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Some countries are choosing to maintain their ties with Russia


The situation in the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol has become increasingly dire. For days, no electricity, no gas, no relief, just constant shelling from Russian forces. Today, those forces broke a second cease-fire, according to the city's mayor. And people there and in the city of Volnovakha are still unable to evacuate. The southern city of Kherson is now occupied by the Russian military. And yesterday, a crowd let them know they are not welcome.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in non-English language).

FLORIDO: Go home, go home, they chanted. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy urged his people to continue fighting. He also called on Russia's citizens to join the struggle for peace.


PRESIDENT VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY: (Non-English language spoken).

FLORIDO: Zelenskyy told the Russian people, if you keep silent now, then only your poverty will speak for you later, and only repression will answer it. Do not be silent.


ZELENSKYY: (Non-English language spoken).

FLORIDO: As casualties mount, the condemnations of Russia's invasion of Ukraine have come from around the world and from most countries but not from all countries. We're going to discuss now some of the nations that are maintaining their ties with Russia, and the list of these countries goes beyond pariah states like Syria and North Korea and Eritrea. The reasons for these decisions vary, too, from the practical to the ideological. We're joined now by three NPR correspondents - Eyder Peralta in South Africa, Phil Reeves in Brazil and Lauren Frayer, who covers India but is right now in Ukraine. Hi to all three of you.




FLORIDO: Lauren, let's start with you. India abstained at the United Nations Security Council and the General Assembly from votes to deplore the invasion of Ukraine. What kind of relationship does India have with Russia? And what interests does it have there?

FRAYER: Well, Russia is India's largest weapons supplier, and the two countries really have long cultural ties. Russia plays an important role in feeding 1.4 billion Indians. A lot of the fertilizer used in Indian agriculture comes from Russia. But two other countries factor into India's thinking here, and those are Pakistan and China. India worries that if it alienates Russia, Russia could move closer to both of those. Pakistan is India's archenemy. It also abstained from U.N. votes on Russia's invasion of Ukraine. The Pakistani prime minister, Imran Khan, was actually in Moscow, embracing Vladimir Putin when this war began last week. But meanwhile, India has a much more immediate need from Russia right now, and that's thousands of Indians who study in Ukraine. India is asking Russia to give them safe passage out, and so it's another reason why India doesn't want to antagonize Russia right now.

FLORIDO: We're actually speaking with an Indian student stuck in Ukraine elsewhere in the program. What is your understanding of what's being done for these students?

FRAYER: So there are about 20,000 of them. They're one of the largest groups of foreign students in Ukraine - a lot of medical students. More than 13,000 of them have gotten out, according to the Indian government. Others are still trying. One was killed in the massive bombardment of civilian areas in Ukraine. The rescue of these students has become a huge issue in India. It's election season, and so it's really become a political issue, too.

FLORIDO: Eyder, turning to you. Several African countries abstained at the U.N., too, and you're in one of those countries - South Africa. What goes into their calculation about whether to sanction Russia or to keep their ties open?

PERALTA: I think it tracks with what Lauren was saying - that a lot of it is realpolitik. As this invasion was beginning, one of the leaders of the military junta that is running Sudan was in Russia. At the moment in Sudan, the military is trying to put down a popular uprising, and it doesn't have good relations with the U.S. So Russia, at some point, might very well come in to save them. It's worth mentioning that Russian mercenaries have already been involved in Sudan, trying to put down another popular rebellion. And if you move further south in Uganda, another autocratic state, they also abstained. They said that they wanted to remain on the line, but the fact is that Uganda gets most of its weapons from Russia. And here in South Africa, the government has sent mixed signals. At first, the foreign minister called for Russia to leave Ukraine, but now they've walked that back, and analysts I've spoken to say that a big reason for that is business. South Africa has strong trade ties with Russia and even stronger ties with the U.S. And when you have the highest unemployment rate in the world, as South Africa does, you don't want to lose a single trade partner.

FLORIDO: Phil Reeves, you're in Rio de Janeiro. Brazil has voted for the Russia resolutions at the U.N., but it also does a lot of business with Russia, doesn't it?

