Reaching the Global South: The Challenge of Communicating Russia’s War against Ukraine

By Vitalii Rishko

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Key Takeaways

  • Western Narrative Limitations: The Western portrayal of the Russia-Ukraine conflict as a democracy-autocracy struggle highlights values like freedom and human rights. However, this narrative is less effective with audiences in the Global South, who are more focused on cooperation with Russia.
  • Russia’s Global Ties and Western Hypocrisy: Russia maintains close ties with countries in Asia, Latin America, the Middle East, and Africa, preventing its complete isolation. Labeling the conflict as a fight between democracies and autocracies raises questions about Western hypocrisy, as the West cooperates with less democratic states and faces internal democratic challenges.
  • Reframing the Narrative for Global Support: To gain wider support for Ukraine, the narrative should shift to focus on Russia’s breaches of international law and the importance of upholding the United Nations Charter. This approach can challenge Russia’s historical and neo-imperialist actions. Highlighting Russia’s historical imperialism and neo-imperialism can help convey the essence of Russia’s foreign policy.
  • Addressing the Post-Cold War Order and Engaging the Global South: The global framing of the conflict should acknowledge that the post-Cold War order was severely damaged by Russia when it invaded Ukraine. Engaging with the Global South, advocating for UN reform, and emphasizing their representation in global governance can help build bridges between the West and the Global South.

The onset of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine has ushered in a distinctive mode of discussing the conflict. In the West, the Russian incursion into its neighbor, Ukraine, is portrayed as a clash between democracy and autocracy. Joe Biden’s administration in the US has found it imperative to secure both international and domestic support for Washington’s stance on aiding Ukraine. The US has framed the war using concepts well understood in the West and widely supported across the Atlantic and beyond, namely freedom, democracy, human rights, and equality. However, amid an intense polarization of the global community due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and other pressing global concerns, the effectiveness of this chosen narrative leaves much to be desired. Moving beyond mere concepts, the invasion’s profound repercussions, spanning energy prices, alliances, and food security, necessitate reconsidering communication strategies. To garner widespread support for Ukraine, there’s an urgent need to transition from the democracy-autocracy binary to a narrative inclusive of shared global concerns, reaching countries worldwide that often feel neglected but wield influence in international politics.

Democracy vs Autocracy? Western Narrative and Russia’s Incomplete Isolation

This recalibration is crucial for managing the ongoing conflict and acknowledges the broader implications for the future of the international order. Therefore, refining communication approaches emerges as a strategic imperative, as it recognizes the interconnectedness of global challenges and strives for a narrative that extends beyond Western perspectives. The significant global repercussions resulting from the Russian invasion of Ukraine, such as heightened energy prices, shifting alliances, and food insecurity, underscore the critical need to involve a broader spectrum of states in discussions about addressing the ongoing Russian invasion and achieving a just peace for Ukraine. Therefore, changing the way we communicate about Russia’s war against Ukraine is essential if the West genuinely aims to broaden support for Ukraine and its position. Language, word choice, and narrative have a profound impact on international politics and play a vital role in signaling intentions.

Russian President Vladimir Putin meets the
Mozambique delegation and its president,
Filipe Nyusi, at the Russia-Africa summit
in St. Petersburg on July 27, 2023. ALEXEY

Using the democracy versus autocracy narrative does not resonate with non-Western communities and audiences. Being guided by their interests and potential advantages of this cooperation, rather than by ideological considerations, non-Western states continue collaborating with Russia. They believe cooperation offers them more advantages than completely severing ties and receiving nothing in return. This is why the sanctions imposed by the US, the EU, the UK, Canada, and other states have not had a decisive impact, as Russia manages to exploit loopholes in states that have not imposed restrictive measures. Moreover, in terms of military cooperation, the Russian regime still receives limited support from countries like Iran, which supplies drones, and North Korea, which provides ammunition. Russia continues to engage in military exercises, whether with Belarus, China, or members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). 

It is predictable that under external pressure, sanctions, and in the context of an International Criminal Court (ICC) warrant for the arrest of Vladimir Putin, Russia will turn its attention beyond the West to regions such as Asia, Latin America, the Middle East, and Africa. Despite the collective West’s efforts to isolate Moscow, it manages to avoid becoming a global pariah due to its close relations with Beijing and other developing world capitals. Russia has invested significantly in its relationships with these countries, including trade and involvement in regional conflicts in the Middle East, Africa, and the Caucasus, thereby bolstering its regional influence. To maintain its international ties and compensate for losing relations with the West, Moscow is forced to consider countries in the so-called “Global South.”

