The writer is an FT contributing editor, the chair of the Centre for Liberal Strategies, Sofia, and fellow at IWM Vienna
In the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the US, American pundits would plaintively ask: “Why do they hate us?” A year into Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine, a variation on that question has begun to take shape: “Why do they not hate them?”
“Them”, of course, refers to Putin’s Russia. The reluctance of non-western governments to impose sanctions on Moscow can be easily explained by economic interests. But how to explain why non-western publics do not feel more moral outrage at the Kremlin’s outright aggression?
A new study, United West, Divided by the Rest, reveals that the war and Russian military setbacks have not forced people in many non-western countries to downgrade their opinion of Russia or to question its relative strength. Russia is seen either as an “ally” or a “partner” by 79 per cent of people in China (unsurprisingly). But the same is true for 80 per cent of Indians and 69 per cent of Turks. Moreover, about three-quarters of respondents in each of these countries believe that Russia is either stronger, or at least as strong, as they perceived it to be before the war.
And while a plurality of Americans and Europeans want Ukraine to win even if it means a longer war and economic hardship for themselves, most Chinese, Indians and Turks who expressed a view said they would prefer the war to stop as soon as possible — even if that means Ukraine giving up part of its territory. They see western support for Kyiv as motivated by reasons other than the protection of Ukraine’s territorial integrity or its democracy.
Western support for Ukraine, particularly the delivery of advanced weapons, has made it easier for non-western nations to accept the Kremlin’s narrative of the conflict as a proxy for the confrontation between Russia and the west. This explains why Moscow’s military reverses at the hands of Ukrainian forces hardly register with many in the so-called global south. If Russia is facing off against the west as a whole, it is not surprising that it has been unsuccessful.
Confronted with such public attitudes, western analysts usually lament the corrosive effect of Russian propaganda and the legacies of colonialism. But much more important is that Europeans see the war as a return to cold war-style polarisation between two antagonistic blocs, whereas others tend to believe that the world is fragmenting into multiple centres of power. In the words of a former senior Indian diplomat, for many outside of the west “the war in Ukraine is about the future of Europe, not the future of the world order”.
Talking recently to journalists, writers and politicians in Colombia, I also detected a certain resentment at Europe’s geographic privilege. What exasperates the non-western “street” is that when something happens in Europe it is immediately treated as a global concern; while if takes place in Africa or Latin America, this is almost never the case. By ignoring war in Ukraine, many outside the west, either consciously or unconsciously, question Europe’s centrality in global politics.
Although Putin and his propagandists may be relieved by the way non-western societies view what is happening in Ukraine, the question, “why do they not hate them” also has an answer that is less flattering to Moscow. Developing countries are not outraged by Putin’s aggression because Russia has ceased to be seen as a global superpower. For countries such as India and Turkey, Russia has become like them, so they do not need to fear it. The customary privilege of regional powers is to not be hated outside their region; Moscow now enjoys this privilege.
The Soviet Union was an ideological superpower. Soviet advisers in what used to be called the third world in the 1970s and 1980s were there to stir revolutions. Putin, on the other hand, does not have a transformative agenda outside of his imperial project in the post-Soviet space. The Wagner Group in Africa are mercenaries who fight for money, not ideas. Paradoxically, it is Russia’s lack of soft power that leaves the non-western world relatively unmoved by what Moscow is doing in Ukraine.
Now that it is just one “great middle power” among many, Russia’s wars blend into all the other conflicts around the world — they take their place alongside the violence in Syria, Libya, Ethiopia and Myanmar. The war in Ukraine is not a turning point in the non-western imagination. So the answer to the question, “why do they not hate them?” is simple. It’s because Russia is no longer important enough to hate.