Russia and the Global South, or the Mystery of Political Semantics
Vadim Grishin

March 14, 2024
Victor Hugo is said to have coined the famous aphorism concerning the power of ideas whose time has arrived. Similarly, certain terms about prominent and descriptive concepts within political and scientific discourse unexpectedly gain widespread recognition and resonance, echoing Hugo's observations. This sudden evolution is precisely what has occurred with the terms "Global South" and "Global Majority," which have recently surged in popularity and penetrated the political lexicon of major international organizations, as well as leaders from both Western and Eastern nations. In particular, they dot the political and economic analysis in the wake of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

What is the ‘Global South’ and how does it differ from the ‘Third World?’

The term "Global South" was first coined in 1969 by Carl Oglesby, a writer and leader of the American leftist movement. In an essay published in a special issue of the Catholic magazine Commonweal, Oglesby argued that centuries of Northern domination had converged to create an intolerable social order in the Global South. During the Cold War era, alternative terms like "Third World," "Developing," "Underdeveloped" and "Least Developed,” or simply "the Rest," were more prevalent, fitting into the rigidly hierarchical, bipolar international system. Currently, Western researchers acknowledge the neocolonial undertones of such terminology, recognizing that it implicitly branded economically peripheral and institutionally vulnerable countries at differing, initial stages of industrialization. Politically, these nations were often portrayed as neither aligned with the Western strategic pole, led by the US, nor the Eastern one, represented by the USSR and China. Furthermore, the elites of these numerous post-colonial states felt disadvantaged in international affairs, firmly believing that the Yalta-Potsdam order, established after the World War II, was imposed upon them at a moment of weakness, as they gained independence.

Amid horizontal bipolar confrontation during the early years of the Cold War, some newly independent states sought an alternative path through a nonaligned movement, with its core principles outlined at the Bandung Conference in 1955. This initiative, however, gradually lost momentum as it failed to present a compelling alternative to the Cold War power groupings. By the early 1970s, hopes for a nonaligned transformation had dissipated, and the term "Third World" came to exclusively denote nations facing structural impediments to sustainable economic growth, political instability, low level of human capital and marginalization on the international stage.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, bipolarity yielded to a unipolar moment — an exceptional, yet fleeting period in world history. Many interpreted this epoch as a triumph of liberal ideas, as reflected in Fukuyama’s eschatological notions of "the end of history" and Krauthammer’s celebrated perspectives on Western universal hegemony. Regardless, it marked a distinctive time characterized by a global shift toward an expansion of political freedom and democratization, a decrease in state regulation, extensive privatization, lowered tax rates (credited to the removal of militaristic pressures) and rapid economic integration facilitated by technological progress and, as it turned out, a temporary reduction in geopolitical barriers.

Simultaneously, the geographic South began embracing the new era of globalization, integrating into transnational value and production chains, international trade and logistic operations. This indicated an exhaustion of the Third World narrative, as the South, in its multifaceted dimensions, became an integral part of global processes while freeing itself from some long-standing proxy conflicts, joining the race for catch-up growth and transitioning away from 20th century dictatorships, based on fear, to less violent, more covertly authoritarian and effective hybrid regimes. In general, even the Nobel prize-winning economist and proponent of the leftist anti-globalization movement Joseph Stiglitz was willing to recognize that globalization contributed to longer life expectancy and substantial improvements in the living standards of most people. It is noteworthy that between 1990 and 2020, the size of the world economy roughly tripled, and nearly 1.5 billion people were lifted out of extreme poverty, with China alone accounting for 770 million of them, underscoring the transformative impact of globalization.

The term Global South, as we presently understand it, was initially introduced in a 2004 report by the United Nations Development Program. It contended that globalization had dismantled simplistic views on North-South relations, which were rooted in a traditional binary perspective that overly emphasized a spatial-economic dichotomy and insufficiently captured the complexities of post-Cold War global asymmetries. Significantly, geography itself became less defining and more fluid. It was “suddenly” realized that populous countries of “the global majority,” like India and China, were situated in the Northern Hemisphere, while some traditionally “northern” countries, like New Zealand and Australia, were located below the equator. In other words, it was discovered that economic Southern areas belonged in the geographic North, and Northern regions belonged in the geographic South. This revelation prompted the introduction of numerous additional criteria and the emergence of new conceptual meanings for explaining the dynamics of the Global North and Global South, particularly in the aftermath of the global financial crisis of 2007-09.

