November 21, 2023

Discretion Rather Than Pressure Will Get the World on Ukraine’s side

AP Photo/Scanpix
A Ukrainian deminer, left, holds a mine detector as he listens to a Cambodia Mine Action Center, CMAC, demining expert, right, during a training session in Preytotoeung village, Battambang province, Cambodia, 2023.
A Ukrainian deminer, left, holds a mine detector as he listens to a Cambodia Mine Action Center, CMAC, demining expert, right, during a training session in Preytotoeung village, Battambang province, Cambodia, 2023.

Ukrainian diplomacy has been working hard to maintain Russia’s aggression against their country high on the global agenda, including with relatively new partners in the so-called ‘Global South’.

Since 2022, foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba has toured the globe like few of his predecessors, opening the scope of Kyiv’s diplomacy beyond its traditional regional and Euro-Atlantic foci. The goals have been clear: to rally global support for Ukraine’s war of self-defence and to counter Russia’s propaganda war where possible.

The non-West has responded to Russia’s aggression by overwhelmingly condemning the war at the UN Security Council. Many diplomats and heads of states have arrived in Kyiv from outside the West, ranging from Guatemala to Saudi Arabia. Humanitarian aid deliveries have arrived in Ukraine from all continents. 

While essential, these encounters look tepid when compared to the financial and military support Ukraine has received from its Western partners. The degree of support from the ‘Global South’ points to the staggering challenges for Ukrainian diplomacy faces in Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, and South and Southeast Asia. More broadly, Kyiv has roughly the same number of embassies in these regions as Poland and fewer than Greece. Russia has over forty embassies in Africa alone. 

Tailored approach needed

Thanks to Ukraine’s valiant resistance against Russia – and to the work of its diplomats that is part of this resistance –, Ukraine has appeared on the map for some in these regions for the first time. As the war continues in its attrition phase and Ukraine and its partners brace for a long fight, these contacts will become valuable, to maintain a global consensus on denouncing Russia’s aggression and to limit Moscow’s influence worldwide.

Many have focused on finding the ‘right’ message to persuade the countries of the non-West to fully support Ukraine, financially and militarily when possible. While there has been improved dialogue with a few countries – such as with Saudi Arabia – the open call for countries to support Ukraine has not resulted in broad material support. For instance, large countries such as Brazil or Mexico have outright opposed arms deliveries to Kyiv. So, to rally new sources of material support for Ukraine, a tailored, case-by-case approach is needed. 

Past experiences where the non-West offered material support for Ukraine’s war of self-defence can offer an insight into how to proceed. Regrettably, there are few examples of non-Western countries offering material support for Ukraine beyond humanitarian aid, with many being controversial, mired in rumours, denials, and outright disinformation. Still, an analysis of known cases can help us define a tailored approach to rallying support for Ukraine from these countries.

Actual arms transfers? Jordan and Sudan

Sudan is seldom thought about in the context of Russia’s aggression of Ukraine. Yet, Jordan and Sudan have some equipment compatible with Ukraine’s legacy systems. And indeed, in December 2022, sightings emerged of Sudanese mortar bombs fielded by Ukraine’s armed forces. In addition, Sudan has reportedly lent its territory for weapons transfers from other countries – with Azerbaijan said to be at the origin of several transfers in 2022 and 2023. Similarly, in August 2022, sightings emerged of Jordanian rocket launchers fielded by Ukrainian infantry, followed by air defence missiles first documented in April 2023.

Where could this allegedly Jordanian and Sudanese equipment come from? It is not known whether Jordan or Sudan have participated at the Ukraine Defence Contact Group (the ‘Ramstein group’) which coordinates much of arms deliveries to Ukraine. Ukraine has an embassy in Jordan but not in Sudan. On 23 September 2023, Ukrainian President Volodymir Zelensky and Sudanese leader Abdel Fattah al-Burhan coincided in Ireland, holding an impromptu meeting about ‘armed formations in Sudan’ and Ukraine’s grain initiative. Days before, CNN published a report citing anonymous Ukrainian sources about Kyiv’s alleged involvement in a drone attack against Wagner targets in Sudan. Similarly, footage of supposed Ukrainian special forces fighting in Sudan is yet to be verified as authentic.

Allegations have been made suggesting that these supposed Jordanian and Sudanese operations transfers were financed by Western partners of Ukraine. In June 2023, the Oryx open source collective reported that the United States purchased from Jordan the Cheetah anti-air system for transfer to Ukraine. Officially, all parties involved – Jordan, Sudan, and Ukraine – deny any military equipment changing hands. 

Between denial, disinformation, and deliveries: Morocco and Pakistan

According to SIPRI – the most reliable and authoritative source on international arms transfers – Morocco is the only non-Western state that has transferred weapons to Ukraine in 2022, to the tune of 21 million USD. Supposedly, the transfer of Moroccan T-72 tanks and spare parts – another kit already in use by Ukraine – happened in December 2022 and was agreed in April 2022 at the Ramstein group meeting. Reports suggest that the US paid for this transfer. 

