for a long time, spending nights in bomb shelters with young people and their kids from China, the Middle East and India who had been studying and working in Ukraine.
When the war broke out, Ukraine was hosting tens of thousands of students from the Global South and was generally viewed as a partner in many countries.
But the war disrupted everything, including public opinion in many of these same countries. Now, Ukraine is struggling to gain support in the Global South, which has shown ambivalence about the invasion and been reticent to cut off ties with Russia.
Differences of Opinion
After the February 2022 invasion, Ukraine’s leaders tried to rally the world’s support by focusing on a narrative of fighting for democracy and decolonisation.
As Ukrainians, we see our country as a bastion of democratic values and oppose the totalitarianism taking root in Russia. At the same time, Ukraine perceives the war as a national liberation effort – freedom from centuries of colonial oppression by Russia and the Soviet Union and the enforced dominance of the Russian language.
While the democratic narrative continues to resonate strongly with Ukraine’s western allies, the decolonisation narrative appears to have made little impact outside Ukraine – particularly in the Global South.
Most countries in the Global South, which includes Africa, Latin America and much of Asia and Oceania, used to be ruled by colonial powers. But it is clear there is not much solidarity with Ukraine’s goal of decisively ending Russia’s colonial influence in the former Soviet republic.
In fact, Ukrainian researchers monitoring the news in the Global South have found many media outlets are instead broadcasting manipulative pro-Kremlin messages. For instance, the researchers found the Russian claim that Ukraine was being run by Nazis had gained popularity in some countries. Specifically, there were reports in the Brazilian media that the CIA had organised a “Nazi coup” in Ukraine in 2014, referring to the country’s Revolution of Dignity. One Indian publication went even further, spreading the message that “descendants of the Nazis” came to power in Ukraine after the Orange Revolution in 2004.
These messages are helping to drive public opinion. A global survey conducted one year into the war revealed a large gap between the West and “the rest” when it comes to views of Russia and how the war should end.
As foreign policy analyst Bobo Lo writes, few countries in the Global South are keen to see a “triumphant West”, even if they have misgivings about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s actions.
They would much rather a world where US and Western power is counterbalanced by other centres of influence. Smaller players would retain agency, preserve their political autonomy, and perhaps leverage great power rivalry to their advantage.
Why does so much of the Global South Support Russia?
To be clear, attitudes toward the devastating war vary considerably across the Global South – the region is no monolith of public opinion. And most countries maintain the importance of safeguarding Ukraine’s existing borders.
However, opinion polls in places like China, India and Turkey show a clear preference for the war to end now – even if that means Ukraine having to give up territory.
Clear majorities in Indonesia, Turkey and India also favour maintaining diplomatic relations with Russia.
Many countries of the Global South have a deep-seated “non-aligned” tradition dating back to the Cold War. Their colonial history reinforces a skepticism about the West. Some have also pointed out the West’s hypocrisy in criticising Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, given the US and its allies waged disastrous wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.
The war in Ukraine has also widened the gap between the Global North and South and exposed their different priorities. While Western leaders are concerned about Russia’s disruption of the liberal democratic order and the rise of China, much of the Global South is focused on economic and development challenges, such as debt relief, food security and climate mitigation.
Even when emerging powers agree with the West, they often maintain good relations with Russia and China. This is what Brazil is currently doing: President Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva advocates maintaining his country’s neutrality towards Ukraine and Russia in order to avoid “any involvement, even indirect” in the war. He has, however, acknowledged Russia “has been wrong” to invade a neighbouring country.
Many countries have also pursued their own interests in the face of geopolitical polarisation. Some depend on Russia for wheat, energy and military hardware, or on China for investment, credit and trade.
Specifically, Russia has established a significant presence in parts of Africa. The private military contractor Wagner is operating across the continent, and the Russian and Chinese militaries recently held joint exercises with South Africa.
African leaders are also meeting with Putin this week in St. Petersburg as part of the second Russia-Africa Summit. The first edition, held in 2019, resulted in 92 agreements and contracts worth over US$11 billion.
Is the War of Words Lost?
Ukraine is aware that its relationship with the Global South is weak. Kyiv has struggled to get its message across to countries on the African continent, in particular, where it has only 10 embassies – a mere quarter of the Russian presence.
Ukraine is now working on opening more embassies and appointing ambassadors across Africa. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has also identified the Global South as a priority in international relations. For instance, his foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, embarked this week on his third tour of African countries. The trip was seen as pivotal, with Russia pulling out of a deal to allow Ukraine to export its grain, which is hugely important to many African countries.
Last month, Zelensky also met with seven African leaders in Ukraine, where he stressed the need for “real peace” in the conflict and a complete withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine.
Zelensky has promised to do more to ensure food security in the Global South, for example, through the creation of grain hubs. He also noted Ukraine is ready to significantly expand educational programs for students from Africa.
But will this be enough to persuade the Global South to do more to support Ukraine in the war? There was once a street in Kyiv named after the Congolese freedom fighter Patrice Lumumba. Lumumba was vital to Africa’s struggle for independence and the end of the colonial rule. Before he was brutally murdered, he wrote:
What we wanted for our country — its right to an honourable life, to perfect dignity, to independence with no restrictions.
Ukrainians can only hope other countries can see their shared aspirations for a fully decolonised world.