In the accelerated process of globalization, there has been increasing geographic dispersion of features associated with modern development. Using per capita income as the primary variable, Saudi Arabia, for instance, with a per capita income of $30,448, outperforms many EU member states. Likewise, Singapore's GDP per capita ($91,100) in 2023 exceeded that of the US by 21%. Furthermore, China has ascended to a leading position in the production and implementation of new energy technologies, while Vietnam, ranked 196th globally in terms of solar power capacity in 2010, rose to the ninth position by 2021, surpassing Spain and France. Looking at the criterion of life expectancy, it is remarkable that ostensibly backward and isolated Cuba (78.3 years) outpaces the US (77.5 years).

However, being part of the Global South continues to correlate with governance issues, political volatility, greater poverty, persistent technological backwardness, dependence on commodity exports and susceptibility to commodity price fluctuations in world markets. The infusion of Western capital, technology and economic "best practices" has proven insufficient to tackle the accumulated problems. Conversely, with Chinese investments, it has not been possible to launch sustainable and effective growth mechanisms, in particular through the cultivation of horizontal links along the South-South axis framed by the massive Belt and Road Initiative. The standard set of domestic problems, including institutional weaknesses, wealth stratification and corruption, has been compounded by global issues such as climate change, pandemics, high inflation, trade restrictions, resource scarcity and growing debt burdens.

Disruptions in the globalization process, coupled with emerging geopolitical polarization and geoeconomic fragmentation, have markedly intensified challenges, particularly resulting in the failure to attain several widely publicized UN Sustainable Development Goals.

In this tumultuous and divided international landscape, the countries of the Global South have begun to raise the stakes by increasing demands on the West and flirting with its main opponents – China and Russia.
This is certainly not a return to the idea of the Cold War nonaligned movement. The behavior of these countries falls more lately under the definition of "fence sitters" or "hedging middle" observers with a desire to distance themselves as much as possible from international conflicts that do not directly affect them, and in this way maintain an open geopolitical status to diversify their options.

Simultaneously, a cluster of nations has emerged, identified as geopolitically fluctuating states or "swing states," that are not averse to reaping economic and political advantages, and assert more agency amid the existing confusion and tensions in international affairs. They exhibit enhanced sophistication, flexibility, dynamism and strategic agility in comparison with 20th-century predecessors, regardless of the major powers interests they align with. These nations frequently prioritize multipolarityand position themselves as pivotal, sometimes unpredictable forces in an upcoming phase of globalization and great power rivalry.

Russia's stance on the Global South: A critical examination

In the realm of Russian foreign policy rhetoric, the Global South has gained significant attention, particularly since Moscow launched its brutal war of attrition in Ukraine. Prior to that, Russia primarily employed a regional approach to Asia, Africa and Latin America, often emphasizing the enduring Soviet legacy. That included memories of Moscow's backing for decolonization efforts in Africa and populist-leftist regimes in Latin America, with a sympathetic attitude toward various forms of anti-Americanism and military assistance to "friendly" autocrats, especially those opposed to "color revolutions."

Post-Soviet Russia has also sought to strengthen economic collaboration with different regions of the Global South by engaging in arms sales, exporting agricultural products, delivering natural resources and participating in nuclear energy projects. Of late, Moscow has also presented itself as a state capable of withstanding the most extensive package of Western sanctions ever while going toe to toe with the “collective West” in a military conflict in Ukraine. These multifaceted interactions and propagandistic efforts have played a role in positioning Russia with the Global South.
A paradox emerges, however, as even in the recently revised version of Russia's so-called “foreign policy concept,” the term "Global South" remains conspicuously absent.

The primary reason for this omission is the difficulty of reconciling the 2023 concept's main innovation — a portrayal of Russia as a "state-civilization" — with a vague association to the Global South. A so-called "state-civilization" is inherently self-sufficient, exclusively focused on its own interests and resistant to any integration, while alignment with the Global South would conversely necessitate solidarity and a willingness to "sacrifice" for common interests.

Despite the "conceptual vacuum" and inherent inconsistencies, Moscow and its propaganda have actively immersed themselves in the topic. Starting from initially cautious statements mocking Western concerns about Russia’s closeness to the Global South, they have evolved their narrative to emphasize the opening of a "second front" against a "global minority" and its "golden billion” while asserting Russia’s moral and military-political leadership among nations that constitute the "global majority,” in the process challenging the Western rules-based order. This shift was accompanied at the highest level by a surge in political contacts with the Global South.