Yet, like Jordan and Sudan, the Moroccan government and expert community deny any arms transfers to Ukraine took place. The only source for these allegations is international media, including from Rabat’s arch-rival of Algeria. In addition, in March 2023 Kyiv recalled its Moroccan ambassador explicitly because of Rabat’s lack of weapon transfers. The denials and opacity have been exploited by Moscow to spread disinformation. Namely, Russia has been spreading the unsubstantiated claim that the Moroccan tanks were given to Ukraine without Rabat’s consent.

Disinformation is also relevant to the case of Pakistan. In August 2022, images surfaced of Pakistan-made artillery shells in use by Ukraine. The following month, Le Monde reported that the Pakistani arms might have been transferred to Ukraine in a deal brokered by the US, with the UK transporting the materiel.

Months later, that report was followed by successive claims of subsequent arms transfers from Pakistan to Ukraine, broadening the range of alleged transfers from shells to rockets and tonnes of ammunition. Unlike the summer 2022 reports, these later claims could be disinformation planted by India to sabotage Pakistan-Russia relations. First, they were all denied by the involved parties. Second, Pakistan and Russia have been growing closer in the last few years, with Islamabad attempting to draw Moscow away from New Delhi. Third, much of the subsequent reporting on the transfers originated from Indian media, with international media and other sources yet to confirm these transfers. These factors have led some observers to believe that the later allegations were part of an Indian disinformation campaign to sabotage Islamabad-Moscow relations. 

This is not to say that Ukraine-Pakistan relations have not been evolving in the past months. In fact, in 2023 we saw the first Islamabad visit by a Ukrainian foreign minister, even including a rare meeting with Pakistan’s intelligence community. While it is an exaggeration to say that Pakistan is an ally of Ukraine, Islamabad has been sending signals that it will pursue a foreign policy different from that of (Russia-leaning) India.

A promising example: demining from Cambodia and Colombia

The cases of Cambodia and Colombia offer intriguing examples of military support for Ukraine. Unlike Jordan, Morocco, Pakistan and Sudan, Cambodia and Colombia offered Ukraine non-material military support, and did so in an overt manner. Both Cambodia and Colombia are among the most mined countries in the world. Ukraine is now a mined country as well, so it must scale up its expertise quickly to meet this challenge. Demining is also an expensive activity as the cost of a mine is significantly lower than its removal. 

On 23 May 2022, Colombia announced that it would send a discrete military mission of several months to Europe to train Ukrainian demining specialists. Colombia has been a NATO partner since 2017, with ongoing cooperation in demining specifically. Colombia’s was the first instance of overt military support for Ukraine from a Latin American state. Cambodia, meanwhile, has been an outspoken supporter for Ukraine, even advocating for the inclusion of Ukraine as a ASEAN partner country. In January 2023, a team of Ukrainian specialists arrived in Cambodia to receive training from the country’s demining agency. Then, in the summer of 2023, Cambodia sent a team of demining specialists to Poland to train Ukrainian specialists. Japan – another NATO partner – supported the Cambodian training mission in Poland with funding.

The demining support is important, but it has not come with an overt stance for Ukraine. Both Bogota and Phnom Pehn insist that they are not parties to the war, and that their support does not amount to them ‘taking sides’. While Cambodia has been steadfast in its support for Ukraine, Colombia’s change of government in August 2022 shifted the country’s position from overtly pro-Ukraine to a muted Russia-leaning stance. Gustavo Petro, the current president of Colombia, condemned Russia’s aggression against Ukraine only in June 2023.

Getting the ‘Global South’ to help Ukraine

What can these cases tell us about a potential tailored approach to rallying global military support for Ukraine? First, think discretion rather than pressure. Many countries avoid substantive interactions with Ukraine not to become negatively affected by Russia’s war. Instead of pressure, Ukraine and its partners can offer discreet and politically neutral avenues for cooperation. The Cambodian and Colombian cases with demining can serve as a useful model, perhaps expanded to other urgent areas such as electricity generation or water purifying. Those two cases also demonstrate that discretion is not opaqueness. As the cases of Morocco and Pakistan point to, opacity can invite disinformation. 

Access matters as well. Of the cases explored here, Colombia, Jordan, Morocco, and Pakistan are officially designated as major non-NATO allies to the US, and Colombia, and Pakistan are NATO global partners. Where these institutional links are missing, western diplomats and foreign affairs ministries have been active in connecting their Ukrainian colleagues with contacts across the globe. These contacts can later lead to potentially impactful cooperation, such as in arms manufacturing and reconstruction. For example, on 30 September 2023, Kuleba mentioned that African enterprises are interested in producing Ukrainian weapons.

In any case, be it discreet or widely publicised, Ukraine’s ‘Global South’ diplomacy must be led by Kyiv. Western support can go a long way, but it cannot eclipse the work of Ukrainian diplomats and of the Ukrainian government. The efforts will be worth it; to build up support from the ‘global South’ will reinforce the message of the successive UN resolutions condemning Russia: the world stands with Ukraine. 

This article was written for ICDS Diplomaatia magazine. Views expressed in ICDS publications are those of the author(s).