It has been a critical question since the Russians invaded Ukraine — and the answers have shifted in the nearly seven months since then: On the geopolitical stage, who stands with Russian President Vladimir Putin?
From the beginning, the U.S. and its European allies have tried to convince the rest of the world of the moral and strategic imperatives of condemning Russia and supporting the Ukrainian resistance. Among core arguments made by the collective West: How can the world stand by as one nation invades another without provocation? How to defend silence in the aftermath of atrocities — at Bucha, Mariupol and other places in Ukraine? How to avoid a dangerous precedent — one that might encourage further attacks on other nations’ sovereign territory?
The counterpoints have taken different forms — and they have come from many places other than Russia itself. Among these: We cannot always afford to take a moral stance; we have our own self-interests to worry about — Russian oil and food staples, to name two prominent examples; and the West has remained silent or ineffectual in response to acts of aggression in other parts of the world.
In April, Grid’s Nikhil Kumar published a piece under the heading, “Is Putin a pariah?” What was clear at the time was that there was a sizable divide between the West and a range of important nations — China, India, Turkey and several countries from across the so-called Global South — which were either openly supporting Russia or at least refusing to condemn the invasion.
The Ukraine War and the “Who stands with Putin?” question loom large at this week’s gathering of the United Nations General Assembly. And the answers may shift yet again given Putin’s game-changing announcements Wednesday. Putin and his defense minister gave a pair of speeches from the Kremlin — not to the U.N., but to the Russian people. The main points: a call-up of 300,000 Russian reservists; the announcement of referendums to be held in four territories in southern and eastern Ukraine — presumably a step toward the formal Russian annexation of those territories; and — a note meant for the wider world — a new and not-so-veiled reminder that Russia has nuclear weapons at its disposal, and that the West has, in Putin’s view, crossed “red lines.”
Who stands with Putin now? This week’s Global Grid conversation took up the question with Global Editor Tom Nagorski, China Reporter Lili Pike, Deputy Global Editor Nikhil Kumar and Global Security Reporter Josh Keating.
Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Tom Nagorski: Lili Pike, what was the response from the Chinese to what Vladimir Putin said Wednesday?
Lili Pike: The Foreign Ministry put out a statement at its daily press conference saying China calls for all sides to come to the negotiating table and to “find a peaceful resolution” to the conflict. The spokesperson emphasized that this is a consistent position that China has had from the beginning, but it’s still notable that he did speak, that he responded to reporters’ questions directly about Putin’s speech and about the escalation.
So we’re not seeing China come out with a brand new position, denouncing Russia. But it is still notable that China is, once again, calling for a peaceful resolution to the conflict. China has tried to carve out this position of neutrality, which has meant that China hasn’t denounced Russia for the war — and it actually hasn’t called the war a “war,” explicitly.
But China hasn’t lent its full support to Russia, either. China hasn’t sold weapons to Russia or explicitly violated sanctions to support the war effort. But at the same time, from the beginning, China has in some ways effectively supported Russia’s stance by echoing statements Russia has made about NATO’s expansion as a precursor to the war, putting blame on the West for that. So it’s been an interesting position to follow from the beginning, a difficult position to hold as Russia escalates.
Along with the statement Wednesday, we have seen other signs that China is uncomfortable in this position. Just last week, [Chinese President] Xi Jinping met with other world leaders, including Putin, at a regional summit in Uzbekistan. Putin himself actually said that he understood that Xi had “questions and concerns” about the war. Xi did not speak to these concerns in his public remarks, but I think that gives you a sign that despite the fact that Russia and China have this strong partnership, China is certainly not all-in in supporting Russia in this war and may have rising concerns about it.
TN: A pretty well-honed principle of Chinese foreign policy is, “You don’t mess in the internal affairs of another country.” So I suppose one could sit in Beijing and say, “We don’t want to interfere in what Russia decides it should be doing.” On the other hand, you could read that principle to say, there’s no basis for encroaching and annexing Ukrainian territory. How does that conundrum play into what they say or do in Beijing?
LP: That’s a great question. From the beginning, experts have pointed to China’s principle of sovereignty and said that China is being hypocritical by effectively, in some ways, supporting Russia, given that it’s breaching Ukraine’s sovereignty. You can point to that as a contradiction, certainly. In its latest remarks, China continued to speak to that principle, which would seem to, again, contradict this move toward formal annexation.
But at the same time, the Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson said this dialogue process toward a peaceful resolution would need to take into account all parties’ “legitimate security concerns.” That’s language that we’ve seen again and again, referencing this encroachment that Russia and China feel from NATO. You’re seeing both of those principles — and certainly some conflict between the two of them — in their statements.
TN: Nikhil, back to that meeting that Lili referenced in Uzbekistan last week. Perhaps less opaque were the comments made by another major global leader, Narendra Modi, the prime minister of India. There’s a country that has straddled the fence for reasons of its own economic and security interests. What exactly did Modi convey to Putin?