The reasons behind this diplomatic activity are evident: a desire to break Russia’s political isolation, “carve out” new trade routes as it economically pivots toward the East and create alternative channels for obtaining technologies that feed the Kremlin’s military machine. Special efforts are also being made to "neutralize" the use of international organizations as platforms for denouncing Russia's aggression against Ukraine. The unfavorable outcomes of several votes in the UN General Assembly condemning Moscow's actions (each time supported by more than 140 countries) have been casuistically dismissed as legally insignificant because of "arm-twisting" on the part of the West. The Kremlin, however, cannot ignore another obvious fact – the number of open supporters of Russian aggression remains tiny and can be counted on one hand.

The picture for the Kremlin, nevertheless, is brightened by the appearance of a relatively small group of situationally neutral states that have abstained from voting in the UN. It consists of 40–45 countries — the very same that "sit on the fence" and act as "swing states" — preferring to watch from the sidelines. Most of them seek to gain maximum short-term benefits, taking advantage of the inconsistency and loopholes in the Western sanctions against Russia, especially in the energy and food sectors. Some of them — Turkey, India, Brazil, South Africa, Saudi Arabia — do not hide their ambitious intentions to participate in a mediating, peacekeeping mission in Ukraine, with the obvious goal of boosting their foreign policy credentials.

At the end of 2023, a widely publicized official report by pro-Kremlin experts was unveiled in Moscow, focusing on the latest prospects for Russia's relations with the World Majority. It justifies the rejection of terms like Global South and Global Majority, associating them with the liberal concept of globalization. Instead, it advocates the term “World Majority,” which encompasses a range of countries not “fully under Western control.” The specific criteria for not being under control are unspecified, but the conflict in Ukraine is claimed to have catalyzed the formation of such a group as a significant part of a new world order. In this perspective, Russia emerges as a geopolitical linchpin and a crucial resource for this majority, able to foster new ideas and practices in international cooperation.

The report, furthermore, emphasizes that Russia is destined to become the "civilization of civilizations." The task is a complete political and economic disengagement from the West, since normalization of relations would presently not only be impossible for the Kremlin, but also disadvantageous, even in the medium term. It is also argued that Moscow should prepare World Majority ruling circles and societies for the possibility of further escalation of the conflict with the West, including use of the “nuclear factor” – with a time horizon of 10 to 15 years for this strategic transformation to be completed.

Aggressive conceptualism in the context of geopolitical realities

Despite the deliberately provocative tone of the aforementioned report (which, incidentally, was coordinated with the Presidential Administration and the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, lending it fairly official status), it acknowledges that many countries of the World Majority, including China, are not interested in conflict with the West. They are said to favor an evolutionary method to transform Western hegemony, viewing it as the least costly. The document also suggests that in a more distant future, Beijing, after achieving strategic self-sufficiency, may partially lose interest in its relations with Moscow.

As an alternative to the globalist model not only in the present but also in the future – and with the idea of countries freeing themselves from the hegemony of any state, including a “potential dominant power” like China – the report proposes deep regionalization of world politics. It suggests that BRICS structures should serve as coordinators, leading countries of the World Majority in shaping a new economic and political agenda for humanity.

The release of this document at the end of 2023 is no accident. Moscow aims to achieve several objectives simultaneously. First, it wants to send a clear signal to the “collective West” about Russia's readiness not only to continue its vertical escalation with the war in Ukraine and confrontation with NATO in Europe, but also, if necessary, to employ an overall strategy of horizontal escalation and in the process expand proxy conflicts geographically to countries of the Global South. Countering such an asymmetric policy would likely be challenging and expensive, as demonstrated by Iran's actions in the Middle East. Moscow’s strategy after all does not rule out the deployment of Russian troops in other countries or the use of the “nuclear factor.”

Moscow’s second objective is to give an unambiguous answer to the question that continues to preoccupy some Western analysts and policymakers regarding the future dynamics of a Moscow-Beijing-Washington strategic triangle. The document bluntly states that Russia intends to force the West into a simultaneous confrontation with both Russia and China.
Escalating tensions between China and the US, along with bolstering Beijing's desire to align with Russia's interests, has become Moscow’s priority on the road to creating a “limitless” Russian-Chinese partnership.
Lastly, several ambitious proposals were put forward regarding Russia's BRICS chairmanship in 2024, including moving beyond the traditional modus vivendi of the organization as a mediocre “club of interests” and starting to transform it as an alternative system of global governance for a multipolar world. To achieve that, specific steps were recommended: accelerated implementation of a settlement currency for BRICS countries and the introduction of BRICS regulatory functions in areas like standardization, vaccine certification and cyber security regulation, to name a few.

