Russia and the West are battling to get China and India to take their sides in the Ukraine war

Russian President Vladimir Putin, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping meet on the sidelines of the 2019 G-20 summit in Osaka, Japan.
Mikhail Klimentyev | Afp | Getty Images

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has led to the biggest clash in decades between Moscow and the West. Both are competing to persuade some of the world’s most powerful nations, namely China and India, to take a side in the conflict.

Both Russia and the U.K. sent their foreign ministers to India on Thursday, making for a somewhat awkward diplomatic clash, with both looking to woo Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government on trade and the Ukraine war.

Ahead of the official visits, U.K. Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said her aim was to impress upon Delhi’s administration that “deeper ties between Britain and India will boost security in the Indo-Pacific and globally, and create jobs and opportunities in both countries. That matters even more in the context of Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine,” she said.

Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, whose visit concludes Friday, has been looking to boost trade ties and sell more oil to India as it faces widespread energy import boycotts in Europe and the United States.

One of the U.S.’ top advisors, Daleep Singh, also traveled to India on Wednesday for a two-day trip to “consult closely with counterparts on the consequences of Russia’s unjustified war against Ukraine and mitigating its impact on the global economy,” the White House said.

Western nations, which have imposed massive sanctions on Russia following its invasion of Ukraine, are trying to shut off Moscow’s economic escape routes, such as those offered by the sale of oil and gas to China and India. Russia, for its part, is looking to circumnavigate sanctions through the allegiances it has built with its Asian neighbors.

Following Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, condemnation of Moscow’s aggression was almost universal. But some countries, allied with or friendly toward Russia, were more equivocal.

On March 2, 141 countries voted in favor of a U.N. General Assembly resolution deploring Russia’s invasion. Five countries — Belarus, North Korea, Eritrea, Syria and, of course, Russia — voted against it, while 35 abstained, including China and India. Further votes on other resolutions deploring the war have since taken place, with China and India maintaining their neutral stance.

India and China

Both China and India are believed to be wary about the war behind closed doors. Of particular concern to China is the uncertainty it brings to global relations and trade. India, for its part, has extensive defense ties with Russia and is an importer of Russian oil.

Analysts said both powers are hoping for a cease-fire sooner rather than later, despite President Vladimir Putin showing little signs of de-escalating the conflict.

“India’s position has raised many eyebrows around the world,” Ankit Panda of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace told CNBC Thursday, “for its abstentions at the United Nations, its unwillingness to criticize Russia, and many people have cited its historic defense relationship with Russia and continued reliance on Russian defense materiel [military equipment] but it’s not a straight-forward issue.”

“I think India would favor a cease-fire and a quick termination [of the war],” he said.

He said India had planned its budgets around the price of oil being around $75 a barrel. The war has caused those prices to spike above $100, and that this was another reason India could not jettison its relationship with oil exporter Russia. Indeed, in recent weeks India has been snapping up Russian oil that’s being sold at a discount as Western buyers look to heavily reduce their energy imports from Russia.

Putin has cultivated cordial and even warm relations with the leaders of India and China, with President Xi Jinping calling Putin his “best friend” in 2019, as their relations deepened while those with the West soured.
Mikhail Metzel | TASS | Getty Images

Putin has cultivated cordial relations with the leaders of India and China, with President Xi Jinping calling Putin his “best friend” in 2019, as their ties deepened while those with the West soured.

Putin reportedly promised Xi not to launch any kind of invasion of Ukraine while Beijing’s Winter Olympics were taking place earlier in February. The two leaders on Feb. 4 signed a 5,300-word statement in which they stated ”that the new inter-State relations between Russia and China are superior to political and military alliances of the Cold War era” and that the friendship between the two states has “no limits.”

Beijing also sided with Moscow in calling on NATO to stop admitting new members, one of Russia’s key bugbears when it comes to Ukraine.

“This looks very much like a re-establishment of a binary world order,” Marko Papic, partner and chief strategist at Clocktower Group, told CNBC earlier this month.

“For the time being, it looks like the West has rebuilt the transatlantic relationship and China is on Russia’s side, that’s just the way that the perception in the West is,” he said, adding that China has to be careful on how it proceeds on a diplomatic level.

“China is trying to do this elaborate dance where it tries to signal to everyone that it wasn’t on Russia’s side but also it’s also not on America’s side and it just seems like that’s not enough. On the world of social media, on Twitter, you’re on one side or another really quickly, and I don’t think China wants to be cancelled.”

A spokesperson for the Chinese embassy in London wasn’t immediately available for comment when contacted by CNBC.

Beyond the West

Putin has also cultivated a relationship with Modi, his fellow BRICS (the acronym for emerging market giants Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) leader, a relationship the West sees as a threat to the world order.

On Wednesday, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg warned in the military alliance’s latest annual report that “we have entered a new era in global security, where authoritarian powers, like Russia and China, are openly contesting core principles for our security, and seeking to re-write the entire international order on which our peace and prosperity depend.” 

Worryingly for the West, Russia could look to strengthen its relationships with other neutral countries, aside from China and India.

The Economist Intelligence Unit published a report Thursday which stated that “two-thirds of the world’s population lives in neutral or Russia-leaning countries regarding the war in Ukraine.”

According to the report, while 36% of the world’s population live in countries that have actively condemned Russia and imposed sanctions on the Russian economy, including the United States, those in the EU as well as Japan, Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom, “nearly one third of the world’s population lives in a country that has remained neutral so far.”

Led by India, these non-aligned states — including Brazil, Saudi Arabia, South Africa and the United Arab Emirates — “will do their utmost to avoid picking sides while seeking to benefit from their apparent neutrality,” the EIU noted. Meanwhile, another 32% of the world’s population live in a country where the government has supported Russia’s actions, it said.

Commenting on the research, Agathe Demarais, the EIU’s global forecasting director, said that “in the coming years Russia (and China) will devote their efforts to courting non-aligned, neutral countries — which are mostly found in the developing world.”

“Building on other instruments, such as vaccine diplomacy, the Russian and Chinese governments will hope to forge an opposing front to the West. The eventual result will be a waning influence and gradual retreat of Western countries from much of the developing world.”

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