Russia & Global South
Russia and the Global South,
or the Mystery of Political Semantics
March 14, 2024
  • Vadim Grishin

    The George Washington University
Economist Vadim Grishin challenges the idea of Russia’s successful turn toward the Global South and explores the limits, both economic and political, of this rebranding, which Grishin doubts will help Russia to reintegrate into the world.
The term Global South, as we presently understand it, was initially introduced in a 2004 report by the United Nations Development Program. It contended that globalization had dismantled simplistic views on North-South relations, which were rooted in a traditional binary perspective that overly emphasized a spatial-economic dichotomy and insufficiently captured the complexities of post-Cold War global asymmetries.

In the realm of Russian foreign policy rhetoric, the Global South has gained significant attention, particularly since Moscow launched its brutal war of attrition in Ukraine. Prior to that, Russia primarily employed a regional approach to Asia, Africa and Latin America, often emphasizing the enduring Soviet legacy.

A paradox emerges, however, as even in the recently revised version of Russia's so-called “foreign policy concept,” the term "Global South" remains conspicuously absent. The primary reason for this omission is the difficulty of reconciling the 2023 concept's main innovation — a portrayal of Russia as a "state-civilization" — with the Global South.

Despite the "conceptual vacuum" and inherent inconsistencies, official Moscow and its propaganda have actively taken up the theme. The reasons behind this diplomatic activity are evident: a desire to break Russia’s political isolation, carve out new trade routes as the country pivots economically toward the East, and create alternative channels for obtaining technologies that feed the Kremlin’s military machine.

The picture for the Kremlin is brightened by the appearance of a relatively small group of situationally neutral states that have abstained from voting in the UN. It consists of 40-45 countries — the very same that "sit on the fence" and act as "swing states" — that prefer to watch from the sidelines. Most of them seek to gain maximum short-term benefit, taking advantage of the inconsistency and loopholes in the Western sanctions against Russia, especially in the energy and food sectors. Some of them — like Turkey, India, Brazil, South Africa and Saudi Arabia — do not hide their ambitious intentions to participate in a mediating, peacekeeping mission in Ukraine, with the obvious goal of boosting their foreign policy credentials.

Some Western analysts have argued that Moscow can look with satisfaction at the results of its foreign policy shift toward the Global South after the beginning of the war against Ukraine. This perspective is emotional and one-dimensional, however, focusing on short-term gains. The long-term prospects for and net effects of these moves are much more dubious and damaging for Moscow. Russian foreign policy has moved into a gray, marginal zone, characterized by a loss of transparency, trust and international legitimacy.

There is also an irony in the fact that Russia’s state-driven ultra-conservative ideology overlooks the diversity of cultures and differences in approaches to public and private life in the Global South. While Putin's regime is currently promoting the concept of depoliticization and demobilization of society, various countries in the Global South such as Brazil, Mexico, Cuba and South Africa still prioritize grassroots mobilization and emphasize community ties. Meanwhile, these countries have made significant strides in gender equality by legalizing same-sex marriage, same-sex adoption and altruistic surrogacy, among other rights.

In contrast, Russian lawmakers have gone so far as to pencil into the Russian Constitution an explicit ban on same-sex marriage in 2020, positioning the country as a defender of “traditional values,” in opposition to the West. Furthermore, in December 2022 the Duma extended the scope of Russia’s “gay propaganda” law, forbidding the public portrayal of “non-traditional sexual relations.” It must be acknowledged, nevertheless, that the Kremlin is willing to overlook these inconsistencies in its relations with the Global South, since it prioritizes the achievement of its primary geopolitical objective: the dismantling of the current international order.
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