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The conflict between Russia and the West over Ukraine could lead to a paradigm shift in the current world order, and usher in a possibly more dangerous era of confrontation.
This would have direct bearing on future global governance, the reform of which gave rise to the BRICS as a geopolitical entity in the first place.
The political elite in BRICS countries have always presumed that the evolution to a new and more just world order should be gradual, and based on compromise.
Therefore, the Western over-reaction with regard to Crimea’s reunification with Russia puts the other members of BRICS in a dubious position.
Most analysts in India, China, and South Africa – and to a lesser degree, Brazil – understand that the real underlying cause for this dramatic turn is the geopolitical rivalry in which Moscow is the defending side against Washington’s decades-old plan to tear Ukraine away and consequently weaken Russia’s international clout.
The other members of BRICS recognize that Russia had grounds for its actions in Crimea, and acted prudently.
Many go as far as to suggest that the West should not have supported an anti-constitutional coup in Ukraine.
They acknowledge that the current stand-off with the US and its allies is the result of sheer Russophobia based on the desire to undermine a strategic competitor.
However, BRICS countries – perhaps, more than others – would not like the current situation in Crimea to become a pre-cursor to a Third global war, even if it were to be a cold one.
The other leaders of BRICS are wary that a possible further deterioration of the situation in Ukraine could produce a domino effect.
The possible break-up of the country and the need for Russia to bring the Eastern Russian-speaking provinces under its realm could lead to a crisis in relations with NATO.
No one needs a direct conflict. However, for many reasons, it is difficult for the other four BRICS countries to play an active role in deescalating tensions.
On the one hand, territorial integrity, non-interference and respect for international law are the sacrosanct foundations which helped BRICS evolve into not only an economic union, but a geopolitical project and quasi-organization.
Political strategists in most BRICS countries are therefore concerned that Russia’s maneuver in Crimea could resonate in places like Xinjian, Tibet, Kashmir and other troubled regions.
They cannot afford to accept the precedence of Crimean referendum as a legal method of separating from one country and joining another – even if they fully understand that Crimean case is special and this development is justified from the point of view of historic justice, human rights and peace preservation.
In search of a plausible explanation, some Chinese experts suggested that Crimea is a Taiwan of sorts – a territory lost by Russia proper as a result of Western plots in the wake of the Soviet Union’s breakup – which has now returned to the motherland.
For fear of a revived Cold War
The other members of BRICS are also wary that the possible revival of the Cold War could force them to “take sides” and weaken possibilities for compromise solutions to the global problems they were meant to overcome.
They also fear that such a revived confrontation could derail efforts for the creation of a new system of global governance.
Therefore, publicly policy-makers in Brazil, India, China and South Africa avoid discussing the Russia-Ukraine conflict and are wary to express their attitude towards recent events.
The official reaction is cautious at best, but at the same time not critical of Russia.
Nevertheless an “understanding” of the historical aspects of the Crimean situation was expressed at The Hague meeting of Foreign Ministers of BRICS countries at the end of March.
The ministers also condemned US and Western sanctions against Russia and strongly opposed any ideas to “expel” Russia from the G-20.
They also condemned the G-7 for boycotting Russia. This support earned public gratitude from Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
On the other hand, many among the political elite in BRICS countries, as personal discussions and contacts show, are secretly satisfied with the fact that the US was snubbed by Russia’s actions because they reveal the limits of Washington’s power as a global hegemon.
Some go as far as to praise President Vladimir Putin for taking a challenge and demonstrating Russia’s returned power and pride; perhaps, seeing it as a sort of example for their own nations.
One should therefore not exclude the possibility that the events in Crimea could give rise to a long-term tendency to raise national spirit in BRICS countries, and more assertive foreign policies.
Can BRICS become a geopolitical alternative to the “collective West” for Russia?
Some analysts see such a prospect, but I doubt that any kind of “bloc” can be formed – the differences between the countries are too great and none would like to alienate itself from the West.
There is a danger that the US could try to exploit these differences to undermine BRICS at least as a political force.
However, there is room to predict that at the G-20 BRICS would be more united and opposed to unilateral G-7 positions on economic and financial issues.
For Russia, being dropped from the G-8 might be a blessing in disguise.
The institutionalization of BRICS to regularly exchange information and assessments and coordinate positions then becomes more essential.
In this breath, the creation of the BRICS Development Bank should be hastened; Russia should demonstrate more activity in this direction.
If we were to try to interpret the BRICS role in solving the Ukraine-related international crisis as a test for the group’s ambition to become a new “power center” or “decision-making pole” in a new global order – in this case, we should admit this test has failed.
However, the crisis did unite BRICS as an entity opposing power politics, sanctions and arm-twisting.
This may lead to a new assertiveness among BRICS countries to defend their national interests.
Such a development could create manifold repercussions for the global order which would be felt long after the Ukrainian crisis has faded into history, like many geopolitical conflicts before it.