Nikhil Kumar: What he said exactly was “sitting next to Putin, I know that today’s era is not an era of war.” That phrase was picked up quite a lot, which people read as him basically telling Putin off. He knew Putin’s position on the conflict in Ukraine, but he also said that they’ve talked about this again and again on the phone, basically indicating that he was trying to press Putin to bring this conflict to an end. But as you say, it’s a complicated position with Modi.
TN: I doubt we’re going to hear any kind of full-throated condemnation from Delhi about what Putin has said and done Wednesday. It’s tougher for India to make a clean break with Moscow — is that right?
NK: Absolutely, which is why India has over the last few months, again and again, abstained when it comes to votes at the U.N. to do with Ukraine. It did vote against Russia in a recent procedural vote to allow [Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy] to address the Security Council. That was the only time that it broke away.
It’s not easy for India to condemn Russia for a host of reasons. It starts with a very long-standing relationship that India had with the former Soviet Union, and which it’s continued to have with Russia, which has to do with defense. Something like 60 to 70 percent of the equipment that India’s armed forces use originates in Russia. That means not only that they need all kinds of spare parts and so on, but they need maintenance from Russia as well. So there’s that relationship, which is not going to shift overnight.
Then there is the whole energy relationship, which has become much more important in recent months because India has been hit by the very high energy prices, which have been driven up, of course, by the war. Russia stepped in by offering India, along with other countries, a discount on the oil that it sells. We don’t know the precise figure, but people have said that it’s something around 30 percent below the market rate. That’s why earlier in the summer, for a brief period, Russia replaced Saudi Arabia as India’s second-largest oil supplier.
So there are all these very complicated deep links, which mean that when Modi thinks of his domestic picture, when he looks at inflation, at what he needs for his armed forces, he is having to balance this against the fact that India, over the last two to three decades, has also become very close to the United States and other Western countries.
That’s not a relationship that he wants to ruin in any way. So he’s been working the middle ground, trying to balance the two things. So far, it has to be said, he has been getting away with it.
TN: Josh, the assumption one makes from a distance about the Kremlin announcements from Putin and his defense minister is that they come as a response to the troubles they’ve had on the battlefield. You suggested there may also be something in the fact that they came only a few days after these gentle rebukes from China and India.
Joshua Keating: Clearly, the main driving force behind what we saw from Vladimir Putin this morning was the setbacks they faced in eastern Ukraine and the mounting domestic criticism. But the international dimension is important too. For both the countries that have stood by Russia and the ones that have been on the fence, there was an assumption that this war would be over relatively quickly. And as it drags on, we’ve seen just how destructive this conflict has been, how disruptive it’s been to the global economy. Some of these countries, particularly China and India, are losing patience with this. There’s a sense that Russia needs to demonstrate some progress — a way out of this conflict, other than just a protracted endless war that it seems to be embarked on right now.
TN: All this is coming in the midst of this big, crazy week at the United Nations. Even before Putin said what he said, it was clear that the war was going to be on the front burner at the U.N. President Biden called Putin’s statements “outrageous” and “irresponsible.” Are we going to have U.N. resolutions? What should we expect from the United Nations by way of response?
JK: It really is a jarring juxtaposition. The U.N. does a lot, from famine relief to cultural preservation to nuclear security. But it has one core function: Keeping countries from using force to conquer each other, from invading each other. It’s right there in the U.N. Charter, which President Biden referred to specifically in his speech: Countries can’t use force against the territorial integrity or political independence of other countries.
So to have this meeting of the U.N. at the same time that Putin has basically declared or set in motion the process for the annexation of about 15 percent of Ukraine’s territory is pretty jarring. As far as action that might be taken, we will probably see the U.S. try to table another Security Council Resolution, which will obviously be vetoed by Russia, as previous resolutions have been. Things may then move to the General Assembly, where there’s a pretty good chance that the General Assembly would vote to condemn Russia’s seizure of territory. That’s the kind of vote people look for to see which countries abstain, which don’t vote, to get a sense of the global level of support and the degree to which some of these countries that were trying to remain neutral might finally be running out of patience with what they’re seeing from the Russian government.
TN: A question about Turkey. They are also in that category of fence-sitters. Talk about [President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan and what he has been saying in the last 24 or 48 hours.
JK: Turkey has played a pretty fascinating role in this conflict — as a NATO member, but one that also has a close defense relationship with Russia, at times a tense one. But it’s tried to play both sides of the fence. It’s sold weaponry to Ukraine, including the drones that Ukrainian military has made very effective use of, but it also stopped short of joining other NATO countries and sanctioning Russia.
