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geoffrey york

Even as Prime Minister Stephen Harper joins other Western leaders in issuing threats of tougher economic sanctions against Russia over the Ukraine crisis, Moscow only has to look south and east for the economic support that will allow it to escape isolation.

A decade ago, Western sanctions might have been more worrisome to Russian President Vladimir Putin. But in today's new world order, the rise of the BRICS bloc of developing nations has given him a useful counter-weight to Western pressure tactics.

Mr. Putin dispatched his foreign minister to a BRICS meeting in The Hague this week and obtained exactly what he wanted: an assurance that his BRICS partners will not support the Western sanctions. For good measure, the BRICS nations also threw their weight against a proposal to ban Mr. Putin from a G20 summit this year.

The BRICS nations – Russia, China, India, Brazil and South Africa – began as an economic club, but it has evolved into a broader alliance with one key ideology: the ideology of non-intervention. It rejects the Western notion that countries can be invaded or subjected to pressure because of their internal practices or human-rights abuses.

Some interventions, however, are more equal than others, as George Orwell might have noted. The BRICS group doesn't oppose Russia's intervention in Crimea, because it doesn't see it as illegal or threatening to the BRICS nations themselves.

At its meeting this week, the bloc pointedly refused to condemn Mr. Putin's annexation of the Ukrainian region. Its statement seemed to imply that Crimea is an internal matter for Russia. Its greater concern is the threat of Western intervention: the potential precedent of sanctions or other pressure tactics against BRICS members. These kinds of tactics are unacceptable, the BRICS statement made clear.

The statement also made a vague statement about the need to avoid "force" and to respect the United Nations and the principles of international law, but those statements don't bother Mr. Putin because he has always denied that Moscow did anything illegal or forcible in its annexation of Crimea. The most crucial issue, for Mr. Putin, was ensuring that his BRICS partners did not endorse the Western sanctions. And in this, he got the support that he needed.

After the meeting, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov praised the BRICS countries for their "understanding" of the Russian position on Ukraine, including its "historic" aspects – a reference to Russia's historical claims to Crimea. "We are thankful to our partners for this," he said.

His gratitude to the BRICS countries was an echo of Mr. Putin's speech in the Kremlin last week, in which he praised China and India for their support. "We are grateful to the people of China, whose leadership sees the situation in Crimea in all its historical and political integrity," Mr. Putin said in his Kremlin speech. "We highly appreciate India's restraint and objectivity."

Privately, most of the BRICS nations have legitimate reasons to be concerned about the Crimean annexation. Brazil and South Africa, as democracies, cannot be enthusiastic about the rigged Crimean referendum and the Russian troops on Ukrainian soil. China and India, with their own border disputes, don't want to encourage the unilateral annexation of foreign territory. Yet remarkably all four of Russia's partners in BRICS have maintained a nearly silent position on Crimea in the past few weeks, effectively acquiescing in Mr. Putin's aggressive conduct and refusing to criticize him publicly in any manner.

Brazil, for example, has responded to Crimea with bland statements about the need for negotiation and democratic values. China has been equally bland, saying that the Crimea issue "should be resolved politically under a framework of law and order." China has also insisted that "historical and practical factors" should be considered in the Crimean issue – an apparent nod to Moscow's historical claims to Crimea. India has called for "restraint" and "political and diplomatic solutions" in the Crimean crisis – but it has also acknowledged Moscow's "legitimate" interests in Ukraine.

South Africa, the newest member of BRICS, has been the quietest of all the bloc's members on the Crimea issue, saying only that it wants the crisis to be settled with "dialogue." But its strong support for BRICS has been increasingly evident over the past few years. South Africa sees its economic future in partners such as China, India and Russia, and it looks to its BRICS partners to provide the trade and investment that it needs to spur growth.

At the official memorial in December for anti-apartheid hero Nelson Mandela, South Africa's attachment to the BRICS bloc was made dramatically clear when it invited three of its BRICS partners onto the stage to deliver speeches – while the European Union and Canada were conspicuously excluded from the stage. It was a vivid symbol of the new world order, as the BRICS members see it.

With reports from Stephanie Nolen and Nathan VanderKlippe