WASHINGTON — Even before the start of the war in Ukraine, an international alliance to unite the world against a Russian invasion came together so quickly that President Biden later marveled at the “purpose and unity found in months we once had.” had taken years to achieve.”
Now that the conflict is in its fourth month, US officials are faced with the disappointing reality that the powerful coalition of nations — stretching from North America across Europe to East Asia — may not be enough to overcome the looming stalemate in Ukraine. to break through.
With increasing urgency, the Biden administration is seeking or persuading countries that have declared themselves neutral in the conflict — including India, Brazil, Israel and the Arab Gulf States — to join the campaign of economic sanctions, military support and diplomatic pressure to further isolate Russia and bring the war to a decisive end. So far, few, if any, have been willing, despite their partnerships with Washington on other key security issues.
Biden is making an extraordinary diplomatic and political gamble this summer by planning to visit Saudi Arabia, which he has called a “pariah.” And on Thursday, he met Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro on the sidelines of the Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles. Bolsonaro visited Moscow the week before Russia invaded Ukraine and declared “solidarity” with President Vladimir V. Putin.
In Los Angeles, Mr. Bolsonaro anticipated any pressure from Mr. Biden on Russia, saying that while Brazil remained open to help end the war, “we need to be careful given our reliance on certain foreign players.”
“I have a country to run,” he said.
US officials recognize the difficulties in trying to convince countries that they can balance their own interests with the US and European push to isolate Russia.
“One of the biggest problems we face today is the fence-sitter problem,” Samantha Power, the head of the United States Agency for International Development, said on Tuesday after a speech about the government’s efforts to promote freedom of expression. and to strengthen fair elections. and other democratic systems against authoritarian leaders worldwide.
She said she hoped the Russian atrocities committed in Ukraine would persuade neutral states to join the coalition against Moscow, “given our collective interest in traffic rules that we would all want to see, and none of us would want to see.” using it against our citizens.”
Russia and its partners, notably China, have denounced the US government’s efforts to expand the coalition, which includes Canada, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand in addition to European countries.
“In the modern world, it is impossible to isolate a country, especially not such a huge country as Russia,” Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said on Thursday according to state media.
In Beijing, Zhao Lijian, a spokesman for China’s foreign ministry, said on Monday that the United States “forced countries to take sides in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine and deliberately threatened to impose unilateral sanctions and long-armed jurisdiction” . He added: “Isn’t this coercive diplomacy?”
The Russian currency, the ruble, collapsed shortly after Mr Putin launched the invasion of Ukraine in February. But it has since bounced back as Russia continues to earn hard currency by exporting energy and other goods to many countries, including China, India, Brazil, Venezuela and Thailand.
For some countries, the decision to join or not to join the United States can be life-or-death. Washington has warned drought-stricken African countries not to buy grains that Russia stole from Ukraine at a time when food prices are soaring and potentially millions of people are starving.
“Key strategic middle powers such as India, Brazil and South Africa are therefore moving on a very sharp line in an effort to maintain their strategic autonomy and cannot be expected to simply shift to the US,” said Michael John Williams, a professor international relations at Syracuse University and a former advisor to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
“Washington believes this war will be won in the West,” said Mr. Williams, “but the Kremlin believes it will be won in the East and the Global South.”
In a March vote on a United Nations resolution condemning Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, 35 countries abstained, mostly from the Middle East, Africa and South Asia. That alarmed US officials and their allies, who nevertheless noted that 141 of the 193 states disapproved of Russia. Only five states, including Russia, voted against the measure.
Brazil has voted to condemn Russia and Bolsonaro has pushed for negotiations to end the war. But his country continues to import fertilizers from Russia and Belarus, an ally of Moscow.
India and South Africa both abstained from voting at the UN. India has a decades-long strategic partnership with Russia and relies on it for oil, fertilizer and military equipment. The Biden administration has had little luck getting India to join the coalition.
Indian officials say their Russian imports are modest. During a visit to Washington in April, Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar declined questions on the subject, saying that “probably our total purchases for the month would be less than what Europe does in an afternoon”.