Turkey has played the role of a go-between — it was one of the important countries in mediating the deal to allow the export of grain through the Black Sea. It was interesting to watch President Erdogan being interviewed Tuesday by Judy Woodruff of PBS. He was asked if Russia should be permitted to keep some of the territory that it’s taken from Ukraine. His answer was no, undoubtedly no. The lands which were invaded will be returned to Ukraine.
If this war does end at the negotiating table, there’s a good chance Turkey might be one of the mediators of those talks, the country that’s been talking to both sides of this war. If Turkey, of all countries, is saying absolutely not, Russia can’t keep any of this territory, that’s a good sign that there’s not a lot of international support for Russia’s political position on this conflict.
TN: Nikhil, there are a lot of expressions of concern at the U.N. this week that the poor nations of the world can’t afford to choose sides without making calculations about where they’re going to get their food and energy. Talk a little bit about this dynamic and how much that matters.
NK: The world was already facing a food crisis even before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine for a variety of reasons, including the disruptions caused by the covid-19 pandemic and supply chain disruptions. And for a lot of poor countries, these problems have been made worse by this war.
For instance, sanctions on Russia have interrupted the food supply — as Josh mentioned, the grain deal has helped and provided some relief when it comes to food prices. But there are still lots of problems. One involves the supply of fertilizer, which is essential for farmers in all parts of the world. Right now, fertilizer prices are about three times where they were before covid. That’s connected very much to the war in Ukraine.
For a lot of these countries that are geographically very far away, they don’t have a feeling of being right next door to this conflict, as many people do in Europe. They’re far away, but they are nonetheless impacted by what’s going on because of how this conflict impacts the food market and energy markets. In the global energy market, the inflationary effects of all of this are bearing down on their populations. This was a point that was made again and again by Modi’s foreign minister last week, who in various places said that this was not India’s war, essentially, but we are having to live with the consequences of it.
The point that he made has been made by other officials in other parts of the world. Who would say no to cheap oil at a time of rapidly rising inflation? For all these countries, that’s the biggest concern. “Yes, we don’t think big countries should attack smaller countries, but at the same time, we’re having to live with the consequences.”
TN: Let’s come back to China. We know that Xi Jinping is not in New York. As is often the case, his Foreign Minister Wang Yi is going to do the honors at the General Assembly. In terms of the war, what do you think China’s likely message will be?
LP: We’re likely to hear similar messages to what we heard from the foreign ministry Wednesday. China calls for a peaceful resolution, balancing these two seemingly contradictory principles of supporting sovereignty and also supporting these [Russian] claims of legitimate security concerns, which speak to Russia’s interests.
I don’t anticipate seeing a big shift. I had a conversation with the Stimson [Center] China expert Yun Sun last week, in the wake of that big meeting in Uzbekistan. She was clear that when we look at this relationship between China and Russia, the war is certainly a factor, and we might see some shifts in China’s position. But the broader rationale for China’s growing engagement with Russia is based on the growing tensions with the U.S. So as long as those tensions with the U.S. grow, China has an interest in building its relationship with Russia.
As she put it, whether Russia wins or loses, China benefits in the long term. If Russia wins, China gains a stronger partner and if Russia loses, China gains a vassal state to basically support its interests globally. Given that Russia on the U.N. Security Council has that veto power, that’s all very important for China. From her perspective, China has a long-term interest in keeping this relationship with Russia strong, and that’s likely to dictate how China sees the conflict going forward.
TN: Nikhil, the assumption has been that Europe is where the most steadfast stand against Putin exists. Is that strong as ever? Or fraying a little bit?
NK: The polling that has been done in various countries continues to show a lot of public support for Ukraine and against Russia. This is, of course, reflected in the stances of the various political leaders across the European spectrum.
Not all though. There’s Viktor Orban, Hungary’s authoritarian leader, who people have called Putin’s Trojan horse inside the European bloc. Because of rising energy costs, we’ve seen protests in different parts of Europe. We’ve seen them in Austria, in Italy and elsewhere. People have been calling for more action to bring down these prices, and they have been doing this while at the same time saying that they still stand with Ukraine in many cases.
The question is: What happens as we head into winter and as the energy crunch intensifies? There’s an election in Italy coming, and the woman who is likely to become prime minister, according to all the polls, is Giorgia Meloni, who leads a right-wing coalition which includes parties that are not so strongly against Putin. One of her allies, Matteo Salvini, has called for the sanctions on Russia to be watered down, saying that they are in fact hurting Italy. Meloni herself has made clear that she doesn’t support that point of view. But if she becomes prime minister, we don’t know what’s going to happen within that coalition and what the stance of this very important member of the European Union might be.
So there are all these questions about what happens next with Europe. We’re heading into winter, and that raises questions about what happens with public support in Europe, as people start seeing the impact of this energy crisis, and then what will happen? That would not have been a question if this war had ended two months ago. As this persists, I think, yes, there will be more questions about European support. But for now, it holds.
Thanks to Alicia Benjamin for copy editing this article.
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