Russian aggression against Ukraine violated both morality and a principle of international law — the sanctity of sovereign borders. So stark was the transgression that neutral or nonaligned nations such as Switzerland and Sweden have strongly condemned President Vladimir Putin’s war and joined international sanctions against his regime. However, many large and influential nations, including some democracies with which the United States has strong relationships, have equivocated. It’s a troubling aspect of the crisis and calls for a deliberate but differentiated U.S. response.
The fence-sitters take a range of positions. In a category by itself is China, which has pursued neutrality while refusing to modify its prewar declaration of friendship with Moscow. Slightly less indefensibly, South Africa and India abstained from a United Nations resolution deploring Russia’s aggression and refused to levy any sanctions. Then come countries, such as Brazil, Mexico, Israel and the United Arab Emirates (not a democracy, to be sure), which did vote for the U.N. resolution but still balk at sanctions.
Each country has its rationalization, often related to an entanglement with Russia, either current or — in the case of South Africa, where some still feel a misplaced sense of gratitude for the Soviet Union’s support against apartheid — historical. India still buys most of its weaponry from Russia, despite its recent alignment with the United States, Australia and Japan against China. Brazilian agriculture depends on Russian fertilizer. Israel has a deal with Mr. Putin, whose air force in Syria allows Israeli airstrikes on Iranian convoys that supply Hezbollah guerrillas.
Only for Mexico is the problem pure, misguided ideology rather than conflict of interest. It has only $2.3 billion in two-way trade with Russia, but the United States’ southern neighbor and largest merchandise trading partner — $614.5 billion in 2019 — nevertheless sticks to non-interventionist dogma under President Andrés Manuel López Obrador. Some members of his left-wing political party — unconscionably — chose this moment to inaugurate a “friendship committee” with Russia.
The lesson, unfortunately, is that much of the world does not share the combination of moral outrage and geopolitical self-interest that has forged democracies in Europe, North America and the Pacific Rim into a solid coalition arrayed against Moscow’s war. Mr. Putin has spent years trying to co-opt countries around the world, no doubt in anticipation of a long-planned move against Ukraine. Undeniably, he is reaping some benefits from that now.
Countries supporting sanctions against Russia account for the vast majority of world economic activity, so the refusal of others to cooperate is not decisive. Still, the United States should not underestimate either the need to counter Russian influence among nations that are equivocating or the opportunities to do so.
The Biden administration’s approach should vary, depending on its leverage in each country. There’s not much point using moral suasion on China, for example, though hints to Beijing of the price it would pay for re-arming Mr. Putin appear to be having some impact. For the rest, Washington should aggressively deploy moral suasion, trade and aid — economic as well as military. That’s what Russia has been doing; this country must respond in kind.