“I condemn Russia’s offensive against the Ukrainian people in Donbas. We must (…) impose peace on Russia so that Ukraine regains its full sovereignty.” Such were the blunt words against the Kremlin pronounced by French far-right politician and Vladimir Putin’s long-time ally, Marine Le Pen. This vocal condemnation could seem bizarre for someone who has previously praised Putin’s patriotism and governing style and whose party received funds from a Russian bank. However, it should not surprise anyone: after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine started on the 24th of February, more and more people and political parties — even those previously close to the Kremlin — have begun distancing themselves from it. For example, Italy’s far-right populist, Matteo Salvini, openly condemned Russia’s aggression, albeit also opposing the EU delivering weapons to Ukraine. Long gone seem the days when the politician would take selfies in Moscow’s red square and wear anti-sanctions t-shirts.
More broadly, Russia’s image has also deteriorated among societies in several Western countries. Before the February invasion, their approval of Russia’s leadership had somewhat recovered from the fall that occurred after the 2014 annexation of Crimea. According to a Gallup survey conducted in 116 countries between April 2021 and January 2022, Russia’s leadership enjoyed an average global approval rating of 33% in 2021 – still low, but over ten points up from the 22% median approval rating in 2014. However, it is safe to assume that most of these gains have been swept away by the invasion as people increasingly worry about —and condemn — the war. An Ipsos poll carried out in April found that, on average, across 27 countries, 70% of adults are worried about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, while 61% think it poses a significant risk to their country. At the same time, there has been a massive display of solidarity towards Ukraine: two-thirds agree that economic sanctions against Russia are an effective tactic to help stop the war, while most of the surveyed citizens agree their country should welcome Ukrainian refugees.
The low level of approval for Russia’s leadership likely eased the way for Western leaders to impose harsh sanctions on the country after the invasion. This also applies to EU countries with robust trade and energy ties to Moscow. Now, the image of Russia as a safe energy provider looks wrecked as many EU leaders share the Commission’s President Ursula von der Leyen’s accusations against Russia’s use of gas “as an instrument of blackmail” and resolve to “work with reliable partners and build our energy independence”. As such, it looks like Russia’s image has become another casualty of the war. At least, in the West.
Yet, other countries around the globe, especially in Asia and Africa, may look at both the war and the imperative to isolate Russia differently. In general, Asian and (especially) African publics show higher approval levels vis-à-vis Russia’s leadership, both before and after the invasion. For example, the 2021 approval was highest in Mali, at 84%, while countries such as Kyrgyzstan and Serbia display very high support levels (both over 65%). Furthermore, the war is perceived in many countries as Russia’s reaction to Western imperialism and the NATO enlargement strategy. This is partly due to Russia’s own communication strategy and propaganda, which is particularly intense in the Global South and capitalises on widespread anti-Western sentiments that reinforce Russia’s soft power in these countries.
Not only do several countries’ elites and societies fail to see the Ukraine war as resulting from Russia’s own imperialism in the post-soviet region, but they take it as the perfect example of the hypocrisy of the West, which condemns and sanctions Russia while perpetrating or supporting wars elsewhere. For instance, Arabic speaking social media users have been less inclined to express solidarity to Ukrainians due to a perceived lack of international support or even attention towards Arab populations when it comes to countries like Syria, Yemen, Libya, and Iraq.
Finally, the impact of the war and Russian sanctions on commodities markets may make isolating Moscow a tougher sell to the public, especially in countries already struggling with the pandemic and climate change-related phenomena, such as droughts. Countries such as India not only refused to vocally condemn Russia but have even intensified their economic ties with it, despite Western calls to isolate Moscow after the invasion of Ukraine: for instance, Delhi’s oil purchases from Russia have more than doubled from last year.
As a result of all this, several countries in the Global South either support Russia or sit on the fence, in a wait-and-see approach that refrains from openly confronting Russia. This is also visible in the United Nations. Many countries, including prominent African states such as Kenya, expressed their disapprobation of Russia’s actions, voting in favour of a General Assembly resolution “deploring Russia’s military actions against Ukraine.” However, many others, such as India or South Africa, abstained.
At the moment of writing, it is hard to predict the outcome of the war and how a sound defeat would impact Russia’s image as a strong, assertive global power, which Putin has been trying to shape since rising to power. There are talks of excluding Russia from the Group of Twenty (G20) forum of the world’s major economies following the invasion of Ukraine, though the odds appear stacked up against it. Meanwhile, Russia will remain a member of the United Nations Security Council, thus retaining its veto power. It is safe to assume that the deterioration of Russian-Western relations will have ripple effects for years to come and that trust won’t be rebuilt anytime soon. Nonetheless, when it comes to Russia’s image in the Global South, we must adopt a much more cautious approach.