Who are Russia’s allies in Putin’s war against Ukraine?

Invasion and ongoing conflict has strained Moscow’s international ties

Vladimir Putin meets his Belarus counterpart Alexander Lukashenko in Sochi
Vladimir Putin meets his Belarus counterpart Alexander Lukashenko in Sochi
(Image credit: Gavriil Grigorov/Sputnik/AFP)

Vladimir Putin promised African nations that he would write off their debts and provide free grain in an attempt to bolster alliances across the continent at a two-day summit in St Petersburg last month.

The Russian president has led his country into “diplomatic isolation” since the invasion of Ukraine began, which was reflected by the gathering’s “far lower” turnout than previous occasions, said CNN.

“For Moscow, this year’s summit was a relic of better times,” said Vadim Zaytsev at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Russia’s “economic ties with Africa have frayed” and countries across the continent are facing severe food shortages as a result of Putin’s exit from the Black Sea grain deal last month.

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But attitudes towards Russia “vary” across the continent, said CNN, and Moscow still has some vocal allies in Africa and other corners of the world.

South Africa

“For years, the relationship between South Africa and Russia has baffled pundits and governments in the West,” said Al Jazeera. The two countries share “no cultural or linguistic ties”, or “major trading” arrangements, yet South Africa – “like many other” countries on the African continent – has not condemned Moscow’s war against Ukraine.

There has been a “flurry of high-profile visits” between South African and Russian officials this year, “even as South Africa insists” on neutrality. But Putin has said he will not attend the BRICS economic summit in Johannesburg in late August, a decision that has relieved President Cyril Ramaphosa of the responsibility of deciding whether or not to arrest Russia’s leader in accordance with an International Criminal Court (ICC) indictment.

As a member of the ICC, South African authorities would have been bound to arrest Putin when he set foot in their country – a move that Ramaphosa said Russia had warned would be taken as “a declaration of war”.

In May, South Africa denied an allegation by Washington’s ambassador to the county that armaments had been loaded on to a ship in Cape Town that was heading for Russia. It is possible Ramaphosa’s government “really had no idea” that South African arms were being sent to Moscow, said the Financial Times – but they may have known “full well”.

Iran

Washington claimed in December that Iran was Russia’s “top military backer”, reported the BBC. Speaking a day after Ukraine accused Tehran of supplying Russia with “kamikaze” drones used in deadly attacks, John Kirby, the US National Security Council spokesman, said he had seen reports that the two countries were considering joint production of lethal drones.

Tehran has denied supplying military support to Moscow, “though it admits it sold Moscow drones before the war started”, said The Wall Street Journal. Ukraine claims that Russia used “more than 1,000 Iranian drones in scores of attacks over the past year”, putting “a strain on the country’s air defence systems”.

Emil Avdaliani, a professor of international relations, said in The Moscow Times in June that relations between Russia and Iran had “entered a new era of mutual cooperation”, and that the two countries’ interests – “whether military, economic or geopolitical” – had “aligned to an extent not seen for many decades”.

China

In February, the US said it was “very concerned” that China could be considering sending lethal arms to aid Russia’s war efforts in Ukraine after a “fraught” meeting between the two nations’ top diplomats.

Speaking to NBC News, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the US had information indicating that China was “strongly considering providing lethal assistance to Russia”.

In what Brent Sadler, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation and a retired Navy captain, told The Wall Street Journal was “a historical first”, 11 Russian and Chinese ships “steamed close to the Aleutian Islands” off the coast of Alaska last week. “Given the context of the war in Ukraine and tensions around Taiwan, this move is highly provocative,” said Sadler.

China “has not explicitly condemned Moscow over the invasion”, noted Al Jazeera. But according to Western and Chinese officials, President Xi Jinping “personally warned” Putin against using nuclear weapons in Ukraine, the Financial Times reported last month, suggesting “Beijing harbours concerns about Russia’s war even as it offers tacit backing”.

Belarus

Belarus is regarded as a strong ally of Moscow – and is “increasingly” doing Putin’s “bidding, socially, militarily and economically”, said The New York Times (NYT).

Aleksander Lukashenko, the president of Belarus, has allowed Moscow to keep nuclear arms within its borders, “as well as outfitting its bombers with nuclear weapons”. It signals “an important step” towards “Russia’s absorption of Belarus, a longtime goal of Mr. Putin”.

Belarus may be a “virtual dependent of Russia”, said the NYT, but Lukashenko “is emerging with more power in the aftermath” of the Wagner Group’s uprising, said Jennifer Mathers, senior lecturer in international politics, in The Conversation last month. He is “playing a tactical game”, she said.

Belarus’s interventions in Wagner leader Yevgeny Prigozhin’s “mutiny episode show that he does not necessarily operate in lockstep with Moscow”.

Mali

In February, the Mali government said it had no need to justify working with Moscow on strengthening its military capabilities and importing oil and wheat, following a visit from Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov. Putin has promised to provide free grain shipments to the West African country following the collapse of the Black Sea deal last month.

Mali’s support for Moscow “highlights Russia’s growing influence in Africa”, said the Economist Intelligence Unit. In May, Burkina Faso’s interim president, Ibrahim Traore, described Russia as “a key strategic ally”, reported TVP World.

Wagner “exercises influence in the Central African Republic, Mali and Burkina Faso”, said Politico, offering its military “services” and helping to “prop up anti-Western governments in exchange for access to natural resources”.

Traore denied that the Wagner Group had been his country’s armed forces in their ongoing conflict with Islamist groups. French troops were asked to leave Burkina Faso in February and Traore confirmed that Russia is now “a major supplier of military equipment and would remain so”, TVP World said.

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