The BRICS are back—and they are challenging the West

Russia’s attack on Ukraine is tearing apart international bodies and submitting the multilateral system to its biggest stress test in recent history. But Ukraine and the Western powers’ efforts to isolate the Russian Federation and to make Vladimir Putin an international pariah is also facing a newly organized resistance. The BRICS countries—Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa—are behind it.

Along with some Gulf and African countries, the BRICS say they want to avoid inserting geopolitical confrontation into multilateral institutions. Their representatives are determined to counter what they describe as the “hijacking” of international institutions—which, they claim, ought to remain “inclusive and plural.” In part, emerging countries explain their position as a response to the devastating global impact of the war on energy and food supplies that is already being felt. They fear that a further isolation of Russia would only lead to a worsening of the situation, with dramatic consequences for their countries’ economies. But clearly, politics is at work.

A resolution passed yesterday by the ILO offers a good indication of the international community’s positioning as the war enters its second month. The decision to “temporarily suspend technical cooperation or assistance from the ILO to the Russian Federation, except for the purpose of humanitarian assistance, until a ceasefire is agreed, and a peaceful resolution is implemented,” was approved by a large majority of 42 votes. But China, India, and Brazil rejected the text (or chose to abstain), marking a shift in position for Brazil, which had voted in favor of the condemnation of the war at the UN General Assembly.

Also significant and consequential in yesterday’s ILO’s vote was Jakarta’s abstention. Indonesia holds the G20 presidency in 2022 and its role has been crucial (diplomats from emerging countries tell The G|O) in curbing the American and European pressure to further isolate Russia.

At the WTO, an initiative pushed by the US and the EU to suspend Russia’s trading status went unsupported by Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. The same coalition opposed a resolution at UNESCO which proposed to condemn Russia for recent attacks on freedom of speech, culture, and education. Over at the Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome, Latin American governments are pushing for fertilizers to be excluded from the list of Russian items embargoed. Pressed by agribusiness exporters, Latin America claims that such measures threaten to increase world hunger.


American and European diplomats tell The G|O they fully agree that the multilateral system must be protected. But they contend that the alleged “hijacking” of the system is a much lesser risk than the danger posed by Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked and blatant attack on Ukraine, a clear violation of the UN Charter and a direct threat to European security. There are also fears that the BRICS’ position will weaken the international mobilization to punish the Kremlin for the crimes committed in Ukraine, and will make it more difficult to hold Vladimir Putin accountable.

Russia, meanwhile, can take advantage of this rift to claim it is not isolated. It is no coincidence that Vladimir Putin announced yesterday that he was planning to attend the next G20 summit in Jakarta, while Sergei Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister, was all smiles when meeting with the BRICS’ Ambassador to Moscow.