Global South, its Perception of the Russo-Ukrainian War and Exposure to Propaganda

The term “Global South” is somewhat ambiguous and can be understood in various ways, either referring to nations of the Non-Aligned Movement during the Cold War, the UN’s Group of 77 primarily encompassing developing countries or countries classified as low-income or middle-income by the World Bank. Geographically, it includes countries in Africa, Asia, Oceania, Latin America, and the Caribbean.

Importantly, these countries are experiencing economic growth, and their voices carry weight in international organizations like the United Nations and other multilateral forums. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has underscored the changing global landscape, where countries in the Global South have significant influence. Although the Global South is diverse regarding foreign policies, beliefs, religions, and more, these countries generally strive to avoid being drawn into the competition between major powers and position themselves as independent players on the geopolitical chessboard.

While rallying support for Ukraine is grounded in shared values, using the democracy versus autocracy narrative poses challenges. It undermines the West’s ability to garner support for its position on Ukraine from the Global South. By repeatedly employing this narrative, the United States and the West open themselves to counterarguments from the Global South, whichperceives Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as part of Washington’s geopolitical power struggle. This leads to scenarios where the US is seen as waging a proxy war against Russia or even China, which gains traction among populations in those countries. Consequently, Ukraine appears to lack agency in the conflict on its sovereign territory.

Russia’s propaganda machine has been portraying Ukraine as a Western puppet since at least the 2014 Revolution of Dignity when the Kremlin believed that the West was orchestrating a democratic shift in Ukraine to create an “anti- Russia” entity. By perpetuating this narrative, Russia has achieved some success in the Global South, especially where the West is viewed as aggressive, hypocritical, or colonial due to past experiences of American or Western interference. Russia’s aggressive propagandaaims to convince audiences that Ukraine is a failed state surviving solely thanks to the US and the EU, with its primary purpose being to counter Russia. It is crucial to combat this Russian narrative of Ukraine as a Western puppet and adopt a framing other than democracy versus autocracy.

Addressing Hypocrisies: Democratic Erosion and Western Engagement with Non-Democratic States

Characterizing the conflict between Russia and Ukraine as a global competition between democracies and autocracies raises questions in the Global South regarding the definition and standards of democracy. Furthermore, it exposes the United States and the West to accusations of hypocrisy, leading to misunderstandings and eroding trust in their relations with the Global South.

Significantly, global democracy is under threat, as indicated by data from Freedom House showing that in 2022, the gap between countries experiencing improvements in political rights and civil liberties, and those witnessing declines reached its lowest point in 17 years of global deterioration. Populist leaders, far-right parties, and nationalist movements jeopardize democratic norms and traditions in their respective countries.

Hungarian President Viktor Orbán

This issue also affects the EU, as seen in Hungary with its illiberal leader, Viktor Orbán, weakening democratic institutions and undermining media freedom. Poland’s judicial reforms have strained its relations with Brussels. Besides the EU, there are human rights concerns in Turkey, a NATO member and a complex ally of the West. Notably, even the United States faced an assault on its democracy when supporters of Donald Trump stormed the US Congress following his defeat in the 2020 presidential election.

While this list could continue, the point is that the West cooperates with less democratic partners. If the majority of the world is non-democratic according to Western standards, why then do the United States and the West seek relations with these countries? The rational assessment is that such cooperation is beneficial for various political, security, economic, and trade reasons. Erecting barriers and limiting potentially fruitful and advantageous partnerships would be unwise. Therefore, the use of the democracy versus autocracy narrative is unlikely to be perceived by the Global South as meaningful. Moreover, framing Russia’s war against Ukraine in such terms raises numerous questions about standards of democracy and who assesses them rather than conveys a clear message to the Global South.

Hence, it has become evident that repeating this narrative does not yield concrete results in garnering global support for Ukraine beyond the West and its traditional partners, including Japan, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand. The narrative of a world in transition and the imperative to “push back against authoritarianism,” as used by President Joe Biden in various foreign policy speeches, seems to have reached its limits. It has already garnered the support of the EU and NATO for Ukraine, and countries in Asia and elsewhere threatened by authoritarian neighbors have become more aligned. However, to foster a global understanding between the West and the rest of the world, a reshaping of how we communicate about Russia’s war is essential.