REEVES: Brazil is one of the world's largest exporters of agricultural produce - coffee, soy, sugar and more, and the growers use a lot of fertilizer, and almost all that fertilizer comes from Russia and Belarus. And that's now stopping. Brazil is going to have to buy from elsewhere. About a week before Russia invaded Ukraine, Jair Bolsonaro, the president of Brazil, went to see Putin in Moscow, and that trip was hugely controversial. But Bolsonaro justified it claiming that he went there to secure Brazil's fertilizer supplies, a mission that obviously failed. Since then, Bolsonaro has also said his position on Putin's invasion is one of neutrality, partly because Brazil needs those sacred fertilizers, as he calls them. So Bolsonaro's - he has also talked about the need to restore peace, but his position, his neutrality has angered many nations and many people at home. There's a magazine here that's just come out with a front-page illustration showing Bolsonaro and Putin dancing a waltz next to a bunch of skulls.

FLORIDO: So there is a political split there that highlights some of the ideological issues. Tell us more about that split.

REEVES: Bolsonaro is at odds with the posture taken by his own government and his own foreign ministry. As you mentioned, Brazil voted in favor of that U.N. resolution deploring Russia's aggression. Now, there's a lot of politics involved. This is complicated. Bolsonaro's running for reelection this year. He's a populist, always playing to his base, much like Donald Trump, whom he greatly admires. Many of his far-right supporters don't much like the European Union. They have this idea that Europeans - the Germans and French - are maneuvering to internationalize the Amazon rainforest because of the surge of deforestation that's happened on Bolsonaro's watch. So to them, that violates Brazil's sovereignty, and they believe Putin is sympathetic to their argument on that issue. So that's another reason for sitting on the fence.

But this is much broader than just right-wing politics. You know, the intervention of global powers in pursuit of their own national interests is something South American nations historically understand. So I'm hearing a much broader debate about that right across the political spectrum about the invasion. A lot of people here in Brazil are truly horrified. This country has deep ties to Europe. But you do hear some people arguing that Putin's invasion is totally inexcusable, totally unjustifiable but that history and realpolitik do offer significant context, referring, I think, in part to NATO enlargement and the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

FLORIDO: Lauren, India was known during the Cold War for being a leader of countries that wanted to stay out of the Cold War dynamic. The country didn't want to be pushed to have to choose one side or the other. Is that part of India's thinking now?

FRAYER: Yeah, it's deja vu. India didn't speak out against the Soviet invasion of Hungary back in 1956, of Czechoslovakia in 1968, Afghanistan in 1980 and even against Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014. Even though India is friendly with the West, it's not even an official U.S. treaty ally. India likes to stay neutral, and its foreign policy does not change overnight. But, you know, India is the world's biggest democracy, and what the optics are here is that the world's biggest democracy is not sticking up for democracy here in Ukraine. Prime Minister Modi called for a cessation of hostilities but did not criticize Russia. And part of it is not wanting to alienate Russia for all the reasons we've discussed.

But another part of it is just this illiberal turn that India has taken in recent years. India has an increasingly authoritarian government that is accused of stifling human rights and freedom of the press. But, you know, as the Ukraine war goes on, it's unclear how long India can stay neutral on this amid moral outrage and calls for democracies around the world to stand up. For now, though, the U.S. appears to be willing to turn a blind eye to India's stance because it wants India's cooperation as a democratic bulwark to another anti-democratic foe, and that's China.

FLORIDO: Finally, Eyder in Cape Town. Some African leaders have framed this invasion in terms of colonialism. How does that cut across the view of this invasion?

PERALTA: You know, Kenya has explained it best. And they said that, you know, going back to fighting over borders to an imperial time means that the world is opening the doors to a whole new Cold War, and no one wants that, certainly not the countries in the Global South, which have paid a heavy price in these proxy wars between world powers. But at the same time, the rhetoric around here feels like we're back in the Cold War. Here in South Africa, there's talk about the historical debt that this country owes the Soviet Union, which helped significantly in the struggle against white minority rule.

And then there is blatant Cold War positioning. In Uganda, the president's son has said that he stands 100% with Russia, and he's been tweeting pictures of Fidel Castro, who he calls a hero. The African continent just went through a period where democracy was advancing, but now we seem to be headed toward a more authoritarian period. And those leaders are more willing to align with Russia. But another argument that I have heard here is that the West has stood by as democratic movements are crushed violently on the African continent. They've stood by as wars have raged here. So what is it, they ask, that makes this conflict so much more important to the world?

FLORIDO: That's NPR's Eyder Peralta, Lauren Frayer and Phil Reeves. Thanks to all three of you.

REEVES: You're welcome.

FRAYER: Thank you.

PERALTA: Thank you, Adrian. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.
Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.
Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.