“So maybe you should think about that,” he said.
But Europe is now cutting its energy imports, in a partial embargo on Russian oil, while India is reportedly in talks with Moscow to further ramp up its already growing crude oil purchases.
South Africa’s ties to Russia date back to the Cold War, when the Soviet Union supported the anti-apartheid movement that changed the country’s internal power dynamics.
Trade between the two countries is modest, but South Africa, like many other countries, has long been suspicious of Western colonialism and the United States as an unparalleled superpower. South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa has accused NATO of provoking Russia to war and has called for renewed diplomatic talks. In a phone call in April, Biden urged him to accept “a clear, united international response to Russian aggression in Ukraine,” according to a White House statement.
A month later, Mr Ramaphosa deplored the impact the conflict had on “bystander” countries that he said “will also suffer from the sanctions imposed against Russia.”
Brazil, India and South Africa – along with Russia and China – belong to a group of countries that account for a third of the world economy. At an online meeting of the group’s foreign ministers last month, Moscow offered to set up oil and gas refineries with its fellow partners. The group also discussed expanding membership to other countries.
War between Russia and Ukraine: important developments
Other countries that abstained from the United Nations vote, including Uganda, Pakistan and Vietnam, have accused the US-led coalition against Russia of cutting any chance of peace talks with its military aid to Ukraine. US and European officials claim that the weapons and intelligence it has provided is only to help Ukraine defend itself against the Russian military.
The Biden administration’s growing urgency is reflected in the president’s plans to visit Saudi Arabia, despite his previous convictions of his murderous actions and possible war crimes. Mr Biden’s effort, already criticized by leading Democrats, is partly aimed at getting Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to help on the margins with Ukraine. One goal is to have those countries coordinate a substantial increase in oil production to lower world prices, while the United States, Europe and others boycott Russian oil.
US officials are disappointed with the declared neutrality of the two Arab Gulf states, which are buying US weapons and lobbying Washington for policy against Iran, their main rival.
Israel, which also buys US weapons and is the United States’ closest ally in the Middle East, has expressed solidarity with Ukraine. At the same time, however, it has resisted supporting some sanctions and direct criticism of Russia.
Until Mr. Biden offered to meet him in Los Angeles, Mr. Bolsonaro had indicated that he would not go to the top of most heads of state in the hemisphere. A direct appeal was needed from former Connecticut Senator Christopher J. Dodd, a special adviser to the summit, to persuade Brazil to attend.
Valentina Sader, a Brazil expert with the Atlantic Council, said the Biden administration was expected to continue to talk with Bolsonaro about Brazil’s ties to Russia and China.
But, she said, it was unlikely that Bolsonaro would walk away from Putin. “Brazil is mindful of its own interests,” said Ms Sader.
US officials have come to the same conclusion about China, Russia’s most powerful strategic partner. They say China has clearly chosen to support Russia – as evidenced by the continued reiteration by Chinese officials of Mr Putin’s criticism of the United States and NATO and their spread of disinformation and conspiracy theories that the United States and Ukraine undermine.
On February 4, three weeks before Russia began its large-scale invasion, Mr Putin and China’s President Xi Jinping met in Beijing as the two governments declared a “no borders” partnership.
In late May, China and Russia held their first joint military exercise since the start of the war in Ukraine — flying strategic bombers over the seas of northeast Asia while Mr. Biden visited Japan.
But China has also held back from giving economic or military aid to Russia, despite requests from Moscow, US officials say. Mr Biden warned Mr Xi in a video call in March that there would be “consequences” if China gave material aid to Russia, and Chinese officials and businessmen fear their companies could face sanctions if the companies give Russia substantial aid.
“Secondary sanctions bite, and China doesn’t want this to hit their businesses,” said Alexander Gabuev, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who was recently based in Moscow. “Many Russian sources tell me that they talk to the Chinese and hear nothing more.”
Michael Crowley reporting contributed.