Redefining Power:
The Global South's Game-Changing Alliance with Russia
February 2, 2024
  • Ivan Grek

    Co-Director of the Russia Program at the George Washington University
Ivan Grek delves into the profound shifts in global power dynamics, spotlighting how, despite Western attempts to isolate Moscow, Russia has adeptly cultivated burgeoning partnerships with the Global South by leveraging its soft power and strategic economic ties.
As we mark the second anniversary of the Russia-Ukraine war, it is difficult to ignore the seismic shift in global power dynamics between the so-called “West” and the so-called “Global South.” A term encompassing the nations outside the traditional West, the Global South has put up resistance to Western pressures aimed at isolating Russia. This has helped Moscow to not just avoid becoming a pariah, but also to prepare new, fertile ground for partnerships across the non-West, fostering new ties that are reshaping the contours of global influence. Despite the Kremlin's imperial rhetoric about the war in Ukraine, Russia's anticolonial narrative finds resonance outside the Western world. From this perspective, Russia's actions are perceived as a response to Western dominance and normative expansion.

Though the influence of big players, such as China, has never been doubted, some states often regarded as minor actors have gained in importance. North Korea’s military support for Russia, for instance, has significantly impacted the war on Ukraine, while Turkey’s complex dance – supplying Ukraine with drones while simultaneously breaching sanctions against Russia – highlights that these nations are defying the conventional wisdom that tends to underestimate their role.

Russia, often perceived as lacking a coherent foreign policy, has effectively leveraged the Global South, building resilient bridges that transcend economic and diplomatic turbulence. For years, it has been cultivating soft power through small and seemingly unrelated projects in culture, business and education. These include radio broadcasts in local languages in Africa, which facilitated the rise of the Wagner Group there and contributed to pulling African countries out of the French sphere of influence. There are also local cultural and educational initiatives in Latin America and Asian countries that now enable Russia to block performances of anti-war Russian emigrants, such as comedians Maxim Galkin and Ruslan Bely, even at private venues.

The reach of Russian influence extends beyond mere cultural endeavors. The state nuclear entity, Rosatom, has been instrumental in constructing nuclear facilities across a diverse set of countries, including China, Hungary, Bangladesh, India, Egypt, Iran and Belarus. With Rosatom's engineering division accruing 80% of profits from international projects, these extensive infrastructure initiatives serve as robust pillars of cooperation, often forging stronger bonds than formal treaties could.

Russian resources are still a very powerful weapon. Russia's sales of oil, gas and other commodities not only cement its ties with allies in the Global South but also establish channels of dialogue with adversaries. A case in point is the ongoing gas shipments through Ukraine to Europe, for which, despite the ongoing war and sanctions on its institutions, Russia is negotiating transit terms and compensates Ukraine approximately $1.0-1.5 billion per year. Such situations underscore the depth and complexity of Russia’s commodity-driven international relationships, especially when it comes to states of the Global South that are more amicably disposed to Moscow.

The Global South's engagement with Russia is a microcosm of a broader, more nuanced reality. It is not a simplistic division between allies and adversaries of the West. There is a spectrum of stances within the non-Western bloc itself, with countries charting their distinct courses, sometimes aligning with the West, sometimes promoting more autonomous paths, but oftentimes blending both.

Saudi Arabia’s ambitious Vision 2030, championed by King Mohammed bin Salman, aspires for instance to transform the Middle East into a new hub of civilization, echoing Europe’s historical centrality. “I believe the Middle East can be a new Europe,” declared bin Salman. And he is gradually fulfilling that vision: the Saudis are not only investing in infrastructure and the economy but are also striving to import the best of European culture to their kingdom – though not to replicate it, but to embrace it. Institutions like the Louvre, Centre Pompidou and Pergamonmuseum are opening branches or contributing exhibitions in Saudi Arabia. In another sphere of culture, Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar and Karim Benzema – all stars of European football – now represent Saudi clubs.

This embrace of European culture on the Arabian Peninsula is part of a strategy that empowers countries of the region to be involved in European politics. A pioneer of westernization in the region, the United Arab Emirates has already demonstrated its diplomatic finesse. This is seen in the UAE’s mediation of prisoner exchanges between Russia and Ukraine, illustrating how soft power and economic investment can translate into substantial geopolitical influence.

In this complex web, Russia's redefined relations with the Global South are not just about bilateral gains but also the very fabric of the post-Cold War consensus. Understanding these dynamics is crucial, as each regional interaction holds the potential to recalibrate the global order, especially in a world teetering on the brink of polycrisis.

In response to this shifting landscape, The Russia Program is initiating a dedicated project to explore Russia's interactions with the Global South. We are bringing together scholars from these emerging powerhouses to offer their insights and challenge prevailing, Western-centric narratives. Their research and analysis will be made accessible through our platform, which seeks a “de-Westernization” of perspectives on Russia.

As the global order creaks under the weight of new challenges, it's time to listen to the voices from regions that have long been mere footnotes in our textbooks. They are not just part of the conversation – they are driving it.
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