It appears, however, that the main accomplishment of the BRICS summit scheduled for October in Yekaterinburg will be the admission of five new states – Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Despite resistance from India and Brazil, China insisted on such a significant membership expansion to use BRICS more effectively as a tool for its geopolitical influence and to strengthen cooperation with key OPEC+ countries. Moscow is already touting the doubling of the alliance's membership as proof of Western failures to isolate Russia. The Kremlin will undoubtedly use the upcoming BRICS leadership meeting to further promote its narrative on the war in Ukraine, as well.

More members, nevertheless, will make the alliance even more heterogeneous and less cooperative, thus, as has happened before, impeding consensus on the most crucial items on its agenda. In this way BRICS will continue to serve as a platform for pursuing relatively narrow objectives while preserving China's dominant role. Beijing's attempts to present itself as the principal advocate for the Global South will continue to encounter opposition from key BRICS nations, such as India, Brazil and South Africa. In addition, if formal criteria are used to be considered part of the Global South — like low- and middle-income per capita thresholds — this means that China, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Russia do not make it. These countries are classified as upper-middle-income and high-income economies, with a GNI per capita exceeding $10,000 on an annual basis.

The complex dynamics of the Global South

There is a noticeable intensification of efforts by Russia and China, as well as the US, the UK and EU, to preserve and expand their influence in Asia, Africa and Latin America. It is also becoming clear that there is no universally recognized "leader" in the Global South, and it is unlikely that one will emerge in the near future. The current trend suggests that while signs of American-Chinese bipolarity are increasingly popping up in the Northern Hemisphere, in the South there is a growing emphasis on a hedging policy in response to the dynamic multipolarity. Essentially, countries of the Global South are striving to preserve maximum flexibility in their relations with major powers, particularly the US and China, and make their foreign policy flexible enough to address unpredictable and rapidly changing scenarios, if necessary.

Undoubtedly, the West will need to pay closer attention to the demands and needs of the Global South to establish a balance, using both practical and conceptual strategies to outdo competitors. In the current conditions, the Global South cannot be conflict-free. However, despite varying levels of anti-American (and anti-Chinese) sentiment, it is not fundamentally anti-Western or entirely revisionist to be hostile to the rules-based international system. In fact, as Stiglitz notes, less developed countries are even more vulnerable in a world without rules, where so-called “state-civilizations” or (if we strip away the euphemisms) “regional hegemons” will dominate, as Russia insists.

Moscow's claims to leadership of the Global Majority have not been rejected outright but rather have been met with considerable irony and skepticism. They are viewed primarily as based on a transactional relationship driven by short-term pragmatic benefit, and as a means of exerting pressure on the West. In some instances, countries of the Global South have perceived the Kremlin's geopolitical maneuvers, which involve horizontal escalation, as carrying clear risks, since they can initiate or exacerbate local and regional conflicts.

Some Western analysts have argued that Moscow can look with satisfaction at the results of its foreign policy shift toward the Global South after the beginning of the war against Ukraine. This perspective is emotionally one-dimensional, focusing on short-term gains. The long-term prospects for and net effects of these maneuvers are much more dubious and damaging for Moscow. Russian foreign policy has moved into a gray, marginal zone, characterized by a loss of transparency, trust and international legitimacy. The transformed security landscape has dramatically reduced the country’s influence with its "near abroad," particularly with the South Caucasus and Central Asia, and the power vacuum has been filled by China and other neighboring powers, such as Turkey and Iran. There are growing imbalances in Russia's Middle East policy, undermining Moscow's ability to navigate the complex web of regional relationships. The looming threat of a potential conflict between Venezuela and Brazil over Guyana's natural resources limits Russia's capacity to manipulate Maduro's regime and benefit from its partnership with Brazil. Argentina's decision not to join BRICS was also a significant setback for Moscow's presidency of the organization. Despite the booming oil trade between India and Russia, New Delhi is strengthening its relations with the West and diversifying its arms supplies. The issuance of an International Criminal Court arrest warrant for the Russian president on charges of war crimes put the host of the 2023 BRICS summit, South Africa, in a difficult position and ultimately resulted in Putin’s missing the BRICS leaders’ meeting in Johannesburg.