Rethinking Narratives: From Upholding International Law and Uncovering Russian Imperialism to Engaging the Global South

First and foremost, the primary message to the Global South should focus on referencing the severe violations of international law committed by Russia, which have caused immense suffering to the people of Ukraine. No state can feel secure if Russia’s invasion succeeds and Ukraine is forced into negotiations that reward Russia’s aggression with Ukrainian territory. The security of any nation is jeopardized if Russia’s invasion prevails, compelling Ukraine into negotiations that essentially reward Russia’s aggression with Ukrainian territory. In the contemporary era, the idea that military power and coercion alone can dictate what is considered just and right is utterly intolerable. In a world that aspires to uphold principles of justice and fairness, succumbing to acts of aggression that undermine international norms challenges the very foundation of global security and cooperation. Any framing of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine should unequivocally define it as a war of aggression and emphasize the imperative of restoring belief in international law and the United Nations Charter. Ukraine’s right to self-defense must always be underscored. As mentioned by Ukraine’s President, Volodymyr Zelenskyi, since 2014, Russia has violated over 400 bilateral and multilateral treaties and conventions, including primary documents such as:

  • UN Charter,
  • UN Convention for the Suppression of the Financing of Terrorism,
  • UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide,
  • Hague Conventions regulating the Laws and Customs of War, International Convention for theProtection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance,
  • Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict,
  • UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination,
  • UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation inEurope of 1975 (Helsinki Agreements),
  • European Convention on the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms,
  • Statute of the Council of Europe,
  • Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances related to Ukraine’s accession to the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Additionally, Russia has undermined the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty by threatening Ukraine and other states with nuclear weapons and deploying tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus. While this is not an exhaustive list of international agreements violated or undermined by Russia, it should convey to countries in the Global South the importance of applying international law consistently to all states, regardless of their status. In this context, it is also critical to voice Russia’s actions that could be classified as genocide, ecocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. The crime of child abduction, on an unprecedented scale, with over 200,000 Ukrainian children abducted by Moscow, should be a top priority.

Is There a Place for Anti-Colonial Discourse?

It is crucial to bring Russia’s imperialist past and its ongoing neo-imperialist actions into focus. What’s noteworthy is that not only do non-Western states tend to overlook Russia’s history, but the West itself has long neglected the nature of Russia’s foreign policy, particularly in its neighboring regions. Therefore, referencing various periods of Russian history, from the Tsardom of Russia and Tsardom of Muscovy in the 16th century to the Russian Empire in the 18th century, the Soviet Union in the 20th century, and modern Russia can shed light on the essence of Russia’s foreign policy – a history of conquest and ruthless exploitation of people. It is especially relevant to view Russia’s modern foreign policy as neo-imperial, rooted in a deep longing for lost past glory and major power status previously recognized during the Soviet Union era.

Russia has been engaged in diverse information campaigns with the intention of distorting historical events to legitimize its present policies. The objective of these policies is to nullify the existence of Ukrainian statehood and assert that there has never been an independent Ukrainian state while arguing that Ukrainians are essentially Russians, a narrative frequently emphasized in President Putin’s speeches. Through these efforts, the Kremlin aims to undermine the Ukrainian government’s initiatives to safeguard its sovereignty, foster a united Ukrainian political identity, distance itself from a belligerent imperial Russia, and foster integration with European and Euro-Atlantic communities. 

The communication surrounding Russia’s war should emphasize Russia’s push for regaining hegemony through exploiting its neighbors, as this message can resonate with Global South audiences. However, it is challenging due to the historical legacy of Western imperialism. Furthermore, considering Russia’s historic ambition of “helping enslaved peoples in non-Western regions” and its involvement in various conflicts and weapon supplies to non-Western nations can complicate the success of this narrative. Interestingly, even now, Russia tries to buy the loyalty of the Global South, as, for instance, during the recent Russia-Africa Summit, when Vladimir Putin suggested Moscow can ship free grain to African states. The President of Zimbabwe, for instance, declined the “gift” offered by the Russian President. The rationale behind providing free grain could be that Russia attempts to enhance its influence over the Global South. This maneuver is a tactic to divert attention from the primary issue, which is Russia’s war of conquest against Ukraine that causes challenges for the Global South. Furthermore, the Kremlin’s withdrawal from the Grain Deal poses a substantial threat to global peace, security, and the stability of food supply chains and exposes countries of the Global South even more to the threat of hunger.

That is why, to change the perception of Russia in the Global South, this narrative should be combined with the other suggested framings to reinforce each other. As long as countries of the Global South, including China, have been subject to imperialism, refreshing memory of Russian imperialism could be essential. Depiction of Ukraine as a victim of Russia’s past imperialist policies and revanchist policies of today might be a message that is relatable to the countries of the Global South. This is one of the ways to transform Russia’s image as a savior in the non-West, followed by highlighting the global consequences of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Global Framing of Russia’s War against Ukraine and Building Bridges with the Global South

When discussing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on a global scale, a clear message must be conveyed: Russia has disrupted the post-Cold War order. Or even more dramatically, as mentioned by the US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken: “But what we’re experiencing now is more than a test of the post-Cold War order. It’s the end of it.” This rules-based order was built on the principles of state sovereignty, territorial integrity, and peaceful coexistence. However, this message can be problematic due to the complex views in the Global South. Many in the Global South question: “Rules set by whom?” Their historical memory and past experiences of colonialism play a significant role in shaping their positions. The Global South asserts that they were not at the negotiation table when the West, especially the US, was determining the direction of the international order. When coerced into supporting Ukraine and choosing a side, it is unlikely to yield results.

