Russia, the West and the ‘World Majority’
As Russia begins its one-year presidency of the BRICS in a turbulent world, great power competition in the Global South will intensify. The Russia-Ukraine war and the Israel-Hamas war have enabled the Kremlin to solidify and increase its influence in the Global South, or what Russia now calls the “World Majority.” The Global South comprises those developing or less- developed countries in the Southern Hemisphere. The Russian definition of the World Majority, however, is not economic, but political. It refers to a community of non-Western countries that have no binding relationships with the United States and the organizations it patronizes.
While the U.S. and its allies struggled to persuade these countries to support Ukraine and reject the Kremlin’s narrative about the origins and course of the war, Russia has largely succeeded in convincing them that the West is to blame for both the Russia-Ukraine war and the Israel-Hamas wars. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, in his December interview with leading Russian TV propagandist Dmitri Kiselev, praised the “World Majority” countries “who have not publicly declared Russia as an enemy.” These countries, he declared, “are ready to work with us honestly, mutually beneficially and mutually respectfully, including in the economy, in politics, in the security sphere,” and he went on to predict that ties with these counties would further intensify in 2024. The West, Russia’s top diplomat proclaimed, does not respect these countries’ interests. In the interview, Lavrov also highlighted the 2024 Russian presidency of the BRICS, which began on Jan. 1, and now has expanded to include Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Ethiopia and Iran, bringing the group’s share of world GDP and population to 34% and 45%, respectively (see tables 1 and 2 below).
Why has Russia succeeded in strengthening its standing with many countries in the Global South even as it pursues its brutal war of attrition in Ukraine? Moscow starts out with a major advantage—deep skepticism amongst these countries about the West, especially the United States. Many Global South countries assert that they see no difference between what Russia is doing in Ukraine and what the United States did in Vietnam, Iraq or Afghanistan. Russia also taps into the alienation and resentment in many countries that both the war and the West’s rivalry with China are distracting attention and shifting resources away from their own urgent challenges, such as debt, economic growth, food, energy, climate change and health. These countries view the United States and many of its European allies as neo-colonial powers who still treat them with condescension. They do not accept that what Russia in doing in Ukraine is a form of colonialism, because Russia repeatedly invokes the Soviet past and the USSR’s support for anti-colonial liberation movements to prove its bona fides as the leading anti-colonial power. Indian Foreign Minister Jaishankar Subrahmanyam told European ministers that they should “grow out of the mindset that Europe’s problems are the world’s problems, but the world’s problems are not Europe’s problems.”
Votes in the United Nations General Assembly tend to reflect these sentiments. In February 2023, the votes in favor of condemning Russia’s invasion as a violation of the U.N. Charter and demanding that Russia withdraw its troops from Ukraine were 141 in favor, 7 against, with 32 abstentions, including China, India and other countries in the Global South. However, a significant number of Global South countries did vote to condemn Russia.
Although Western countries have much more to offer the Global South economically than does Russia, Moscow does retain levers of economic influence. Energy remains the most important. Europe has largely weaned itself off Russian hydrocarbons, but cheap Russian oil remains attractive to many countries. India, a traditional partner of both the Soviet Union and Russia, has been the second largest purchaser of Russian oil after China, enabling Russia to continue to earn billions of dollars despite Western sanctions on Russian energy and the oil price cap. Nuclear energy exports, which are not sanctioned, are also growing. Rosatom has a 74% share of the world’s nuclear power plant market, with 73 projects in 29 different countries. Russian fertilizer and grain exports are important for a number of countries. Recently Russia shipped free grain to six African countries, no doubt to counter the fact that its refusal to renew the earlier Black Sea grain deals had harmed its reputation in parts of the Global South.
Arms sales have been a significant element in Russia’s competition with the United States in parts of the Global South. However, the sub-par performance of the Russia military in Ukraine and the shoddy condition of some of the weaponry made Russia’s customers question the wisdom of continuing to purchase its arms. Western sanctions have also curbed Russia’s ability to export weapons, as Russia needs to use its own weapons in Ukraine. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Russia’s share of global arms exports fell from 22% in 2013-2017 to 16% from 2018 to 2022, while the U.S. increased its share from 33% to 40%. India has cut back on its imports of Russian weapons. Nevertheless, during Jaishankar’s December 2023 visit to Moscow, Lavrov announced that they had made significant progress on plans to jointly produce military equipment. 
One of the most important reasons why Russia has held its own, and in some cases gained ground, with the Global South has less to do with its own efforts and more to do with the changing international environment. The Russia-Ukraine war has opened up new opportunities for these countries to assert more agency. They refuse to take sides in this conflict and to become caught up in geopolitical competition. They hope that, when the war is over, they will play a greater role in forming or strengthening regional alliances. Moreover, they are concerned about the possible consequences of Russia’s strategic weakness. Some believe the war is hastening Russia’s long-term decline and they fear a Russian defeat would create a power vacuum which would destabilize countries in Eurasia and beyond.
China has endorsed Russia’s narrative that the West caused the war with Ukraine and that Russia has the right to “indivisible security.” It appeals to the Global South in similar ways to Russia. But China has much more to offer these countries economically through trade, the Belt and Road and other projects. Although Russia and China announced their “no limits” partnership in 2022, they compete in parts of the Global South. This competition has facilitated Russia’s return to Africa in the past few years because of African countries’ concerns about countering China’s dominant position there.
The Israel-Hamas war has strengthened Russia’s position in the Global South. Since the outbreak of violence, most of the Global South has focused on condemning the Israeli bombing of Gaza, as opposed to Hamas’ murder of Israeli citizens. Putin seized the moment and shifted Russia’s policy on Arab-Israeli relations, criticizing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—with whom he had developed a good working relationship—and backing Hamas. This support for Hamas has boosted Russia’s international clout.
Events in the Middle East make it less likely that the U.S. and its allies can sway much of the Global South away from its neutrality. Most of these countries identify the United States and many of its allies with Israel—and with Ukraine—and criticize their support for Israel. In 2024, the U.S. and its allies will have to redouble efforts to engage politically and economically with countries in the Global South and to improve their public diplomacy to counter the Russian narratives, which find deep resonance in much of the world. The U.S will continue to develop ties with key countries like India, which is part of the Quad alliance with Japan and Australia, and with Turkey, a challenging NATO ally. But the Biden administration’s policies in the Middle East could make outreach to the Global South more difficult. The same would likely be the case in a second Trump administration.
A recent report for the Russian President Vladimir Putin by authors Sergei Karaganov, Dmitri Trenin and Alexander Kramarenko warns “it is advisable to prepare the ruling circles and societies of the World Majority countries for a possible conflict escalation, including through political or even—in extreme cases—direct use of the nuclear factor.”
Table 1: Expanded BRICS’ shares of world GDP (Gross domestic product based on purchasing-power-parity (PPP) share of world total, 2022. Source: IMF)
|Share of world GDP, PPP in 2022
Table 2: Expanded BRICS’ shares in world population (Source: World Bank)
|Share of world population
- Argentina, which was to have joined the BRICS in January, decided not to after its new conservative president, Javier Milei, came into office. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia is still considering whether to join.
- Cited in “How to Survive a Superpower Split,” The Economist, April 11, 2023.
- Stefan Hedlund, “Russian Arms Exports in a Tailspin,” Security, Sept. 14, 2023.
Angela Stent is a senior non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of "Putin’s World: Russia Against the West and with the Rest."
Opinions expressed herein are solely those of the author, unless otherwise stated. Photo by Kremlin.ru shared under a CC BY 4.0 license.