Russia’s Clout in the Brics Universe

As the one-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine nears, the US and its allies are confronted with the harsh reality that stringent sanctions have failed to either deter Russian behavior or punish those responsible. One of the main reasons for this failure is the inability by the West to mobilize support for their sanctions policies in the rest of the world.

On Jan. 23, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov paid a state visit to South Africa, where he was warmly welcomed by his counterpart Naledi Pandor. Following their meeting, Pandor effusively thanked Lavrov for a “most wonderful meeting” that she said would help “strengthen the already good relations” between her country and Russia, as a “valued partner.”

Lavrov’s reception was remarkable, especially in light of concerted US efforts to contain Russian influence on the African continent by seeking to realign the policy positions of major African countries, such as South Africa, with that of the US on the Ukraine conflict. South Africa, considered the continent’s most influential nation, took umbrage at US efforts to exert pressure on it, with Pandor criticizing what she called “bullying tactics.”

One example she cited was the Countering Malign Russian Activities in Africa Act, which was considered by the US Congress last year. While the bill ended up dying on the floor of the House of Representatives, partly due to the objections of the 16-member Southern African Development Community, a regional bloc led by South Africa, the mere fact that the US Congress considered such legislation was viewed with concern by many African countries.

South Africa heads a list of African nations whose governments have shown a reluctance to join the US in criticizing and punishing Russia for its invasion of Ukraine. In March last year, when the US helped push through a UN resolution condemning Russia and calling for its withdrawal from Ukraine, South Africa and 33 other African nations abstained from the vote.

The Military Dimension

At least five of the abstaining countries (Sudan, the Central African Republic, Mali, Mozambique and Madagascar) have contracted the notorious Russian private military group Wagner, for security-related support. Many of the others — including Angola, Algeria, Cameroon, South Sudan and Zambia — have long-standing arms deals with Russia.

It is the military-to-military relationships with Russia that most disturb the US. Despite public declarations of neutrality on the issue of Ukraine, the South African National Defense Forces are conducting this week a joint military exercise with Russia and China during a period that coincides with the anniversary of the invasion of Ukraine — which the US believes amounts to tacit approval of Russia’s actions. According to a statement from the White House, the US “has concerns about any country … exercising with Russia as Russia wages a brutal war against Ukraine.”

Ties between many of these African nations and Russia go back to the time of the Soviet Union, when Moscow was seen as standing up for the African people in their struggle to free themselves from the colonial and post-colonial policies and practices of Europe. In the case of South Africa, for instance, Russian ties date back to the period before the dismemberment of apartheid rule in 1994, when Russia supported the African National Congress.

It’s the Economy

Focusing on military issues, however, can prevent one from seeing the real crux of the issue. Here, one is reminded of the 1992 US presidential campaign of Bill Clinton, where the then-Arkansas governor was getting bogged down in foreign policy minutiae in the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War. Clinton’s campaign manager, James Carville, pushed three messages for the campaign to focus on, one of which was, “It’s the economy, stupid.”

Russia’s ties to Africa provide a contemporary validation for this 30-year-old maxim, as they extend beyond the military and increasingly involve economic engagements. These piggyback on China’s investments in African infrastructure as part of its Belt and Road Initiative and reflect the growing reach and influence of the Brics geopolitical bloc.

At a time when the US, according to the 2022 National Security Strategy document, seeks to use a “revitalized” G7 as “the steering committee of the world’s advanced industrial democracies,” a competitor like the Brics bloc becomes a fly in the ointment. “The G7 is at its strongest,” the NSS notes, “when it also formally engages other countries with aligned goals.”

Therein lies the rub: When it comes to Russia’s war in Ukraine, many countries from Africa, South America, the Pacific and South Asia — basically the geographic span of Brics — are not in alignment with the economic sanctions-based strategy of the US and its European allies.

Russia’s ability to leverage its financial and energy sectors — and its Brics allies — to thwart Western sanctions has frustrated the US, Europe and the G7. Within Brics, India and China have emerged as the top buyers of Russian oil displaced from the West, China has indicated that it is prepared to increase imports of natural gas from Russia, and Brazil has said it is interested in investment from Russian gas giant Gazprom.

While South Africa — the other Brics member — lacks either trade volume or energy interconnectivity with Russia, it knows a winning hand when it sees one. Foreign Minister Pandor recently underscored this when she emphasized the multilateral global leadership that Brics offers in a changing global landscape. South Africa will host the Brics summit in August and its government plans to use this opportunity to seek expansion of the bloc’s membership. Such a move is designed to position Brics as a direct challenger to the G7 as the world’s most influential economic bloc.

It is here that the US, EU and G7 should take heed of the reticence by South Africa, Africa more broadly, and the Brics’ global reach and influence when it comes to Russia and Ukraine. “The current global geopolitical tensions,” Pandor recently told the press, “clearly signal the need to create institutional mechanisms that will have the stature, form and global trust to promote and support global peace and security.”

“Brics,” she concluded, “should play a proactive role in emerging processes and ensure it is part of a redesigned global order.”

In short, the economic sanctioning of Russia by the West, in the minds of the developing world, does not promote international peace and security — or their collective bottom line.

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