Immune to War Fever, Some Countries Stay Neutral to Russia

Photograph Source: Rob Young – CC BY 2.0

Not ganging up on a country that’s been thoroughly demonized like never before takes backbone. Mexican president Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) has plenty of that. On March 10, AMLO announced that Mexico would not sanction Russia over its frightening invasion of Ukraine. This action is consistent with most of the Global South – China, India, Southwest Asia, Africa and Latin America – which opted for neutrality and refused to sanction Russia.

For many of these countries, Moscow’s attack on Ukraine does not look any different from Washington’s 2003 attack on Iraq. They stayed out of that and are staying out of this, despite the wall-to-wall coverage, the comparisons to Pearl Harbor and the media frenzy over this assault on a country whose citizens are white (and therefore apparently deserve more compassion than the millions of non-European Afghans starved by U.S. sanctions or the over 377,000 brown Yemenis slaughtered with U.S. weapons), with breathless claims that nothing like this has happened in Europe since World War II. Our propaganda outlets that call themselves media have apparently forgotten NATO’s 1999 bombing of Yugoslavia. For some unexplained reason, that didn’t count. Except of course to the Serbs – another demonized ethnic group, though I doubt their magnificent composers were banned from the repertoires of western orchestras, that their conductors and sopranos were ordered to revile their country or be fired or that their immortal novelists, like Dostoevsky, were deleted, if temporarily, from curricula at the University of Milan.

There’s nothing easier than denouncing a national enemy. More arduous is attempting to regard something objectively awful – the Russia/Ukraine war – with clear eyes and without succumbing to the required Two Minutes Hate. Few do that in the west. Any western news report, any politician’s speech, even casual conversation about this conflict zooms quickly to Two Minutes Hate. Furious tirades against Moscow and Putin explode everywhere, are the norm, expected and those who don’t indulge thus are suspect at the least and very likely considered treasonous. Nothing nowadays comes more naturally or facilely than this western and European hatred of all things Russian. But that is not the case in the Global South.

So the U.S., EU, UK and a few other nations ferociously sanctioned Russia, in an attempt to destroy the country economically – something that certainly did not happen to the U.S. when it committed the war crime of invading and destroying Iraq, criminality that Joe Biden voted for with lots of cheerleading. Back then corporations did not disinvest from America en masse nor did Europe close its airspace to U.S. planes. But European and American hypocrisy is rampant, enabled by the chicanery called the “rules-based international order,” which posits one set of rules for Washington and another for everybody else. However, plenty of folks have caught on, and behave wisely by turning to negotiations. “We’re not going to take any type of economic reprisal,” AMLO told reporters regarding Russia, then explaining, according to the Fresno Bee, that Mexico would work “to end the conflict through diplomacy and dialogue.”

Needless to say, the conflict could have terminated yesterday, with a written guarantee of Ukraine’s neutrality, forswearing that it would ever join NATO and the recognition that Crimea remains Russian and the Donbass independent. Kiev’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky was in fact elected on a peace platform. Candidate Zelensky promised to proclaim Ukraine neutral and end the threat of war with Russia. Kind of the opposite happened. But that’s not entirely his fault. He was between a rock and a hard place, namely Russia and NATO, aka the U.S. and its desire to fight Moscow to the last Ukrainian.

Mexico’s neutrality is not, to say the least, the approach of the west. The U.S. has now imposed more sanctions on Russia than any other country – and that’s saying something, because the U.S. hands out sanctions like candy at a party. Russia joins Cuba, Iran, Syria, Venezuela and others in having its economy attacked by Washington. Unlike some of these other countries, Russia prepared for this onslaught, but they still cripple much of its economy.

Moscow responded by announcing March 8 that all corporate deals with unfriendly countries must be approved by a government commission. Earlier, on March 5, Russia decided to pay foreign currency debts to unfriendly countries in rubles. That list includes the EU and all NATO members. Needless to say, these nations will not be delighted to be paid in a currency they’ve rendered worthless.

