Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has been nothing short of brilliant in his outreach to Western audiences. The overwhelming Western support for Ukraine is due not only to the brutality of Russia’s illegal invasion, but also to the astuteness and charisma with which Zelenskyy has made Ukraine’s case for aid.
But as effective as Zelenskyy has been in drumming up Western support, Ukraine’s message has been far less compelling to audiences in the Global South, where many countries have declined to join Western campaigns to sanction Russia’s economy and isolate it diplomatically. This was vividly clear at the Doha Forum last month in Qatar, where Zelenskyy and Ukrainian Deputy Foreign Minister Emine Dzhaparova were given a big platform. A powerful communicator in her own right, Dzhaparova — a Muslim Tatar from Crimea — played on themes favored by Western leaders: This war is ultimately not about Ukraine but about the survival of the “international rules-based order.” President Joe Biden and European leaders have repeatedly framed the conflict in these terms, as well.
The West’s messaging on Ukraine has taken its tone-deafness to a whole new level.
But therein lies the disconnect with much of the Global South. In conversations with diplomats and analysts from across Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America, it was evident to me that these countries largely sympathize with the plight of the Ukrainian people and view Russia as the aggressor. But Western demands that they make costly sacrifices by cutting off economic ties with Russia to uphold a “rules-based order” have begotten an allergic reaction. That order hasn’t been rules-based; instead, it has allowed the U.S. to violate international law with impunity. The West’s messaging on Ukraine has taken its tone-deafness to a whole new level, and it is unlikely to win over the support of countries that have often experienced the worse sides of the international order.
The countries that have bucked Western calls for aid and diplomatic unity that have received the most attention are Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. In a sharp break from Washington, they have furthered their economic and political embrace of Russia while rebuffing Biden’s request to lower oil prices by pumping more oil. The UAE refused to denounce Russia’s invasion at the U.N. Security Council, and while its de facto leader, Mohammed bin Zayed, refused a phone call with Biden, he ordered his foreign minister to travel to Russia to strengthen their ties. The concerns of Riyadh and Abu Dhabi differ sharply from those of most of the broader Global South and are rooted primarily in their deteriorating ties with Washington over the U.S. disinclination to go to war on their behalf against Iran and its allies. One Saudi diplomat has described Saudi-U.S. tensions as “the end of the road for us and Biden, but maybe the U.S. also.”
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