These are terrifying times for the people of Ukraine, and the rest of the European continent, who are witnessing a major power invading a European neighbour for the first time since World War II.
Hundreds of civilians and soldiers have already died in what Germany has dubbed “Putin’s war” and for some of Europe’s leaders, the invasion has brought some of the darkest hours since the 1940s.
French president Emmanuel Macron has described Putin’s invasion of Ukraine as a turning point in European history, while Germany’s chancellor Olaf Scholz warned Putin wants a Russian empire to take over the continent in his world view.
But despite the swift chorus of condemnation from the West, some of the world’s biggest powers seem to be sitting on the fence, finding themselves walking a tightrope between security concerns and economic interests.
Russia has allies but it’s complicated
While the likes of Washington, London and the EU headquarters, Brussels, paint the picture of Moscow as the enemy of the modern world, Russia does have allies which rely on it.
Going against the power of the Kremlin could do these nations more harm than good and important economic or political ties mean some may be unwilling to compromise their relationship with Russia.
Some, like Pakistan and Turkey, are caught between faltering relations with the US as they build new links to Moscow and fears of regional instability if war is prolonged.
Others are fearful of being drawn into the conflict with Russia, especially now that Putin has put “nuclear forces” on high alert.
Putin has put his nuclear forces on alert leaving many nations fearful of being drawn into conflict.(Reuters: Evgenia Novozhenina)India
Take India, for example. It took a day for Prime Minister Narendra Modi to call for “an immediate cessation of violence” but in a phone call with the Russian president, he failed to take any real action.
Minister of External Affairs Subrahmanyam Jaishankar called it a “grave situation” but stopped short of condemning Russia.
Despite being the world’s most populous democracy, Moscow and New Delhi enjoy tight economic ties.
The relationship was strengthened by a landmark meeting in December last year, when the Modi and Putin signed a slew of defence agreements – including India’s procurement of more than 600,000 assault rifles from Russia.
Then there’s the other world power – Russia’s giant neighbour, China.
China hasn’t officially taken a side; it has good relations with Ukraine, cares about its business with Europe – and has an ally in Putin.
Just weeks ago, Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping paraded in a great show of unity ahead of the Beijing Winter Olympics.
Beijing hasn’t yet offered military support to Moscow but it has bolstered imports of wheat from Russia, a move critics have described as an economic lifeline for Putin.
Only weeks ago, on February 4th, China and Russia signed an agreement declaring the creation of a new world order they described as a ‘no limits’ partnership that included Beijing’s support for Russia’s view Ukraine should remain out of NATO.
Yet while China abstained from directly condemning Russia’s invasion at a UN Security Council vote on Sunday, Beijing has also declined to directly support it.
Nevertheless, a decade ago such a relationship seemed unlikely – China and Russia were as much rivals as they were partners.
In recent years they have found a common enemy in the United States. The Russian and Chinese leaders are united by a belief that the US is plotting to undermine and overthrow their governments under the guise of democracy and human rights.
A map shows the five countries that voted against a UN General Assembly resolution demanding Russia end the war as well as the 35 abstentions.(ABC News)United Arab Emirates
As Curtin University’s national security expert Alexey Muraviev tells ABC news, clues as to which nations are holding back from criticising Russia are clear by looking at who abstained from the UN Security Council vote condemning Russian aggression: the Chinese, the Indians but also the United Arab Emirates.
“The Russians would find a considerable degree of sympathy in this list because the past five or six years – they became the major power broker there,” Muraviev says.
“They developed really strong ties with Qatar, Saudi Arabia and with the United Arab Emirates – so the hard work the Russians were doing over many years is now paying off.”
Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has been described as a turning point in European history.(AP: Marienko Andrew)Hungary
But putting two global powers to one side for just a moment, there is also support for Russia from within the European Union, not because of direct support for Moscow but more for having their own beef with Ukraine.
“Russia is not the only one that has some issues with Ukraine. Prior to the war, Romania, Hungary and in fact Poland were all making comments on the rights of their ethnic minorities or had made territorial claims,” Muraviev says.
“I don’t think the Hungarians are unilaterally siding with either NATO or the EU on the sanctions regime because they have their own quarrels with Ukraine with regard to Ukrainian ethnic minorities in Western Ukraine, which was once part of the Hungarian empire.”
Then there are the central Asian neighbours of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan which have given a muted responseas Russian troops swarmed Ukraine’s borders.
Notably, one in 10 citizens of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan works in Russia.
Pay cheques, mainly from Russia, constitute 30 per cent of the gross domestic product of Tajikistan, 28 per cent for Kyrgyzstan and almost 12 per cent for Uzbekistan, according to the latest World Bank data.
What can Western action against Russia achieve?
Even so, taking a stance against Russia won’t necessarily achieve anything or stop Putin from following through with his plans.
Throughout the conflict, Western intelligence has often been able to predict Putin’s next steps but is seemingly less capable of stopping it.
What if the West can’t really offer Ukraine much beyond sanctions, prayers and diplomatic interventions?
It’s uncertain what sanctions against Russia will achieve if powerful friends continue to offer support.(Reuters: Shamil Zhumatov)British prime minister, Boris Johnson has told the Ukrainian people “we are with you” but what this solidarity means in practice is up for debate.
The 30-nation NATO alliance will stick to its pledge that it will never send forces to protect Ukraine as a non-NATO member.
Instead, they have offered advisers, weapons and field hospitals. It has however deployed several thousand troops to the Baltic states and Poland.
Some troops could also be sent to neighbouring countries including Romania, Bulgaria and Slovakia.
While Germany has imposed sanctions on Russia and suspended the certification of Nord Stream 2, its Chancellor Olaf Scholz has also argued the security of Europe cannot be assured without Moscow.
Direct confrontation with a nuclear superpower is not an option
Meanwhile, Europeans are scared. Putin has readied strategic nuclear forces which would prove nightmarish for the continent.
“The Europeans were not really united before so there is still a degree of disagreement which Russia continues to exploit,” Muraviev says.
“NATO and the United Nations or the United States are not prepared to confront Russia militarily. Let’s remember, Russia is not Serbia, Russia is not Iraq, Russia is not Afghanistan.”
He adds: “The Americans and the Europeans are not prepared to fight and die for the Ukrainians because they are going to face a different type of military force – they’re going to face a nuclear superpower.”
A direct confrontation with a nuclear superpower on par with NATO or the United States risks escalating a conventional conflict into nuclear war.
So, if the West isn’t willing to take on Russia in military conflict to quell the unrest, and if the sanctions being imposed are going to hurt other countries sitting on the fence, the argument for taking no stance becomes clearer.
While there are fears Vladimir Putin could go beyond Ukraine to take over more of the European continent, experts are sceptical he would take it that far, speculating he sees the country more as a strategic buffer than the start of a European take-over.
When it comes to national security and Europe, defence in the region depends heavily on the United States, which Washington could use as a lever.
But when it comes to China and India, the US has far less sway.
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Residents slowly return to pillaged towns of eastern Ukraine.(Greg Jennett)