Russia can count on the BRICs… to say nothing.

The crisis in Ukraine, if it escalates further, could spell trouble for the BRICs*.

Brazil is home to some 500,000 Ukrainians (the third largest Ukrainian diaspora in the world) and the two countries have committed to a long-term partnership in space technology development (rockets and satellites). India, similarly, has established long-term defense contracts and cooperation agreements (in areas such as nuclear safety) with Ukraine. Indo-Ukranian ties, it is true, pale in comparison to Russia’s long term political and military relation with India; but they are not negligible.

In contrast, China has very little to lose (China’s investment in Ukraine has been hugely exaggerated, based on unconfirmed figures and details of aid and investment that have likely not come to fruition, as is the case with most Chinese OFDI). But China is not sympathetic to Russia’s support for irredentist movements in East and, especially, Central Asia, and staunchly opposed to the redrawing of state borders on the bases of ethnic ties (if Putin wanted Chinese support he should’ve couched his actions in terms of historical rights and strategic value).

Neither of these countries is likely to speak out publicly against Russia. As I have argued before in several places, the BRICS are experts in avoiding elephants in the room. BRICS summits, like the one to take place later this year in Fortaleza (Brazil), are a forum for talking about pie in the sky ideas, not solving actual problems of global order or disputes between the member countries. Probably the only thing the BRICS agree on is that it hurts their cause to air their grievances in public (though they don’t agree on what that cause is).

But neither are they likely to come out in support of Russia. In 2008, when Russia crashed China’s party and fought with Georgia over South Ossetia in the middle of the Beijing Olympics, China withheld support and pressured the other members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization to do the same. China has and will likely continue to hedge and distance itself from the present crisis.

India kept remarkably quiet during the 2008 war despite having no discernible stake in Georgia (it had just very recently signed a nuclear deal with the US), so it is even more and will likely to do so now. The Russian press will trumpet the recent declaration by National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon that Russia has “legitimate interests” in Ukraine (which is true but meaningless), but India’s position will likely be one of favoring peaceful negotiation and multilateral dialogue.

Brazil was also absolutely silent during the Russo-Georgian war. In 2008, Brazilian foreign policy was arguably at the peak of its activeness and visibility. President Luis Inácio Lula da Silva was treated as an international rockstar and David Rothkopf even went so far as to anoint foreign minister Celso Amorim as the “world’s best foreign minister” (whatever that means). The situation today is very different. Not only does Brazil have much more of a stake in Ukraine than in Georgia (where it had no real interests), but Brazil no longer has the international presence it had years ago. President Dilma Roussef has pulled Brazil back from the international spotlight, and Brazil today gets more international press for its domestic unrest than for its foreign actions. Brazil has been especially cautious in engaging with issues of international security in the past few years, abstaining in the UN Security Council vote on Libya in 2011 and distancing itself from the crisis in Syria. The inaction on Libya, which many observers in the US viewed as a bold stance was actually tame and passive if compared to Brazil’s mediation efforts and “no” vote on sanctions against Iran a year earlier. So far Brazilian officials have issued no statement regarding the situation in Ukraine–the Foreign Ministry’s Twitter account is probably the only one in the whole world not bursting with tweets about Ukraine. We can expect them to remain largely quiet until after the crisis is over, and only retroactively support whatever mutual understanding is arrived at.

At the end of the day, this crisis will not be the death of the BRICs but it will make many people stop caring about whether it’s alive.

*Yes, I’m ignoring South Africa here, and usually do when discussing the BRICs. I’m still waiting to be convinced that I shouldn’t…

Russian revisionism and the status security dilemma

Steven Ward has smart things to say about this whole Ukraine thing. He argues that Putin is acting out of distress over continued Western denial of Russia’s place in the sun.

Though he doesn’t make it explicit, his article puts into question claims about the “open, inclusive and flexible” character of the “American liberal order” that is supposed to allow for the peaceful accommodation of rising challengers. It’s pretty clear that this now-standard liberal trope downplays the very real limitations to status and power mobility within the liberal order or, at the very least, the existence of such perceptions in key countries like Russia, China, Brazil, etc. Whether these perceptions have a basis in fact or not, they are deeply consequential.

That said, though I clearly sympathize with the argument (and made it myself here before), it begs the age-old question of whether Russian revisionist behavior is a product of status obstruction and spiral dynamics or motivated by something else entirely and just exacerbated by these dynamics. In the latter case, more accommodationist policies could potentially be dangerous as well. You can call it the status security dilemma if you want. I don’t have the answer to what are the underlying motives any more than Ward does, but this is a central piece of the theoretical and policy puzzle that essentially determines everything else. Just saying that “Putin isn’t Hitler or Tojo” isn’t terribly informative.

Moreover, part of the problem with this argument is that status, security and economic goals are all hard to disentangle here (and usually elsewhere), such that it might not be possible to concede more status to Russia without making concrete policy concessions that carry real security and economic implications for Europe and for the US. Token concessions meant to stroke Russia’s ego (like G8 membership) are just not enough anymore. This is the exact same problem the US is facing with China, in that all possible cheap concessions have been made, and now any further adjustments to the international political (and institutional) order require the US (and Europe) to give up some influence and autonomy over real policy issues. As we know, however, power and influence can be reallyreally hard to part with. Grand bargains that reshape the field are not easy to accomplish, and usually involve some bloodshed (see also here and here).