It gets worse. On March 16, Russia owed $117 million in interest or default on its debt after a 30-day grace period. By the skin of its teeth, Moscow skirted default on its external debt that would have been “its first since the Bolsheviks failed to recognize the Tsar’s debt following the 1917 revolution,” Al Jazeera reported March 16, comparing the situation to Argentina in 2020, although “the Russian government is actually not that indebted. Part of their ‘fortress Russia’ strategy was to build up Moscow’s balance sheet, primarily with foreign exchange reserves and some gold…” It’s also worth noting that Argentina weathered another default, the one in 2001, successfully. Many thought that collapse would cause stagnation and render the nation “a pariah in the world’s financial markets for a long period of time,” as Werner Baer and two others noted in a 2011 paper. “This did not occur.”

Many neutral African nations regard the Russia/Ukraine war “as a proxy battle between Russia and the west,” think tanker Aanu Adeoye told NPR on March 15. “So many leaders have decided that it would be in their best interest to stay neutral in this fight.” Also, many African countries “consider Russia to be a good friend and a good ally,” some of whom date this amity to the Soviet era, when the USSR supported countries in southern Africa “during their fight against colonial and imperial rule.” As a result, no African country piled on with sanctions.

Sanctions and demonization have been a western affair, driving Russia further into China’s arms. Where it was already. But now, or in the very near future, all Russia’s wheat, energy and metals will go to China. Though Moscow’s March 15 counter sanctions on Biden, Blinken and other U.S. politicos will have little effect, it’s the thought that counts. And the thought perforce includes the redirection of its imports and exports. Or so it should for anyone in the west with a brain. In a related move, Putin announced March 23 that “unfriendly” countries, namely the U.S., the UK and the EU would have to pay for Russian gas in rubles

Russia has repeatedly said it will not weaponize energy. Gas flows to Europe, despite the economic war.  But the EU has sanctioned Russia like there’s no tomorrow. It declared economic war. So should Moscow’s attitude on energy change, things could deteriorate rapidly in the west. We already have had prices at the pump over $6 per gallon in some parts of the U.S., thanks to Biden’s refusal to import Russian oil. If Moscow cuts energy supplies to Europe, which gets 40 percent of its gas from Russia, life there will grind to a halt. But apparently European leaders are willing to risk that, as opposed to nuclear holocaust –a false choice, but one that allows the EU to punish Russia for its war, instead of coming to the table and conceding, in writing, that Ukraine won’t join NATO. However, abjuring atomic Armageddon is a bit of sanity we should all be thankful for. Better to shiver in a cold house in December because there’s no gas or oil, than starve and freeze in a cold house during nuclear winter.

Germany gets over half its gas, a third of its coal and a quarter of its oil from Russia. That Russian gas is much cheaper than the proposed U.S. substitute (which explains American politicos’ obsession with destroying Nordstream 2, something they succeeded at when Russia invaded, thus proving that this war greatly benefits U.S. arms and energy corporations). But Germany’s energy trade with Russia hasn’t stopped demonization of Moscow. This is unfortunate, because as Patrick Cockburn observed in CounterPunch March 15, it’s very difficult to ratchet down tensions or compromise with those who’ve been demonized. And compromise, negotiation and diplomacy are what’s desperately needed to save lives.

Let’s just hope NATO – which helped start this whole disaster by stubbornly insisting on Ukraine’s right to join – hasn’t backed itself into a corner. That corner entails losing face. Which is a big part of what this whole war is about: the west can’t lose face by agreeing to neutrality for Ukraine. Because God forbid NATO and the U.S. should believe they lost face. Both might well prefer atomic apocalypse to that. Russia too has its non-negotiable pride. And if the parties to this war aside from Ukraine do at any point consider themselves decisively humiliated, it’s lights out not just for Europe, but, as those Global South nations insisting on neutrality have recognized from the getgo, for everyone.

Eve Ottenberg is a novelist and journalist. Her latest book is Hope Deferred. She can be reached at her website.