'We do not want to be involved': As horror unfolds in Ukraine, most of the world isn't punishing Putin

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The horrors of war are rampant in Ukraine, and the U.S. and its allies say Moscow needs to pay. But most of the world isn't joining the plan to punish Putin.

When global leaders voted in early April to punish Russia for human rights violations in Ukraine, diplomats representing the majority of the world's population either sided with Moscow or refused to choose a side.

According to a USA TODAY analysis of the vote, about three-quarters of the global population lives in a country that did not support the U.S.-initiated measure that suspended Russia from a top human rights group. Each country received one vote, regardless of its population, land mass or wealth.

Nations including Japan and the Philippines — as well as nearly all of Europe — supported the United States' effort to punish Russia for human rights abuses in Ukraine. But countries including China, Vietnam and Iran opposed the effort.

Meanwhile, India, Indonesia and Mexico were among the dozens of governments that abstained from the vote, effectively refusing to choose a side.

“Most of the global population … are on the sidelines of this conflict," said Irfan Nooruddin, senior director of the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center.

That's in no small part because most of the world does not live in a strong democracy, Nooruddin and other experts told USA TODAY. Countries on the sidelines often do not have a system of government that allow citizens to have a meaningful say in their leaders' decisions.

The vote may have also been skewed by Russian interference, according to the U.S. Mission to the United Nations. Moscow "blatantly and openly" threatened countries who voted against it, according to U.S. Mission spokesperson Olivia Dalton.

Despite the population imbalance in the final vote, the U.N. action showed the U.S. has been able gather a strong, unified front including many affluent democratic nations, which represent a massive portion of the world's wealth — an accomplishment touted by the Biden administration.

"Putin never imagined that the world would rally behind Ukraine so swiftly and surely," Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said in a speech Tuesday.

The U.S. and its allies are outraged by the suffering caused by the war. Ukrainian officials said Russian airstrikes ravaged a children's hospital. Graphic photos show civilians dead in Ukrainian streets. And Western leaders fear Russian President Vladimir Putin could use chemical weapons — or worse — in an unhinged and desperate attack.

Much of the world has come together multiple times to condemn Russia's war, most dramatically in an earlier March vote, where 140 countries blamed Russia for creating a humanitarian crisis in Ukraine.

Even so, U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken in mid-April acknowledged that numerous countries have not joined in the U.S.-backed effort to pressure Moscow to stop the war. He said in some cases that's the result of "longstanding, decades-long relationships with Russia" involving defense that are not quickly severed.

Experts told USA TODAY that deep ideological divides are also at play.

Strongly democratic nations are treating Russia's attack as an assault on democracy and the rule of law. But leaders who do not feel such a close bond to the Ukrainian government's fledgling democracy rule much of the world's population.

And though the plight of Ukrainian people has widespread sympathy, many nations are suspicious of the U.S.-led effort to punish Russia.

It leads to a paradoxical reality: The powerful, united coalition condemning Russia is actually "a small minority” globally, Nooruddin said.

Myriad reasons for sitting out Ukraine conflict

The nations either siding with Russia or abstaining from involving themselves in the conflict are diverse and their motivations are complex.

Some are massive nations such as China and India with calculated geopolitical strategies. Some are Russian sympathizers with leaders who stand to benefit from a Kremlin victory.

And many are less wealthy countries — often without a strong democratic government — that feel trapped between the ideological battles of two superpowers.

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The notion that they should sacrifice economically to defend Ukraine's democracy "doesn’t resonate with a lot of countries around the world” — even if they empathize with Ukraine's plight, Nooruddin said.

Meanwhile, China has set the tone for countries wishing to stay on the sidelines of the conflict. It has been pursuing a calculated strategy of calling for peace, avoiding condemning Russia and blaming the West for provoking Russia.

And while that position sounds "almost nonsensical" to anyone following the conflict from the U.S., "China doesn't see themselves as isolated,” said David Shullman, senior director of the Global China Hub at the Atlantic Council.

To their way of thinking, the West's support for Ukraine's democracy on Russia's borders is an act of aggression — much like how the U.S. felt during the Cold War with Communism in Cuba so close to its borders, Shullman said.

China wants the world to see it as a level-headed mediator in the conflict — a war that the U.S. is determined to see end in a Ukrainian victory, Shullman said.

And China is tapping into widespread distrust of the West — particularly the U.S. — felt by billions of people across the globe.

Western nations not always seen as international 'good guys'

Putin may be an international villain for his brutal war, but it's less clear that much the world sees the response from the U.S. and its allies as heroic.