Non-Western countries choose their partners based on the benefits they offer and their national interests, not their political systems. The Global South is clear in its desire to avoid another Cold War. However, balancing between major powers does not mean their stance on Russia is unalterable. It’s important to acknowledge that the world and the Global South have evolved. Formerly non-aligned states have gained more power and have their interests. It is logical for them to seek a more active role in global governance and equal representation. In this realm, Positive steps have already been taken. Multilateral meetings which took place in Denmark, Saudi Arabia, and Malta between Ukraine and the Western coalition and members of the Global South actively contributed to discussions of President Volodymyr Zelenskyi’s Peace Formula. Now, the count of participating countries is increasing with each successive summit which contributes to establishing a shared understanding of the peace and resilient international order post-conflict among a bigger number of countries.

Representatives from more than 40 countries
including China, India, and the U.S., pose for a family
picture as they attend talks in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia,
August 6, 2023, to make a headway towards a
peaceful end to Russia’s war in Ukraine. Saudi Press
Agency/Handout via REUTERS

Consequently, there is a pressing need for long-overdue reform of the United Nations and the Security Council, with increased representation for countries from Asia, Africa, Latin America, and other regions. Various platforms where the Global South’s voice is heard, such as BRICS, SCO, and G20, are already gaining prominence.

Advocating for UN reform can help bridge the gap between the West and the Global South and demonstrate a genuine commitment to engaging with the Global South to address pressing global issues, including Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Supporting the Global South regarding Russia’s invasion is not solely a political issue; it involves a blend of political factors, economic interests, trade considerations, and more. It appears that the West has been using a stick concerning the Global South and its stance on Ukraine without exploring in detail how the West could mitigate potential losses resulting from a change in position and Russia’s response.

Changing how we communicate about Russia’s war does not imply abandoning our commitment to democracy and universal freedoms. Washington must engage with the Global South to maintain US global leadership. If the communication strategy of the war remains unchanged, China and Russia will gain more influence over the developing world. States that feel compelled to pick sides and repeatedly hear about the imperfections of their democracies are less likely to cooperate with the West. This would lead them to seek partnerships with non-democratic China, whose influence is growing, and make Russia more appealing. Reshaping the communication strategy and taking steps toward greater engagement and representation of countries in international institutions and governance can help build trust with the Global South, a crucial factor in supporting Ukraine’s defense against Russia.


The position of the Global South in the Russo-Ukrainian War remains crucial for several reasons, including the impact of sanctions, their role in international institutions, and their increasing political and geopolitical influence. Aiming to gather global support for Ukraine’s quest to preserve its sovereignty and territorial integrity, the language and framing of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine must be adjusted. This does not mean the West should completely abandon the ideals and values of democracy, which hold significant importance for its people. However, changing the communication strategy is essential to avoid charges of hypocrisy, which only fuels more fears and misunderstandings. It also implies that while internal communication between the US and its partners is based mainly on shared values and vision, the same communication pattern of the struggle between democracies and autocracies in the international system will not resonate with those in the Global South. It is due to historical factors, reluctance to jeopardize relations with Russia without seeing viable alternatives, and the desire to maintain more autonomy in their foreign policies without aligning with any particular side.

What can be done to combat existing narratives, and to develop a healthy cooperation on the issue? West should consider reshaping its communication by relying on several pillar messages:

  • Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is an unquestionable breach of international law and numerous bilateral and multilateral treaties, alongside mentioning actions falling under the definition of genocide and other international crimes.
  • Russian invasion of Ukraine as an imperial war of conquest and a quest for hegemony.
  • Russia’s destroying the post-Cold War international order, which has a direct impact on the Global South.

The Global South’s position regarding Russia should not be taken for granted or considered unchangeable. Instead, the West should work diligently on communicating with these countries, building trust, and shaping mutual perceptions that yield meaningful global results. A serious debate should begin on how to improve the UN system and increase the representation of the Global South. This can signal a genuine interest from the US and the West in working with the Global South. The longer the West clings to the democracy versus autocracy narrative without accounting for the Global South’s desire for greater representation in global governance, the more alienated it will become about the West, making it more inclined to favor Russia and China.

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