Russia's interventions in eastern Ukraine to bolster secessionist forces promises to greatly complicate the BRICS agenda. This is at a time when BRICS produced major achievements in institutionalizing its status as the apex emerging powers club at Fortaleza, Brazil: the final launch of the BRICS New Development Bank (NDB) and Contingency Reserve Arrangement (CRA), achievements that now must be consolidated through a build-up in project preparation momentum for financing bankable projects. Yet, can BRICS advance its role as the leading force for global economic governance reform when the clarity of this focus is muddled by the geopolitical adventurism of some of its members?
Moscow's forcible bid to attach eastern Ukraine to an annexed Crimea underlines Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's strategic objective to implement his Eurasian Economic Union as a revisionist project of restoration. The aim: regaining some semblance of the old Soviet Union's regional superpower hegemony. Make no mistake, BRICS is no match for this agenda, one that seeks to carve out space for a Russia caught between the western dominance of the European Union (EU) on the one hand, and the integrationist momentum of a China-dominated Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) on the other.
Thus does Russia's regional calculus portend a major distraction from the emerging powers global South agenda of rebalancing an international system dominated by the west by, in effect, restarting an east-west cold war that had been in remission but not ended (thanks to Atlantic community triumphalism following the Soviet collapse). As Russia, host to next year's BRICS summit, comes under ever tighter Euro-American sanctions, Moscow's retaliation reflected in Putin's decision to ban food imports from the west, sets up what could be a very awkward situation. It could effectively force at least a tacit alliance on BRICS running against the national interests of individual members who do not liken themselves as allies.
Are, for example, Russia's BRICS partners, expected to make up the food import short-falls caused by Moscow's retaliatory counter-sanctions, thereby drawing them closer into Russia's orbit of confrontation with the US and EU which they wish to avoid? Is there an understanding that they will offset sanctions? Not that the west is expecting them to bandwagon in sanctioning Moscow. This would be naively unrealistic. Still, India, Brazil, South Africa and China have much at stake in their relations with the west.
BRICS, as it is, has already evoked kneejerk skepticism and hostility in sections of American and European opinion as constituting an anti-western front. This is matched by unwarranted expectations playing into these threat perceptions that find expression in BRICS countries. Some would like to imagine BRICS as a revisionist vanguard devoted to overturning western dominance in a barely disguised hankering for renewed anti-imperialist struggle – irrespective of the BRICS global economic reform agenda.
Both mind-sets, two sides of an incipient neo-cold war coin, renders BRICS and its agenda a gross disservice. For those champing at the bit for BRICS to oppose the west a la Putin, there is a bit of a problem: the inconvenient fact of Putin's xenophobic right wing alliances in Europe opposed to European integration and his admirers on the American right who harbor racial animosities of hate against US President Barack Obama.
Now while Putin's irredentism in eastern Ukraine poses an awkward dilemma for China, given Beijing's hardline 'anti-splittist' stance on territorial issues, its unilateral insistence on claiming virtually all of the South and East China seas is equally problematic for BRICS. Beijing is unlikely to be as blatant as Moscow in pursuing its strategic compulsives, though its provocative oil rig demonstration off the coastal waters of Vietnam is indicative of adventurist passions every bit as deep and as unrelenting. Sino-Russian geopolitical adventurism, therefore, has to be assumed to pose major dilemmas for India, Brazil and South Africa.
Unlike their permanently seated UN Security Council counterparts, neither India, Brazil or South Africa are driven by expansionist compulsions leading them into tensions and confrontation with the west – or with one another. While neither of the three can be depicted as pro-west or as its 'sub-imperial' proxies, they nevertheless enjoy correct if not reasonably good relations with the G7 powers. In addition, they have carved out individual and collective identities as democratic rather than authoritarian regional powers in their respective continents. Separately or as a threesome, they present a non-threatening factor in the western security calculus. Therefore, their coming together in the India, Brazil, South Africa (IBSA) trilateral dialogue forum has been received in the west as a benign expression of emerging powers global governance reformism.
How, then, should the IBSA three navigate the dilemmas posed by Chinese and especially Russian adventurism? Here, some differentiation may be in order. For if Beijing eventually moderates its territorial issues and arrives at some form of accommodation with India and the ASEAN, the already existing BASIC – essentially IBSA+China – might take on a more expansive agenda beyond climate talks. This could result in Russia's de facto isolation within BRICS as the China of the 'peaceful rise' gravitates closer to the IBSA three if not IBSA itself.
It is likely, however, that nationalism will remain too much of a potent driver of Beijing's global and regional strategies, thereby accentuating intra-BRICS division between Russia and China on the one hand, the IBSA members on the other. Given this likelihood and the accelerating and perhaps indefinite confrontation between Russia and the west, India, Brazil and South Africa may find it in their national and collective interests to recommit themselves more decisively to renewed IBSA summitry rather than become a casualty of BRICS.
Given the significance of global economic reform and the institutionalizing of the BRICS banking mechanism via the new development bank and CRA, BRICS will survive in spite of Sino-Russian geopolitical exertions. There is support in the west, including within the Bretton Woods system, for the NDB. However, the political fallout from renewed cold war hostilities between Washington and Brussels on the one hand, and Moscow on the other, will strain the BRICS brand. This could negatively impact India, Brazil and South Africa unless they have their own platform to fall back on in giving visibility to their genuinely nonaligned identities, distancing them from the confrontational geopolitical power politics of Russia and China.
IBSA, with its trilateral 'democratic regional powers' branding would seem to be that platform. For South Africa this might be taken to heart in as much as its BRICS membership has already emerged as a debating point in whether it should not be 'graduated' from an extended African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA). In fact, it has the most to lose compared to India and Brazil. Thus, rediscovering a new round of IBSA summitry may inoculate it and its Indian and Brazilian partners from the likely collateral damage to their economic diplomacies emanating from a new round of east-west conflict. Something to ponder.
Francis A. Kornegay, Jr. is the senior research fellow at the Institute for Global Dialogue associated with UNISA and Global Fellow of The Wilson Centre in Washington is co-editor of Laying the BRICS of a New Global Order (AISA).