Western leaders often presume the rest of the world sees them as “the good guys” — and they're often wrong, Nooruddin said.

Multiple experts told USA TODAY the western effort to punish Moscow is widely seen as hypocritical and self-serving by world leaders outside the wealthy nations the U.S. considers its closest allies.

Blinken also acknowledged the pushback from some nations "where we’ve intervened in the past ... they raise very legitimate questions about how what’s happening now and Ukraine fits with that."

He said, though, that the situation in Ukraine is "black and white ... we have a clear aggressor, and we have a clear victim."

But some critics of the U.S. remain outspoken.

Uganda — one of the nearly five dozen countries to abstain from the U.N. vote to oust Russia from the Human Rights Council — is one.

"You find a lot of double standards," President Yoweri Museveni told Nikkei Asia of the U.S. response to Russia as he drew a parallel to the Cuban missile crisis.

Museveni, who has held power since 1986, has faced criticism from the West over disputed election results, allegations of rights abuses and the country's lack of rights for LGBTQ people.

So it perhaps wasn't surprising that Uganda was one of a smaller group of nations that abstained or voted against an earlier U.N. resolution condemning Russia's invasion.

When pressed about the vote, Museveni said: "We do not want to be involved in this and stayed out."

Museveni isn't the only African leader to criticize the West: According to South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, NATO is to blame for the war in Ukraine.

While many other world leaders are not so candid, experts said the distrust of the West in much of the global south is deep and powerful.

In Latin America, for example, many remember that the U.S. actively supported brutal military dictatorships in the 20th century, said Gustavo de L. T. Oliveira, an assistant professor of international studies at University of California, Irvine.

“The U.S. has not always been a promoter of democracy,” Oliveira said. For those aware of the history, the Western rhetoric and involvement in Ukraine comes off as “deeply hypocritical.”

Brazil, with its more than 200 million residents, abstained from the U.N. vote to remove Russia from the U.N. Human Rights Council. The vote came more than five decades after the the U.S. backed a coup in Brazil that installed a military government that lasted into the '80's.

Experts said numerous other examples are often cited by skeptical nations as evidence that the U.S. often acts in its own self-interest — not as a benevolent champion of international democracy.

The globally unpopular wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the U.S.'s refusal to join the International Criminal Court that prosecutes war crimes are easy-to-cite examples for nations that say the U.S. has a history of acting in its own interest, Nooruddin said.

That international baggage is just one of the reasons the U.S. has failed to "build a truly global coalition,” Nooruddin said.

It's something the U.S. is working on, according to Blinken.

"Some countries will come to the assistance of Ukraine when it comes to humanitarian assistance, but not security assistance. Some countries will vote one way or another way. But we’re working to bring countries along on different aspects of this."

Citizens' sympathy for Ukraine not always reflected by leaders

Punishing Putin isn't as globally popular as the U.S. wants — but that doesn't mean sympathy for Ukraine is in short supply.

Among nations on the sidelines, many are "not anti-Ukraine, they’re not pro-Russia," said Oliveira.

That reality is playing out in Africa, where a variety of factors have led a large swath of the continent's leaders to not support the Western-led campaign to punish Russia, according to Ebenezer Obadare, a Senior Fellow for Africa Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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Some strongman leaders in the continent want to see Putin win. Many nations have economic or military ties to Russia. And leaders are hesitant to align with the European powers that once colonized nation after nation with devastating effects.

But at the same time, Ukraine's cause — a fight against an oppressive power — resonates with many citizens in Africa, Obadare said.

“Most people are sympathetic to the Ukrainian people,” Obadare said.

The disproportionate impacts of war further complicate efforts to punish Russia, Oliveira said.

While U.S. citizens fret about inflation or higher gas prices, much of the global south faces potential famine and fears nuclear war.

Wealthy nations are insulated from the most devastating impacts of war that are compounded by sanctions — things like the skyrocketing fertilizer prices threatening food supplies in parts of the global south, Oliveira said.

Global food shortages are something diplomats have said the U.S. is concerned about, too, and has dedicated money to fighting, although officials including Blinken say Putin's actions in Ukraine — not sanctions — are the root of the problem.

But when some Western commentators and politicians debate escalating the conflict with a nuclear adversary, Oliveira says they are gambling with the lives of billions of people.

With Cold War rivals again clashing, World War III is possible, Oliveira said: “The stakes are so much higher.”

Contributing: Claire Thornton; The Associated Press

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Should Russia be punished for Ukraine war? Global reaction is mixed.