There is also an irony in the fact that Russia’s state-driven ultra-conservative ideology overlooks the diversity of cultures and differences in approaches to public and private life in the Global South. While Putin's regime is currently promoting the concept of depoliticization and demobilization of society, various countries in the Global South such as Brazil, Mexico, Cuba and South Africa still prioritize grassroot mobilization and emphasize community ties. Meanwhile, these countries have made significant strides in gender equality by legalizing same-sex marriage, same-sex adoption and altruistic surrogacy, among other rights. In contrast, Russian lawmakers has gone so far as to include in the Russian constitution an explicit ban on same-sex marriage in 2020, positioning the country as a defender of “traditional values,” in opposition to the West. Furthermore, in December 2022 the Duma extended the scope of Russia’s “gay propaganda” law, forbidding the public portrayal of “non-traditional sexual relations.” It must be acknowledged, nevertheless, that the Kremlin is willing to overlook these inconsistencies in its relations with the Global South, as it prioritizes the achievement of its primary geopolitical objective: the dismantling of the current international order.

The challenges of Russia's reintegration into the global world

Moscow is increasingly perceived by the Global South, if not as a complete satellite of, then as a country highly dependent on the emerging world hegemon, China. Russia has de facto already become integrated into the China-centric economic, technological and military-political system, which makes it increasingly challenging to disengage from it, even with Moscow’s goal of achieving strategic autonomy. The once-prevailing belief that a change in the political regime in Moscow could easily restore the status quo in its relations with the West has become obsolete. The accelerated pivot to the East, driven by geopolitical circumstances, has activated profound geoeconomic and geostrategic dynamics.

The prospects for Russian energy and metals returning to the premium segments of the European market are bleak. Investment and technological cooperation with the West is likely to remain frozen for many years, if not decades. Moscow's aggressive actions have expedited its transition into a role of resource supplier, primarily to China and the Global South, which has fostered illusions about the viability of a rent-based economy in the context of what is thought to be the increasing strategic importance of natural resources for the Global Majority.

The asymmetric ties between Russia and China continue to expand rapidly in quantitative terms, yet their structure remains unchanged – Russian raw materials in exchange for higher value-added products from China. In 2023, the trade volume between China and Russia reached $240 billion, marking an increase of more than 25% compared to the previous year. Notably, more than half of Russia's oil and oil product exports were directed to China, constituting about 20% of China's total oil imports. Meanwhile, Chinese exports to Russia, over half of which consist of machinery and equipment, surged 64% compared to the period before the Russia-Ukraine conflict in 2021. It is evident that Beijing is employing a standard strategy in its relations with Moscow, one that it has successfully used with countries of the Global South: increasing Russia's unilateral dependence on China's more modernized and diversified economy, which is 10 times larger than Russia's in terms of GDP.

There has also been a shift that clearly limits Russian sovereignty in the move toward adopting the yuan as a reserve currency. Currently, all Russian energy exports to the Chinese market are conducted in yuan. Technological dependence is also increasing, particularly in the most sensitive and strategic areas, including the development of artificial intelligence (AI), the information and communications sector, cyberspace, aerospace and advanced military-technical cooperation. A decreasing share of this interaction is China’s reselling Western technologies to Russia, with an increasing portion involving China's promotion of its own technologies. Western direct and secondary sanctions have accelerated this process.
As a result, Moscow will “successfully” be integrated into the Chinese technology platform as a junior, dependent partner, which will make it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to decouple from it, especially in the new wave of globalization that could be triggered by the explosive development of AI.
A large package of infrastructure projects slated to be implemented in joint ownership with China, including in the Arctic, should further strengthen the significance of the Siberia-Far East-China transportation corridor and, concurrently, increase Russia's dependence on the Chinese market.

Many aspects of Moscow's military cooperation with Beijing are notably complex. On the one hand, this partnership enables the Kremlin to concentrate its strategic attention on Ukraine (as many military experts note, Russia's border with China is practically unguarded) while allowing Beijing to focus on its eastern flank, particularly around Taiwan. On the other hand, within the next decade China's strategic nuclear capabilities are expected to match those of Russia and the US. This development will have profound implications for the balance of power and the reshaping of geopolitical influence in the emerging bipolar world. Moscow cannot overlook this dynamic, especially given the historical context that Russia and China have never been natural allies.

Under the current circumstances, any form of Russian distancing from China will be extremely difficult, with no foreseeable possibility of transitioning into a “swing state.” Similarly, the prospect of Russia returning to the “European harbor” is also unlikely, especially in the short term. Consequently, Moscow’s future agenda will include not only substantial domestic institutional restructuring, but also a painful, long-term overhaul of its foreign policy. This overhaul should be grounded in a realistic assessment of the evolving international landscape with the aim of achieving a qualitatively new and peaceful reintegration into the global community.
  • Vadim Grishin

    The George Washington University
More articles
Subscribe to our newsletter
You will receive our biweekly newsletter with the most relevant Russia-related research news.